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May 7, 2009

The Atomic Unit of Online Consumption

There's an intense debate in the US about the future of journalism. Some news organizations say that Google News and other news aggregators need to share revenue with publishers. While Google provides an easy way to opt-out from indexing, news sites need Google's traffic to gain new visitors. "We don't want to pull out of the digital ecosystem. We just simply want a fair compensation for the content that we publish," says Jim Moroney, publisher and chief executive of "The Dallas Morning News".

Newspapers can't figure out how to adapt to the online environment and Google is an easy target. News aggregators and search engines are the new destination for news, since users can choose from a lot of different perspectives. Marissa Mayer, Vice President at Google, found an interesting correlation between news articles, songs and short-form videos in her testimony before the US Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet:
The atomic unit of consumption for existing media is almost always disrupted by emerging media. For example, digital music caused consumers to think about their purchases as individual songs rather than as full albums. Digital and on-demand video has caused people to view variable-length clips when it is convenient for them, rather than fixed-length programs on a fixed broadcast schedule. Similarly, the structure of the Web has caused the atomic unit of consumption for news to migrate from the full newspaper to the individual article. As with music and video, many people still consume physical newspapers in their original full-length format. But with online news, a reader is much more likely to arrive at a single article. While these individual articles could be accessed from a newspaper's homepage, readers often click directly to a particular article via a search engine or another Website.

Changing the basic unit of content consumption is a challenge, but also an opportunity. Treating the article as the atomic unit of consumption online has several powerful consequences. When producing an article for online news, the publisher must assume that a reader may be viewing this article on its own, independent of the rest of the publication. To make an article effective in a standalone setting requires providing sufficient context for first-time readers, while clearly calling out the latest information for those following a story over time. It also requires a different approach to monetization: each individual article should be self-sustaining. These types of changes will require innovation and experimentation in how news is delivered online, and how advertising can support it.

Speaking of innovation and experimentation, Google News has updated the way news clusters are presented and the new design integrates articles, blogs, local sources, images and quotes.

It's not clear whether newspapers will adapted to the changes, but Arianna Huffington, editor-in-chief of The Huffington Post, has a good conclusion: "The future of quality journalism is not dependent on the future of newspapers".

{ via Google Public Policy Blog }


  1. I think they need to make up their mind. They can't expect to have Google get them more readers and pay them as they do it. If they don't want their stories included in Google opt out. To me it sounds like groups like The Dallas Morning News are just greedy wanting their cake and eating it too.

  2. One word: AdSense.

    I think that's one word.


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