Newspapers V the new media.

The decline in newspaper readership is something that is exercising minds in Europe and America in recent times. The whole debate, put in its most simple terms, comes down to this. Can we afford to see our newspapers go out of business? If they do, then who will do the jobs that journalists did so well?

John Naughton’s diary entry yesterday is, I think, rather pertinent.

It’s always agreeable to find idiots talking nonsense. But it’s depressing to find good people doing it. Henry Porter has done great work in defence of liberty in Britain, but he’s written a truly idiotic rant this morning about Google. I was particularly struck by this passage.

One of the chief casualties of the web revolution is the newspaper business, which now finds itself laden with debt (not Google’s fault) and having to give its content free to the search engine in order to survive. Newspapers can of course remove their content but then their own advertising revenues and profiles decline. In effect they are being held captive and tormented by their executioner, who has the gall to insist that the relationship is mutually beneficial. Were newspapers to combine to take on Google they would be almost certainly in breach of competition law.

Then he invokes (who else?) Why, our old friend Thomas Jefferson:

In 1787 Thomas Jefferson wrote: “Were it left to me to decide whether we should have a government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate to prefer the latter.” A moment’s thought must tell us that he is still right: newspapers are the only means of holding local hospitals, schools, councils and the police to account, and on a national level they are absolutely essential for the good functioning of democracy.

Well, up to a point, Lord Porter. I’m be all in favour of newspapers that perform that noble function. The only problem is that 95% of them haven’t performed it for decades, if ever. Mostly they operated by printing as much crap as could fit between the advertisements. When Craigslist took away the ads they were left with only the crap — for which, oddly enough, customers are reluctant to pay.

The annoying thing about Porter’s piece is that there are really good grounds (e.g. these) for being worried about Google. But they have almost nothing to do with its impact on print newspapers, which would have withered of their own accord because of the way the Internet dissolved their value chains. Google is a monopoly that will present the Obama administration with its first serious anti-trust headache. If they thought that General Motors was too big to fail, just imagine what they will face when the time comes to take on Google.

It goes against the grain to applaud anybody who takes a pop at the likes of Henry Porter. After all Porter is by no means a self-serving hack that should be the target of this piece.

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