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EDITORIAL: Is this good data?

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ONE OF OUR EMAIL inboxes received a message a couple of weeks ago that appeared to come from a well-known international company. It said our account was experiencing some suspicious activity. The sender asked whether we had recently purchased a truckload of consumer entertainment devices. The contents totaled several thousand dollars and the well-known company wanted to be sure we had received the items.

Near the bottom of the screen were the names of two guys whose collective identity was “Service Department” and a phone number. No visible email address. No website. Just the number. The message was so transparently fraudulent that I thought it might be from kids pulling a summer camp phishing scam. But what if it was just some nerdy good old boy trying to make a few bucks while practicing his language skills. At that point I deleted the email.

That email came to mind again this week as I was looking at the data provided about our website, www.columbiapaper.com , by Google Analytics, a Google/Alphabet subsidiary. Google Analytics offers “free” digital tools to measure how many people visit our website and more. A lot more. For example, it collects information on the kind of device you use to connect to www.columbiapaper.com

It’s no longer a contest between “desktop” and “mobile devices.” The users who visit our website from their mobile devices (including smartphones and laptops) now account for 60% of the website’s traffic. Desktop devices comprise less than 40% of the traffic, which leaves a tiny group who surf the web with their iPads.

Why is this important? Because Google makes a lot of assumptions about its users and applies those data to the task of selling us stuff. And one way to reach potential customers is with local news. Another is with advertising by local businesses. The problem is that neither Google nor Facebook pays a fair amount for the news they make available to website users.

Before we go any further, I need to disclose that during the peak of the pandemic The Columbia Paper received $5,000 from a journalism fund set up by Google. In our case it helped cushion the impact that the illness had on our local news gathering operation.

The news business is still hurting. But currently there’s a bipartisan effort in Congress to pass a law that would bring news gathering organizations together with the leaders of Google and Facebook (now Alphabet and Meta) in the hope that the two sides can work out a fair price for news and ad revenues.

If small newspapers got paid a fair price for the news we cover, it might add to the lifespan of local publications like the The Columbia Paper. But don’t hold your breath waiting for this Congress to act. And even if there is a federal statute called the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act of 2021 (JCPA) there’s no guarantee that news publishers and social media Goliaths can come to a deal. We used to have local merchant Google ads in The Columbia Paper, but after a while it was too much trouble to collect the payments.

There’s always hope. After years of hearing nothing about this issue that qualified as local news, there was a full page color ad in the Tuesday, July 19 issue of the Times Union. The ad from the News-Media Alliance reads: “DON’T LET BIG TECH CANCEL LOCAL NEWS.” I thought Google had already accomplished that chore. Could it be that their data wasn’t as good as they thought?

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