Google's Schmidt carefully scripted at newspaper powwow

Google CEO Eric Schmidt declared his love for newspapers today in front of an audience at the Newspaper Association of America's annual convention in San Diego. You know: freedom of speech, in-depth reporting, policing government and the elite and so on.
Written by Sam Diaz, Inactive

Google CEO Eric Schmidt declared his love for newspapers today in front of an audience at the Newspaper Association of America's annual convention in San Diego. You know: freedom of speech, in-depth reporting, policing government and the elite and so on.

For just about an hour, Schmidt talked about innovation in technology - including a layman's explanation of cloud computing - and the rise of user-generated content. He spoke of the need to adapt for the changing audiences. And he applauded the decisions by newspaper executives for re-purposing their content to the Internet early but also criticized them for not doing much beyond that.

Patting newspapers on the back for performing their role in society - that is, digging into and reporting the truth - is noble. But it struck me that Schmdit was largely talking to the wrong group. The Newspaper Association of America is not the same as the American Society of News Editors - the leaders of the editorial side of the operation, which, by the way, voted yesterday to replace "Newspapers" with "News" in the organization's title.

The NAA mostly represents the non-newsroom side of the newspaper operation - the business side that encompasses circulation and advertising departments, as well as the marketing, operations and - of course - the press folks who actually place the ink on the paper itself. The journalists themselves, the folks who actually create that original content, weren't the folks in attendance for Schmidt's speech.

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

Schmidt only briefly touched on the concept of three layers of revenue for news content itself - a free model where the majority of readers would converge, a subscription model where readers would pay to access news stories and a micropayment model where news outlets could charge pennies for access to specific topics or content. To best make that point understandable, he referenced TV - which has free over-the-air network channels, a subscription to cable that offers access to specialty channels such as ESPN and MTV and a pay model for things like pay-per-view movies. The jury is still out on whether that approach - or any other for that matter - is the best way to go.

He also responded to criticism that sites like Google News, which provide a headline and a one- or two-sentence snippet of a news story, are creating a Twitter-like environment where snippets of news are good enough. His response: that's not new. Radio stations give us snippets of news all day, every day. (Nice comeback, by the way.)

Schmidt stressed that Google, just like the newspaper companies, don't have all the answers yet. Google, though, seems determined to focus on technological innovation as a means of advancing the distribution of news in a platform that's appealing to readers. But Google doesn't employ journalists and is not in the business of creating that content, he said. The world still needs reporters to dig up the news and tell the stories so that society at-large can be informed.

What's unfortunate is that Schmidt didn't scold the newspaper executives for their widespread layoffs of journalists who produce that very content. Newspapers have gone beyond "trimming dead wood" from their newsrooms. They've sacrificed award-winning journalists, folks who were experts in their fields and those who understood the role, responsibility and objective of a free press. What they're largely left with is inexperienced reporters who now lack the foundation of veterans who can shape the next generation of information-gatherers.

Scmidt also responded to yesterday's news that the Associated Press would sue aggregators for unlawfully using their content. Google and the A.P. have a multi-million dollar deal in place to not only serve those AP stories but also to host them. And, he said, the company has identified the "credible" news outlets and has developed a system for featuring that work on Google News, as opposed to some of the other content on the Internet. Said Schmidt: "It's a sewer out there."

Also see: AP eyes news aggregators; Risks exposing its lack of value add

In all, Schmidt's keynote was safe and carefully-scripted - a smart move considering that newspapers, in general, have long tried to blame the Internet and companies like Google for being at the root of their demise. But he didn't seem to offer much substance or offer anything solid to advance the conversation.

Yes, newspapers are in trouble. We knew that. Yes, journalism is still valuable. We knew that, too. And, sure, ad dollars are still the best form of revenue for this sort of business. I guess that makes sense, too.

But how do you take what you know and convert it to a new model that carries on an generations-old tradition? That's a question that still remains unanswered.

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