Spring 2010 | Online Exclusives

What Changed Journalism—Forever—Were Engineers

‘Like the other engineer that has succeeded in killing journalism’s economic model—Craigslist’s Craig Newmark—Google’s founders have nothing against journalists, newspapers or our search for truth, justice and the American way.’

By Joel Kaplan

Googled: The End of the World as We Know It
Ken Auletta
Penguin Press. 384 Pages.
For the last several years when I spoke to my former newsroom colleagues as they periodically survived a layoff, a reinvention with fewer resources, or the ever-popular unpaid furlough, I was constantly asked two questions:
  • How do I get a job at a journalism school? (Answer: “Learn how to teach ‘writing for public relations.’ ”)

  • Isn’t this all Google’s fault? (Answer: “Absolutely. Where were all the publishers and bean counters during the late 1990’s when the newspaper and television industries were awash with so much money they were buying interests in all sorts of fun entities like AOL and CareerBuilder? Couldn’t they see Google coming?”)

Certainly it is easy to play Monday morning quarterback as so many news organizations are imploding, the economic model of journalism has deteriorated, and Google stock continues to soar. In fact, I have spent the past few years commiserating with fellow academics and students that Google is something that should have been invented in a journalism school.

As journalism and communications schools have attempted to come to grips with this new media and multiplatform world, the industry for the first time is really looking to these schools to figure out what went wrong, how to fix it, and how to lead the way to a prosperous new beginning. The S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University, like most communications schools, has brought in futurists to help us figure out where our professions are going and the skills our students will need. We are revamping our curriculum and trying all sorts of experimentation with online media. The general conclusion is that journalism schools should be more inventive, more entrepreneurial, and more creative in coming up with the next big thing—something like Google. With all the millions of dollars being spent by foundations from Carnegie to Knight to reinvent journalism, why didn’t journalism schools invent Google or come up with the idea for the next Google?

Yet reading Ken Auletta’s new book, “Googled: The End of the World as We Know It,” has convinced me that journalism schools could never have invented Google. Publishers and news executives could never have foreseen the power and spread of Google. Why? It’s because Google is the product of engineers. Brilliant engineers.

Engineers and Journalism


For as long as I’ve been a journalist and a journalism educator the mantra has always been that journalists need a good liberal arts education to be successful. Even those of our students who wanted to major in journalism were told to become dual majors with something—anything—in arts and sciences. We recommended majors from political science to economics, from sociology to art history. Why? Because a journalist needs to know what to write about as much as he or she needs to know how to write.

Who knew that we should have been telling them to dual major in engineering? Yet what is clear from Auletta’s well-researched book is that Google’s inspiration, motivation and success stems from its engineering culture.

Even now Google’s founders—Larry Page and Sergey Brin—could care less about news judgment, journalism values, or historical context. What they care about is information and content that would be of value to the consumer. To them, as Auletta writes, “Google was a digital Switzerland, a ‘neutral’ search engine that favored no content company and no advertisers. Their search results were ‘objective,’ based on secret algorithms and no one could bribe his way to the top of a search.”

Like the other engineer that has succeeded in killing journalism’s economic model—Craigslist’s Craig Newmark—Google’s founders have nothing against journalists, newspapers or our search for truth, justice and the American way. Here’s how Auletta compares the approach of the two: 
Like Google’s founders, Newmark was an engineer who devised a really cool free service. Drowning newspapers was not Newmark’s intent; creating a more efficient system for consumers was, as it was Google’s. Newmark likens the digital revolution to ‘a tsunami, which when you’re in the ocean is only a foot high but when it hits shore it’s bigger.’ Vastly bigger.
While numerous newspaper and magazine articles and several books have been written about Google and how it has become the dominant search engine and media company in the world, Auletta received unprecedented access to the company and its culture and he has produced an easy read that provides insight and understanding into how the company has revolutionized our industry. Auletta conducted more than 150 interviews with Google executives, including its two founders and CEO Eric Schmidt, who sat for 11 interviews.

The impression one gets from reading this book is that Brin and Page are truly heroic figures. They might not know much about journalism, but they understand ethics:
Page and Brin had definite ideas and were not easily swayed. They ‘thought it was sleazy,’ [Professor Rajeev] Motwani said, to allow Web sites to pay to appear near the top of searches, as other search engines permitted. … To build user trust they wanted … to serve users by getting them off the Google site as quickly as possible and on to their destination.
In fact, the dominant creed throughout the organization was the slogan “Don’t be evil.”

Google, China and Censorship

But Google did have one Achilles’ heel: China. Here’s what Auletta writes about what happened when China blocked some politically sensitive Web searches:
Google’s maneuverings and deals may have made it unpopular with various media companies, but these did not tarnish Google’s image with the public. What happened in China did. In 2002, a Chinese-language version of Google search was launched, and then Google News in 2004. As user traffic mushroomed, the Chinese government found some of the news politically objectionable. China didn’t want users to be able to search news about ‘free Tibet’ or for photos of Tiananmen Square protests. At first, Google refused to engage in any self-censorship. Often, the Chinese government banned Google searches. Senior Google executives believed they had to make a choice between denying Chinese citizens some political searches and denying them all searches. Google decided to comply with Chinese laws, stripped its news results of offending material and eventually, in 2006, created a separate search Web site, Google.cn, on which it would offer politically sanitized searches in China.
This decision was particularly troublesome for Brin, who had escaped from Russia with his family as a child and understood the dangers of a totalitarian government. That is why it was no surprise that earlier this year Google announced that it planned to stop censoring news and information going into China. If the Chinese government objected and kicked Google out, so be it.

Much of the book is an insightful rehash of the history of newspapers over the past decade, the mistakes they made, and the advantage Google took from those mistakes. Google is still considered something of the devil in mainstream news organizations, but this book makes clear that it is long past the time to stop fighting and join Google.

Just recently a Google executive said the company would be happy to work with newspapers if they wanted to institute pay walls for their content. Google could continue to summarize the articles in a sentence or two and link to the site where the pay wall would take effect.

My advice to mainstream news organizations that want to join and become content partners with Google is to hire Al Gore, a senior adviser to Google. The former vice president is an alumnus of The (Nashville) Tennessean. And while he has from time to time been the victim of the news media, I know of no other politician who understands and values the importance of the news media to our democracy. He has Google’s ear and I believe he would make for an honest broker between the world of journalism and the world of Google. That conversation should start right now, before it’s too late.

Here at Newhouse we are hiring professors who understand the intricacies of algorithms, search patterns, social media, and new media business plans. These new faculty members are not only teaching our students, they are teaching the rest of the faculty. So my advice to former colleagues who want to know how to get a job at a journalism school is to go get an engineering degree.

Joel Kaplan, a 1985 Nieman Fellow, is associate dean for professional graduate studies at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University.

No Comments Yet
Submit a Comment
   
   
   
Enter the words above: * Enter the numbers you hear: *
Switch to audio Switch to image
Thank you for your comment. It will be published after it is approved by an editor. Read our comments policy »