The Internet has changed the way that people read newspapers in many ways: not least because news aggregators such as Google News have helped to bring readers away from the habit of focussing their news reading on just one paper's website. Now most Internet-savvy users are accustomed to visiting many different websites and choosing the source that they find appropriate for each story they would like to read. But as newspapers' print revenue drops, frustration at the way that aggregators make money out of content which is not their own has been increasing amongst newspaper publishers. Could Google's recent adoption of small text advertisements on US Google News be the last straw?
The basics of news aggregation
Many different news aggregators exist: those run by media giants such as Yahoo, those based on reader interaction such as Digg and others like the Huffington Post and the Daily Beast which provide aggregation alongside original reporting and commentary. Some provide just headlines; Google News, however also collects brief excerpts from articles on its homepage, and makes them available via a search function. Unlike some aggregators such as the Drudge Report that have a human editor choosing the headlines, Google News aggregation is entirely automatic, using algorithms which carry out contextual analysis and group similar stories together. According to Google, articles are ranked based on "how often and on what sites a story appears online," and "based on certain characteristics of news content such as freshness, location, relevance and diversity."
News aggregation has been an extremely controversial issue for many years. Google News creator Krishna Bharat claims that Google's service aims to "encourage readers to get a broader perspective by digging deeper into the news - reading ten articles instead of one, perhaps." This in itself is undoubtedly a respectable idea, and reflects one of the great advantages of online news for consumers: the ability to easily read around a topic. According to William Echikson, Google's Senior Manager for Communications, "Google makes the news more accessible and more interesting - encouraging people to read more and so benefiting the news industry as a whole." It can be argued that Google does indeed benefit the news industry by directing traffic to newspaper websites and hence promotes newspaper content. This is perhaps especially pertinent for smaller papers which would not otherwise get many visitors to their sites: when a major event occurs locally, they might suddenly find themselves topping the Google News homepage.
Publishers vs. Google
Despite some undeniable benefits for readers and apparent benefits for newspapers, some newspaper publishers are resentful of Google News and other similar aggregators. The essential problem is that publishers do not feel that the click through rate to articles is high enough, and therefore any additional advertising revenue that they would gain from extra viewings of individual articles does not compensate for the income they lose from readers not going direct to their newspaper websites. For Google News search results, the click through rate is only about 10%. People scan headlines and the brief article excerpts that appear but then few seem to bother to read full stories, meaning that despite their content being used, newspapers are not receiving any income. And even if people do click through, it means that they are less likely to visit newspapers' homepages and therefore newspapers cannot make much money from their premium advertising spots. There have already been protests: Belgian newspaper copyright group CopiePresse is in the process of seeking 49 million euro in damages from Google for storing and reproducing Belgian newspapers' articles without permission. Another of the complaints that newspapers have is that the aggregators' crawlers do not distinguish between "good" journalism and everything else.
Advertising adds to conflict
Newspaper owners have also been opposed to the fact that advertisements are placed alongside search results on the general Google site, meaning that Google is directly making money from other people's content. The recent decision to place advertising on search results for the US version of Google News after keeping it ad-free for six years is a move that can only further anger many publishers, as it seems now obvious that Google is, after all, just trying to make money out of newspaper content. According to the New York Times, a Google spokesman said that Google had devised an approach that could deliver contextually relevant ads so had decided to go ahead with them. NYT writer David Carr was extremely unimpressed, stating that "newspapers' audiences are harvested and sold divorced from the content that attracted them in the first place."
It is not clear whether the company intends to start putting ads on Google News outside the US. According to Press Gazette, Europe's notions of "fair use" are more heavily weighted in publishers' favour than in the US. CopiePresse has asserted that it will take further legal action if ads are placed on Belgian Google News.
Newspapers' anti-aggregator options?
So, apart from simply suing Google and trying to halt a seemingly irreversible trend, how can newspapers tackle these problems, which are all the more relevant in this time of financial crisis? One possibility is the solution provided by ACAP, or Automated Content Access Protocol, a coalition of newspaper, magazine and book publishers led by the World Association of Newspapers, which claims to put "content owners in control of their online content in a way that is conducive to developing new online business models, putting new, high-quality content on the net and to maximizing the benefits of the relationship with search engines." In essence, it would mean that copyrighted material could not be used so freely in search engines. Over 700 news organisations have implemented ACAP as a symbolic gesture in anticipation of search engines recognising the service.
One further non-confrontational solution could be for newspapers themselves to provide more aggregation, such as the NYT's Times Extra page: an alternative homepage which includes links to articles from other sites under the Times' own stories. The Washington Post has a politics-specific Political Browser which freely links to other publications. If newspapers embraced this linking further, they could succeed in providing significant competition to aggregators. As well as just linking to other papers, they could utilise a product such as Pluck's BlogBurst, which is effectively a blog syndication service, allowing newspapers to easily search 'quality' blogs and find content to supplement their own stories. Obviously to do this newspapers must adopt "a fundamentally different mindset" to quote Scott Karp, who coined the term "link journalism": they must stop trying to keep people within their own sites and realise that sending them away to appropriately interesting articles may well keep them coming back for more. The Huffington Post, for example, thrives on sending readers away to other articles, and managed to become the most linked-to blog on the web.
Can newspapers supply the competition?
Evidently people do like to be able to get the news from many different sources around the world, and younger readers who have grown up with online news possibly have less loyalty to individual newspapers. With this in mind, newspapers could even provide a better service than Google and co. One of the problems with automated aggregators such as Google is the lack of a real editorial agenda: Google's algorithms try to judge the importance of stories in ways described above, but there is no editor to provide an informed, professional view of events by appropriately arranging stories on a homepage. A newspaper might not be able to provide as comprehensive an aggregation service as Google, but it would have the advantage of being able to offer a clear editorial voice in its selection of articles and how they appear, which is one of the aspects of newspapers that readers value highly.
Another more radical and highly controversial option to defy the search engine aggregators is to start charging for content. If newspapers were to come together and universally start charging online readers, via joint subscriptions or micropayment, they could create a newspaper-owned search engine and aggregator which included advertising and fairly distributed revenue, hence keeping all income from newspaper content within the control of newspapers. It would be a huge step, but as more and more publications contemplate a return to paid content, it seems at least a possibility.
Will Google's additional ads spur newspapers into action? Or will they continue to somewhat reluctantly tolerate the Internet giant's profit from their industry, and accept the directed traffic in return? The Internet has revolutionised the way that people read news, and aggregation and linking is undoubtedly going to continue to be a part of the news landscape. The issue is whether it will be newspapers themselves or third parties which manage the system.