Better read than dead
In the Wild West dot-com days of the late 1990s, respected technology experts were lining up to get it wrong about the internet.
Take John Naughton. Today, Naughton, author of the 2012 book From Gutenberg to Zuckerberg: What you Really Need to Know About the Internet, is a professor of “the public understanding of technology” at Britain’s Open University.
But in March 1999, he was a columnist with The Observer newspaper in the UK, likening the emerging wave of internet search engines to the houses of ill repute that sprang up around the railways in the 19th century in the hope of coining a profit by proximity to the next big thing.
Naughton took a sarcastic sideswipe at Larry Page and Sergey Brin, “two more Stanford graduates armed with a great idea and a wacky name”.
He conceded that Google, then just a few months into its garage-born existence, worked “a treat”. But, he sniffed, it would probably survive only until “Sergey and Larry … get wiped out by the next pair of kids in the queue”.
On balance, Naughton concluded, it was “safer to invest in railways”.
Fast-forward 15 years and, judging by the assault on Google by a group of Germany’s biggest media organisations, some traditional ink-and-paper news publishers remain 19th-century trainspotters at heart.
They are unable to accept that a business born in a California garage just 15 years ago has turned their balance sheets on their heads.
About half of all German publishers, led by media titan Axel Springer, want the country’s courts to order Google News to pay them 11 per cent of the profits it makes “directly and indirectly from making excerpts from online newspapers and magazines public”.
And Germany isn’t alone. Last month, the Spanish parliament passed a law ordering news aggregators, such as Google, to pay a fee to publishers whose content is linked.
Critics that include US media commentator Jeff Jarvis, the author of What Would Google Do?, say such moves are “absurd, cynical and dangerous” and are an attack on the internet, which lives and dies by its hyperlinks.
And in any case, where are the profits? Anyone who regularly uses Google News will know that Google sells no advertising on the site.
But the absurdity also stems from a misunderstanding of the role and potential of the world’s largest online news aggregator.
Google, as Jarvis pointed out in his BuzzMachine blog last month, was “sending the publishers plenty of value – us: readers, customers, the public these news organisations allegedly want to serve”.
If anything, he concluded, Google should be charging them.
Google often points out that any news organisation that does not want its stories flagged on the site, and all the click-through traffic that it might bring, has a simple solution at hand. It offers a simple piece of code that will prevent its search robots from indexing their sites.
Yet Europe, and Germany in particular, has never been comfortable with Google’s fast-track monopolisation of the virtual world, and has legislated for hurdles.
These include the so-called “right to be forgotten”, upheld by the European Court of Justice and in force since the end of May.
The joke on the court, and the thousands of people who have applied to have links to web pages removed, is that all of the original material still exists, and to unearth it all one has to do is search from Google.com.
What the German and Spanish assaults highlight is that many traditional news producers are still struggling to come up with a workable economic model for the digital age.
“I can sympathise with where they find themselves,” says George Brock, former managing editor of The Times and now head of journalism at London’s City University.
“We are exiting a situation in which life was nice and simple, in the sense that print had a single big revenue stream – advertising. But I just don’t think what they are doing is a way out of their jam.”
Brock left The Times in the middle of 2009, at the height of the paper’s struggle to find a way forward in the digital economy, characterised by owner Rupert Murdoch accusing the likes of Google of being “content kleptomaniacs”.
Back then, Brock freely admits: “I had no more idea of what would work than anyone else did. With hindsight, we did not understand how deep the change in the nature of information and its circulation was going to be. Not just news, but information of all kinds.”
But now, “in a world in which huge volumes of information are more easily available, how you reach what you want becomes very important, and to think that you can do without search engines misunderstands the nature and value of intellectual property in the digital age”.
Since then, newspapers around the world have experimented with different models in a bid to stay afloat online.
In 2010, Rupert Murdoch’s Times and Sunday Times erected a paywall around their sites, a gambit that limits readers to those who can be persuaded to subscribe. They were fewer than 150,000, according to reports.
Others, including the UK’s Daily Mail, have opted for free sites in the hope that large numbers of eyes will attract advertisers.
Peddling celebrity gossip and photographs, Mail Online has become one of the most successful and profitable examples of digital publishing.
The biggest newspaper site in the world, and the sixth most-visited site of all, it attracts an average of more than 6 million visits every weekday, with last year’s revenue up by 35 per cent at £150 million (Dh924m). It is predicted to bypass print by next year.
Other newspapers, such as the Financial Times and The New York Times, have gone down a hybrid route, in which some content is free and some is paid for.
One version of this approach is the “metered” model, where visitors can read so many stories a month before they are asked to pay a subscription.
The message for the media in the Middle East, says Damian Radcliffe, an honorary research fellow at Cardiff University’s school of journalism who is based in the region, is that online newspapers should treat Google as a friend, not as an enemy.
He believes that the key for Arab news media grappling with the digital economy lies in “breaking out of their national silos, so that they can reach out and engage with both diaspora communities and other Arabic-language speakers across the region, if not the globe. “Clearly, good search-engine optimisation will be one way to do that.”
The future for newspapers lies in engaging with young people, who make up most of the region’s population, and with the social media they use, which is “increasingly important, as a source of news and as a trusted source of information”, Radcliffe says.
And, he says, there are significant success stories to be found in the region, where “a number of the established players are performing well in the digital space”.
The best example is Al Youm Al-Sab’ea in Egypt, by far the largest newspaper website in the region.
Between August 2011 and August 2012, it attracted 842.8 million visits and 145.1 million unique visitors.
Data produced by Forbes Middle East in 2012 also showed that some of the region’s smaller newspapers were enjoying the highest growth in new audiences.
Among them was The National, which ranked 15th in the table of top online newspapers in the Arab world, but came second where new visits were concerned, with new readers accounting for more than 60 per cent of total traffic.
Like Radcliffe, Brock, who authored Out of Print: Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age, believes it is far better that newspapers concentrate on what they can do, rather than bang their heads against the reality that is Google.
Love it or hate it, with about 30 trillion pages now indexed by its crawlers, it is the library of the internet.
Brock says: “I don’t think Google will necessarily last for ever, or eat the whole of the world. In free and open economies, monoliths don’t usually last long and somebody will come up with something more attractive.”
Updated: August 11, 2014 04:00 AM