Google bigotry

Google have an image problem – not a PR problem (that is, one with the public) but a press problem (one with whining old media people). Google is trying hard – too hard, perhaps – not to argue with the guys who still buy ink by the barrel. Google is only causing them to buy fewer barrels. And newspaper people will use their last drops of ink to complain about Google’s success and try to blame it for their own failures rather than changing their own businesses.

What should Google do? I think it needs to become news’ best friend.

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This week, I called The New York Times on internet bigotry. Now I’ll call the French media on a subset: Google bigotry.

Last night, I got email from a Le Monde journalist who said, “I’m on the way to write an article about Google facing a rising tide of discontent concerning privacy and monopoly.” She went on to wonder whether these critics would move to Bing and, at the same time, whether Google would become the next Microsoft with a negative image and government pressure (aren’t those two questions inherently contradictory?).
I wanted to know if it was possible for you to respond to my questions?

I threw out my glass of Bordeaux (it had turned) and poured a nice American cabernet and then responded:

There’s one problem: I do not buy the premise of your story. I’ve seen this story again and again, especially from France. I’m not sure what it is the French have against Google, but it’s some form of national insanity, I think. Most French publishers rejected my book, What Would Google Do?, because they said they wanted a diatribe against Google – that, it appears, is the French reflex. Only after I blogged that did my brave publisher come forward and publish it as La méthode Google.

Do some people complain about Google? Yes, it is often the same people who complain about the internet and about change and technology and simply use Google as their target simply because it is so big and so innovative.

Google is the fastest growing company in the history of the world, according to the Times of London. It is the No. 1 brand for three years running, which means that people not only know but admire it.

So who are these people who you say are part of this “rising tide of discontent” about Google? How do you measure it? How big is the tide?
How big was it? What is its impact? I don’t see it. I see journalists doing this story because they want to.

Google is not a monopoly. It is a competitive company and it took advertising dollars for one simple reason: because advertisers found a better deal there – buying performance, not scarcity, with Google sharing their risk – than they ever found in our old media. It is media companies’ fault that they lost their customers after cheating them for too many years.

Privacy? That is an overused word. The issue is not privacy, as I say in my book. It is control. You should also look at the benefits of publicness, which come when we share things about ourselves and find others like us. If you have problems with privacy then you have problems with every member of Facebook and its clones across the world and the entire generation that made social sites huge.

With all respect, it appears to me that you have already drawn your conclusions and written your story – that there is this “rising tide” you see against Google, that is a “monopoly,” that people are leaving for Bing (introduce me to some, would you?), that it now has a “negative image.”

I don’t see it.

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Last week, I got an email from an Israeli journalist, which said: “These days we are working on an article about Google, focusing on the company’s failures rather than on its well known successes.”

Another reporter decides what to say before doing the reporting. Oh, it’s hardly uncommon. But I decided not to bother with this. I’ve done it too often: arguing with a reporter’s premise and then not appearing in the story because I dared to disagree.

* * *

This week, a Google PR person I met at the Aspen Institute sent me links to a public exchange in editorials in the Seattle Times. It started with an editorial lambasting Google, using Italian newspapers complaints as its peg: “Google is a wonderful thing. It is also a dangerous thing, as it keeps demonstrating in its quietly rapacious way.”

But they got their facts wrong. They said that if a paper didn’t want to be in Google News, it couldn’t be in search. All they had to do was a little research – otherwise known as reporting or fact-checking – to find out that was false. They also suggested that the government should go after Google under the Sherman Antitrust Act. A Google attorney sent a response explaining the law and business to them:

Your Aug. 30 editorial ["Rapacious? Google it," Opinion] seems to misunderstand both competition law and how Google News works.

Under the antitrust laws, there’s no problem with a company becoming successful, so long as it earns it fair and square. The problem is when companies act illegally to maintain their market position — by foreclosing competition or making it difficult for users to switch. No one has seriously suggested that Google’s success is due to anything other than hard work and constant improvement.

Your editorial also wrongly suggests that news organizations can’t withdraw their content from Google News without also removing it from all Google searches. That’s false. Publishers are in complete control over where and whether their content appears.

News organizations can use a universally honored technical standard called “robots.txt” to block their content from being indexed by Google and other search engines. And if they want to be removed only from Google News, they can just tell us directly, and we’ll remove them.

Still, of more than 25,000 news sources, only a handful have chosen to be removed. Why? Because Google News sends news organizations more than a billion clicks each month, which they can use to win loyal readers and generate more advertising revenue.

The Times wasn’t at all embarrassed about being so wrong and came back against Google again. Just because they wanted to. Just because they felt like it. Just because they need an enemy to blame for their own failing business.

* * *

Google is far from perfect. It ain’t God. In my book, I complained about its opaqueness while demanding transparency from the rest of us and about its policies in China. There’s plenty to criticize.

But these media people are going after Google’s success for no good reason other than their own jealousy. It’s not just that they dislike the competition – and they do, for it is a new experience for too many of them. If they were smart, they’d use Google to get more audience and make more money but they don’t know how to (or rather, they’d prefer not to change). No, the problem is that Google represents change and a new world they’ve refused to understand.

What should Google do?

I’m not sure but I’d start by using Google’s platform to enable the new ecosystem of news, the entrepreneurs who will build the future of journalism – and that could include the incumbents, if they have any sense. That framework could include promotion (via GoogleNews and more), revenue (via Google advertising), technology (publishing, content, and measurement tools), consultation and education (on maximizing attention, on using new tools), and R&D (Google Wave for news, the hyperpersonal news stream….).

Google should position itself as the friend of news and then maybe it won’t matter if it is newspapers’ friend; they’ll just come off as the whiners they are.

Can Health Care Blogs Fill the Gap Left by Mainstream News Coverage?

Paul Testa recently checked his voicemail and listened to a message from a hospice worker who lives in a conservative district of Ohio. He'd never met or spoken to this person before, but the worker reached out because Testa seemed like the right person to receive some important, inside information about the health care system.

Testa doesn't work for a health department, nor is he an investigative reporter. He and Joanne Kenen write the New Health Dialogue Blog for the New America Foundation, a think tank.

"I think part of it, with the blogs, is that there is a much more targeted audience," he told me. "You have people who come in expecting health policy coverage, so you expect a certain level of knowledge that [is different] than you would get if you were dealing with broader print journalism with a focus on the kind of eye grabbing protests, rather than the policy coverage."

In August, the Kaiser Health Tracking Poll found that 53 percent of the public "believes that tackling health reform is more important than ever," a decline of almost 10 percent from the year before. Some have suggested that anti-health care reform advertisements and the media's fixation on town hall events played a major factor in this erosion. In fact, one survey found that the majority of recent mainstream news coverage of health care reform focused solely on the politics and protests of the debate, rather than specific policy. A survey from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found that more than 70 percent of respondents thought that media had done either a poor or "only fair" job of explaining the current proposals making their way through Congress.

Moving from the sidelines to the blogosphere

Back in the 90s, the last time the Democrats tried to push through health reform, health care professionals were forced to wait on the sidelines, or until a traditional news reporter called them for a quote. But during this current round of debate, many of them are running popular and vibrant blogs that dive deep into policy issues. The question is how much impact are they having on the national discourse, and is their coverage cutting through the horse race politics dominating cable news shows?

jane.jpgJane Sarasohn-Kahn is a health economist and has been a health care consultant to the industry for over 20 years. She launched her blog, Health Populi, almost two years ago. Thanks to increased interest in the health care debate, she now receives as many as 2,000 unique visitors a day. Sarasohn-Kahn focuses on health economics, policy, and technology; over the last decade, she has examined the role the Web in playing in helping patients take control of their own health care.

"My goal is to cover one data point every day that comes across my news stream through foundations, research papers, whatever," she told me during a phone interview. "I read everything in health and health care, because my range is broad, and my umbrella is broad. I decide either the night before or early -- like 5:30 in the morning -- 'what do I want my readers to know about today?' And I create a PowerPoint, a chart, or excerpt something ... I present the point, fair and balanced right up front, and then at the bottom I drive home the 'hot points,' which is through my lens as a health economist."

Like all the bloggers I interviewed for this piece, Sarasohn-Kahn agreed that health blogs offer more in-depth, thoughtful analysis than your typical cable news outlet. But she said there is still some "heavy lifting" to be done by the readers themselves.

"The fact of the matter is that most people blog to state their opinions up front, which is fine," she said. "What I think is really useful about the blogs is that all of us try to do what I do -- know a lot about a little piece of health care. So when you want to know how unemployment morphs to uninsurance, you go to my blog. And when you really want to get into some high powered wonkiness, you'll go to Matthew Holt's blog. If you want to know about health privacy, you better turn to Bob Coffield's Health Care Law Blog, because that's his schtick. We all have our specialties and our niches."

Getitng beyond horse race coverage

Testa and Kenen of the New Health Dialogue Blog told me that health care coverage in the blogosphere is mixed, and that the range of blogs makes it easy for readers to only coalesce around blogs that promote their own particular point of view.

"I think it's mixed," Kenen said. "I think some of the blogs also do horse race and politics, and some are worse than the mainstream press because some of them are people who have never reported or worked in Washington. And some of the health care blogs are doing the same thing that the press is doing, and not necessarily as well. And to be fair, some of the reporters are not just doing horse race. Some of the reporters are doing very high quality work on what is our health care system, and getting beyond the town halls and politics."

Despite all this, she said that "the health care blogosphere does fill a gap."

"Health care is extremely complicated," Kenen said. "It's very technical and there is an amazing number of interconnected pieces. We try to be a bridge between the public and the wonk stuff. We're a think tank that blogs, we're not a think tank that's writing impenetrable economic analysis. We try to communicate policy in a political context. We're not grenade throwers. We don't think people come to us to watch us rant. We think people come to us to have things explained."

I asked Testa about the more shallow coverage of town hall events and whether this makes it difficult for Americans to understand what's in the proposals making their way through Congress.

"Being able to say what's in the bill is kind of important," he said. "Town halls are car wrecks and you can't take your eyes off of them. But the people who care about the policy and the issues, at the end of the day they've still got these unresolved questions and so we sort of tackle that. Issues like, 'well how do we cover all Americans?' What's important is that the conversation continues on even while there are all these political fireworks."

Who's winning the information war?

money driven medicine.jpgMaggie Mahar spent years as an economics reporter writing for news outlets like Barron's before she got a chance to write a book on health care, "Money-Driven Medicine." It aimed to tell "the real reason health care costs so much." The book was published in 2006, and she said it didn't get much traction because there wasn't a meaningful push for health reform at the time. The book was recently made into a documentary and the current debate has helped it receive favorable news coverage. In 2007, she received a call from the Century Foundation asking her to become a health care fellow. Not long after accepting the position, she began a blog, Healthbeatblog.org.

"At Barron's I had always written these relatively long, researched stories, and here I decided to write relatively long researched posts," Mahar told me. "I started to attract a real audience. The people who read it are quite knowledgeable, and they'll sometimes argue with each other. I comment too, and they'll just keep the discussion going, like a graduate seminar. I love that about it. But I will say that I'm not reaching the people out there who read the New York Times and know very little about health care, and I'm not being told much by the New York Times, and that drives me nuts."

Many of the health care bloggers I spoke to said they receive calls from reporters asking for quotes on health care reform, which indicates that their blogs are acting as gateways for wider coverage. Mahar was recently asked to join a health care panel at the Washington Post, and every week she fields questions on the issue from Post readers.

I pointed out recent polls show that support for health care reform is waning and asked whether this meant that health care reform opponents were winning the information war. Given that Mahar is pro health care reform, does that mean blogs like hers are failing to insert themselves into the dialog?

"It's easy to scare people about health care," she said. "It's very personal and people feel very vulnerable. If you tell them that they might not get as much as they've gotten in the past, they get very uptight. And we're also a nation that's terrified of death. You add all that together and it's incredibly hard to combat misinformation. We're not good at discussing ideas, we don't talk about ideas. We talk about personalities and politics, and that hurts. Because this is a very complicated subject and you have to dig in and contemplate the issue to understand it, and so much of it is counterintuitive."

Simon Owens is a social media consultant and an associate editor for MediaShift. You can read more of his writing at his blog or contact him at simon[.]bloggasm [at] gmail.com.

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