Death by Google: What News Must Do to Earn Back its Brand

CARNAGE IN IRAQ, tears over missing teens, stories of lost hope in New Orleans.

Cue the music. Run the graphics package. Lights, camera, action.

We have seen this so much we have come to expect it – the “big” news story arriving with its own jingle and logo. Newspapers do the same with special sections, charts and point-of-purchase ad strips.

President Bush may have coined “War on Terror,” but the news media branded it.

I am not opposed to these tactics in general. In a world of boundless choice, branding is essential. If you want to get the public’s attention, you need to bang the drums and get Wolf Blitzer to report live from the scene, because if Wolf or Anderson Cooper is there the story must be important. Those guys don’t put on the trench coats and get their feet muddy for stories about universal health insurance.

As I’ve said before, journalists today have more “brand value” than media organizations. Sure, people still read the New York Times because it’s the New York Times, but in the post Jayson Blair and Judy Miller era, we read the Times with newly opened eyes. We know the checks and balances that assure one of the strongest brand promises in journalism history are fallible, and that reporters today have much more control and influence that perhaps we once thought.

But does the branding of news go deeper than the journalist? What about the story itself?

Google News, Not “Google’s News”
Go to Google News and search for “Iraq.” You see results from media outlets throughout the world, from China and Australia, from the United Kingdom and the United States. But there are no stories produced  by “Google.”

Now go to Yahoo! News and look at the home page. With the notable exception of correspondent Kevin Sites and his  “HotZone” coverage, the content is predominantly from wire services and newspapers, a homogenous mix of news and opinion virtually unrecognizable from the other.

On the Internet, all news media look the same.

I know there are exceptions to this and I admit to oversimplification to make a point (I used to be a columnist, I can’t help it.) For example, the same Google search on Iraq brings up the “Healing Iraq” blog, an inspired exercise in citizen journalism.

Nevertheless, most of the news online is without character or spirit, much less brand. Google doesn’t display newspaper mastheads or cable TV-style graphics. The consumer is reading Google News, but it’s not Google’s News.

The only thing left to brand – to give a media outlet any identity to the news consumer – is the story itself. The story, therefore, becomes the brand.

Making a Final Stand
The news story is a media organization’s last line of defense, the best path toward preserving a unique identity and voice.

If I go to the Washington Post online, then the Post can open its brand doors and invite me in right away. If I find a Post article via Google I still go to the Washington Post web site, but my first encounter with the Post is from Google – so my relationship now is with Google, not the paper.

The brand becomes more diluted when I read news alerts via RSS; with full-text feeds I never have to visit the Post web site. Then there are e-mail alerts, SMS (text messaging) and other modern conveniences that deliver information and nothing more. News is adrift.

Maybe this is a long-winded way to say that yes, the future of news is all about content – that stories about Iraq, Aruba or Katrina need to stand up without the crutch of multimedia fanfare. Maybe we need to put more stock into what the news is telling us, not who is delivering the message. Maybe we need to demand context and perspective, not jingles or graphics packages.

Maybe newspapers aren’t dying – maybe news is. And maybe it’s not too late to save both.

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