Curation and aggregation drive online news. Reporters dig up and collect bits of information for their stories, other news sites aggregate and pass the stories along, and news ticker services boil them down further. But when we think of the news ecosystem, we often forget the one organization to rule them all: Google.
Google is, after all, the master aggregator, curating a list of searchable content — relatively none of which is their own — and making money by putting ads against it. As people use search and social as news channels, some news organizations are uncomfortable with the level of control over how, or if, we get certain information.
As part of the monopoly-busting antitrust complaint against Google in Europe, News Corp CEO Robert Thomson wrote a letter to the European Commission, calling Google a “vast, powerful, often unaccountable bureaucracy.”
The shining vision of Google’s founders has been replaced by a cynical management, which offers advertisers impressively precise data about users and content usage, but has been a platform for piracy and the spread of malicious networks, all while driving more traffic and online advertising dollars to Google.
Yep, sounds about right. The News Corp letter outlines the ways in which Google may seem like a democratic platform, but is, in many ways, weighted to favor certain content.
Additionally, the news business is still predominantly driven by ad revenue, as opposed to subscriptions or newer trends like branded content. The titans of news rested comfortably for decades on reliable ad revenue, until Google ate that business whole. Now, Google is one of the biggest ad platforms in the world, and all on the backs of other people’s content. But what about the people who actually make the content? Those ad dollars have been shrinking rapidly, and we’d be the last ones to point out the havoc it’s caused in the news business.
It’s easy to have no sympathy for News Corp — after all, they’re an enormous, politically-motivated corporate titan. Hell, Rupert Murdoch is such a frighteningly powerful media magnate that he was the inspiration for a Bond villain. Professor Jeff Jarvis, a media insider and open web activist, wrote on Buzzmachine:
These supposed bastions of conservative thinking are running to the government they all disdain to try to get unfair advantage on Google because — simply put — they have failed in the marketplace on their own. The Internet has defeated them. They are crying uncle.
But News Corp isn’t the only one “crying uncle.” Mr. Thomson’s complaint against Google is actually pretty typical of what critics and the tech media have been saying for years: as users begin to move toward social and search for their news, those platforms gain an enormous level of control over what we see, and we have no way of holding them accountable.
Now, we’re not suggesting that Google doesn’t make anything valuable, or that their entire business model depends on leeching off of publishers. Search is a useful service that’s far from free to provide, to say nothing of the number of other Google services, like Gmail, YouTube, and Drive. But Google has most definitely sapped the ad dollars out of an industry that makes Google Search — the service that accounts for 60 percent of Google’s ad revenue — worth using in the first place. Sure, the news sites still have their own ads, but many of them are provided, again, through Google, who pays itself handily as a middleman.
So when reached for comment about their overwhelming power over our access to information, what does Google have to say on the matter?
“Phew, what a scorcher. Murdoch accuses Google of eating his hamster!”
This can also be read as, “LOL,” or perhaps, “Fuck News Corp.” This should be very alarming to anyone in the news biz — News Corp is one of the largest publishers in the world, worth an estimated $7.9 billion. Google is apparently so comfortable with their information choke-hold that Mr. Thomson’s letter just makes them laugh.
It’s no surprise that News Corp is, as Mr. Jarvis puts it, “running to the government.” They may be our only hope to keep our new gatekeepers in line.