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What Will Google’s Newspaper Crusade Mean for Readers?

It’s nice that CEO Eric Schmidt feels Google has a “moral responsibility” to help reinvent the newspaper industry. But how?

Eric Schmidt

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It’s nice that CEO Eric Schmidt feels Google has a “moral responsibility” to help reinvent the newspaper industry. But how?

Hyper-personalization might be the way, according to the Neiman Journalism Lab at Harvard, which pressed Schmidt for answers during the CEO’s visit to Cambridge this week. Last month, Schmidt told Danny Sullivan of SearchEngineLand that Google saw its relationship with newspapers as vital to democracy. He said:

“Google sees itself as trying to make the world a better place. And our values are that more information is positive–transparency. And the historic role of the press was to provide transparency, from Watergate on and so forth. So we really do have a moral responsibility to help solve this problem.”

The Neiman Lab hypothesizes that Google might do so by modifying the way it presents news streams to readers. Several such changes have already taken effect. This summer, Google introduced “Fast Flip”(pictured below) for more fluid online reading; FastCompany.com was one of the first participating publications. Last month Google also added “blog” tags to news sources not affiliated with a large publication, i.e., any blog published on mainstream blogging software like Tumblr or Blogger. Is it a dis? “There is no lack of bloggers and people who publish their opinions and faux editorial writers and people with an opinion. And I think that one of the great things about the Internet is that we can hear them,” said Schmidt in a polite dismissal.

Google Flip

Future changes will run even deeper, Schmidt told the Neiman Lab, and will become increasingly customized for mobile devices (he used the Kindle as one example). Again, users will notice subtle differences in the way their content is served:

“… [T]he majority of the reading will presumably be online not offline, just because of the scale of it. It’ll be highly personalized, right? So you’ll know who the person is. There’ll be a lot of integration of media–so video, voice, what have you. It’ll be advertising-supported and subscription-supported, so you’ll probably have a mixture… So if you start thinking about that, it becomes pretty obvious what the products need to be: more personalized, much deeper, capable of deeper navigation into a subject. Also, show me the differential. Since you know what you told me yesterday, just tell me what changed today. Don’t repeat everything.”

To keep publishers afloat and producing good content, Schmidt said, Google will have to figure out “stronger advertising products,” noting that while print circulation is declining, online readership “has exploded positively.” Whether online ad and subscription revenues will ever be able to meet the high watermark set by print remains to be seen. The battle against the Web culture of free, a culture Google helped popularize, will be challenging for publishers even with so much help from Mountain View.

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About the author

I've written about innovation, design, and technology for Fast Company since 2007. I was the co-founding editor of FastCoLabs

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