It’s true, of course, that the people complaining that Google is somehow “stealing” revenue from newspapers are being deeply dishonest or deeply uninformed. There is literally nothing stopping any news organization on the planet from taking its material off Google. Nor, indeed, is there anything stopping anyone from making online material only readable by paid subscribers. The problem most news producers have is simply that they don’t do that stuff because they couldn’t make money that way and they know it.
That said, I don’t think it helps anyone to pretend that the source of the complaints is completely mysterious. The intuition driving them is that if news aggregation websites disappeared from the planet, there would still be newspaper websites and people would still read them. But if the news organizations all vanished, there would be know news aggregation sites. Therefore it seems “unfair” that Google, essentially the world’s most successful aggregator, is making all the money. To a newspaperman, this is as if the paper boy were getting all the credit for the reporting happening in his town.
The trouble is that when journalists talk about journalism, they talk about it from the producer point of view. What Google does, from the media-as-production point of view really isn’t much better than what the paper boy does. But from the consumer point of view, having a paper boy who will fetch any paper you want in the world, for free, at any time, and open the paper to the page you were looking for is a massive improvement. For example, from a producer point of view essentially every newspaper in the United States has gotten worse at covering European news. Foreign bureaus have been closing, and resources have been redirected to the Middle East. But as a consumer, suppose I want to follow up on my notion that Jan Peter Balkenende would be a good candidate for the new office of EU President?
Thanks to Google, I read in the Guardian that the main alternatives to Tony Blair are considered Balkenende from the center-right and Finland’s Paavo Lipponen from the center-left. But Balkenende is thought to have a better chance than Lipponen in part because the new head of NATO is from the Nordic region and in part because there are more center-right governments in Europe. The Independent says Angela Merkel prefers Balkenende to Blair. And a Balkenende candidacy is popular among Dutch voters. We also learn in the Telegraph that there’s a political controversy in the Netherlands over the Crown Prince’s plan to build a lavish villa in Mozambique and “almost 50 per cent of people want Jan Peter Balkenende, the Dutch prime minister, to demand that the Prince withdraw from the project.”
Without Google, I never would have seen any of that. There’s been basically no coverage of this issue in the American press. And, fine, most Americans aren’t interested in it. But I am interested, and thanks to Google it’s easy for me to follow the issue.
I think it’s interesting that journalists seem to have no problem following this dynamic when it comes to the car industry. This has been a terrible 12 months to be in the business of building cars, either as a worker or an owner or a manager. But it’s been a fine time to buy a car. There’s no car shortage. And there’s not going to be a car shortage. Drivers are in great shape. And it’s about the same with the news. Has there ever been a better time to be a news junkie?