Google’s Mayer on how to write online news

May 7, 2009

Just about everyone has thrown a thought or two by now into the great bubbling pot of stew that is the future of journalism. Latest in line is Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice president of search products and user experience.Mayer, one of Google’s earliest employees who gets reams of newsprint in Silicon Valley for her cupcake spreadsheets and love of Oscar de la Renta, spoke before a Senate subcommittee on a future of journalism hearing on Wednesday.Apart from defending Google, which has come under attack from the news industry — most notably the Associated Press — for profiting from content, Mayer gave some tips on how journalists should write their stories.Mayer talked about something she called the “atomic unit of consumption” — a news article rather than an entire newspaper, much like one song downloaded digitally instead of buying an entire album. Here’s an excerpt from her prepared testimony:

The atomic unit of consumption for existing media is almost always disrupted by emerging media. For example, digital music caused consumers to think about their purchases as individual songs rather than as full albums. Digital and on-demand video has caused people to view variable-length clips when it is convenient for them, rather than fixed-length programs on a fixed broadcast schedule.Similarly, the structure of the Web has caused the atomic unit of consumption for news to migrate from the full newspaper to the individual article. As with music and video, many people still consume physical newspapers in their original full-length format. But with online news, a reader is much more likely to arrive at a single article. While these individual articles could be accessed from a newspaper’s homepage, readers often click directly to a particular article via a search engine or another Website.

Mayer then went on to suggest that reporters and editors need to think differently about how they write for online:

Treating the article as the atomic unit of consumption online has several powerful consequences. When producing an article for online news, the publisher must assume that a reader may be viewing this article on its own, independent of the rest of the publication.To make an article effective in a standalone setting requires providing sufficient context for first-time readers, while clearly calling out the latest information for those following a story over time. It also requires a different approach to monetization: each individual article should be self-sustaining. These types of changes will require innovation and experimentation in how news is delivered online, and how advertising can support it.

So wait, now the big bad wolf is counseling Little Red Riding Hood before gobbling her up for dinner? Maybe Google and news publishers can be friends… or at least frenemies. Read Mayer’s full testimony here.Keep an eye on:

  • Online video site Hulu signs its first international TV content deals. (Financial Times)
  • Former CNBC host lands at MSNBC. (Associated Press)
  • Hear it once and for all: Twitter is not for sale. (Reuters)

(Photo: Actress Brooke Shields portrays Little Red Riding Hood at a charity fundraiser/Reuters)

One comment

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The future of media will not be anything that looks like the current structures…A lesson worth remembering is that at the turn of the 20th century, people had a transportation problem…and the solution turned out not to be a “faster horse”…but a Ford.And one should note that the Ford didn’t arise out of the “horse industry’s” R&D efforts, nor the “Horse Industry Revitalization Act” nor the horse industry’s attempts to experiment with new Business Models.I think the future of the media business will look as different as Ford and Toyota’s operations look from horse traders and blacksmiths.——What’s historically given value to editorial content is the relative scarcity of distribution versus readers (not the Kindle kind). Newspapers have historically enjoyed natural localized economic monopolies that allowed each of them to exercise monopoly control over the amount of content (and advertising) they allowed into their local marketplace.Monopoly constraint of distribution and supply will always lead to prices (and profits) significantly above open market rates. Newspapers then built costly organizational structures commensurate with that stream of monopoly profits (think AT&T in the 1970′s).Unfortunately the Internet came along and changed all the rules!——The dynamics of content replication and distribution on the Internet destroys this artificial constraint of distribution and re-aligns advertising (and subscription) prices back down to competitive open market rates. The often heard complaint of Internet ad rates being “too low” is inverted…the real issue is that traditional ad rates have been artificially boosted for enough decades for participants to assume this represents the long-term norm.An individual reader now has access to essentially an infinite amount of content on any given topic or story. All those silos of isolated editorial content have been dumped into the giant Internet bucket. Once there, any given piece of content can be infinitely replicated and re-distributed to thousands of sites at zero marginal costs. This breaks the back of old media’s monopoly control of distribution and supply.To paraphrase Nietzsche, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him with the Internet…”——The core problem for the newspapers is that in a world of infinite supply, the ability to monetize the value in any piece of editorial content will be driven to zero…infinite supply pushes price levels to zero!What this implies is that no one can marshal enough market power to monetize the value of content in the face of such an infinite supply and such massively fragmented distribution. Pay-walls, lawsuits and ill conceived legislation won’t allow the monopoly conditions to be re-constructed because only ONE VERSION each story has to leak out to start the cycle all over again.——Another way to think about this is that once data becomes publicly visible on the Internet, its monetizable value rapidly dissipates to zero.This is at the core of why Google can extract $25B a year from the economy without creating ANY content…what they create is meta-data about content (which CAN be monetized)…and all that meta-data remains non-visible. Only the results of decisions based on that meta-data by their search and advertising platforms is made publicly visible.The lesson is that Google DOES NOT monetize other people’s content…it monetizes its OWN meta-data. This is certainly one path to making the news profitable…not search per se…but various other approaches to the monetization of meta-data that’s within the reach of publishers.So the exquisite irony is this:In the future, the only content that will have monetizable value is content that no one is ever allowed to read! (i.e. the meta-data)——There are certainly ways to make online news profitable…and many of us are working to develop such approaches…but I can assure you they don’t involve inventing a “faster horse”…Dale Harrisondale.harrison@inforda.com

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