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Google Could Do More To Help Journalism

Google Chairman Eric Schmidt Launches Nexus 7 Tablet Computer In South KoreaGoogle Chairman Eric Schmidt Launches Nexus 7 Tablet Computer In South Korea
A news conference in Seoul, South Korea on Sept. 27, 2012. SeongJoon Cho/Bloomberg via Getty Images

This article first appeared in Data Sheet, Fortune’s daily newsletter on the top tech news. Sign up here.

It’s an awkward feeling to write about mere commerce on a day the nation mourns its pointless dead.

And so with sorrow, I turn briefly to a pedantic but important topic: Google’s efforts this week to walk back its behavior that has been so destructive to the legacy news business.

Google (GOOGL) announced Monday it is ending its “first click free” policy, which News Corp.’s (NWS) Robert Thompson aptly—if uncomfortably, today—calls “second click fatal.” The first click refers to Google’s insistence until now that publishers who want their stories to be listed in Google’s powerful search results make their content free to readers.

The policy amounted to a deal with the devil for quality publishers, for clarity the demon being the Don’t Be Evil company itself. By submitting to Google publishers assured themselves an audience but injured their efforts to charge for their work. Newfangled online sites like Business Insider and Huffington Post built businesses they later sold for hundreds of millions of dollars by ripping off the work of more talented journalists and then playing Google’s digitally native games better than the old fogeys ever could.

Some of the best of the old breed have hung in, however, The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times (NYT) being two U.S. examples of thriving subscription news businesses in the age of Google. The search-ad giant is showing some remorse, saying it’ll no longer require the first click to be free and also offering its own services to help publishers sells subscriptions.

There’s a catch, of course. More than one. Google hopes to get between publishers and their customers and also to take a cut of the action for its troubles. Were Google serious about helping the news business it could forgo the commission altogether and prejudice its search algorithm in favor of subscriptions–on the theory that a publisher asking for money must be proud of its offering and therefore likely is offering something good.

Some tech execs like to pat themselves on the backs for wanting to support journalism because of its importance to democracy. And they’re the good ones. Helping publishers pay for their journalism is a good start. Now it’s Facebook’s (FB) turn.