One of the most interesting pieces I’ve read recently is James Fallows’ “How To Save the News” in The Atlantic. It’s a fantastic piece of long-form journalism, and if you’re into journalism and the way news is delivered online, it’s definitely a must-read. The article explores Google’s delivery of news, whether customers would (or in what circumstances) pay for news, the customization of news tailored to specific users, how Google and traditional media companies rely on advertising, and quite a bit more. If you think the nearly 10,000 word piece isn’t worth your time, I want to point out the most interesting passages below:
The premise of the article is that there is “a larger vision for news coming out of Google” — that the world’s largest search engine company is more than that; according to Fallows, Google is the world’s most important media organization.
Who’s behind Google News? Interesting to learn that it was someone from Georgia Tech, my alma mater:
It was Krishna Bharat who identified a more profound form of inefficiency [in news delivery]. As a student at the Indian Institute of Technology in Madras, Bharat had written for the campus newspaper while taking his computer-science degree. “In a second life, I would be a journalist,” he once told an Indian newspaper. (When the Indian newspaper asks me, I will say: In a second life, I would be a successful Google executive.) He got his Ph.D. at Georgia Tech and was an early Google hire, in 1999. After the 9/11 attacks two years later, he grew worried about the narrowness of news he was receiving through the U.S. media. “I felt that we really had to catch up with the world’s news,” he told me. “To get a broad understanding, you had to visit sites in Europe and Asia and the Middle East. I was wondering if Google could do something to make the world’s news information available.”
There are some people who claim that Google aggregating the news is bad for the news industry (because viewers wouldn’t click through the articles, occasionally). However, a rebuttal with which I strongly agree:
Google’s rebuttal to the claim of stealing is that it doesn’t sell ads on the Google News site, and moreover provides hardly any of the newspapers’ original content. Indeed, in this practice it is the opposite of “aggregators” like the Huffington Post, which often “excerpt” enough of someone else’s story that readers don’t bother to click through to the source. Google News gives only a set of headlines and two-line links meant to steer traffic (and therefore ad potential) to the news organization that first ran the story.
What grabbed my attention is how a piece of news could get thousands of “hits” on Google’s page. Is it a case of news organizations choosing to write on the same topic because it’s important, or is it a copycat effect at work?
The Google News front page is a kind of air-traffic-control center for the movement of stories across the world’s media, in real time. “Usually, you see essentially the same approach taken by a thousand publications at the same time,” he told me. “Once something has been observed, nearly everyone says approximately the same thing.” He didn’t mean that the publications were linking to one another or syndicating their stories. Rather, their conventions and instincts made them all emphasize the same things. This could be reassuring, in indicating some consensus on what the “important” stories were. But Bharat said it also indicated a faddishness of coverage—when Michael Jackson dies, other things cease to matter—and a redundancy that journalism could no longer afford. “It makes you wonder, is there a better way?” he asked. “Why is it that a thousand people come up with approximately the same reading of matters? Why couldn’t there be five readings? And meanwhile use that energy to observe something else, equally important, that is currently being neglected.”
On the three pillars of the new online business mode (distribution, engagement, and monetization):
[G]etting news to more people, and more people to news-oriented sites; making the presentation of news more interesting, varied, and involving; and converting these larger and more strongly committed audiences into revenue, through both subscription fees and ads. Conveniently, each calls on areas of Google’s expertise.
But the most insightful part of the article was my new understanding on how news can be incremental. What does that mean? For example, if you’ve never read The Wall Street Journal before, and you started reading it today, it might be a significant challenge to get into it. Why? Because some stories are built on what was reported yesterday, and the day before, and so on for quite some time. Here’s Fallows describing this incrementation:
News reporting is usually incremental. Something happens in Kabul today. It’s related to what happened there yesterday, plus 20 years ago, and further back. It has a bearing on what will happen a year from now. High-end news organizations reflect this continuous reality in hiring reporters and editors who (ideally) know the background of today’s news and in the way they present it, usually with modest additions to the sum of established knowledge day by day.
And so, prior to reading the article, this important facet of journalism didn’t really cross my mind (in the scope of Google aggregating news). So why is this incremental news important? Because a well-done journalistic piece, which took days and days of research, collaboration, interviewing, writing, and editing, might not be deemed “worthy” in the eyes of Google search (i.e., careful, insightful journalism is punished, while “tabloid-style” reporting rises to the top of Google search). To me, this is the most important take-away from the piece:
The modest daily updating of the news—another vote in Congress, another debate among political candidates—matches the cycle of papers and broadcasts very well, but matches the Internet very poorly, in terms of both speed and popularity rankings. The Financial Times might have given readers better sustained coverage of European economic troubles than any other paper. But precisely because it has done so many incremental stories, no one of them might rise to the top of a Google Web search, compared with an occasional overview story somewhere else. By the standards that currently generate online revenue, better journalism gets a worse result.
There is so much more in the article which I didn’t cover in this short post. If you have some time (more like an hour or two), this is an article definitely worth bookmarking for a later read.