Peter Kafka

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Google Talking to New York Times, Washington Post About…Something


Remember last week, when Google was forced to explain why it wasn’t single-handedly destroying American newspapers?

Turns out the company is in talks with some of the country’s biggest newspapers to…well, save them.

But, that isn’t exactly the right phrase. In fact, it’s not clear how to describe the talks. But we do know that Google (GOOG) is chatting with both the Washington Post (WPO) and the New York Times (NYT), because that’s what employees of the Washington Post and the New York Times are reporting today.

Here’s the Post’s Howard Kurtz, in a column this morning castigating newspapers for being too slow to react to the Web:

“Post Co. chief executive Donald Graham and Google chief executive Eric Schmidt and their lieutenants have been holding talks about a possible collaboration. This could range from creating new Web pages to technological tools for journalists or readers. Hanging over the talks is the reality that the search giant, while funneling vital traffic to news sites, vacuums up their content without paying a dime.

Post executive Philip Bennett confirmed the discussions, saying: ‘We’re talking to each other about improved ways of creating and presenting news online.’ He calls it ‘an informal collaboration’ that ‘has produced some interesting ideas already. I’d say that on the journalism side of the conversation we’ve learned a lot.'”

Here’s a Google spokesperson’s description of the meeting, for what it’s worth: “This was an informal meeting, and we’re always talking with publishers to find new and creative ways to help them make money from compelling online content.”

I assume that the unnamed spokesperson will also describe meetings with the New York Times, which the Times’s Brian Stelter reported on today–via Twitter–from an internal presentation that the paper’s Web site put on for its newsroom.

Here’s the Tweet: “At a digital strategy meeting at the Times. News nugget: Wash Post isn’t the only paper in talks w/ Google. NYT is, too.”

I’m following up with Times folks about said talks, but it’s no surprise to hear about them. That’s because contrary to what you may have heard during Senate hearings about the state of the newspaper business last week, every sentient Web publisher realizes that Google can be a huge boon, directing a firehose of traffic to their content.

Indeed, a lot of the gripes you’re hearing about from publishers are really just pleas for Google to please direct more traffic to their sites. That’s the gist, for instance, of NYT digital boss Martin Nisenholtz’s anecdote about typing “Gaza” into the search engine and getting Wikipedia and Twitter messages, before he sees a Times story.

Google’s argument is that it is a neutral arbiter when it comes to this stuff and simply provides links based on the results of its black-box algorithm. So, it will be difficult for it start giving newspapers–no matter how august and important–a leg up when it comes to search results, because everyone else will want in too.

Then again, Google is facing the increasingly likely prospect of antitrust charges over the next few years. Some of the pressure is coming from Microsoft (MSFT), which is working as hard as it can to beat that drum. But the search giant is certain to face suits from the struggling newspaper business as well.

Thus, cutting some deals in advance may not be the worst idea.

Side note: Kudos the Times’s Web-savvy Jennifer 8. Lee for providing a comprehensive Twitter stream from her company’s meeting. Well worth checking out.

UPDATE: Here’s a guess–perhaps Google has been talking the papers about a new, automated filter that will fetch news for users without asking them what they want.

Google does have plans for a solution. In about six months, the company will roll out a system that will bring high-quality news content to users without them actively looking for it. That’s what’s Sharon Waxman says Schmidt told her he was working on last month:

“Under this latest iteration of advanced search, users will be automatically served the kind of news that interests them just by calling up Google’s page. The latest algorithms apply ever more sophisticated filtering–based on search words, user choices, purchases, a whole host of cues–to determine what the reader is looking for without knowing they’re looking for it.

And on this basis, Google believes it will be able to sell premium ads against premium content.

The first two news organizations to get this treatment, Schmidt said, will be the New York Times and the Washington Post.

Does the New York Times make more money from this arrangement, I asked? No, Schmidt confirmed, it won’t. But by targeting the stories that readers will want to read, it will get more hits out of the stories it has, which will drive its traffic and ultimately support higher advertising rates beside the stories.”

It’s worth noting that a “source close to Google”–who might possibly be someone on Google’s public relations staff–dismissed Waxman’s report, without saying which part was inaccurate, according to VentureBeat: “A source close to Google has raised serious questions about the veracity of Waxman’s claims about Schmidt’s comments. The company has not confirmed any of her post’s content.”

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The problem with the Billionaire Savior phase of the newspaper collapse has always been that billionaires don’t tend to like the kind of authority-questioning journalism that upsets the status quo.

— Ryan Chittum, writing in the Columbia Journalism Review about the promise of Pierre Omidyar’s new media venture with Glenn Greenwald