Google Tries to Create the Appearance That It Cares About Newspapers

At this point I can't figure out if Google is (a) just trying to do something, anything, to deflect all the criticism it's getting about being responsible for the death of newspapers; or (b) actually playing a sadistic practical joke on newspapers, dreaming up ever more ridiculous ideas just to see if the newspaper guys will keep jumping through the hoops. After all, newspapers are desperate, right? Their business model is collapsing around them. So these days they're pretty much willing to try anything that might someday lead to something that might somehow enable them to make money out of producing news.

How else to explain the new "Living Stories" thing that Google Labs has launched? I mean, the basic idea is a good one: it's news arranged by topics, like health care, the war in Afghanistan, or the Washington Redskins, so instead of hunting through a bunch of papers or Web sites for the topic you want to follow, you just go to one page and find a bunch of articles on that issue, from different newspapers, in reverse chronological order. Right now it's just The New York Times and The Washington Post (which—disclosure here—owns NEWSWEEK and pays my salary), and it's just an experiment. But Google says in a blog post that it hopes to make these tools available to "any other publisher that wants to use them." (This may be a moot point, however, because once the newspaper apocalypse is over, the Post and the Times may be the only newspaper companies left standing.)

The whole "experiment" is classic Google. For one thing, it's not an actual product—it's just an experiment. Google is famous for slapping things together quickly, putting them out into the world as "beta" products, and then forgetting about them. Also, like almost everything Google puts out, the user interface goes beyond ugly. The home page is just a list of headlines in blue type on a white background. According to the Google blog post, "The Living Stories started taking shape over the summer after our engineering and user interface teams spent time in the newsrooms of both papers." Really? You guys have been working on this for months, and you came up with something that looks like a grocery list?

Sure, when you can click on the "view all" link you jump to a topic page that looks a little better: there's a timeline that stretches across the page and has dates on top with headlines below, which makes it easy to scan backward in time and see how a story has evolved over weeks or months. And in the left column are links that gather up relevant videos, charts, graphics, opinion pieces, photos, and so forth.

But again—the design! The topic pages are better than the home page, but they still look like relics from 1999, in the early days of blogging. This is just so Google. The company is all about engineering. In some ways Google is the antithesis of Apple. It's almost as if the Google guys think there's something wrong with trying to make things look pretty, so they go out of their way to make things look ugly.

OK. Deep breath. Living Stories is a cool idea, and maybe will get better over time, if Google decides to put any effort into it. Another potentially good idea is Google Fast Flip, another idea for a new way to browse through magazines by "flipping" through pages the way you would in a magazine. Will either of them catch on with readers? I doubt it.

My favorite line about what the newspaper business is going through today comes from Clay Shirky, who argues that papers must keep trying lots of different things, because "nothing will work, but everything might." Frankly, I doubt that either of these Google experiments—Living Stories or Fast Flip—are the silver bullets that will save newspapers.

For that matter, I also don't know if Google is the best partner for newspapers to be working with. Because I don't believe Google really cares about fixing or saving the news business. I think Google is just sick of getting blamed for the newspaper industry's woes. And so Google is throwing a very tiny amount of effort into a few random things so that when it gets criticized, it can say, "But look, we're doing this thing and that thing; we're really trying to help these newspapers find their way. We're creating all this great technology, and we're not even charging the publishers for it—we're giving them all these great publishing tools, absolutely free!"

In other words: it's all about PR.

The truth is that Google has made a wonderful business out of taking a free ride on other people's content, and if it had its way it would continue doing this forever. Who wouldn't? It's just about the best business that's ever been invented.

Google will argue that it is not a parasite, but it is. Google will argue that it is not a monopoly, but it is.

One thing Google cannot argue is that its relationship with content creators is mutually beneficial. Just look at the numbers. Google is raking in billions in profit, while the companies that create content are being pushed ever closer to extinction.

In the long run, the only way that Google can survive as a parasite is to make sure that its host organism also survives. Of course, there is one simple way to do that. Instead of assigning a few techies to spend time in newsrooms and dream up half-baked publishing "experiments," Google could just share some of its loot with the content creators.

That would be simple, wouldn't it? Ah, but don't hold your breath. Google's official motto may be "Don't be evil," but the unofficial one is "Do what we tell you and no one gets hurt."