Good. Evil. Bratwurst.

Newspapers, Google, and Ads

Posted on by arlen

I sit here listening to yet another newspaper struggling with the idea of ceasing to publish the dead-trees version, and I get depressed. Not because I think there’s something noble being lost, or that there’s something special about the feel of newsprint (I do, but that’s not what gets me down).

What depresses me is the future of content generation. Or lack of it.

Newspapers are failing because the revenue stream isn’t there. The revenue stream was rarely from subscribers — while the money was welcome, it was never more than a small percentage of the operating cost for the newspaper. The majority of the cost was paid for by advertisements. And that’s where Google comes in.

Like it or not, Google pretty much sets the standards for advertising rates these days. And the only word for it is “cheap.” Ad rates per reader are far lower on the Internet than they ever were in print. While that’s good news for the advertisers, it pretty much sucks for the rest of us.

The lower ad revenue means web publishers can’t afford the staff they used to have. That means not only fewer jobs, but also less support (editors, fact-checkers, etc.) for the published word. We’re already seeing that in the print newspapers; they’ve had to cut back so badly it’s a rare newspaper that contains fewer spelling errors than a fifth-grader’s book report. The emphasis is on speed, rather than accuracy.

It’s not that these sort of errors haven’t happened before (compare the TechCrunch headline that Google was about to finalize its purchase of Twitter with the famous “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline). But the point is we remember the “Dewey Defeats Truman” headline half a century later because the error itself was newsworthy, because it happened so infrequently. Today’s news outlets get stories like that wrong all too often.

Professionalism is an attitude as well as a paycheck, and as one by one the outlets we used to rely on for news and entertainment give way to speed above all, we lose the real professionals.

But that’s mainly why it sucks for publishers. Why do I say it sucks for us readers as well?

Because as the money goes down, the really good practitioners dwindle as well. Not because one has to be paid well to create; rather, because if those who create have to find another way to get paid, there won’t be time for them to create. Good creative people can succeed in many fields; they tend to distribute themselves across the fields that can pay the bills. That’s why a John W Campbell award winner left writing science fiction and started writing C/C++ compilers instead; it wasn’t that he couldn’t write well (the award was proof of that) it was just that writing compilers actually fed his family.

For another example, a local chess player, head and shoulders above the rest, suddenly dropped out of sight. It wasn’t that he wasn’t any good; he routinely won one event after another. It wasn’t that he suddenly hated chess; he still played evenings at the local pub. He just didn’t have the time any more to spend on playing tournaments. He needed money, and could make it more efficiently doing something else.

So as Google sets the ad rate lower and lower, and the possible income pool for web publishing goes away, more and more good writers will leave for other fields, not because they want to, but because they have to eat.

We’ll be left with the fan writers. You know the type, the ones who sit there in front of the keyboard, turning out fan fiction by the bucketsful. Oh yes, there will be a very few of those who are downright excellent, a few more that are tolerable. But many more who would have been something special to read, or listen to, will simply walk away, because it hurts too much to only be able to do something they love every now and then.

I’ve watched as the concept of paid content has been hammered on and hammered on. I’ve been called stupid paying for ebooks and music when it was easily found for free. But I’ve also watched as quality publishers and authors fade away, unable to get paid for doing excellent work, or being offered less than minimum wage for it. And I know this situation can’t last.

This devaluing of original content will cost us dearly. Google makes more money than any creative company. That’s fine, I certainly don’t begrudge them their income. But their practices are directly contributing to the general loss of quality all through the creative fields.

I don’t have a good solution, yet. When talented people can’t make a living with their talent, we all lose. The question is how do we encourage the talented people to stay? Google’s ad revenue certainly won’t do it. What will?

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May 2009
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