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Google to the rescue

Investigative journalism has never been a money-maker for newspapers. It’s good for democracy, it makes newspapers into power brokers, and it occasionally sets the national conversation, but let’s be honest, front-page stories about Tiger Woods’ hook-ups sell way more papers than 6,000-word droners about health-care lobbyists.

Newspapers were able to produce expensive, time-consuming investigative journalism because they had display and classified advertising monopolies in their markets. Now that they no longer have those monopolies and the extra cash that comes with them, subsidies for non-productive content (investigative journalism included) have been cut. As a consequence, journalists are out of work, Democracy is weaker, blah, blah blah, etc.

Or is it?

The uncommented truth of this situation is that having a lock on an advertising market gives one a huge chunk of extra change to play with. Where is that chunk now?

With Google, of course. Google controls something like three-quarters of the U.S. online advertising market. That’s about as good as any single big-city newspaper ever got. Better, because it’s for the whole country.

Of course, Google isn’t spending its extra folding money on investigative journalism, like newspapers did. Instead, it’s spending it on tech innovation, generally by ordering its employees to spend 20% of their work hours tinkering, more specifically by providing the public with awesome free products like Google Docs, YouTube, Gmail, Google Analytics, Blogger, Google Books, Google Translator, you get the idea.

You could argue, therefore, that the economic rent that comes from dominating an ad market is still being used to promote democracy, by making it extremely cheap for millions of individuals to get online and share information themselves.

This is great. Yay democracy. But it’s also putting a lot of people out of work. And I’m too old to go back and learn Python.