Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Google and the news

This week, The Atlantic Magazine's James Fallows wrote a cover story titled How to Save the News, about Google. He might more accurately have titled it How Google is the News.

Google has been an unavoidable focus of news for most of the last decade, but things have really heated up over the last year or so. Google has enjoyed cover stories in pretty much every news magazine in the US, and lead stories in the business and financial pages of the dailies on a regular basis. Type “Google” into Google, and the news hits are 28,000 for the past month alone. By comparison, “Obama” gets 44,000.

Frankly, I'm all Googled out – we went well beyond saturation coverage a long time ago.

Of course, Google is the news is another sense: they have become the way that most people find stories, or aggregate the information they consume. In the process, they've also become the totem for all the online ills that plague the old-school news media. The thrust of Fallow's story is that Google recognizes the value of a healthy Fourth Estate, etc. etc., and that the company has plans to make good on keeping journalism healthy and vibrant. Right. Forgive my skepticism.

The US media's love affair with Google is perverse, or ironic or maybe just weird. Fallow's has fallen victim to it. Google is adored not so much because they're fighting for information freedom in China, or because they build very cool and totally free stuff we can all use, or because their search engine is a simple work of genius: The US media loves Google because it is a phenomenal financial success. This trumps everything, and makes them infallible in the way Microsoft was in decades past. Google prints money. They may be a one-trick pony, but the trick is very lucrative.

A year ago, The Atlantic ran another cover story on Google, although much less flattering. Is Google Making us Stupid? was written by Nick Carr, and the title pretty much says it all. I think Carr has a very level-headed view of the social issues with new media and online economics, but you could argue that he too has fallen prey to the Google hype. We should remind ourselves that this is a company that makes bundles of money selling advertising atop a search engine; everything else is window-dressing. They aren't going to democratize China, make us stupid, or save the media biz. They're just going to continue to make a lot of cash.