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Google Is A Card Catalog

March 25, 2010

I was listening to NPR this morning, and something happened that very rarely happens when I listen to NPR: I found myself thinking, “this is one of the stupidest conversations I have ever heard.” It’s not that the people talking weren’t interesting and intelligent, they were. It’s that, at least in my opinion, they were ALL missing the point entirely. They were discussing Google, and how Google has fundamentally changed the nature of credibility, research and they way we consume information.

The part that irked me was that several “experts” were saying that Google is going to make it necessary to create new roles and business models around information. That there was going to be a need for a new breed of people who are “curators” for information, as well as a rise of credible people who consume, digest and provide an understanding of information that people can easily access and use.

Well, I have news for you. We already have that. Those curators? We call them editors. And the people who consume, digest and “report” information back to us? They’re called journalists. And Google? That’s a card-catalog. Not so new-fangled after all. Google does not provide information, it provides links to information.

Everyone was in something of a sanctimonious snick, having identified the problem of too much information from sources that are not vetted and authoritative. Suggesting that it is overwhelming the research process, diluting the information pool and confusing the hell out of us. The signal to noise ratio is totally out of whack, and people are mistaking LOUDNESS for AUTHORITY. No doubt.

It is ironic to me that, as this is happening, people are predicting – and in some cases calling for – the death of traditional media. Newspapers and magazines are dying daily, and it’s just now occurring to us that maybe shooting the messenger was a bad idea.

There are a lot of reasons why editors and journalists are needed. Where they ply their craft is much less relevant than how. Indeed, as traditional media “dies,” we need to look very closely at what we are getting rid of, why, and how it impacts us.

From a purely business perspective, if you look at the enormous costs of publishing a newspaper or magazine, you can see that it’s a tough business to sustain. The business equation is simple – you have to provide compelling enough information in an entertaining enough fashion that lots of people will read it. Then you have to sell access to those people to advertisers who want to reach them. You have to sell that access for more than it costs to create the information. Your hard costs are writers, designers, editors, paper, ink, shipping, facilities etc…..

Web-based media outlets have exactly the same goal – attract eyeballs that can be sold to advertisers. However, they have much larger reach and much lower costs (what with no paper, ink, shipping… ) As a result, they can sell many more eyeballs to advertisers for much less money – so it at least appears to be a better deal for advertisers.

You with me so far? You can see how the internet pretty much screwed the traditional publishing industry. Personally, I think that’s fine – good even. At least I thought it would be.

As a business person, I (erroneously) assumed that traditional media outlets would cut costs in a logical way. That is, trim away anything that was not core to their offerings. News – created by journalists and editors – was core to their offering. So I figured they’d cut things like paper, ink, shipping and big corporate offices. After all, news can be created and delivered to consumers without those things. You know, using the internet.

But they didn’t. They cut writers and editors, and kept the paper, ink, shipping and corporate offices. I’m sorry, but that was just stupid.

So here we are. Any idiot with an Internet connection can put up a blog, and offer you his or her opinion on everything from curing cancer to over-throwing the government. And because it is presented to us in the manner in which we are accustomed to receiving information – written by someone we don’t know, published in a public forum and delivered to us – we started confusing opinion for information. And, low and behold, information was not only democratized, it was lowest-common-denominatorized.

But, thanks to ad networks that allow bloggers to make money based on traffic to their site, it’s working. Some of these sites are getting lots of traffic, the bloggers are getting revenue, advertisers are getting eyeballs on their ads, and everyone’s happy. It’s a self-contained eco-system of self-agrandizing opinions. Or, as us thinky types like to say, “sound and fury signifying nothing.” Good information can be more expensive. Some idiot’s opinion is free. (You get what you pay for, by the way.)

And it’s a problem. So big a problem that people are writing books about it, and spending an hour on NPR discussing the need for curators and people who can cull the information into salient stories. You know, editors and journalists.

Somewhere in the logic of “traffic = success” there is a huge phallus. I mean fallacy. And I’ve been waiting for people to figure this out. I think we may be coming to the point now, which is great.

One of the primary advantages that traditional media outlets have always had in terms of advertising is a real relationship with their readers. The kind of trust and brand loyalty that adds value to an advertisement. Think of it this way. If some stranger on a street corner tells you that you MUST use this new tooth-whitener, you probably wouldn’t open wide and stick it in your mouth. But if your good friend did, you probably would. Now, imagine that stranger on the street corner as someone who looked like you, looked clean and smart and respectable – that would increase the odds that you would pay attention. Now picture that stranger on the street corner as a cracked-out whore – that would decrease the odds that you would pay attention.

Here’s the big phallus in the room. (I mean fallacy.) If traffic mattered more than content, then all the big brands – autos, household cleaners, tooth whiteners – would advertise on porn sites. They don’t. They don’t because it is not right for their brand. They don’t want some cracked out whore to be their “pitch man.”

However, advertisers and consumers alike got a little hooked on the crack that is infotainment mainlined via the internet. It’s a cheap fix. But, as pointed out in this conversation on NPR, it’s not information, and we’re starting to realize that we miss that. We may even need it.

To me, it seems a lot like the internet information version of the Fast Food conundrum. Despite the glorious promise of fast food and food that never rots, we are now realizing that if we fill our bodies with fat and nasty food, we become fat and nasty people. So it goes with information. If we fill our brains with ignorant drivel, we become ignorant. And that’s not working for us anymore. We’re waking up and realizing that we need better content. We need someone to help us find it.

We need editors and journalists. Turns out, we need traditional media. What we don’t need is paper, ink, shipping and corporate offices.

I was pretty thrilled with the conversation, actually. Because it signaled to me an awakening that I’ve been waiting for. It is bad business to use resources that create waste and pollution to deliver a product that doesn’t mandate that waste – and isn’t necessary. (Something like 70% of magazines that are printed of straight into landfills.) It is also bad business to neglect your core offering in favor of expensive red herrings. And to fail to evolve as markets change.

I’m looking forward to a resurgence of news and information that has been written by writers who are paid, and run through editors who know what they’re doing. I’m looking forward to the ad dollars following intellect and engagement rather than cheap eyeballs and rhetoric. And I think it’s coming. When the world is a chaotic mess, brand matters more than ever. When everyone is a hooker handing out pamphlets on street corners, the few trusted sources will be worth more than ever before. To consumers, and to advertisers.

I don’t know in what form it’s coming. Digital magazines? Maybe. More robust web sites with news teams that function just like the newspapers and magazines we’ve loved for years, but without environmental waste? Maybe. Even if it’s just a well-earned cynicism and hard-fought critical eye so that we can tell the crap when we see it – and reward the real stuff with loyalty and ad dollars. I’m ready. Bring on these newfangled business models – what were they again? Editors and journalists? They sound so cool, yet oddly familiar.

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