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Richard Gingras, Google’s head of news and social products, talks with Knight Fellows about journalism and web ads. Credit: David Sarno

The digital earthquake that’s knocking the traditional news industry off its foundations is not over, said Richard Gingras, Google’s head of news and social products. And it probably never will be.

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“Sometimes I think folks in the news industry like to comfort themselves by thinking that somehow we’re going from a transition from one point of stasis to another, and then it’ll all become cozy again and we can sit back and breathe easy for another 50 years,” Gingras said in a recent seminar with Knight Fellows. “That’s clearly not going to be the case — things are going to continue to change.”

Gingras’ welcome mantra for journalistic innovation has been “rethink everything.” Media organizations need to blow up and re-engineer the ways they gather and distribute news, and the way they do business, he has said. They need to change their strategies at the rapid pace that the digital world changes — not years later.

Gingras disputed the now familiar criticism that Google has leeched eyeballs — and ad dollars — from news homepages, thanks to its Google News aggregator, which turned 10 years old last month.

Gingras said, as Google has frequently in the past, that Google News sends a billion page views every month back to news sources. That means Google is supplying the news industry with a huge number of “marketing opportunities” Gingras said, “which, frankly, are less expensive than opportunities you would’ve found 20 years ago.”

news sites caught in the middle

Still, Gingras acknowledged that it’s not easy to turn those opportunities into profit. News sites are caught in the middle of a highly competitive market for online display advertising — think banners and the square “cubes” found on many web pages. Google itself is now a major, multibillion-dollar player in the display ad world.

But I pressed Gingras on the question of how newspapers can rethink their advertising operations. After all, Google has said repeatedly that it wants to find ways to help news organizations make money again. And it seems reasonable to think that a company with a substantial chunk of all the world’s digital advertising know-how might have a few hints about what the news industry could do better.

But I was probably asking too much — Gingras admitted he didn’t have any ready advice.

“In news, it’s really, really hard to make money on advertising unless you’ve got at least 10 million unique [viewers] a month,” Gingras said, adding that he specializes in product development rather than the advertising side of Google’s business. (Google News does not currently put ads on its homepage).

What about hyper-local advertising? As in, you’re reading your news site, and up pops an ad for a 2-for-1 at the local pizza place, or discounted movie tickets at your neighborhood theater, or clothing sales down the block?

Gingras agreed that in theory, news organizations could do a better job of targeting their ads to local markets.

“But even if they had the targeting signals … if you’re that local restaurant or car dealer, what’s the value proposition of having your ad in the news publication versus the 18 other ways you might try to generate customers? I’m not saying there’s no value, but it’s a tricky one.”

A riddle indeed: How do we extract value from the many marketing opportunities Google and the Internet send en masse to news sites?

We’ll not likely get a lot of help from Google itself: The search giant, perhaps reasonably for a company that makes 98% of its revenue from advertising, is in no hurry to offer free “ad”-vice to potential competitors.

But the thing they keep drilling into your head at Stanford and in the Valley in general, is that big problems are just big opportunities in disguise.

Maybe by not telling us much about how to solve our advertising problem, Gingras — a self-described optimist about journalism — is suggesting that we should hurry up and figure it out ourselves.

David Sarno is a Knight Fellow at Stanford University. Sarno’s journalism career was forged by the wise — though differing — advice of his mother and father. Following his software engineer father’s path, he obtained a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Yale 2001. Then he found himself drawn toward his mother’s interest — words. She was a public librarian. In 2004, he earned a master’s degree in English and fiction writing from the University of Iowa. And his first job, you could say, combined the two. Writing a news summary several times a week for Slate.com gave him a crash course in the nuances of newspaper writing and the requirements of the online format. He joined The Huffington Post in its infancy, working in a small upstairs office in Arianna Huffington’s Brentwood home. Two years later, he moved to the Los Angeles Times as a homepage producer for its web division. He was soon writing a weekly column and blog on the then-emerging “connected culture” and by 2009, he was covering the business end of that culture as a technology reporter.

This post originally appeared on the blog for the John S. Knight Journalism Fellowships at Stanford.

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The John S. Knight Fellowships at Stanford University fosters journalistic innovation, entrepreneurship and leadership. Each year, 20 individuals from around the world get the resources to pursue their ideas for improving journalism.

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