My suggestion for the Google-newspaper discussion (and a way I’d support a paywall)

Talking about the relationship between Google and newspapers is hardly an original topic. The Google-newspaper discussion tends to fall into two distinct categories.

Category 1: A shouting match between old printies screaming how Google’s aggregation is destroying the bottom line as they clutch their Underwoods while Google folks say, “No, no, we want to help you” while writing code for world domination.

Category 2: Random people offering their thoughts on how Google should go about helping newspapers transform their business model since they claim they want to do exactly that.

This post will solidly fit into Category 2. But I bring it up because I feel my suggestion covers something that has been under-discussed in the conversations of newspapers developing digital revenue. In fact, what I’m talking about is the situation where I, Mr. No Paywall of Northern California himself, would support newspaper content only being available for a cost, but doing so would require the help of a large, technologically adept, media-gathering organization like Google.

For the sake of creativity, we’ll call my idea Project LeadType. It would simply be the largest, most user-friendly news archive system the planet has ever seen.

My theory here is based on one primary belief: The content printed on a news page is an appreciating asset. There’s some value in fresh news, but there’s limitations on it. That’s why it makes sense to make it available for free or near-free to the public and get revenue through advertising.

But older news is tougher to obtain reliably. The older the news, the harder it is to find. Newspapers are a reliable source for historical information, giving them a special value. Really, even more value than when that content was fresh. It’s like wine, getting better and more valuable with age.

Newspapers have robust archives in print and microfilm, either on their sites or, in many cases, local libraries. But their online archives, in comparison, are relatively small. This is where Google comes in.

Google is currently undertaking the Google Books project, which scans book pages, then uses OCR software to allow text searching.

So, the plan is simple: Google uses their resources to scan historical newspaper archives. Large papers, small papers, everything in-between, use this to create a massive online database that is paywalled at a reasonable price, and share that revenue with the publications being searched. There would be options for searching specific publications at a lower cost, or a larger rate that would allow searching across all publications Google has helped archive.

This is being done already though, right? Yes, some larger newspapers have already developed what I’m suggesting, through a company called ProQuest. For example, with ProQuest, the Los Angeles Times has an online archive going back to the 1880s. But there’s three serious flaws with ProQuest’s current system.

First, there’s not enough publications involved. Anything besides a large city metro and you’re screwed. Google is in a better position to drill down to smaller papers in a community.

Second, it’s too expensive to access. One day of access to the Los Angeles Times, with the ability to print off four articles, costs $10.95. Printing off a single article is $3.95. That would drive away a casual viewer. There’s no reason somebody should have to pay $11 for one day of searching an online archive. Google’s skills in this regard would help drive the price down, making it more appealing for the casual researcher.

Third, ProQuest’s search system is too academic in feel. Using it makes me feel like I’m in LexisNexis or Pacer. A search on Google Books feels much more comfortable and laid-back. There’s an appeal in that.

Simply put, Google can do what ProQuest is doing, but better.

Is this the ultimate solution? No. A robust Google-built archive will not provide all the money a digital journalism business would need. But I think, at minimum, it could drive off the need for paywalling fresh content, meaning whatever other monetizing efforts a publication undertakes would be that much more effective. Plus, it would also fill a community need for customers in having an affordable, easily accessible historical archive. The simpler something is made to use, the more likely people will use it.

That’s my contribution to the Google talk. Where’s the wine list?

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