Google can't save newspapers; smart to dump print-ad project

A couple of days ago, I posted a link on my Facebook page to an article titled "Ten things every journalist should know in 2009." Almost immediately, several newspaper types in my Facebook network started to post comments about the list.

A couple of days ago, I posted a link on my Facebook page to an article titled "Ten things every journalist should know in 2009." Almost immediately, several newspaper types in my Facebook network started to post comments about the list. But it was one e-mail from a former colleague - a career newspaper journalist who, like so many others, left the industry in the last year or so - that resonated with me. He sent the e-mail because he was uncomfortable posting his thoughts on the public Facebook wall - largely because his comments might be viewed as treason by newspaper types in my network who continue to believe that newspapers will rise again.

In a nutshell, he says that we need to get over it already, that newspapers simply will not be returning to their glory days. Who killed them? Who cares? Let the historians figure that out. Instead, journalists need to take the skills they honed in an "obsolete, ink-on-paper model and apply them to something with much more potential..."

That brings me to today's news. Google has pulled the plug on a print-ad project that started in 2006 with 50 newspaper partners and grew to more than 800. (Techmeme) The idea was that advertisers could use Google to also place print ads, thus creating a new revenue stream for newspapers and producing more relevant advertising for consumers. Nice try. But in the end, it didn't work. In a blog post that attempts to explain why Google pulled the plug, Director of Google Print Ads Spencer Spinnell wrote:

We believe fair and accurate journalism and timely news are critical ingredients to a healthy democracy. We remain dedicated to working with publishers to develop new ways for them to earn money, distribute and aggregate content and attract new readers online. We have teams of people working with hundreds of publishers to find new and creative ways to earn money from engaging online content. AdSense, DoubleClick, Google Maps, YouTube, Google Earth, Google News and many other products are a part of our significant investments to innovate in this space.

These important efforts won't stop. We will continue to devote a team of people to look at how we can help newspaper companies. It is clear that the current Print Ads product is not the right solution, so we are freeing up those resources to try to come up with new and innovative online solutions that will have a meaningful impact for users, advertisers and publishers.

It's noble of Google to be concerned about newspaper companies - but this is not Google's problem to solve. Quite frankly, Google never belonged in the newspaper ad business to begin with. It's an industry-wide dying business model that really doesn't have much of a future left, thanks largely to the slow reaction of many newspaper executives out there who repeatedly snubbed the idea of news on the Internet.

That's not to say that newspapers didn't make attempts at online versions. But they were always a day behind (no pun intended.) Many newspaper executives insisted on keeping their print and online newsrooms separate and resisted sharing news stories that would appear in the next day's edition, considering their online counterparts to be competitors. Even when blogs hit the scene, many newspaper executives dismissed them as gossip news sites with no credibility. Maybe that was true in the early days - but plenty of blogs have since legitimately broken stories and scooped the traditional press.

Looking forward, newspapers are now working hard to preserve their brand names by playing up the quality journalism that papers offer. Unfortunately, they keep laying off the very people who are capable of producing that content, people who find themselves changing fields to bring their skills to public relations, corporate communications or marketing positions.

Newspapers need a complete reinvention and should start by calling themselves news "outlets." As a journalist, I don't care if you read my words on paper, on a computer screen, on a mobile phone or even smoke signals if that's what it takes. Quality journalism - like targeted advertising - will always be in demand. If the newspapers of the 20th Century would channel their efforts into coming up with a 21st Century model, instead of grasping at high-tech straws to preserve an outdated one, then maybe they have a chance at hanging on to their brand name equity.

Google - figuring that out pretty quickly - is right to move on.

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