Listen, can you hear it? That choked gurgling is the sound of newspapers drowning in a pool of ink. But is Google to blame, as they claim?
In the US alone, there's the Rocky Mountain News, the Seattle Post Intelligencer, and maybe soon the San Francisco Chronicle and the Boston Globe - the waters are rising quickly. But to hear newspaper publishers tell it, you'd think Google was wrapping an anchor around their ankles and chumming for sharks.
There's been a lot of high-profile anti-Googlism coming out of the Newspaper Association of America's annual convention (and elsewhere) lately. For example, The Wall Street Journal's Robert Thompson likens the Googlified masses to intestinal parasites:
"There is no doubt that certain websites are best described as parasites or tech tapeworms in the intestines of the internet. It's certainly true that readers have been socialised - wrongly I believe - that much content should be free. And there is no doubt that's in the interest of aggregators like Google who have profited from that mistaken perception. Google encourages promiscuity - and shamelessly so - and therefore a significant proportion of their users don't necessarily associate that content with the creator."
Translation: Google is helping thousands of lesser sites leech money out of publishers' pockets.
Henry Porter, an editorial writer for the Observer, continues the worm theme, calling Google "an amoral menace", "a parasite that creates nothing", and a "nightmarish 11-year-old". Please, Henry, tell us what you really think.
Dean Singleton, chair of the Associated Press, issued vaguely ominous warnings about penalising "misappropriation" of AP content and declared:
"We can no longer stand by and watch others walk off with our work under some very misguided, unfounded legal theories. We are mad as hell, and we are not going to take it any more."
Get the feeling they're a wee bit upset about something?
Meanwhile, the Bloggerati - who apparently didn't appreciate the unfavourable comparison to maggots - fired back with equally over-the-top screeds. Like Search Engine Land's Danny Sullivan, whose 2,541-word response can be summarised thusly: suck on this, Google haters.
The Buzz Machine's Jeff Jarvis, who must have got out of the stock market before all hell broke loose because he has enough free time to type two incredibly long-winded responses, has a message for the newspaper industry: you blew it. He also wants to burn the AP to the ground, dismantle the smouldering wreckage, and sow salt into the soil so that nothing grows there for a thousand years.
Fact is, both sides are right, and both are wrong. Newspapers have blown it. But the blogs have been chowing down at the all-you-can-eat news buffet for years without even faking an effort to pick up the cheque. And Google is the waiter who keeps bringing them clean plates.
Head G-man Eric Schmidt stood before the publishers yesterday and sang a chorus of "Why Can't We Be Friends?" He also noted that Google tries to skew its news search toward more "credible brands". If so, they got a long way to go before they get it right.
There are scores - heck, hundreds - of blogs that do original reporting and/or add insightful (or, ahem, snarky) commentary to existing stories. Then there are the other 100 million blogs. Unfortunately, thanks to Google's inscrutable search algorithms, a crappy blog on a well-trafficked site will almost always outpoll a well-researched, thoughtfully composed report on a site the Google Gods deem less worthy, no matter who got there first.
The folks who do the hard work of reporting and editing news stories should get the biggest piece of the pie, while the copycats fight over who gets to lick the plate. That's pretty obvious. What's not obvious is how to go about making this happen.
No amount of chest thumping by the self-righteous Bloggerati will fix that. But I understand the geeks over at Google are pretty smart. Maybe they can figure it out. Toss a few of the Google billions toward solving that problem, Eric, and the news industry might stop comparing you and your friends to tapeworms.
Robert X. Cringely writes for InfoWorld.