Can Google save newspapers?

By Ian Paul, PC World

Your favorite newspapers may soon be charging for online content with help from an unlikely source: Google. The search giant, which has been repeatedly blamed for the slow demise of print media, is developing a micropayment system based on Google Checkout that could help newspaper sites charge for small pieces of content. Google submitted its micropayment concept to the Newspaper Association of America in response to a recent request for proposals.

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Google might save newspapers?

Micropayments are nothing new, and the idea has been tried before as a way to fill newspaper coffers -- mostly by selling daily electronic editions through services like Newsstand.com. The problem is, no one really knows if charging for one or more articles at a time will work, since readers may balk at paying for online content they are used to getting for free.

But the idea that Google could end up helping the newspaper industry bring in revenue is a little ironic. Newspaper executives have made a habit of saying that services like Google News -- which displays headlines and a short excerpt from every article it indexes -- keep readers away from newspaper sites, thereby depriving newspapers of possible advertising revenue. The newspaper barons seem to forget that Google delivers thousands of readers to news Web sites every day, and that if a media company really wanted to, it could stop Google from indexing its site.

But there's no question the newspaper industry is in trouble, and the current online information ecosystem will have to change if daily news outlets are going to survive. Earlier this year, newspapers like the Christian Science Monitor and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer decided to save money by cutting their print editions altogether and becoming online-only news outlets. Then last month, in the face of dwindling profits, News Corp chairman Rupert Murdoch said all of his company's newspaper properties -- which include The Wall Street Journal and the New York Post -- would charge for at least some online content by next year.

Financial stability, is there an app for that?

It looks like the world is going to have to get used to paying for news again, but is collecting small payments online the answer? What about the growing popularity of mobile applications or even desktop apps? Right now in the iTunes Store, for example, there are news apps from NPR, The New York Times, USA Today, Time Magazine, the Associated Press, and The Wall Street Journal to name just a few. Most of these applications offer content for free, but some, like The Wall Street Journal, charge for access to special articles.

Instead of charging money to read news on the Web, which hasn't really worked in the past, why not use applications to charge for premium content like previews of Sunday features or exclusive news items? The New York Times is already experimenting with a fee-based application on the desktop called Times Reader, an Adobe Air-based program. Unlike a Web site, Reader does a great job of providing an authentic newspaper reading experience with a text size and layout closer to what you see on the printed page. Some content on Reader is available for free, but to unlock the application's full capabilities you have to pay a monthly subscription of $14.95.

If the Times can get readers to pay for an application that delivers news in a more readable format, why not charge a fee for timely news updates delivered straight to your phone? Of course, like Times Reader, there would have to be a mix of free and paid content. But in the future, applications on your mobile device or PC may have a better chance of impacting a newspaper's bottom line than an attempt to resurrect the Website pay wall.

Connect with Ian Paul on Twitter (@ianpaul).

Reprinted with permission from

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