Google's Chief Economist Weighs in on the Trouble with Newspapers

3 minute read
Marisa Peacock avatar

It’s fair to say that you can gauge the importance of a problem by those that attempt to solve it. The Manhattan project had Einstein. Newspapers have Google.

To be fair, we’ve been tackling this problem for some time now and many qualified technicians have tried to figure it out. But newspapers, both print and online, are too complex for any one solution.

Recently, Google’s Chief Economist, Hal Varian, weighed in on the topic during a Federal Trade commission (FTC) meeting. (FWIW: The FTC was looking for answers.)

A Warm and Fuzzy History

Google and newspapers go way back. They’ve debated with the Associated Press over access to the AP’s content, created FastFlip in an effort to enhance the digital newspaper interface and brought articles to life with Living Stories thanks to pilots with national newspapers.

Varian is concerned less with revenue and advertising, as he is with the amount of time users have to read the news online. As he sees it:

One of the big challenges facing the news industry is increasing involvement with the news during leisure hours, when readers have more time to look at both news content and ads.

No Time to Read -- What's the Answer?

With the average user looking at online news approximately 70 seconds a day, Varian blames the lack of time on a disproportionate amount of online news reading that occurs during working hours. In other words, who cares if your content is awesome if it takes too long to digest it.

However, I don’t think that Google is suggesting that we dumb down the news. Instead, we need to either create better opportunities for readers to access the news or creative new formats that will allow users to spend more time engaging directly with them.

But Varian’s best advice is neither new nor revolutionary. He says that:

Learning Opportunities

the best thing that newspapers can do now is experiment, experiment, experiment.

Not only does experimenting with different online news models hold the most potential, it also saves money. Varian says:

Roughly 50% of the cost of producing a physical newspaper is in printing and distribution, with only about 15% of total costs being editorial. Newspapers could save a lot of money if the primary access to news was via the internet.

You can watch the full presentation: 


Is Experimentation a Cop-out?

Experimenting may seem like a cop-out solution to something like newspapers, which have played such a massive role in our society for centuries. But experimenting is both ambiguous and specific. It can mean both changing the big picture and tweaking the details.

And coming from Google, the master of ceremonies of online experimentation, such advice isn’t empty. They know that you don’t get things right the first time, or even the second or third time. You need to examine it, poke at it, look at it from different angles.

Analyzing its behaviors will only get you so far; you need to feed your curiosity and see what happens when you turn it on its head or expose it to different elements.

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