Knocking on Google’s Door

 

This past week we were fortunate enough to speak with a representative of Google News.  Chris Gaither is senior manager in the corporate communications department of that company.  In his current position, Gaither is responsible for helping to innovate Google News and book search.

Previously to joining Google, Gaither was a reporter for The Los Angeles Times where he covered the technology industry. In an interesting 2009 article for that paper titled, “The Business and Culture of Our Digital Lives”, Gaither commented:

News organizations have accused Google, in lawsuits and in public statements, of making money off their hard work. That view largely overlooks the fact that newspapers receive torrents of Web traffic from people who find their work through Google — but publishers haven’t figured out a way to make those visitors as lucrative as print subscribers. Still, at least Google seemed to be trying to help the newspapers industry find a way out of its increasingly desperate financial state.

But in this economic environment, goodwill isn’t enough reason for Google to keep a program going. Even the world’s most successful Internet company has vowed to be more fiscally responsible, and it has started shutting down services that aren’t successful. Looks like newspapers are on their own again.

Now it seems, Google is picking up where it left off in an effort to help struggling newspapers.

I wanted to get in touch with him in order to secure interviews with members of Google News.  The effort was an attempt to better understand the relationship between Google and various newspaper companies.  After a few e-mail exchanges, Gaither and I set up a phone conference.  In preparation for it, he forwarded an article from The Atlantic Monthly.  The piece was by a reporter named James Fallows titled, “How to Save the News”.  Gaither wrote in parenthesis next to the e-mail link, “(with the caveat that we’re not actually trying to save the news, because we don’t think it needs saving)”.

…Interesting…

The way our conversation played out was also interesting.  I was hoping to hear a bit more about the impressive work being done by the Google News team.  Namely, Krishna Bharat, who founded Google News in 2002, a platform which indexes over 25,000 online news sites and provides a summary for each of them. Bharat created Google News following the September 11th attacks.  It was an effort to keep readers, across the world, informed with the latest headlines from their local outlets, but also with news agencies worldwide with a type of blanket coverage.

As any writer, director or designer does, I pitched him on the project.  I informed him what it was about, how we were approaching things and where we look to showcase it.  According to Gaither, Google doesn’t normally “roll out the red carpet” for projects such as ours.  At that moment I wanted to interrupt and remind him, ‘bums like us don’t ever wanna a red carpet’. But I didn’t.  Instead he continued by asking who else we had interviewed thus far.  I told him about our interviews with Robert Kaiser of The Washington Post, Tim Arango of The New York Times, and a few others.  “Who is talking about Google?”, he asked.  I didn’t really know how to respond.  Though I knew what he was asking, I really didn’t want to start a ‘he said, she said’ rant about what people thought about Google.  Ironically, here I am blogging in a ‘he said, she said’ vein.  The difference being, the “Fit to Print” blog serves not so much as a news site, but a filmmaker’s diary.  An open platform to write about the successes, frustrations and failures which every filmmaker faces while in the middle of a project.

I provided Gaither with a few names of people who had talked about Google in our interviews (and there have been many).  A few of our contacts on Google thus far have been John Battelle, co-founder of Wired Magazine, and Ken Auletta of The New Yorker.  Both Battelle and Auletta have written amazing books on Google’s impact on the news industry in the past two years. Batelle’s “The Search” and Auletta’s “Googled: The End of the World As We Know It”, are strong reminders of why Google and Google News need to be examined with greater depth and clarity by those who put their trust in it.   Google, as the company recently announced, is no longer just a search engine.  Google is now a media company. They have transformed into what Auletta has called, “Googzilla”. Because of this, there needs to exist an even stronger transparency between Google and the public.  As well as room for independent writers, journalists, and filmmakers who can approach them to ask: “do you still think of the company as not being evil?”

Will the contacts I gave Gaither be sufficient enough for Google’s PR team to allow us to ask some simple questions about their news division?  In my personal opinion, Google is treated unfairly when it comes to most discussions on the death of the newspaper.  People often forget that greed was what ultimately killed the newspaper industry, not technology.

Nevertheless, I came away from our phone chat with the sense that Google executives aren’t big movie buffs.  “We try to move beyond the belief in the traditional model for all media, films and documentaries like yours”, mentioned Gaither.

What’s wrong with the model for films? Are 1-2 minute YouTube clips good enough for these guys and gals?   Maybe.  After all, they do own the video site, which, for all of it’s charm, rarely provides feature-length video content (save for movies uploaded against the wishes of Hollywood executives). Is the world ready for shorter films as the norm?  Can cinephiles really be satisfied with films being shortened at the rate news articles are being clipped these days? I wouldn’t put it past Google, or guys like Gaither in imagining so.

Gaither ended the conversation by saying that he would have to talk to some people and get back with me.

…Okay…we look forward to it!

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