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Google Says It's Here To Help As Newspaper Industry Bleeds Out

Fears of a world without newspapers are leaving Google and other online news aggregators on the defensive, hoping to keep the content flowing.

Representatives of old and new media convened in Washington, D.C., on Wednesday to discuss the future of journalism before the Senate Subcommittee on Communications, Technology, and the Internet.

It's a bleak future if the ongoing closure of newspapers reflects the overall health of the news media. Recently, Tribune Co., Philadelphia Newspapers, and Vancouver, Wash.'s The Columbian have all filed for bankruptcy. Denver's Rocky Mountain News closed its doors for good, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer now exists only on the Web, having ceased its printed edition. The Boston Globe appears to have narrowly averted a shutdown. And more such stories seem sure to follow.

Sen. John Kerry, the subcommittee's chairman, explained the government's interest in the matter by observing that journalism plays a vital role in American civic life.

"The fact is we do have a responsibly for the licensing of broadcast and the regulatory oversight of communications," he said. "How the American people get their information is of enormous interest to all of us because it's the foundation of our democracy."

Kerry, D-Mass., made it clear that the purpose of the hearing was to explore the changing nature of media landscape rather than to propose specific legislation or to protect the newspaper business from the future.

If the stated intent of the hearing was not to fight the future, fears of a world without newspapers nonetheless left Google and online news aggregators on the defensive for prospering while will newspapers suffer steep declines in circulation and revenue.

Marissa Mayer, Google's VP of search products and user experience, made the case that her company is friend rather than foe.

Google, she pointed out, sends more than 1 billion clicks per month to online publishers through Google Search and Google News, though the percentage of those going to reporting organizations rather than news aggregators remains unclear. And she highlighted Google's other services, like Google Maps, which are frequently used to augment print, TV, and online reporting.

Newspapers can block Google's crawlers so their stories don't get indexed, she suggested. Perhaps unsurprisingly, few newspapers have chosen to opt out of online revenue as a way to counter declining print revenue. What they'd like is a greater piece of Google's action.

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