Of Google, monopolies, menaces and fear-mongering

About a day or so ago, the Guardian ran an opinion piece by Henry Porter in which he goes on a rant accusing the internet of, you know, the usual: how it brings an end to all that’s good, makes slaves of all us and how we all should stick behind good ol’ newspapers to show us the way because, after all, when have they ever let us down? Or words to that effect.

Of course, that’s complete and utter rubbish based on nothing but ignorance and fear. I was thinking of writing this post as a defense of Google, but that has been covered amply by others, noticing how it’s actually very easy to keep Google from indexing and using your content, to how there are other services out there. Instead I’m going to focus on this misconceived idea of newspapers being the embodiment of all that’s good and right, the true bearers of journalistic standards and absolute last word on all the local news that matter.

Newspapers have always been about selling ads, to do this they must have readership, and to attract readers they are no strangers to the use of shock, cheap thrills and misleading headlines. Newspapers have been a major player in politics, pandering to whatever side they find serve their interests better, specially in Britain, or simply bending to the interests of government and advertisers. “If it bleeds, it leads” is a well know principle in newspaper publishing.

There are good examples of journalistic standards in newspapers, but no more or less than there are in blogs, online magazines and other new media. What’s more, the internet has empowered users to read and find out about several sides of a story in a way that newspapers are often unable or unwilling to cover. In local markets it’s almost always the case that only one or two newspapers end up dominating the entire offer. That truly is a monopoly, accountable to no one but the shareholders and advertisers.

The internet and Google have empowered users to find the news they need, the way they need it, instead of being subject to an editor, the limits on a single journalist, or the whims of publishers and advertisers. And I think that’s what really riles Mr Porter, that people no longer have to accept what he or some few initiates in the arcane arts newspaper publishing write. We finally have a real choice of what news we get and where we get them from. Sure, we’ll make mistakes, we’ll get bad news from time to time, but we get bad news now from the traditional channels anyway, at least now they’ll be our mistakes.

I think that people like Mr Porter really fear they will not be able to make the transition from the old way of doing things to the new way of publishing and distribution and will suddenly become irrelevant. He is right in one thing, the internet is an amoral entity, like a force of nature, a forest fire.. Like one it will consume whatever it find on its path. And after it a new forest will grow. Survivors must be quick, resilient and ingenious to survive the passing of the fire and be able to thrive once the ashes have cooled down. However, Google is hardly to blame for this, and wishing for the fire to turn back is an exercise in futility.

I believe that people who are trained journalists have the most to win from this situation. They are supposed to know how to approach a source, how to frame a story, how to write a gripping headline and how to pitch the story. And you know what will make them be better known and better able to sell their work? Google.