Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Google’s Plan to Save Newspapers: Make Them Look Better

newspaperlessGoogle CEO Eric Schmidt has already made it clear that he has no intention of bailing out the New York Times or any other newspaper with the company’s cash.

But! The company does have some free advice about how papers could help themselves. For instance–maybe they should overhaul their Web sites.

That’s what Google (GOOG) exec Jonathan Rosenberg suggests. In a novella-sized blog post–Rosenberg modestly calls it a “treatise”–published earlier this week, the senior vice president ruminates about, well, everything. As I said, it’s really long.

But Rosenberg does spend some time thinking about the ways newspapers can deliver a better online product (thanks to for highlighting):

…the old-fashioned business model of bundled news, where the classifieds basically subsidized a lot of the high-quality reporting on the front page, has been thoroughly disrupted.

This is a problem, but since online journalism is still in its relative infancy it’s one that can be solved (we’re technology optimists, remember?). The experience of consuming news on the web today fails to take full advantage of the power of technology. It doesn’t understand what users want in order to give them what they need. When I go to a site like the New York Times or the San Jose Mercury, it should know what I am interested in and what has changed since my last visit. If I read the story on the US stimulus package only six hours ago, then just show me the updates the reporter has filed since then (and the most interesting responses from readers, bloggers, or other sources). If Thomas Friedman has filed a column since I last checked, tell me that on the front page. Beyond that, present to me a front page rich with interesting content selected by smart editors, customized based on my reading habits (tracked with my permission). Browsing a newspaper is rewarding and serendipitous, and doing it online should be even better. This will not by itself solve the newspapers’ business problems, but our heritage suggests that creating a superior user experience is the best place to start.”

If the Googlers are technology optimists, I’m a business skeptic–I think that the best place for newspapers to start is by cutting costs and generating more revenue. But maybe I’m missing something. Would a better-designed New York Times site make you more likely to, say, pay for a subscription to the New York Times? Let me know.