Op-Ed: Should Google buy The New York Times?

By Dan McDermott
Warren County Report

Veteran PC Magazine columnist and “Cranky Geek” John C. Dvorak recently started a discussion on his blog about rumors reported by Dealscape that Google should or might purchase the New York Times. John said that this might be a good idea. I think he is right.

A newspaper is simply one means of delivering news content.

But there is more.

Ten or twenty years ago I would have said:

The difference between print and broadcast is often the depth and length of stories–and usually the quality. When the TV news covers something at 6 or 11 it is often a 30 second version of the basic facts. Then its on to the “Wednesday’s Child” segment featuring the cute kid of the week. The longer version of the same story that appears in the next day’s paper usually has a much stronger and more lasting impact.

Today there is the Internet–which is bringing far more readers around the world to newspapers’ content but in an unprofitable way–and many cable news outlets which sometimes offer long-form in-depth coverage and analysis which traditional broadcast media outlets–CBS’ 60 minutes aside–would never have the resources or viewers’ attention span to cover. The problem is that these same cable news outfits often give undue attention to a story because it is “breaking” than it really deserves. A helicopter following a car chase that will never be mentioned again after its conclusion is an obvious example.

Print media is very, very expensive to produce and distribute. This newspaper has a circulation of over 9,000 and about 20,000 readers. It costs about $2,000 per issue just to print and distribute. This website has every issue we have ever produced available–so it has all the same content. It costs about $100 per year.

Here is the problem.

All of the past competition newspapers have historically faced and weather offered arguably lower quality content. Radio, TV & early cable news outlets by their nature offered less time per story and thus lower quality for the end user who wanted all the facts. You can print as many pages in a paper as budget and content allow. You can’t add more minutes into an hour. So the newspapers stayed strong and profitable.

The Internet is completely different. It has all the advantages of print publications (and now even their content) and is portable, usually free and allows for random access to any article rather than having to leaf through a paper or wait through a radio or TV program. It’s an increasingly ADHD consumer’s dream.

So the risk for us all is that if all of the papers go down, who will have the money to pay for the Woodwards and Bernsteins of the future? Who will have the resources to pay a reporter or team of reporters to study and investigate the Walter Reed scandal? That story was around since 2004 but never hit traction until a series of front page stories were printed in the Washington Post after an expensive years-long investigation by their permanent investigations unit–ironically started by Bob Woodward who has the luxury of being able to stay on at the Post for $1 per year.

I’m not arguing that we bail out the industry or that dinosaurs should be kept on life support in perpetutity. I do think that someone will figure this whole mess out and find away to allow the high quality content that some of the big papers have produced to survive in this new age–and help protect democracy in the process.

If there is any outfit that has shown the creativity, intelligence and innovative skills to reform the New York Times–and show the rest of us in the industry the way, it might well be Google.

It certainly won’t be “Wednesday’s Child.”

As for the arguments of the editorial slants of various media outlets, it is nothing new. People on the right see Fox News as “mainstream” and hate the New York Times and MSNBC. People on the left see the inverse. Good. Our diversity makes us stronger. That’s what the first amendment is all about. It’s all about equal access to the system. If Matt Drudge can start the most influential news website in the world single-handedly while sitting in his pajamas in his living room with no advertising then so can you.

Dan McDermott is Publisher and Editor-in-Chief of Warren County Report Newspaper in Front Royal, VA: editor [at] warrencountyreport [dot] com

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