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The future of web-based news content

It’s not as if Google didn’t know what they were taking on when they started offering a news service. After all, they were turning news coverage into an Internet commodity.

So what’s wrong with this picture? Well, on the face of it, the average web surfer wins, but are the news media publications the losers?

“Buoyed by a Belgian court ruling this week that Google was infringing on the copyright of French and German language newspapers by reproducing article snippets in search results,…”

The initial cursory while somewhat naive first impression would be to say: well, if the news is freely available on the Internet in the first place, then what are these publisher guys complaining about? And the answer is a simple one: loss of advertising revenue and ambiguous content ownership, or copyright.

So this legal action would be some kind of an attempt to stall, if not halt the news aggregators before they become news producers in their own right.

I have a problem with this. If someone is legitimately attempting to produce newsworthy content .. good on ’em! So that’s something the existing media channels are going to have to live with.

These are the challenges associated with and largely particular to the times we live in. Disruptive technologies force existing industries to re-evaluate their business models to stay competitive.

However, if this new competition chooses to build their success around the efforts of others, specifically by using the content belonging to someone else, then there’s obviously a problem.

In most cases, the news aggregators simply gather headlines and lead paragraphs. If you’re interested, you follow the link to the original web page containing the news article. So where’s the loss in revenue if the person interested in the news article is ultimately going to be seeing the originating news page chock-full of context-sensitive adverts?

I’m reminded of an old Irish proverb, which goes something like: it’s not the arrival that counts, but the getting there. It’s all about the journey. Put more simply, the media publications are losing clicks, and each of these clicks is the visitor passing through a page that could potentially contain an advert they may have been interested in.

The big newspapers are having a big enough headache as it is trying monetize their services in the absence of a ‘proper micropayment’ transaction system. Yes, there’s always PayPal, but there’s also this perception that it not quite ready just yet. Although personally, I feel that’s changing.

And then there’s always ‘blogging to contend with too, which is in itself effectively democratizing while at the same time localizing news coverage in intriguing ways and on a global scale.

So clearly none of these impinging factors really help matters for the major media publications. And to compound things, tracking the successes and failures of the web-based version of their news offerings appears to be more miss than hit:

“All is not well in the world of newspaper measurement. Systems designed in the days when printed copies were everything are struggling to give a true picture of what is happening in newspaper groups.

Last week’s quarterly readership figures from the National Readership Survey (NRS) were the latest example. There were minus signs against the UK nationals and a fair few Scottish titles (though not this paper, The Herald or the Edinburgh quality titles), part of a long-term trend of sales and readership decline.

What you do not hear so much about is the growth at newspaper websites, which is arguably mopping up many readers that have been deserting printed papers and also attracting new overseas readers.

The trouble is that the significance of these numbers tends to be overlooked. In part, this is because not all newspaper groups pay to have them audited. In Scotland, for instance, Scotsman.com remains the only one with a listing with ABCe, the digital division of the Audit Bureau of Circulation.

But at the same time, there is still not a way of counting newspaper and website figures together. This means that their combined effect is ignored, even though in some cases newspapers will have a larger readership than before they went online.”

To counter this and to bring a standardized method of handling media content, there’s a plan being hatched:

“… the publishers said on Friday they plan to start testing the service before the end of the year.

‘This industry-wide initiative positively answers the growing frustration of publishers, who continue to invest heavily in generating content for online dissemination and use,’ said Gavin O’Reilly, chairman of the World Association of Newspapers, which is spearheading the initiative.

‘This system is intended to remove completely any rights conflicts between publishers and search engines,’ added O’Reilly, who is also the chief operating officer of Independent News & Media.”

This is clearly a step in the right direction. With something like this, lots and lots of hooks and handles can be embedded into content to denote cost, ownership and terms of usage. Without knowing more about this proposed standard, I would imagine that it would take the form of a something akin to RSS feeds.

“The cost of the project, known as the Automated Content Access Protocol, was not disclosed, though the publishers have budgeted 310,000 pounds ($583,700) to seek advice from third-party experts.”

Which is basically loose change to these guys. Meanwhile, there are other plans afoot at Google:

“Google, the popular internet search engine, is considering charging consumers for using some of its services.

The fees are being earmarked for sections of the website such as Google News, a new search facility launched this month which trawls news stories from about 4,000 different publications.”

Indeed, this changes everything.

“Google sells adverts on its own website, which change depending on the searches performed. It also syndicates the flexible advertising service to other websites, such as AOL.

Its remaining business, thought to represent about a third of sales, involves licensing its search software to other websites, including Yahoo.”

So as well as providing advertising to most of the on-line media publications, Google is also attempting to turn the act of searching into a paid-for service in its own right. This really does change everything.

If the media publications feel that they’re being pinched now, what will happen when they spend good money on refining the very mechanisms through which the consumer can hone their news search and then have Google adopt those very mechanisms to further their own ends?

The level of precision in terms of searching would most probably be incredibly precise. Precise enough to effectively control news coverage over the Google Network. As my dad might say: Google gets to keep their penny and still get the bun (cake) .. and eat it, too!

However, as we speak, Google would appear to be caught out by the same problems as the media publications: no proper micropayment transaction system. But then didn’t Google recently launch a competitor to PayPal in the form of Google Checkout?

Did anyone see this coming?

However this works out, the media publications are going to be keen to see how they benefit from this new arrangement. Surely, they are going to want to be a part of the deal and seek some revenue from whatever Google happen to have in place.

I know one thing for sure, if I’ve interpreted all of this correctly, when the news breaks, it’ll hit the headlines…

By Wayne Smallman

Wayne is the man behind the Blah, Blah! Technology website, and the creator of the Under Cloud, a digital research assistant for journalists and academics.

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