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Is Jim Fallows Crazy for Google...Or Just Crazy?

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James Fallows, normally a cogent and insightful journalist, takes leave of his senses for the cover story of June's Atlantic magazine, delivering an uncritical, open-mouthed kiss to Google's Schmidt, Brin, Page and their entire high-tech army while boldly asserting (in all caps) that their company has a "DARING PLAN TO SAVE THE NEWS (AND ITSELF)." As it turns out, sadly, Google has no such plan.

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At best, Fallows' essay is noteworthy for demonstrating (again) that the news establishment doesn't understand online publishing and is incapable of imagining a way out of the news business's ongoing disaster. At worst, the entire article--or, at least, Google's participation in it--can be seen as a ploy to generate some undeserved positive attention to help Google counter the increasing anti-trust scrutiny that Washington and others are now focusing on its near-monopoly in search. (In contrast to Fallows' embarrassing embrace of Google's goodness, see The New York Times' recent story on Google's political problems in "Google: Sure It's Big, But Is It That Bad?")

Fallows' argument is that Google cares deeply about the news business and believes that, one day, all news will be delivered online and the online revenue will easily support quality journalism. This will be true, Fallows asserts...because Google says it will be true.

I wish I were kidding. But Fallows actually writes near the end of his ramble, "The solution is simply the idea that there can be a solution." He attributes this "solution" entirely to Google. Because Google cares, because Google is the master of online advertising, because Google sees the future, because Google says so, everything will be fine. (With this reasoning, by the way, BP's idea that there can be a solution to the Gulf oil spill is the solution to the Gulf oil spill. So the fish, birds and sea turtles can stop dying right now.)

Fallows' scary tautology paints online media more as a religious mystery than an exercise in communication and commerce.

The article tries to be business-like. Fallows wants to convince us that Google cares about the future of news because its own survival depends on people having serious news content to search for. But that, of course, simply isn't true. Very near the end of the roughly 9,000-word piece, Fallows finally reports, "But Schmidt and his colleagues realize that a modernized news business might conceivably produce 'enough' good content for Google's purposes even if no one has fully figured out how to pay for the bureau in Baghdad, or even at the statehouse." Translation: Google's future in no way depends on the future of news.

There's some discussion in the piece about various ways to implement payments for content online. There are a couple examples of Google's manipulating its algorithms to make original sources of news rank higher in search returns. There is even some tangential discussion about the industry's real challenge--maximizing online ad revenue.

But the article embraces the dying notion of "display advertising" and fails utterly to deal with the news industry's central challenge, which is to create new forms of advertising that actually work--that are as valuable to the audience and as engaging as the news itself. (More on this in "Redefining Advertising to Save Journalism," a piece I wrote more than a year ago.)

Google, of course, has nothing to contribute when it comes to transforming ad content (or any content) into something that is valued instead of ignored. As Nikesh Arora, president of Google's global sales operations, acknowledges to Fallows, "We don't generate content ourselves."

The level of insight in Fallows' piece emerges when you wade through the first 2,500 words before being told that paper, printing and trucking are expensive. OMG! Who figured that out? Fallows says it was none other than Google's chief economist Hal Varian! But, of course, thousands of newspaper managers figured that out long before Varian. That's why the Seattle Post-Intelligencer killed its print editions and went completely online. That's why the Detroit Free Press and Detroit News stopped offering home-delivery four days a week. And so on.

Fallows reverently quotes Varian saying, "The three most important things any newspaper can do now are experiment, experiment, and experiment." This sounds brilliant and very Google-like, I am sure. But it pales a bit if you understand that literally thousands of journalism experiments currently are underway. Huffington Post, of course, is one such experiment. So are the changes I mentioned at the Seattle P.I. and the Detroit papers. So is the Daily Beast, ProPublica, The Texas Tribune, the Dallas South News, Honolulu's Civil Beat, Toronto's Open File and a thousand more.

I have no doubt that some of these experiments will yield results, but Google has nothing to do with any of them.

In contrast with Google, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has poured millions and millions of dollars into funding experiments in journalism. (Disclosure: The Knight Foundation poured a tiny bit of that money into an experiment that I am helping with in Detroit called "Taking Charge of Our Story.") It was two years ago that Marc Fest, the foundation's vice president for communications, publicly characterized Knight's philosophy as fostering "relentless experimentation."

All this made me wonder where Fallows has been while all these experiments were getting underway. Then I got to this startling statement in The Atlantic article:

"Before, 'publishing' meant printing information on sheets of paper; eventually, it will mean distributing information on a Web site or mobile device."

Eventually, Jim? Really? On what planet does that expanded vision of publishing still exist only in the future? Needless to say, it shouldn't be news to anyone that survival in today's media world demands mastery of publishing across all platforms.

You really begin to wonder about Fallows political objectives when he delivers an unqualified endorsement of Google's recent "uncompromising stance toward repression in today's China," which he attributes to Sergei Brin. Fallows, however, has nothing to say about Brin's stance in 2006, when Google started up in China with an agreement to abide by Chinese state censorship. Is the Atlantic piece just an effort to rehab Google's fading reputation for goodness by letting it pose as a defender of serious news and democracy? I hope not. But that's just a hope.

The bottom line here is that Fallows' piece at once betrays a childlike naivete and a pervasive sense of helplessness. Neither is attractive nor useful. In the world Fallows inhabits, the news business is incapable of rescuing itself. But, praise the Lord, we will be rescued by Google because Google knows more and Google MUST rescue the news in Google's own self-interest.

If only it were that simple. Here's the bad news, Jim: Googling it doesn't make it so.