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Life and Death in the Google Age

The opinions expressed by columnists are their own and do not necessarily represent the views of

In a previous life Jeff Jarvis was a big-city newspaper editor and TV critic who became the creator and founding editor of Entertainment Weekly magazine. Today Jarvis is best known as the father of, a smart, Internet-loving blog about the dramatic and often damaging affects the digital revolution and new technologies are having on "the old media."

An associate professor and director of the interactive journalism program at the City University of New York's new Graduate School of Journalism, Jarvis has been brutally critical of the newspaper industry for refusing to embrace and adapt its business and journalism models to the Web until it was too late to avoid the severe financial trouble it's in today.

Jarvis recently wrote a book called "What Would Google Do?" (Collins Business) that explains how the business strategies and worldview Google employed to take over the digital world - such as openness, collaboration and trusting and relying on its customers - can benefit other industries and companies. I talked by phone to Jarvis on Thursday, April 16, from New York City.

Q: What does Google do and what's so revolutionary about it?

A: The idea behind the book was not so much to write a book about Google as about the changes in our world - and trying to figure them out by viewing them through the lens of Google's success. I believe the changes in our world are huge and profound right now and we're operating under different rules.

We can see that in Google, for example. Google did not grow to be, according to the Times of London, "the fastest growing company in the world" by trying to buy and own and control everything. Instead they created platforms and networks that enabled others to succeed.

Another example of a new rule is that we operated before in a scarcity economy - where controlling a scarcity was your way to success: I control the press, you don't. I get to say what goes on it. I get to charge you whatever I want to charge you - nah, nah, nah, nah.

That's not Google. Google operates under an abundant economy. They could have had a scarcity with search and charging as much as the market could bear to people who for search for pizza in New York. Instead they charge for performance and they were motivated to put ads everywhere across the Internet. That's another example of a changed rule, so that indicates changes in the world in the Digital Age after the Industrial Age.

Google also shows the way to having a new relationship with the public, your customers. For one thing, Google trusts us. Google respects us. It thinks we're smart. Unlike Yahoo -- which tried to catalogue the whole Web, which when you think about it now is pretty funny -- Google said, "No, the people who are using the Web know what's good and what's relevant. We're going to make a system to listen to that and feed it back." There are other examples too, but I think Google just sees the world differently because it is a different world and it learned how to exploit that.

Q: If there is one thing you could say to try to persuade someone that they need to read your book, what is it?

A: It's that "My kid has to go to college."

Q: Besides that.

A: We're going through something much bigger than a financial crisis and something much more fundamental than a recession or a depression. The world is changing in critical ways and you have to start to understand that and change your worldview and act around that. That's what I try to bring you by understanding Google's success in this new world.

Q: In a way the world is being turned upside down yet again by Google and that sort of bottoms-up, sharing, cooperative, linked world.

Q: Right. Just look at the fact that Google releases betas of all their products. When they do that what they are really saying to the public is this product is unfinished, it's imperfect, help us finish it." That's not the way that companies worked -- or could work -- before. If you spent years tooling your auto factory or hours writing your newspaper story, the myth was that it was perfect - finished. But in the Internet, and especially in how Google's used the Internet, releasing betas is a way to actually be humble and, more importantly, to be collaborative.

Q: And to tap the intelligence of the crowd and the whole world rather than just your in-house experts.

A: Right. To respect the intelligence of the crowd and then you want to try to tap it. I think those are both new.

Q: How has your book been received? I noticed that Publishers Weekly reviewed it and said you were kind of "acerbic" and "condescending" and that you had assembled a bunch of "rants." What's your reaction to that?

A: I'm a blogger.

Q: You can't help yourself?

A: I've got to write in a blogger's voice. Everyone reacts to it differently, but the book was really written through and with the blog. I've been thinking through these ideas over the last two or three years. My readers helped me by arguing with me and correcting me and adding to what I had to say. In one case, the readers even basically wrote a chapter in the book. So it's very much in a blog voice, and I suppose that might have irritated a couple persons.

Q: Newspapers haven't taken kindly to your tack about the new media and what's going to happen to newspapers.

A: Some haven't, but I think that's changing, too. Clearly, I respect journalism greatly. I'm teaching it. I did it for my whole career. I'm teaching it now. I believe in the future of journalism. I'm optimistic about the future of journalism. But more and more, I see newspapers trying -- at the very last minute before the gallows - to throw their Hail Mary passes (sorry for the mixed metaphor there) and trying to save themselves now; meanwhile, they've squandered the last 20 years since the Web really was invented, 15 years since the release of the commercial browser and craigslist and 10 years since the birth of Google and blogs.

There has been plenty of time for newspapers to reinvent themselves for a world past paper - and they didn't. And now at the last minute they are trying to come up with desperation moves like charging for content, or cutting their content off from the world, or trying to get subsidies -- and it's their fault.

But I believe strongly there will be a market demand for quality journalism and information and the market will find a way to meet that demand - in some cases with newspapers that have transformed themselves and in some cases with new entities that replace newspapers.

Q: Do you worry about the future of good journalism from local papers and the electronic media? Is it going to disappear? Is it going to reinvent itself?

A: I don't think it's going to disappear. It's going to reinvent itself and I think it can even improve itself and grow and become more targeted and deeper in the community. But it's going to be very different. I think we bring a lot of assumptions to what journalism is. Journalism came from newspapers and from full-time journalists. And journalism was stories and journalism came out once a day. There are a lot of inherent assumptions that are hard to get passed.

I realized recently that in my mind's eye I naively was thinking there was going to be an orderly transition - it's like Jan. 20th in Washington, the print president would hand off to the digital president and off we'd go. And that's not the case. I realize now that newspapers - especially newspapers that were monopolies and very powerful and very rich -- were not inclined to disrupt themselves. That's why they have waited to the last minute for their Hail Mary passes and that's why many of them are going to die.

Q: Will they be replaced?

A: They are going to be replaced. They're not going to be replaced by some digital equivalent one-for-one. I think what we are going to have are ecosystems of news in communities. Some of it will come from some new form of a newsroom - maybe not in a room, but a news organization. Some of it will come from former paid journalists like you who create new businesses. Some from bloggers who make what they do in journalism into a business. Some from public- and foundation-supported journalism at a small level. What we spend now on investigative journalism is actually very small and it is conceivable to think that it could be supported by a ProPublica or a Huffington Post. I also think we're going to have to demand more transparency of government data and actions to make it all searchable and linkable. And that becomes part of the ecosystem of journalism, with more eyeballs on what government does.

We're going to add all this together. It's an uncertain thing. It hasn't been done. I run a project at the City University of New York and do business models for news just to try to flesh out these business models and figure out where we go. We have to start experimenting with this. We have to start failing and learning and improving, but I believe we will come out the other end with a new structure of journalism in local communities.

Q: How do you describe your politics and have they changed or shifted in the last few years to be more friendly toward markets and maybe limited government.

A: Ah. Interesting. On my "About" page on my blog I try to be obnoxiously transparent. I (reveal) more than you'd ever want to know.. But I'm basically a liberal. I was a big supporter of Hillary Clinton. After she lost, I ended up voting for Barack Obama. But I also started blogging after Sept. 11, because I was at the World Trade Center and that affected my politics, too. I was one of the early -- as were called -- "War Bloggers" and shifted from being an old '60s pacifist to a hawk.

The more interesting question you are asking is about the libertarian stripe. When the blogs came along, I asked myself whether they were essentially left or right. If we believe that mass media was essentially "left" - of the people - and cable TV and talk radio were both essentially kind of "right," at least as executed by Fox News on TV in terms of being able to rant on topics, what was the Internet? In the early days of blogs there was a disproportionate number of libertarian bloggers. At first that made sense to me. I thought, "Oh, OK, the Web is about individual liberty, so maybe the Web is libertarian."

In the end I didn't think that because I think really what the Web does is it enables people to coalesce together no matter what their beliefs and stripes. It cuts across party lines and national boundaries and demographic demarcations and it just enables people to join together. So I don't think the Web is necessarily libertarian but it I think it teaches us a lot about individual liberty and about the freedom to organize ourselves.

Q: As a libertarian, I like everything you say about where this great restructuring is taking us. As I've written down here - "It's going to be free and open and transparent and market-driven and it trusts the individual to do the right thing for himself and society." Am I projecting too much?

A: I think that's all true. But I think that we also have to see after the so-called financial crisis that there is also danger we have to watch out for. I do believe in markets. It actually comes first and foremost when you trust in the taste and intelligence of the people. If you don't essentially trust the people, then you don't believe in democracy or free markets or reform religion or education in journalism, because if the people are all dolts why give them any power or authority? I learned -- believe it or not, as a TV critic -- an essential faith in the taste and intelligence of the people. So I do believe in generally leaving the markets alone and letting us - the people - do what we see best and trust that we are smart as a crowd.

However, witness the banks. Witness the lack of regulation in CBOs (collateralized bond obligations) and such. It did go wacky. I think the answer to that is not more regulation. I think the answer to that, in the Internet view, is more transparency. We have to have a default of transparency in government and business and journalism that we haven't had. I'll have some faith in that and hope that that can fix us. But purely unbridled, unwatched markets - as we've seen lately - have their flaws.

Q: Also as a libertarian, I know that government always will want to take control of new developments in technology or even prevent the changes they bring. Do you worry about government's future actions?

A: Yeah . the same as I guess I'll worry about anyone in power. That sounds ridiculous; I don't want to say that, either, because I think that we go overboard on this: Going after Microsoft in its day, going after Google now because they've become too big. We love success, we hate success; we love size; we hate size. I think that's dangerous too. I do believe in the notion of checks and balances. I don't think government was doing enough to watch out for us.. It certainly could turn around and do too much, but we need checks. The ability of the Internet, though, is to enable us - the people - to perform checks. The more that this data is out there, the more we can keep our eyes on it.

Q: It sounds like the structural changes you are describing in the news media is the latest chapter of what Joseph Schumpeter called the "gales of creative destruction of capitalism." It's cruel but it's pretty necessary -- and in a relatively free-market economy like ours, it is inevitable -- that change and innovation come along and destroy the old guys and create new winners and losers. Do you see this as a healthy process that we should cheer and embrace or something that is to be feared?

A: Change is inevitable. It is immutable. And the only sane response to it is to seek it out and embrace it and exploit it. That can be painful to those who resist change or who are incapable of changing. But it is inevitable and it is especially inevitable now. I go back to this notion that it is more than a financial crisis and more fundamental than a recession or a depression. There's a brilliant economist in London called Umair Haque who calls it right now "a great compression" - that is to say, perceived value is meeting real value.

I think we are moving from the Industrial Age to what comes next. As we look at newspapers, if newspapers are a canary in the coalmine in this process of change, we see that they refused to change. They tried to protect their past, which is no strategy for the future. A so a lot of them are going to die. We see the same resistance to change in the auto industry and in retail. I think we'll see the same thing come to advertising and universities and all through society.

I don't want to belittle the pain that it can cause to people who lose their jobs and don't have the training to do what's next. That's all true, but you can't really forestall change. My fear in the current bailing out the economy, is that we are bailing out the past rather than the future. We're bailing out industries that are clearly failing and are bound to fail, when we should be investing instead in innovation, education and infrastructure for the future.

I was talking about this at marketing conference and someone in the audience said what you're describing is "dialectical materialism" - and in a sense we are. In a sense we are saying there is an inevitable change. The question is, "Is it just change for change because people messed up and things are changing? Or is it indeed an evolution?" I think it's not the evolution that Marx predicted . It didn't come from government diktat, it came from technology. I think the Internet and technology are leading us to the next evolutionary phase in the economy and society. I think we have no choice but to run to the change. That's why I wrote the book in the end, because I think that Google in its DNA understood the world was changing and saw it in new ways to take advantage of that - and so must we all.

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