Let’s kill quality journalism first
There used to be a time, when as journalists, we often used to stare at the big, ugly antediluvian CRT screens of our desktop computers for hours at end. Typing words, erasing them, sometimes in parts, sometimes the whole bunch, and went on about this weirdly joyful act for hours at end. In an ideal world, it should have been frustrating, to write such painstakingly thought out long paragraphs, and then wiping them clean altogether in pursuit of some creative fulfillment. It was frustrating, sometimes. It was still an ideal, desirable world, not because it was frustrating, but because when we eventually found our direction, it triggered a deluge of dopamine.
This ordeal to unlock the floodgates of pleasure is often termed ‘the writer’s block’. We used to love it. We felt proud of this inability to consistently write something exceptional without having tried at least half a dozen different approaches. We were in the business of wordcraft. Creativity. That of creating literal beauty. We celebrated every moment of this cerebral process of ornamenting a simple expression in delightfully imaginative ways, to adorn the bare body of a fact with literal jewels.
It was all very satisfying, not just to us as writers, but to our readers as well, who savoured the sumptuous delicacies that we dished out painstakingly. This required simmering our ideas in a thinking pan for hours on a sim flame, to spice them daintily with love, care, and infusing the preparation with the all-important secret sauce of patience. The readers, too, were more connoisseurs than consumers, used to a certain quality of writing, one which took time, was delectable with a generous garnishing of humour, wit and originality. The writers put in time to create essays which had their style stamped all over them.
These were well researched stories, which took time, resource, field work, great photography to go with them and a certain degree of creative writing talent to put it all together. Journalism wasn’t a mindless compilation of readily available facts, assembled flippantly, amounting essentially to breaking down a specification sheet or data table into sentences, loosely bound together as paragraphs, which in turn were loosely bound together as an article. Until, slowly, it became just that.
Handing over the task of grading quality writing to computer algorithms essentially meant that there wasn’t much breathing space left for creativity. Cram your title with keywords, add the same keywords twice in the first paragraph, add other search keywords hither and thither, follow a few other (ever-changing) guidelines the all-knowing sage namely Google had ordered you to follow, and then pray for all of it to work. Oh, and be fast while you’re at it, leave proof-reading for later, or simply don’t bother about such trivial issues. Try going the good-old, arty, literally correct way, and marred by a lack of the all-important relevant keywords, your content would be buried under a pile of good-as-junk ‘stories’ boasting keywords in all the relevant ‘sections’, boosted by, wait for it, keyword-stuffed ‘snippets’ and hyperlinks in all the important sections, as suggested by Google Almighty itself.
Believe it, when Google tells you that its automated bots and their complicated algorithms can evaluate language for all its delicate intricacies, the cleverly crafted hidden meanings of certain sentences and grade it better than any living, breathing mortal. Try arguing, and they’ll tell you they’re user-focused, that they employ leading-edge tech, that they’re ever-changing, ever-evolving, ever-improving, ever learning, that they’re driven by semantics, that their results are getting better by the minute, that getting even better is a process, and that they, in a nutshell, know better than anyone else. Truth is, well-coded, keyword centric garbage would often be found at the top of SERPs. Quality of writing be damned, it’s everything else, including, but not limited to, AMP pages, lazy loading, scripts, image sizes, H tags, Search Console errors, breadcrumbs, and a ton of other technical things that Google deems important that you need to bother more about than the content itself. Everything, from the ideal code for your site, to the typography, formatting, web technologies used, functionality, and every other notable technical parameter should adhere to the broad standards laid out by Google. Content was once King, it bows before code now. The web should be simple. For Google.
Building a monopoly
Google’s first breakthrough was that it came across as a really capable, user-friendly search engine. Not that Yahoo, AltaVista and Lycos did a bad job, but the Google experience was slightly better, and more clutter-free. Google’s single minded focus on getting more relevant results to the user was instantly met with appreciation and applause. People adopted Google as the search engine of choice. Thereon, Google carried out the clinical job of serving relevant, contextual ads to its users like no one ever had, delivering great value to advertisers. The payouts to publishers for the initial few years weren’t too bad either. This was a relatively new concept, there was a sense of euphoria about it. Google was evolving, fast. Turning the course of the web in its own favour, and at a breakneck speed.
Soon enough, Google had spread its tentacles over every perceivable aspect of the web that mattered. Having started off with search, it had become the leader in email, online advertisement, video content aggregation and news aggregation. The competitors learnt nothing from their failures, and Google went on to conquer new frontiers to strengthen its position. The Chrome browser became an instant hit, as it had Google Search built into it, right out of the box. Having a browser of its own gave Google further control over the gateway to the web, and a tool to understand the behaviour of its users in a more granular manner. As one of the final, and the most significant pieces of the puzzle, Google created a new-age mobile operating system. Soon enough, an overwhelming majority of cellphone users were completely dependent on Android, Google’s mobile OS. It facilitated everything they did on their cellphones, which, in today’s world amounts to everything one ever does. Google was now unstoppable.
Google now knew an awful lot about its users. What they ate, where they went, how much they spent, where they spent it, their likes, dislikes, the money in their banks – every possible information was arguably available to Google now. For shrewd advertisers, it was like having found Kryptonite. Every advertiser looking to reach out to a precisely defined audience for the least amount of money turned in Google’s direction. Publishers didn’t matter any more, Google will find you your man, irrespective of where he was on the Internet, or which publication he was reading. In simple words, for advertisers, by and large, finding their target audience became publisher agnostic. Now no digital publisher, in a broad sense, could afford to break away from Google. Google was the undisputed monarch of the digital advertising kingdom.
The only thing that Google didn’t have though, was content. Though it had that too in a way, as an aggregator on platforms like Youtube and Google News, and of course, its SERPs. Google doesn’t call itself a publisher though, as it doesn’t want to run the more expensive and painstaking business of creating real stories, real news, real journalism, real content. But guess what, it makes a killing just by using the content that publishers make, even as a ton of original content creators plunge into bankruptcy. Oh, and while Google isn’t a publisher, it thinks it’s just fine to publish important information like scores and statistics from various sports, information about trending events, meaty news snippets, key information about general interest topics, information about celebrities, weather forecast, flight schedules, hotel rates and tons of similar information – right on its SERPs.
So Google gets to show all this information without taking the responsibility or pain of being a publisher. This, by the way, is Information which various businesses and publications were banking on to draw visitors to their site, and maybe make some money with. Even when Google gives you credit for the info on its SERP, there’s a big-fat snippet displaying all the necessary info so the user doesn’t have to be inconvenienced into leaving the SERPs to the original source of information. Remember, while doing all this, Google the Benevolent is helping you, by getting you more traffic, so don’t you go all moany. Smile. Just grin and bear it, for there’s no other plausible option for you being an online publisher.
Why it hurts
News publishing used to be a profitable business. There was a time when print publications spent serious money on quality reportage, investigative stories, great photography; stuff that cost money. There were titles which sent their crew to the other end of the world to create something special, something beautiful, something extraordinary, something they thought their brand stood for. They had a serious following, of a certain variety of very serious people, and advertisers were ready to pay serious money to target these serious people.
And then, it all went up in smoke. It was suddenly up to Google to rank a story on Chhapri Bevdaas of India bashing up someone over an investigative report on the inefficiencies of the Central Bureau of Investigation for the keyword ‘CBI Nuisance’.
Trouble is, Google is the gateway to find any and everything on the internet. It decides who gets precedence over others. So once you have cheaply produced absurdity, or misleading, keyword-crammed nonsense prevailing over your authentic, painstakingly carried out work, you start losing money. Thereafter, any motivation you’re left with to invest money in high quality, expensive stories to earn profits is a wild goose chase. So while online publications are still having to pay a bomb for creating quality stories, they’re competing with third grade, keyword crammed content riddled with sensationalism and clickbaits. It’s not uncommon to see websites copying complete articles from original sources via feeds and ranking higher in Google’s SERPs. A toddler can read timestamps, Google’s all-knowing, leading-edge tech is still in the process of learning that.
Here’s a little analogy to make it even simpler to understand. A thoroughbred requires a ton of money to acquire, raise, train and race. It’s a spectacle to watch him charge his way to the finish line. He wins races, AND money. He’s the cynosure of an elite audience, an audience with deep pockets. Donkeys or mules, on the other hand, don’t run races. But guess what, they’re equally good for a shitshow. So if owning an Arab will reward you only as much as owning a mule, you’d much rather have the mule and save a fortune. So we now have more donkeys and mules than ever, for we have more shitshows than races.
Another important issue is that of using a publisher’s content for profits without compensating him. Publishers have to pay image repositories, correspondents, editors, web developers, designers, photographers, host servers, CDNs (they’re super expensive, and Google demands their service for higher appearance in SERPs, without any guarantees), for their content. Content is their product – what they hope to make their money out of. Now Google, very conveniently, takes the headline and a meaty snippet, replete with a featured image from this content, and places it in its listing. It doesn’t have to pay anyone for that content. And while it’s listed, it makes a killing on contextual advertising on its SERP pages. So while the content is all generated by the publishers and other businesses, Google takes the Lion’s share of the advertising money.
Another dubious area is about permissions. Google would list your site and use your data for its index anyway. However, if you don’t want that to happen, it’s YOU who has to put a line of code on your website. Shouldn’t the onus be on Google, or any other search engine for that matter, to request you explicitly for permission to list your data, rather than getting to show it to users by default? Why should YOU bother blocking Google? It’s akin to someone from your neighbourhood walking into your house without permission, lounging around, looking into your cupboards, waving all your ware to your neighbours and pedestrians from the balcony and having a few hot cuppas and biscuits from your pantry in the meantime. If you want him out, you are required to go to the police station, file a complaint, and then wait for necessary action to be taken.
Problem is, the enormous content on the internet which should ideally cost money before being listed is available all free to Google – the ‘free’ search engine, and also one of the wealthiest corporations in the world. It doesn’t have to pay a single dime, nor does it have to ask permission to list stuff on its SERP pages. Publishers should be able to decide who uses their information, and for every such business willing to make money out of their content, there should be a fee. Let’s see how well Google fares then, if it has to go around asking permission explicitly from every publisher and business to list them on their SERP pages, being held responsible for every violation. The regulators need to step in, making aggregators like Google responsible to explicitly ask permissions and pay up before listing useful content. The notion of digital content as worthless, freely available product has to be dispelled, or at least re-thought if publishers were to derive any substantial profits from their hard work and investments.
The lack of a formidable rival in search engine, mobile OS, ad network, and everything else that Google has built over the past two decades gives it a free rein. It goes unchecked. Until that changes, online publishers don’t have much of an option.
The problem with display ads
Has any newspaper ever been paid money based exactly on how many people returned a call after looking at the phone number provided in a print advertisement? Has any TV channel been paid money based on how many people flocked to a store for a certain product that was advertised in the middle of a show? Sure, demographics, viewership, popularity, brand value etc play a role in ascertaining the cost of an ad on such traditional mediums as well, however, a media outlet cannot be held responsible if an advertiser doesn’t get an overwhelming response for his advertisement. A lot goes into making an advertisement work – the content itself, the creative, the messaging, audience interest among other factors. A badly made, boring ad would never work, no matter how good the platform it’s published or aired on. Funnily enough, digital publishers are responsible to ensure that enough people click on these ads, as they’re by and large paid on a CPC or cost per click model. It’s measurable, so why not exploit them!
It doesn’t matter if the publisher doesn’t have any control over what ads show on their website, about the quality of the ads’ creatives and content. Also, it doesn’t matter if a reader has seen your ad, and now knows your brand and product by virtue of that. It doesn’t matter that the publisher dedicated some of the most prominently visible areas available on its site for the ad. Unless a user clicks on the ad and goes to the desired page, the publisher has done nothing. It’s ridiculous how this CPC model has become the norm in the world of internet publishing.
Publishers don’t really have any bargaining power. In Google’s wonderful world, everyone’s available for cheap – it’s only a question of who’s less cheap and who’s more cheap. And when you’re getting things that cheap, owing to Google’s dominance over the ecosystem, you’ll hardly ever have the option to sell ads on your online platform at a rate which can shore up the business. So cut costs, degrade your journalism and celebrate mediocrity, for remember, the thing I told you about crossbreds and colts?
Display ads should by default be CPM (pay per view, not click) based, at least for the well-established, reputable publications with a proven track record. Quality publications should get money for these ads commensurate with the costs of running a publishing business. The ad rates online publishers are offered are laughable to say the least. How does an effective RPM, or revenue per 1000 views of 20 cents (for India) sound for an ad unit? Advertisers, thanks to Google, believe that’s fair to publishers. And since it’s more or less the same for donkeys, mules and derby chargers, cat videos and investigative journalism, the future of journalism and online publishing doesn’t look very bright if things don’t change soon enough.
Why it’s more important than ever
Big print publications until recently have mysteriously turned a blind eye to the destruction Google has caused over all these years. Initially, Google seemed to be a friend – it offered more visibility for those who embraced the Internet for publishing and the revenues weren’t too bad either. But it didn’t take long before it turned into the Frakenstein’s Monster. The print industry was, and to an extent, still is somewhat smug about them being ‘different’ from what they call ‘new media’. It doesn’t however take a genius to figure what happens when your audience is getting everything they were earlier paying for, for free. Even as these print publications clung on to their ever thinning revenues through print ads, there are no prizes for guessing who was raking in all the big moolah in the bigger scheme of things. Hundreds of publications including small newspapers, special interest magazines, classifieds and other such publications went out of business as advertisers simply refused to pay traditional, fair, advertising rates, as there was a much cheaper alternative available online.
On the other hand, the online publications weren’t exactly making merry either. The advertisement rates were plunging every passing year even as inflation and cost of creating content kept going up. With all the information about the users now with Google itself, Google didn’t need any publications to target a specific type of audience. Who you were as a media brand didn’t matter. If you didn’t want to run an ad for an advertiser at a certain rate, it would simply be put on another platform, where the user went – the publications with their content, didn’t have much power over Google’s technology.
While the online-only media has always complained about how the low ad rates and the CPC model is unfair to them, print publications, who also have strong online presence haven’t for mysterious reasons yet come out and voiced their concerns about this extremely important matter in a strong enough manner. For the bigger, national and international publications, advertisers are still earmarking some money, though it won’t be long before Google eyes that share as well to quench its insatiable hunger for growth.
The COVID-19 pandemic, however, gave these big, traditional publications a rude shock, as the circulation dried up and advertisers stopped putting out money for the traditional forms of advertising as well. Locked down people were still browsing the internet from their homes, and while the online versions of these publications had a sizable readership, the money they were getting in return was a pittance. So now, dismayed and suddenly empathetic to the plight of online publications, print publications also started coming forward en masse, strongly opposing the practices adopted by Google, arguably taking advantage of its monopoly and putting online publishers at a severe disadvantage.
Google isn’t ready to part with the money though. When told to share the revenues with publishers on the Google News platform in Spain, the tech giant decided to remove the product from the market altogether. The global search, mobile OS and advertisement giant has been slapped a total of $9.3 billion in fines by Europe since 2017 for malpractices. Of these, $1.7 billion is for abusing its dominant position in online search advertising. The EU regulators ordered the company to pay $4.9 billion in Jul 2018 for pushing its apps unfairly on smartphone users, thus putting competitors at a severe disadvantage. This followed another $2.7 billion fine for using its search engine to direct consumers to its own platforms.
That’s not all, the increasing publisher frustration over their inability to pay for their resources and staff, owing to a large chunk of advertisement money being mopped up by Google and its social media equivalent Facebook is finally making regulators and government to interfere in a decisive manner elsewhere too. France and Australia are two markets setting a precedent for other markets to follow and make these tech giants cough up publishers’ fair share. Very recently, France‘s competition authority directed Google to pay news outlets for using snippets of their content on search pages as well as its news aggregation service. Australia is also working on a code of conduct to force Google and Facebook to pay money to news publishers on similar lines.
Long story short, there is a grotesque monopoly, both in search and social media. There are, arguably, despicable, unfair malpractices, and they need to be protested. Funny part is, the media, which is supposed to be the voice of everything that’s unjust and unfair, hasn’t been able to have a strong voice about issues that concern and hurt their own interests the most.
The COVID-19 pandemic has laid bare the inconvenient truth about advertising – publishers, who work the hardest, and provide the most relevant, meaningful content, are being taken for a ride. The real media, the frontline warriors, the reporters, the correspondents, the real men in the battlefield are struggling for their jobs. The tech behemoths, in the meantime are largely unaffected. The right time for publishers to voice their legitimate concerns to these trillion dollar tech businesses, to their governments and regulatory bodies has long gone by. If they don’t show solidarity with their industry now, they won’t exist for long.