Execs reveal why newspapers don't block Google

Forbes.com CEO rips Google but tells CNET it needs search engine to stay competitive. Former Washington Post editor says time to play by Google's rules.

Greg Sandoval Former Staff writer
Greg Sandoval covers media and digital entertainment for CNET News. Based in New York, Sandoval is a former reporter for The Washington Post and the Los Angeles Times. E-mail Greg, or follow him on Twitter at @sandoCNET.
Greg Sandoval
5 min read

To hear the poobahs of traditional media tell it, Google is to print media what global warming is to the polar caps. At many once-stalwart print publications, profits are melting away.

For several months, leaders at some of the nation's most influential newspapers and periodicals, including The Wall Street Journal, The Associated Press, and the online arm of Forbes magazine have begun blaming Google and similar Web services for at least some of their deepening financial troubles. Google sells ads tied to the news blurbs it "scrapes" from news sites. It links back to the Web sites from which it acquired the content but doesn't share ad revenue with them. This isn't fair, many media execs say.


In all the very public bashing of Google, however, few if any of the critics has answered why they don't just cut Google out of the equation by preventing the search engine from indexing their Web pages. The task could be accomplished by inserting a single line of code into their URLs. If Forbes.com added a line such as forbes.com/robots.txt, content from the site would be rendered invisible to Google.

Representatives from the Journal and AP declined to comment for this story, but their Web sites speak volumes for them. None of the companies has severed ties with Google and risked losing access to the search engine's millions of users. Traditional print publications, which have seen ad revenue plummet, mass layoffs, and in some cases the shut down of operations, are now hopelessly dependent on Google to lure readers, says media executives. Jim Brady, the Washington Post's former digital chief, says the question of whether Google is good or bad for print journalism is almost irrelevant at this point. Print publications are helpless to do anything about it.

"Get out a sheet of paper and write down all the things Google does for you," said Brady, former executive editor of Washingtonpost.com, as he offered advice to his former peers in old media. "Google allows your content to be exposed to people who would never see it otherwise. If you're able to code your pages well, then you can get an awful lot of leads from Google. It's up to your site to turn those leads into loyal customers...Google is not going away."

Pointing fingers
That's not exactly how Jim Spanfeller sees it. The CEO of Forbes.com asked the question in an opinion piece he wrote for the blog PaidContent.com, "is Google being disproportionally compensated for what is fundamentally other people's work?" He said the answer appears to be yes. He claimed Google "makes roughly $60 million a year directing folks" to Forbes.com.

So why doesn't Spanfeller prevent the search engine from indexing the magazine's content?

"I don't know that this isn't a bad idea," Spanfeller said in a phone interview with CNET News. "But I think that would be hard to do without everyone's competitors shutting (Google) out as well."

This sounds like an acknowledgment that Forbes needs Google to compete and that the search engine may provide publications like his a valuable service. That's at least what Marissa Mayer, a Google exec, told Congress on Wednesday during a hearing on the future of journalism. Google sends 1 billion page views every month to print publications, Mayer testified during the hearing.

Spanfeller argues, however, that Google does do harm. For example, the blurbs the search engine obtains from news sites often includes enough information to satisfy the major questions about a story. For many people, reading a headline and synopsis about three more people dying of swine flu in Mexico is all some readers want to know. There's little motivation to click on links to the site that actually produced the news. To some in media, this violates copyright law.

Spanfeller says there's also frustration when a news organization pays professional journalists to do original reporting and then see links to stories written by amateurs--or worse, blogs that are little more than flimsy rewrites of their content--with higher visibility on Google than their own.

Spanfeller wants Google to do a better job of showcasing professionally created content, and "cease stepping on or over the line of fair use." This means he wants Google to start providing less information in its news blurbs and crack down on sites that use stories without authorization.

"We show users just enough to make them want to read more," wrote Alexander Macgillivray, Google's associate general counsel, wrote last month. "Even though the Copyright Act does not grant a copyright owner a veto over such uses, it is our policy to allow any rights holder...to remove their content from our index."

The cure?
So what do print execs want from Google? First, the search engine could cure a lot of ills by sharing ad revenue with print companies. After all, it's their content Google is selling ads against. Forget it, not going to happen predicts Brady.

"There was a fair amount of pushing from people at the (Washington Post) news group who said: 'We should make Google pay us for our content,' Brady said. "I told them 'They're never going to do it. They wouldn't give us a dime.' (They responded) 'Well then, we should block it.' I said 'Fine, we can go ahead and do that and that's suicidal.'

"Google built a better mousetrap than the newspapers were able to build," Brady continued. "That's part of the reason they're making the money they're making. At some point I don't know what you can do about that other than to try and work it to your advantage."

There are some media execs looking for new ways to get their content in front of readers without help from Google. Amazon on Wednesday showcased a new large-screen e-reader called the Kindle DX. The device is partly geared toward readers of newspapers, and magazines. Newspaper publishers Hearst Corp., and Rupert Murdoch's News Corp. have said they will create their own e-readers designed to deliver their own content.

This kind of effort is fine with Brady. He says this kind of thinking is far more preferable than obsessing about the past.

"We have to ask, 'what's next?'" said Brady who plans to soon open his own consulting business. "That's where everybody needs to get to. Because Google isn't going away and they aren't writing us checks. Let's move on. We're all getting way too hung up on the past, with all the things we should have done 10 years ago, could have done...well, we didn't. Game over. We should be asking 'What are the new rules of this game and how do we best take advantage of them.'"