Debate raged at the Frontline Club last night as Google and news publishers came head-to-head for a panel discussion on the search engine and its impact on the industry.
The very title of the event “Google: Friend or foe of newspaper publishers”, part of the club’s monthly On the Media discussion series in association with the BBC College of Journalism, set the topic of early debate, as Peter Barron, former Newsnight editor and now head of PR for Google UK, sought to banish the idea of the company as an ‘enemy’. “Google is unequivocally a friend of the newspaper publishers. Our aim is to work with them,” he said.
Challenged about the ethics of “taking stories for nothing” through the Google News platform, he added that the service followed the free structure of online news.
We absolutely we do not steal content. News organisations put their content on the web for free everyday by their own free will and Google helps people find that content. We send clicks to the pages of news websites. We send a billion clicks a month to news websites globally. Once there, those clicks are a business opportunity for the businesses involved.
A business which he claims generates revenues of £5 billion worldwide. But the value of a browser who clicks through from Google is minimal, Matt Kelly, digital content director for Mirror Group Newspapers argued. In fact, he said, he’d rather not have them at all.
We need to worry a bit less about search engines and worry a bit more about our readers. We weren’t that impressed with the value of audience we got via search engines. They came across it via Google and buzzed off again, that’s Google’s audience. It’s not our audience. We can’t successfully leverage a disconnected audience.
He added that many news organisations moving online were “blinded” by the reach the internet and sites like Google enabled them to have.
I think they confused reach with audience, they confused numbers with engagement. It was a very alluring thing (…) So we pumped the market full of inventory and there was too much inventory for advertisers to supply. There’s not enough advertising in the world to fill all of the content that newspapers put out online. So what happens is the rate collapses. So suddenly this reach came back and bit the newspaper industry on the arse. So in all this great reach, the rate of revenue coming back from it is in terminal decline. What we would sell 4 or 5 years ago for £8 cpm now we’ll sell it for 80p cpm. This is not a sustainable business model. This is a product of the erosion of engagement that Google brought to news content.
Kelly later added that he would rather get one click-through from Twitter than 100 from Google, where someone has said “check this out” and recommended it. “I’m not interested in people who stumble and go, would rather not have them at all,” he said.
Earlier in his introduction, fellow panel member Patrick Barwise, emeritus professor of management and marketing at the London Business School, had agreed that Google was “a good thing for consumers (…) Good thing for advertisers. Bad thing for media companies.”
He said the revenue model for Google focused on making money from advertising and not re-investing much of it into content. Without Google, he added, the world would be a better place for news organisations.
Who’s going to pay for the content? Google isn’t going to and why should they? Google helps people find content, however if you imagine a world in which Google didn’t exist and nothing else like it, that world would be better for news organisations (…) The amount of revenue per reader generated online is much less than what can be generated by a print reader.
Peter Barron responded to say that the problems for news organisations have been caused by the internet as a whole and that too often people “transpose” the internet and Google.
The internet changed the news pattern forever. Thats what has caused huge problems for the news industry. People often transpose the internet and Google. The newspaper industry has faced a huge disruption because of the internet and woke up to it a little bit late.
Wired and Press Gazette MediaMoney columnist Peter Kirwan, who was also on the panel, added that many online news publishers simply have their priorities “skewed”. If organisations could cut out the “astronomical” costs of printing, they could begin to think about becoming digital only, he added.
The rhetoric that surrounds the idea of the news media exchanging print dollars for digital dimes, in other words (…) the available CPMs (cost per thousand) available on the internet are so much lower than in print – well yes they are – but the cost of putting out newspapers is also astronomically high (…) Strip that out and those digital diamonds don’t look so small (…) News organisations who are currently print dominated could start to think about becoming digital only and I think the rhetoric is now getting slightly tired of exchanging print dollars for digital dimes, we need to move on from that a little bit because I think the possibility of a digital only existence is starting to open up.
Looking forward, audience members asked about the future of paywalls and whether news publishers would ever consider building a shared wall. This prompted another panel member, paidContent’s Robert Andrews to ask Barron if Google could say anything on rumours the company was developing a ‘Newspass’ micro-payments system, met with a “no comment” from Barron.
Kelly added that it was up to newspapers to map their own future, but for the Mirror Group, it was about ensuring an engaged audience, rather than being obsessed with traffic from “transient visitors”, which he called this “a sickness that has pervaded the industry”.
Lots of people used our content but didn’t care about it. We’re trying to get to position B, its free and they care about it but then one day we might get to position C which is that they care about it so much they might be willing to pay for it. I wish [the Times] had gone to position B first and see if they could have engaged the audience and care a bit less about SEO.
Journalism.co.uk’s podcast from the event can be found here. See video coverage of the event below: