Friday, November 9, 2012

Retweet: Google, traffic, newspapers and The Atlantic

This week's edition of The Economist has a piece on the moves by some countries and newspaper organizations to try and get Google to pay for its linking and summarizing of their content. It is a good general piece meant to give The Economist's readers some background on the issue.

It should be noted that Piano Media, that Slovakian firm that is working with European newspaper publishers on their metered paywalls, got a mention – good for them.

I may be a former newspaper man, but I have little sympathy for the trade on this issue. Whether Google links to their sites is an issue that should have been resolved with Google was a start-up, not when Google's bank account now dwarfs that of major news organizations.

If newspapers think they can strong arm the search giant into paying, I think they are crazy (but we'll see). For me, though, the issue is all about playing by the rules of the game. What most newspapers fail to grasp is that on the day they launched their first website they were playing in a different game.

For reasons that continue to baffle me, most newspaper executives don't see their websites as separate products, they seem them simply as extensions of their print newspapers. If a newspaper were to launch a television station, they would immediately think of it as a separate entity. Look at how Gannett and Hearst view their broadcast properties – separate divisions, separate line items. Not so with the web, each web property is tied to its newspaper or broadcast channel.

The Atlantic's newly redesigned website*
New media companies, though don't look at it that way. Not only is the website considered a different product, but the product itself is freed from the constraints of the parent product.

This is the secret behind the success of The Atlantic's digital media success. The big change was that the magazine and the website no longer were the same thing, though they could maintain a relationship that benefited both. I don't know whether the two entities are broken out in their P&L in any meaningful way beyond breaking out revenue, but one can see that the changes initiated over the past months have led to positive results.

Is The Atlantic, or The New Republic, another venerable title heading in new directions under new ownership, leading the charge to make Google pay for linking to its content? No, because they see things differently.

So what happens if the newspaper insist on payment and Google pulls the plug permanently. My guess is that Google will maintain Google News as is knowing that readers will still turn to it. What will populate the search results, though, will simply be online news from The Huffington Post and other pure plays, plus those print websites that won't join in the protest.

Newspapers will once again have created an enormous opportunity for their digital competitors with nothing to show for their efforts. Worse, anyone writing for a print newspaper where a ban is in place will be forced to consider the merits of writing, not just behind a metered paywall, but behind a search engine blackout, as well.

* What do you think of The Atlantic's new website design? My opinion: now it looks like everyone else's - ugly on top, OK once the reader scrolls down. I'm not a fan of placing the Leaderboard under the flag, nor using carousels. Oh well, suum cuique pulchrum est.