Q&A: Google’s David Gehring On Digital Distribution, Building Audience

David Gehring, Google | Courtesy of rjionline.org
David Gehring | Courtesy of rjionline.org

David Gehring wants to develop an economic model to better support the news industry as it becomes increasingly digital. Gehring, who works in business development at Google, is in charge of looking after a small number of major news media companies by coordinating the conversation between them and the various parts of Google that they interact with.

“My job is to basically poke my nose into everyone’s business around Google, which is kind of fun,” Gehring said.

At Mobile First, a conference March 31 and April 1 at the University of Missouri’s Reynolds Journalism Institute, Gehring spoke about his work at Google and how he hopes to help news media leverage the value of their brand online via pay walls, various methods of distribution and enhancing relationships with advertisers. Afterward, Missouri Business Alert sat down with Gehring to talk about the changing world of news media.

Missouri Business Alert: What kinds of companies are you working with?

David Gehring: I’m mostly focused in New York and Los Angeles with the major media companies. Nothing going on in Missouri right now, but that being said, I personally have enjoyed a relationship with MU’s journalism school because I do think this is probably one of the more interesting journalism schools.

MBA: Where do you see the news industry going in general with all these new digital platforms available?

DG: I definitely see an amalgamation of platforms. I think the broadcast and print news industries will disappear one day, and instead there will be a news industry that is distributing content on a variety of platforms. I also see a multi-modal revenue stream. So, coming from Google, I expect advertising to regain significance in the digital economy. But I also see value of understanding how to leverage pay walls and pay gates.

Ultimately, amalgamated news organizations that are distributing content across multiple platforms really need to understand the audience. I think television has done a really good job of understanding their audience for decades through the extensive use of consumer market research.

Print, on the other hand, has not really ever spent much time understanding their audience, but that’s changing now. Traditional print has always had the notion that our job is to give you the information that you need to be informed. But now as the advertising economy evolves, news organizations are being required to tell advertisers what audience they’re buying. They can’t just distribute content without being aware of their audience anymore. It’s funny to see that transition happening.

MBA: What are your thoughts on newspapers and other publications moving to completely online distribution?

DG: If there’s no existing print business for a certain news organization, I don’t see reasons to get into producing print products. The cost of production and distribution relative to the current monetization opportunity on that platform is probably not warranted. But then you better make sure that the content you put on your digital platform is not commodity information. I think putting news out about local information, such as about businesses and sports, makes a lot of sense — no one else is covering it, it’s not like you’re going to get that from the AP — assuming that you can actually grow a reasonable audience for your DMA so that advertisers can recognize the opportunity to brand.

I also don’t think that news organizations are going to be as big as they used to be. For instance, when Watergate happened, the Washington Post had 300 people working for it. In 2005, the Washington Post had 1,000 people working for it. Now it has like 500 people, and they’re whining about how few people they have, but they have 200 more than they did at Watergate. And so I don’t think people are carrying an informed historical perspective in the shifting size of the newsroom. There were a lot of people sitting around writing a lot of crap for a lot of years because the news business was making enough money to get kind of fat. I think on the expense side of the news industry there’s still some room for contraction. On the revenue side of the news business I think there’s still a lot of room for growth and it’s an exciting time.

There’s a new trend that’s been happening over the past few years. I do see a lot of journalists getting hired at digital publications. For instance, the growth of BuzzFeed is crazy. There are about 170 reporters now working at BuzzFeed in just the last 12 months. They’re hiring journalists like crazy, and I think they’re doing it because they’re seeing a revenue opportunity. I think BuzzFeed optimized its business operation for the existing search and social media situation of 2012 and 2013. But now they’re beginning to see that as search evolves and as social media evolves, there’s this resurgence of public expectation of quality, which I think is awesome. And it makes sense to me economically.

MBA: How does a completely online publication that’s not the New York Times go about building trust with their audience and growing that audience?

DG: I think having a distinct editorial voice that you work hard to develop and engaging with the audience via social platforms is key. People have to spend a lot of time engaging with the audience in social conversations on Twitter, Facebook and other social platforms to establish that relationship with a reputation of trust.

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