Hail to the chief (Google) in the land of the free

The Baltimore Sun

Eric Schmidt, the CEO of Google, caused some jaws to drop when he spoke in a recent interview with Fortune magazine about the future of newspapers, which are struggling economically despite the fact that their articles help nourish countless search engines, including his.

"People love the news," he said, adding that he wished he could do more to help traditional media. "The problem is ... that the culture of the Internet is that information wants to be free."

The statement made me wonder what a judge would say if a man accused of theft pleaded, "I'm sorry, your honor, but the jewels wanted to run free."

Jeff Jarvis, for one, doesn't share my incredulity.

He's a leading new-media thinker, blogger, college professor, partner in a news aggregator Web site called Daylife and columnist for The Guardian in London. He also just came out with a book titled What Would Google Do? He argues that much of corporate America, and government, too, would be in much better shape if it followed the ethos of the world's largest search engine. He offers a few dozen "Googly" rules for companies - maybe even for people - to live by.

Give the people control. Do what you do best, and link to the rest. Small is the new big. The mass market is dead; long live the mass of niches. There is an inverse relationship between control and trust. Be honest. Be transparent. Free is a business model. Middlemen are doomed. Simplify, simplify. Don't be evil.

Jarvis has a background and affection for old media even as he sings the Hallelujah Chorus for the new. He's the creator of Entertainment Weekly magazine, a former television critic for TV Guide and People, and a former journalist for the New York Daily News, The Examiner in San Francisco and Chicago Tribun e. His book is thoughtful, heavily opinionated and useful, including for anyone who is mystified by the post-dot-com era and wants a better grasp of what has succeeded on the Internet in the past few years.

As the author would say, he didn't set out to write a book about Google the extremely inventive company as much as Google the philosophy. Google and other new-age companies like Craigslist, the online classified ad site, have been successful, he writes, because the people who created them were driven to fill a need. Their motivation wasn't making money, he says, which may be why they have made so much.

"The key lesson about Google is that it grew not by borrowing capital and by making acquisitions, but by creating platforms and networks that enabled others to build on it," Jarvis says in a phone interview a few days after returning from the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.

Jarvis said he got the idea for the book and its title a couple of years ago while at a conference in London. Hearing news executives complain about the giant search engine that was appropriating their work, he thought that they should stop complaining and try to emulate it.

There's no question that media executives have been flummoxed about Google. If you had told them 15 years ago that someone was going to take their publications' work for nothing, they'd have scoffed. If you had added that they'd be in a position of hoping Google and others would take more of their stories to juice their own publications' Web site traffic, they would have called the company nurse for you, or perhaps security.

The question isn't "WWGD?" but "WHGD?" - "What Has Google Done?" Traditional media are in a quandary: They can't make Google go away, but they can't quit it, either.

Jarvis, who blogs at buzzmachine.com, is an eloquent advocate for Google's way. During our conversation, about the only time I heard dead silence was when I asked if Google believes information "wants to run free," why does most of the company's $22 billion in annual revenue come from the advertising it hosts? Advertising is just another form of information. Why doesn't Google think that information wants to "be free"?

Google is being Clintonian in defining what "it" is. (If Google gave away ads, that would be no boon for traditional media, either, but it might make the search engine more willing to negotiate the use of others' work.) No one needs Jarvis' convincing to recognize we're not going back to where we came from. But the arranged marriage, in which media companies struggle to financially support the news gathering that Google and others use for free, can't last either.

His bona fides as a media visionary notwithstanding, even Jarvis acknowledges the tectonic shift of the information age has been rockier than anticipated. He teaches "entrepreneurism journalism" to graduate students at the City University of New York, who might go on to launch journalistic Web sites since former industry inroads have dried up.

"Part of my assumption was that we were going to have an orderly transformation in the world of media," he said, adding with some understatement: "It could be painful for some."

'what would google do?'

By Jeff Jarvis

Collins Business / 272 pages / $26.99

Copyright © 2021, The Baltimore Sun, a Baltimore Sun Media Group publication | Place an Ad