Recent piece by Sanford and Brown

(I work for Google, but this is my personal opinion.)

Last week I was on vacation down in Florida and I had a chance to tour Thomas Edison’s winter vacation home. The tour guide told us that Edison wired his house and switched on electrical lighting in 1887. Then the tour guide leaned in and quietly mentioned that it took 11 years to install lights in the rest of the town. Why so long? Because the townspeople were worried that cows would stop giving milk.

For some reason, I was reminded of that anecdote as I read a recent piece in the Washington Post. Rarely do I pause in the middle of reading an article and think to myself, “Wow, I disagree with almost everything that person is saying,” but that’s what I found myself doing. Luckily you don’t need me to marshal counterpoints. Instead, I suggest that you read what Jeff Jarvis wrote, or what Mike Masnick wrote, or what the Markos Moulitsas wrote, or what Danny Sullivan wrote. Or read Timothy Karr’s post about the authors’ undisclosed potential conflicts of interest.

I believe good journalism is critically important to a well-functioning society. I love newspapers, magazines, and the journalists that they support. But I disagree with Bruce Sanford and Bruce Brown, and reading their piece reminded me of those townspeople sitting in the dark, afraid to switch on their electric lights.

40 Responses to Recent piece by Sanford and Brown (Leave a comment)

  1. Good journalism is an oxymoron. It never has existed. It never will exist.

    The proof of this is in the very article itself, and the presumption that the addition of laws pertaining to the protection of journalism would somehow curtail the so-called serious problem that journalists have. A law enacted in the United States will only be effective within the United States, and the enforcement of said law outside of the US simply isn’t feasible.

    I love it when the figuratively blind propose ideas like this. It never ceases to amuse me. Thanks, Matt. That was good for a laugh.

  2. That explains the ruckus yesterday on bloggers and journalism, I had missed the source. Doubt this topic is going away anytime soon.

  3. Well, that was just rubbish.
    I swear I heard somewhere that traditional media was getting their news from bloggers nowadays. I recall a few bogus stories picked up. The internet is pretty much the source from which they get their information. Youtube and all.
    I would have posted in the comments on the news site but last time i did that I started getting emails with an opt-out that apparently doesn’t work cause I’m still getting emails =(.

  4. I think your last point sums up the article perfectly, people not willing to adapt to changes in society that effect the way they do business. The article was all over the place, even going as far as to say the government should help their classifieds be more competitive with craigslist. The government should save newspapers from craigslist???

  5. I love the analogy. The interesting thing is that fear is often the stifler of progression–in more ways than one. This works in any emerging technology attempting to reach the tipping point. “Show me the golden egg and then we’ll buy the goose” is often the mentality. Which is a good, but often overly conservative point of view. I’m currently seeing something similar in my industry, but things are changing rather quickly–the market is forcing it in many respects.

  6. Good Journalism = linkbait πŸ™‚

  7. Look at the bright side, Matt. You’re possibly living in the age which will define an entire new body of law, a body of Search Law, that will seek to equitably protect the needs and interests of Searchers, Indexers, and Publishers alike. Being aware of the phenomenon may make it seem a little less painful.

  8. Matt, sometimes I think the only way to make some of these people “get it” is to completely remove them from all search engines and wait until they come crying back.

    Of course, you could look at it the other way too – and start charging journalists per search that they perform whenever they’re doing research for a story. Ask any writer or journalist how much they Google. Myself, at least twice per paragraph when writing something for a magazine or newspaper.

    It’s only fair right? If Google should pay for their content, they should pay Google royalties for any article they wrote that involved a Google search for research.

    Do both of these, and I bet they all quickly change their tune.

  9. Wow. These two couldn’t be more wrong.

  10. Matt, thanks for the link to this terrible article! I am getting increasingly tired of media companies conflating JOURNALISM with NEWSPAPERS. In the status quo, the two are joined at the hip, but there is simply no compelling reason that they need to be in the future. I wrote a much longer article about this topic several days ago…these traditional media guys just don’t understand the core ethos of the internet, and instead of figuring out how to adapt to it, they are burying their collective heads in the sand.

    Google and the search engines have been amazing at disseminating a much broader and deeper set of information to the public than ever before in human history, and society as a whole is better for it. That’s not to say that reasonable restraints should never be placed on search engines…but in most cases, people should be figuring out how to work with them rather than against them. This is clearly one of those cases.

  11. It’s sad. The mainstream news industry is taking a drubbing, and there legitimate arguments that the companies should work together (yes, collude if you prefer) to renegotiate the balance of power with search engines–and of course that means with Google, given its market share. But if Sanford and Brown are their representatives at the negotiating table, then the mainstream news industry have no hope.

    Still, as Google and at least some of the blogosphere recognizes, letting the mainstream news companies implode has its own consequences. Will blogs and user-generated content step up to be the main primary sources? I hope so, especially given the number of bloggers proclaiming that they are journalists.

    Personally, I’m a blogger and not a journalist. I have no aspiration to substitute for a news source. I hope the news industry finds a way out of this hole.

  12. Matt,

    It seems like two major points have been glossed over (and not just by you but everyone who’s commented above me, too).

    From the article:

    “Eliminate ownership restrictions. Media insolvency is a greater threat today than media concentration. Congress should abolish caps on ownership of broadcast stations and bars on newspaper and television ownership in the same market. These outdated rules belong to an era when the Web was a home for spiders.”

    “Grant an antitrust exemption. Congress first came to journalism’s defense with antitrust relief in 1970, when it permitted endangered newspapers to combine their business operations without fear of antitrust suits if their newsrooms remained independent.”

    Here he’s not asking that the Goverment give the Newspapers any additional legislation to help them he’s simply saying that old outdated rules should be removed.

    Does anyone disagree with these two points? Personally I think they’re the two major ones. Let’s at least give the Newspapers a level playing field. It is their content and they should be able to decide what happens to it. If they could consolidate and collectivly bargin without fearing Anti-trust laws I think they would have a lot of leverage to do battle with Google. But because of these laws they’re being handcuffed. And that ain’t fair.

  13. These newspapers are not addressing the real problem they face. Its the competition between their advertising rates and Google AdWords rates. More advertisers leaving news papers to advertise through AdWords which is mostly much cheaper. thats the real issue to be addressed πŸ™‚

  14. Old media need to accelerate some changes in order to run with the same speed than new media. Thinking that a few laws can revert the things that are happening is a fool idea . Especially, when the Government and the Congress are also institutions with a low speed of reaction in this changing age. The media world has changed but some people are still living in the 1980s.

  15. Matt,

    I write and publish for a living and I also disagreed with almost everything in the Sanford and Brown article, except the idea that copyright needs another look. I’ve gone the DMCA route, and for some reason turned into one of Chilling Effects favorite “outings”, and I took an internet infringer to Federal Court, where it dragged on a couple years until we settled. The thing that motivated me to go to court and risk a steep five figure loss is that their infringing page knocked my top drawing page out of Google at that time (back in ’05). These days, when my pages don’t turn up in Google for exact quotes, I submit the more obvious infringements through WebMaster Console, which seems to help, though I can’t connect cause and effect from where I’m sitting.

    This past week, I heard from a Peace Corp attorney representing one of their volunteers who wants to use several pages of my online material in a training manual in South America – I think he’s also planning on a Spanish translation. The minor complication is that Peace Corp publications are public domain, but by including my copyright mark, the material should still be protected from other publishers. The major complication is that the Peace Corp also publishes online, so there’s the potential that this government sponsored site with a Page Rank = 8 and all the trust in the world (don’t you trust the Peace Corp?) will end up with duplicates of some of my most popular pages. I’m inclined to let them use the flowcharts (which I think is what the guy really wants) but not the text, because I just don’t know if in some future iteration somebody at Google will decide that if content exists on two sites and one is the Peace Corp, to send the people to the Peace Corp. Doesn’t seem evil:-)

    I’ve written about the newspaper thing some myself, they were doomed by CraigsList, a dirt simple community directory site, not by search.

    BTW, there was an article in the WSJ today about Google creating a new algo to predict employee discontent so as to cut folks off in the pass. If they ask you how’s it going, Matt, I suggest saying, “The hours are great but the money’s not so good.”

    At least we’ll find out if the algo really works.


  16. Matt,

    Almost forgot. Just because the tour guide told that story doesn’t mean it’s based in fact. There’s been some reporting about the U.S. tour guide industry over the issue of guides pretty much saying whatever they like. Wouldn’t surprise me if the rest of the town held out because Edison wanted to charge too much or because they were all shareholders in the whale oil trade.


  17. @Morris
    companies need to stop doing stupid stuff see mini microsft for an example of how internal procedures can mess up. MS employees sems to spend most of there time gaming the prp system. Minis a bit of a muppet but he does make some good points.

  18. Matt, speaking of the Edison home, I LOVE that tour – it was so fascinating – did it about 20 years ago when I was a kid actually. The swimming pool he had was so ahead of it’s time πŸ™‚

    Regarding the article, wow. Reading reminds me of the saying, “People will only change when it’s more painful to remain the same than it is to change” – Right now people in the newspaper business are right there. If they don’t change, they will wither out just like an old record player company.

    Keep up the great work you guys do at Google man!


  19. Ashley: again, the problem with that thinking is that it’s US-centric. Laws enacted or abolished (it really doesn’t matter which) only affect a single jurisdiction. Congress can do all it wants in this regard either way, and it may or may not help the American print media…but it won’t do a thing either way for The Sun (UK) or The Toronto Star or the Jewish Tribune or (insert media here).

    Besides, the media themselves don’t exactly play friendly with the competition, so why should anyone help them out? I know of multiple cases where people were willing to pay for advertising space in offline media to promote their websites and the offline media sources wouldn’t let them because the sites being advertised represented a form of competition that the offline media sources were too afraid of.

  20. Unlike some others, I wont pretend to know the solution to the problem. But one statement lept out for me;

    “Yahoo to YouTube to prosper from the content they carry with little concern of being held accountable for it”.

    That is very true. IMO, you can see “evil” on YouTube and in the SERPs every single day in the form of false information, exploitation of Women, Men and Children.

    IMO, accountablity would go a long way in the right direction.

  21. Ashley: again, the problem with that thinking is that it’s US-centric

    That’s not a “problem” it’s a suggested solution for the US. Other Countries can either, follow suit, don’t change a thing, or do what works best for their laws.

  22. I just went to leave a short message at the Washington Post and the site is conveniently down “To our Readers: is undergoing maintenance and some sections of the site are temporarily unavailable. We apologize for the inconvenience. Of course, the latest news and updates will continue to be available on our home page.”

  23. That is a nice way to look at it, Michael Martinez. Good perspective.

    David Mihm, agreed that good journalism can be independent of the medium it appears in. It can be in a newspaper, on TV, in a magazine, or in a blog. What matters is the quality and nature of the work, not whether it’s presented on paper vs. a TV screen vs. a computer monitor.

    Ashley, media consolidation is a much deeper and nuanced topic that deserves a long post itself. But I do not agree that massive consolidation of radio stations, newspapers, and television is necessarily a good thing.

    Morris Rosenthal, that’s what I’ll tell them if they ask. πŸ™‚ Fair point on the tour guide.

    Matthew Swanson, it was a great tour. My grandfather was a printer who met Edison and told a few stories about the swimming pool, so the tour was a real treat for me.

    SEFL, I think you make a good point that even if the U.S. changed its laws regarding the web, other countries would not. So if the U.S. moved to a “search engines must request permission to index” regime, that would practically guarantee that non-U.S. search engines would gain an enormous advantage over U.S.-based search engines. Killing Google/Yahoo/Ask/Live and handing the search engine market over to Baidu/Yandex/Naver/etc. doesn’t seem like an especially smart move for the U.S. to make, but hey–I’m not a lawyer. I’m just an engineer. I thought about making this point in the original blog post but didn’t want to come across as too adversarial (“Hey, you know that law you’re proposing? Have you considered the resulting consequences, um, at all?”).

  24. Rahul and Matt D and I were just talking about this in the office today. The whole situation makes me sad. A little perspective: when I got out of college with a journalism major, I was interviewing for reporter jobs that were 40 hours in the office plus city meetings, and when you did the math it was less that $10 an hour. My editor during one summer internship had a second job collecting carts at Sam’s Club. It’s hard to pay rent, student loans, and eat on the kind of money most people get entering the industry. So I worked in tech instead. A lot of smart, motivated people did the same. When times are tough, the first thing media companies do is cut their reporting staff. This inevitably leads to a decline in quality, and now that there’s more competition, lower quality means lower circulation. Which brings on another round of cuts.

    Newspapers in particular were set at the dawn of the web with an incredible advantage – they produced targeted, interesting content on a daily basis. But instead of building a whole new business basically for free (webservers are a lot cheaper than presses) they were dragged kicking and screaming on to the web. Or their corporate parents locked them up in weird situations in pursuit of “synergy.” How many major newspaper sites still don’t give readers a way to comment on stories? Or take down articles after some arbitrary time period, putting them in archives that no one ever pays to access?

    So the thing that makes me sad is, as much as I love all the bloggers doing really interesting, in-depth work out there, traditional journalism is still very valuable. If the major news organizations’ response is to attack Google and Yahoo, well… I don’t have a lot of hope for their future.

    Sorry to rant in your comments, I’ll bloviate more on this topic on my blog at some point. πŸ™‚

  25. When poor journalism is on paper, or on TV they run the risk of being called out. In Oz we have a show called “Media Watch” where they expose most “poor journalism”. Yet, online is like the wild west where anything goes.

    ALL Countries need to address this poor journalism online . The problem is no Country has the balls to be the 1st. If one Country, like the US, would address the problem then I bet others would follow suit.

    Matt, “search engines must request permission to index regime” is morally the right thing to do when SE profit from content. It doesn’t have to happen overnight, but it should happen eventually. Google should take the initiative sooner rather then when they have no choice.

  26. Matt, some hard questions await your reply in regards to a conflict of interest of Google lowering the bar for YouTube in the, what were, organic SERPs. Please don’t ignore them or dance around the edges. Despite what you THINK, I want to see Google continue to be the #1 SE of choice for people of the World.

    As you know, I’m not one to sugar coat my beliefs/questions for anyone. I would appreciate some non Political and directly responsive answers.

  27. I think the real concerns in ‘the article’ should not go unnoticed. Laws should be made and Google et al. should be shown their place.
    My suggestion is to make required amendments to force SEs to respect technological indicators like ‘noindex’, ‘nofollow’, robots.txt etc

    Media can be hilarious at times. Few years back, in India, there were many newspapers who were vehemently supporting Government moves for liberalization. But all of them agreed on one thing. News & Media industry should not be liberalized and foriegn investors should not be allowed. πŸ™‚

  28. “Townspeople sitting in the dark, afraid to switch on their electric lights. ”
    … I think that would help lessen the effect of global warming, even a little.

  29. Hey, you know that law you’re proposing? Have you considered the resulting consequences, um, at all?”

    It doesn’t matter what law you’re talking about – with congress the answer is always a resounding “NO”

  30. “Good journalism is an oxymoron. It never has existed. It never will exist.” (@SEFL)

    What he said.

  31. Ashley, I agree wholeheartedly with you, and tried to make the same point over at Jarvis’s blog. Incidentally, he agrees about relaxing ownership restrictions on media companies (but not about the antitrust exemption).

  32. Oops, messed up the URL of Jeff Jarvis’s blog post. It’s

  33. I spent a dozen years working in local news media in both print and television, and to a large degree, I think the difficulties that journalism outlets are facing now could have largely been avoided. My experiences working on the new media side of things in traditional media companies taught me that the traditionalists viewed the migration toward online with an us-versus-them mentality. And when solutions were provided to them that would help stop the erosion of revenues, viewer & readership they balked.

    It’s a wonder I survived the frustrations I experienced trying to explain the coming tide to these people. Because I worked on the online side of things I was definitely treated as an outsider, an obstacle, and part of a problem they hoped would just go away. Now, for a lot of companies it’s too late to embrace online journalism. Those companies are folding because they were not smart enough to see that the demand for news is not dependent upon the format in which it is delivered.

    I do not believe that Journalism is in trouble. Traditional media outlets, specifically newspapers, may be in deep trouble, but the demand for quality content is still there.

    And I personally think that if the content is quality, and original, and not available anywhere else, that people would pay to access it online. And we all know that where they eyeballs are, the advertising dollars will follow.

  34. Good journalism is an oxymoron. It never has existed. It never will exist.

    While “Good journalism” is the exception to the rule, it far from being oxymoron. You just need to able to sort the wheat from chaff.

  35. Does anyone see the semblance here with copyright infringement?

    Media changes, affects their industry and laws need to be passed all of a sudden to keep a business model highly profitable.

  36. Good journalism does exist as has been proven with The Telegraph in the UK in recent weeks. Without them, many British MPs would still be claiming inappropriate expenses paid for by the UK tax payer. The answer is not to stifle competition but to embrace it and just ensure you keep raising your standards to remain a viable business.

  37. One little point from near the bottom of the article is worth a discussion, I feel:
    Advertising can only ever go so far – there are totally free newspapers out there, but it is generally accepted that their quality is fairly low. That is why people are prepared to shell out their small change to read a good paper, with fewer adverts. Books generally don’t have any adverts at all, but the model is still much the same – a trade-off between price and quality. On the web, (and I’m not just talking about news sites) there just isn’t a successful mechanism for this – if you can’t support yourself from adverts, then you need a damn good niche and a good site, AND good marketing to be able to run any kind of subscription service.
    _IF_ that problem ever gets sorted out, then perhaps this antagonism will decline a little.
    I have the same problem myself to a degree – if I had the money to employ someone else, my site would grow a lot faster, but unlike these guys, I don’t blame Google for earning money off showing my site in the search results.

  38. While I disagree with the author’s solutions, I sympathize greatly with journalism’s plight. A couple of points…

    1. The headline is the product. Unlike the title of a book or a webpage, the title of a news story is valuable in and of itself. While I don’t pretend to know the numbers, I believe I am safe in the assumption that a substantial proportion of news customers online are merely interested in reading the headlines. Occasionally those headlines will attract a click, but more often than not an individual visitor feels content to read “GM to sell Hummer to Chinese company” without delving into the details. Traditional media prior to the internet enjoyed the eyeballs of both those who wanted the quick headline and the complete story. A meaningful part of their product line has been pried away by Fair Use as I now can find those same headlines on virtually every web portal in existence.

    2. Blogger’s Aren’t the Press. Notice that I didn’t use the word “journalist”. Yes, Danny Sullivan is a Journalist, but his argument cannibalizes itself when he talks about the benefits the “press” gets, such as a guaranteed seat at a Presidential Press Conference, or a returned phone call from a government agency. An organized news creation industry of wide repute and mass appeal is an essential qualification of an accountable government and economy. No one outside of online marketing knows Danny Sullivan so, as an independent Journalist, he will be far less effective at garnering the attention of those in power. Now, I am not saying that it can’t be done, or hasn’t, or that bloggers don’t serve a vital role in the journalistic process (someone has to police the press too!), but imagining journalism without the behemoth news agencies is hard to do. Will Danny Sullivan put up the money for a camera crew, plane ticket, housing, etc. to go report in the middle of a remote war zone? Do we simply hope that there are enough competent, niche bloggers out there who are comfortable bootstrapping their own independent businesses? And then, how does Google find which ones to trust when the sources begin to out-number the stories? The press, not just journalists and journalism, is vital.

    3. Collective Action Problem. Kos’s argument about the use of a robots tag to block Google is just silly. The sources of major national and international news are quite small in comparison to the total number of content producers altogether. However, these sources tend to release a lot of similar information that cannot be distinguished by the title of the content alone. Subsequently, these sources would need nearly perfect cooperation from all sources to protect their headlines. If only a handful of them chose to continue to allow their content to be available for headline aggregators, the others would lose all available traffic and the headline-only readers would remain satiated. Of course, the rest of us would have to go from site to site to find trusted providers or, better yet, visit the single site that pays for a feed from the group of sources, much in the same way that many buy news from the Associated Press.

    Ultimately, I don’t have a realistic solution, but I do think that there is a good question we should all be asking…

    Do you think the chance of sending a newspaper a visitor of yours is a fair price to pay for the headlines their Journalists write?

  39. I too disagree on almost anything. It is hard to be a contrarian, you know being healthy when everyone is unhealthy, being rich when everyone is poor, being happy when everyone else is unhappy. I even believe that cancer is not a disease and keep telling people about it, and everyone respond is, you got to be kidding me. I also disagree with most of modern medicine theories.

  40. I guess I’m here reading fun stuff like this just because. I also love reading I have two books started one just happens to be “Innovate like Edison”. I appreciate the tidbits of info that you experienced when you were in Florida. I guess today I’m really not in the mood to read stuff I can disagree with I do that all week long.

    Don’t know how I even got here, just following the blog trail link to link.

    Thank you for having me, great read.
    Brad West ~ onomoney