Can Google Save Your Local Paper? Not Likely

I may post a blog entry three times a week, but I'm still an old newshound at heart. My soul is covered in newsprint. Scratch my skin and I bleed Indian ink (mixed with finely aged Scotch whiskey). As print publications keel over left and right, that makes me a member of an endangered species.

But Google has a plan to save the print industry -- at least, that's what it'd have you believe. The search mandarins have diagnosed the ailments currently plaguing the online appendages of the country's top newspapers and magazines and decided the problem is that the online publications' Web sites are too slow.

[ Also on InfoWorld, find out how Google is rescuing (or not) other industries: "The Google OS: Are we saved at last?" | Stay up to date on Robert X. Cringely's musings and observations with InfoWorld's Notes from the Underground newsletter. ]

(That's like telling someone who's just been run over by an 18-wheeler that he's suffering an allergic reaction to rubber tires. But I digress.)

To address the "slowness" problem, Google Labs has unveiled Fast Flip, an experimental interface that displays thumbnail images of the publications' pages when you do a news search, instead of the usual headlines and summaries. Kind of like how you can flip through album covers on iTunes, only not quite as groovy. Clicking on the thumbnail image brings you to the Web site where the story actually appears.

Per IDG News' Juan Carlos Perez:

The idea is to try to replicate online the ease with which people flip through the pages of print magazines and newspapers in the offline world. This could motivate people to read more online, which Google argues will help publishers attract more readers and increase their revenue.

Let me see if I have this straight: It's not just a lack of speed that's killing the print industry, it's a lack of reader motivation. So if you just display pretty pictures of magazine and newspaper Web sites, everything will be right again. Do I have that right?

I'm not the only one who's scratching his head over Fast Flip. Cnet's Rafe Needleman calls it "the platypus of news readers" (thus insulting yet another endangered species):

In Fast Flip, you can only scan left and right (page by page). You can't read down the page. If you click anywhere on the page, you leave Fast Flip and go to the Web. Links don't work. And multimedia doesn't work on the page either. ... On the mobile versions of Fast Flip, zooming in on a column is likely to leave you with text at a readable size but displayed on a column that's too wide to read without scrolling back and forth, making the feature rather useless. Hey Google, wasn't HTML invented for a reason?

He concludes: "if your brain is stuck in 1969 and you want to pretend that new-fangled computer in front of you is a microfilm reader, it'll feel natural to use." Oh, snap.

Next, they'll be installing hand cranks on keyboards to make it easier to scroll left and right through the thumbnails.

It's amazing to me that otherwise savvy people like Google -- and its three dozen online content partners, including the New York Times, Washington Post, Esquire, and Salon -- can say Fast Flip is likely to make any real difference and still keep a straight face.

The print industry has several major problems, but the biggest one is that ad revenues have dropped like a bowling ball though wet newsprint. You can blame an economy that's still wobbling like a punch-drunk palooka, but the real reason is advertisers pay only a fraction as much for Web ads as they once did for print ads (which means print ads have been severely overpriced). And when Craigslist is giving away listings, turning the newspaper industry's cash cow -- classified ads -- into hamburger, that only makes matters worse.

Here's the other problem. In the pre-Web dark ages, when a reporter for the New York Times or the Washington Post or Esquire wrote a great story, you had to read it in the pages of the New York Times or the Washington Post or Esquire, right next to those overpriced print ads. They had a monopoly on that content, and that monopoly kept them in steaks and 12-year-old Scotch.

Today, of course, you don't have to spend a dime to read those publications online. You can usually find a fairly detailed summary of that story on Google News or Digg or the dozens of other aggregators. And you'll find anywhere from a few dozen to a few thousand blogs repeating the story -- in some cases, simply lifting the entire thing.

But the sites that get the most traffic from that story aren't necessarily the same sites that did the hard, sweaty, Scotch-fueled work of producing that story. I'd wager the majority of people encounter that story from sites who got it for free. The publication that actually spent money to create the story gets a fraction of the traffic and the ad revenues.

The reason the repeaters get more traffic than the reporters is Google. When a half-baked summary of a story is ranked No. 1 in Google News results, while the original source for that story is buried near the bottom, that's just wrong. It happens more often than you'd think, and it's something Google could fix, if it chose to.

Google says it plans to share ad revenues from Fast Flip with the news sources themselves, which might actually help -- a little. But if it really wants to save the print dinosaurs -- or what's left of them online -- the company would find a way to pour more Google juice over the publications that are creating original content and deserve the lions' share of the traffic.

That would truly be something worth flipping over.

When the last print publication disappears, will you shed a tear? E-mail me: cringe@infoworld.com.

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