Huffpost Homepage
The Blog

Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors

Jay Rosen Headshot

Twilight for the Curmudgeons

Posted: Updated:

Neil Henry (ex-Washington Post, now at Berkeley J-School) wants reparations from Google for what it's done to news.

I hope the San Francisco Chronicle keeps Neil Henry's essay--Google Owes Big Journalism Big Time--free and clear of any pay walls. Link rot must not be allowed to set in, for this is a document.

Henry teaches journalism at UC Berkeley, after a distinguished career at the Washington Post. He has a new book out, American Carnival ("Journalism Under Siege in an Age of New Media.") According to this account, Henry almost became dean at the Berkeley J-School.

Neil Henry has a grievance:

I see a world where corporations such as Google and Yahoo continue to enrich themselves with little returning to journalistic enterprises, all this ultimately at the expense of legions of professional reporters across America, now out of work because their employers in "old" media could not afford to pay them.

And for that grievance there is to be redress:

It stands to reason that Google and corporations like it, who indirectly benefit so enormously from the expensive labor of journalists, should begin to take on greater civic responsibility for journalism's plight.

Fund our journalism schools. Our professional associations. Maybe our newspapers. We're on life support because of you, and others like you. So... support! He suggested that the Society of Professional Journalists, keepers of this code, get Google money. (Same society gave a First Amendment award to Judy Miller.)

Jim Romenesko did his part, running superb replies from Douglas McLennan, editor of ArtsJournal.com and Matthew R. Baise, online editor of the Baltimore Sun.

Baise said he was seeing it more and more: Journalists suggest a "shakedown" of Google "in which we teach that nasty little search engine a lesson and wrestle back some of those dollars that are rightfully ours."

These are calls for justice within the shifted kingdom of news-- issued by journalists "at" others. (Another letter at Romenesko called for a class action suit against Google, led by the newspaper unions. See Steve Boriss on that idea.) The texts are written with a sense of grievance, which is truly felt. To the grievance there is grafted a description of the Internet or one its parts, and in this description (by the old timer) you can often hear things. Like when Neil Henry talks of...

powerful news aggregators such as Google and Yahoo whose computerized search robots harvest riches of news and other content provided by others -- and generate billions of dollars in annual profits for their owners.

Robots harvesting the goods made by newsmen and peddling the product as their news to enrich the owners of the robots-- a bunch of computer scientists! What a reveal.

Google News and Yahoo News are both aggregators but they work in different ways. Google uses algorithms to identify top stories while Yahoo News has human editors for that. (See JD Lasica.) Neil Henry does not know this because if he knew this he would not have grouped Google and Yahoo together as equally robotic.

I think he's saying, "The details don't interest me. I get what's going on here."

No, you don't. That's Ryan Sholan at his blog, Invisible Inkling. If there's anyone the news business needs right now, it's people like Ryan, who is completing his masters at San Jose State. He's also working at the Santa Cruz Sentinel, a new media guy, paying his dues and hoping for big journalism glory some day. I know how he thinks because I read his blog. His message to Neil Henry:

Get over it, professor. Blaming search engines is like blaming the library. "Oh no, please don't let readers actually find stories from my newspaper and then click through to my site to read them, anything but that!" Forget it.

Do read Sholin's 10 obvious things about the future of newspapers you need to get through your head. It's a grad student lecturing a J-professor about doing his reporting. He properly seethes. "Newspaper classifieds suck and they have for years." "Your major metro newspaper could probably use some staff cuts."

Jeff Jarvis tried to school Henry: "Google is far and away the most productive means of sending audience to news sites." Bigger than Drudge. "It's up to the news sites to then make the best of that audience."

Jeff sent me to this fascinating post from Heather Hopkins about online news flows in the UK. "Most visitors leave Google News to go to another news provider," she writes. Last week, BBC News was the top recipient of traffic, getting 3.6% of Google News' traffic, followed by 2.0% to Guardian Unlimited, 2.0% to Times Online, 1.4% to Daily Mail and 1.0% to Sky News. Fully 28% of visits from Google News UK went to Print Media websites, 7% to Sports, 6% to Television and 4% to Business Information.

"I'd love to see some Google money come to my school," said Jarvis of CUNY. "But I don't think they owe us reparations."

Scott Karp is far more polite about Henry's "fundamental misunderstanding of what is responsible for the collapse of the newspaper business." Technology isn't destroying journalism. "It's simply destroying the business that subsidized journalism." Finding another source of subsidy is what we should all be doing. But:

Demonizing technology, as Professor Henry does when he references the "threat 'computer science' poses to journalism's place in a democratic society" is, with all due respect, rather medieval.

Karp thinks it's an interesting question whether Google and other online companies should start subsidizing journalism. Maybe they should. "Google might run free training for young journalists to teach them how to thrive in a search-driven, online media world -- particularly if these journalists want to try their hands at independent online journalism." That would be blogging.

Not what Neil Henry had in mind, I think...

I can't help but fear a future, increasingly barren of skilled journalists, in which Google "news" searches turn up not news, but the latest snarky rants from basement bloggers, fake news reports from government officials and PR cleverly peddled in the guise of journalism by advertisers wishing only to sell, sell, sell.

He's right: he can't help, except in the fear department.

I read Henry's column as a kind of valedictory, a farewell speech in which he turns away from a fearful future and from students who are nervous but excited about it, admitting to the Ryan Sholin generation that it would get no help--and certainly no guidance--from Neil Henry. He's bitter about the online world and its unjust economy of news, resents but resolutely will not grok it, and he wants the people there ("online...") to know what they're destroying.

Adding to the downbeat feel is the title, which isn't Google Owes Big Journalism Big Time (that's mine) but... "The decline of news." The essay contains no links. It isn't aware that it's published online. It's not only about decline in the press but a live demo. Henry's book was published the same day his op-ed appeared at the Chronicle, May 29th. Good goin', publicity machine! Yet there is no link for more information about the book, or to any page where you can buy it.

My impression: we're at the twilight of the curmudgeon class in newsrooms and J-schools. (Though they can still do a lot of damage.) You know they're giving up when they no longer bother to inform themselves about what they themselves say is happening. And if their "who lost journalism?" call-for-justice op-ed disappears behind a pay wall so the search engines can't find it, silencing that call online, the beautiful thing is they won't know it happened, and they won't understand why it matters because they never got how Google works in the first place.

It's clown time for the curmudgeons because they've lost the smart people who can save the business the curmudgeons had tried to save by jeering at the stupids and their attempted changes.
Jay Rosen teaches journalism at New York University, and writes the blog PressThink,, where this first appeared. During the 08 campaign, he'll be collaborating with the Huffington Post on OfftheBus.Net.

Bonus Link! Susie Madrak: "Newspapers are written more and more to target the coveted demographics of readers who are just like the journalists writing the stories. What the publishers haven't yet noticed is what a shrinking portion of the reading public that is. What I see when I read Neil Henry's essay is someone who has played by the rules as he learned them - and is really, really angry that they've changed. Sorry, Professor. Welcome to our world."