Comment: Google lifeboat to rescue newspapers? Think again

11/09/2009

So Google could have micropayments for newspaper content live within a year? That will grab the attention of newspaper owners everywhere. It will seem like this could save the newspaper and magazine industry; the most unexpected life-raft, from the most unusual lifeboat.

“Open need not mean free” is today’s message from the aggregator, after years of attack from news media sites over the ubiquity of content and who really owns the eyeball - and the ad revenue that goes with.

There has been an uneasy relationship between the aggregators and content creaters for over a decade. While content-rich websites need the traffic and distribution that aggregators offer, there is a commercial danger that the viewer’s attention is predominantly on the aggregator’s website and not on the content-rich site.

With advertising views underpinning the business models for almost all online publishers, this shift in audince from content site to aggregator has damaging commercial effects, yet without the aggregators the content-rich sites would be hard to discover and only visited by a tiny loyal audience of brand adorers. The recession simply amplified an economic tension already at the centre of the online publishing industry.

As the biggest aggregator and navigator of them all, Google has been in the eye of the storm. Inside online media brands one team of marketers would be buying Adwords to drive traffic, while another would be blocking Google’s robots and spiders from indexing content. It’s a paradox triggered by the shifting power in the digital publishing economy.

The change from warship to lifeboat in the eyes of the publishers is laid out in a sympathetic answer to the Newspaper Association of America (NAA) about charging for online content, and comes hot on the heels of Murdoch’s most recent call-to-arms for newspapers to put a cover price on their websites.

Unquestionably Google has the brand and the gatweay management to enable this. It can, and almost certainly will, deploy the technology for micropayment management and a single wallet that will make news content micro charges viable. But this is about consumer culture, not technology.

For over 15 years, people have been trained to see web content as free, and adverts as an acceptable price to pay for that freedom. Outside a few significant niches, consumers are not yet ready for the ‘pay to play’ web publishing era.

Newspapers and magazines seeing Google as the lifeboat are misreading the nature of the storm. The liferafts are not strong enough to keep whole sinking ships afloat. The technology can be built, but the consumers won’t come.

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