How Google can really help news & media

Earlier this month, folks from Google invited me along with Kara Swisher and Audrey Cooper for a conversation about the future of news. Towards the end of the conversation, we were asked what Google could do in order to help the news and media industry. Obviously, we joked about buying the New York Times, but when asked, I pointed out that Google is good at one thing — software — and instead of trying to do crazy things, why not build tools that help the news ecosystem? Why not create tools that help data novices make sense of information? Or how about a smarter, simpler and more nimble analytics tool just for reporters? (Or simply buy Chartbeat!) I forgot to mention one tool that they could build in their sleep, and in the process help not only save many reporter hours but make the news better, smarter and more contextual.

That tool is search — not the Google search as we know it, but a different version of Google-powered search tool that allows reporters to see in real-time past stories from across the web. That’s not all — the search tool would also provide contextual information about various topics, whether through Wikipedia or some private archive like Lexis-Nexis. There is a crying need for this tool, especially in today’s hyperactive media environment.

Reinvent, Reimagine

One of the great things about the web is that it has totally and completely exploded the notion of traditional journalism. It has allowed fresh air into newsrooms and basically allowed us to reinvent what it means to be in the media business. Listicles are what made Cosmopolitan, big, fat and happy and they’ve helped Buzzfeed attain a valuation of $850 million. Data-driven feature pieces (they used to call them infographics) were commonplace in technology and business magazines like Wired and Red Herring. 

Today they are a category of their own, thanks to the rise of The Upshot and Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEightThe Wirecutter has successfully reinvented the “shopper” concept that was so common during the heydays of the PC business and in the process discovered a business model that puts readers first. And the beat goes on. I absolutely love the media experiments that are trying to get a slice of our attention. From Beacon Reader to Byliner (sadly dead), everything is worth trying because we are going through a transition and are in a state of flux. 

Of course, like all industries in flux, media is attracting newer, younger, creative minds who are not weighed down by the legacy and are natively proficient in using the tools of today . The new generation thinks different and makes a different media — just look at Vice. However, there is a one challenge that most in media, especially the newcomers have, and that is the historical understanding/context of the news events and industries they cover. 

The newsrooms of today aren’t as nurturing an environment and it is hard for young reporters to get the mentorship we got. Similarly, with fewer (and much younger) editors, you don’t have access to that accumulated knowledge. Many of the senior writers are either retired, or pushed out or have moved on to other things. And with it, there is a loss of that historical context. I don’t say this to bemoan the present or talk about the good old days — far from it. It is just to provide some color to the reality of the modern media world. 

The good news is that all the information a reporter needs is out there. Over the past twenty five years, society has put up a lot of information on the web and the only challenge that remains is our ability to find it. And this where the proposed Google search tool — with a special focus on journalistic/news needs — comes into play. 

To illustrate why it could be useful, I will use the story of “This” a link sharing social platform that got a glowing writeup from the Nieman Journalism Labs. Missing from the piece was any mention of Last Great Thing, a similar idea that got a write-up from a site called — wait a minute — Nieman Journalism Labs. (When a stream is just a trickle: Last Great Thing is one item a day, no archives http://bit.ly/XFH0ue) Do I think the reporter forgot this intentionally? I don’t think so. It was a case of “I didn’t know.”

News, Turbocharged

Let me give you one simple example of the newsflow in today’s turbocharged environment. A reporter gets an alert for a story from three or four sources — public relations pitches, pr-focused new wires, Twitter, or from their sources directly. When that news flows into their inbox (usually via email), they go on alert and start thinking about the angle and how many words they can do and how fast. The faster you get to the web, the better the chances for a reporter to get attention. Most normally just do some basic report and post it to the web and add details later. It is not very different from the newswire reporting I used to do back in the day. 

There are times when reporters have to do longer pieces — profiles on companies, people or cover news events. In this case, you do research but the effectiveness of research is limited by the questions you ask, whether it is sources or the databases. You don’t always ask the right question when you are on deadline — yes even longer pieces are written these days with a proverbial gun to the head — and as a result you miss the critical nuances in shaping the final piece. 

The internet has done one thing: it has made speed one of the key factors in how information is produced and consumed. As networks have become faster and more prevalent, the news and our expectation of the information has become faster. I think the challenge is that our information-gathering tools are not up to the snuff — or up to speed I should say. 

I don’t expect media companies — unless they are the new breed of companies like Buzzfeed and Vox Media — to be able to do this. They failed in coming up with software that helped them publish to the web and it wasn’t till more open source products such as WordPress came to the fore that media companies saw the light. The tools to help augment the information gathering process will also come from open source and the Internet world. New language-oriented libraries like Hemingway can provide some grammatical and composition help, for instance. 

Software & Internet-centric companies like Google should be more effective than others. Others like Automattic/WordPress should be thinking about this long and hard, now that they have embraced the idea of being the content-management system or “CMS” of the web. That said, startups shouldn’t bother, because let’s face it, the media industry is not known for being big spenders on any kind of technology.

Tools, not talk

If technology has upended the media ecosystem, then it should also be the solution for that ecosystem to adapt to the new hyper-speed reality of news and information. What we need is a set of tools that basically are a way to help the information-gathering process at network speed. Instead of reporters asking questions — if you don’t have historical context you can’t really ask some key questions — we need tools that help augment the process. 

Whether it is a tech tool that helps sift for signals in the increasing amount of transmissions on the social web or a tool that provides context serendipitously or simply an app that helps identify copyright infringements or plagiarism — in my view, media people need tools that basically help them produce the best possible reports. 

Now a good context+search tool (a chrome extension would be perfect) should have helped surface the old story about Last Great Thing, and thus given the reporter a chance to be either more skeptical or give her the option to flesh out the story further by adding more details. The extension wouldn’t be passive — it would essentially watch what a reporter is writing via a WordPress plugin or through some arrangement between Google and WordPress — and constantly surface matching “contextual” stories from archives and around the web. For example, it could run as a simple sidebar and it should have capabilities for reporters to customize their information sources.

The biggest challenge of modern web-based publishing is the incessant speed of the publishing cycle. You have much less time as a reporter/writer to turn around the copy for the Internet — and there is very little time for reporters to do search. A tool like that would make searching for contextual information an inline activity. My point here is that as the internet changes journalism — increasing its metabolism and redefining its core components — it is time to develop a set of tools that help the modern (and future generations) of media people do their job better. 

After all, as Mathew Ingram so aptly puts it — journalism is doing just fine and will continue do just fine, regardless of the business models.

SOME Recent Musings ON Media

1. Establishment vs Nate Silver
2. Buzzfeed and the attention game
3. Festivus, journalism and Perugia
4. On Journalism.

Responses

  1. drsahilthakur says:

    September 23rd, 2014 at 9:56 pm Reply

    Fantastic post. Though I am new at WordPress it’s posts like these that inspire me to write more. I hope you can take some time and go through my blog. It’s new but your critique can help me hone my art too. :)

  2. navasolanature says:

    September 3rd, 2014 at 2:53 am Reply

    I think current news does need a context and those who are older often have some of that context and that can create more wise or informed decisions…….for younger people it would help relate to the issues more deeply. Maturity and wisdom though is not age related but part of the desire to dig deep and not just skim surfaces. But impossible to do that for all the issues that arise .

  3. Jithin Pradeep says:

    August 31st, 2014 at 1:32 pm Reply

    Great idea sir.
    I belive this is what you want them to do: An analytic search or a computational search which works on agent programming concept.
    In real world where in a reporter get info from sources I belive social media to be accurate; Now modelling the real world info source entity as agent programs which would bring up the info, an analytical angent program which would find links between the source info agents and old set of previous and related event of past and present.
    This would make the newflow more dynamic.

  4. AndroidNurd says:

    August 31st, 2014 at 1:00 pm Reply

    Reblogged this on It's My Box and commented:
    Good read right here.

  5. Alan Wood says:

    August 31st, 2014 at 9:26 am Reply

    I couldn’t agree more. The Fourth Estate (journalism) had been slowly dying for a while now. Perhaps Google, along with the speed and variety of the internet and bloggers can revive it. We need a powerful fourth estate I just hope smaller and less famous bloggers than Nate Silver get to have their voice heard as well.

    http://gwmac.com/fourth-estate-dying/

    Another way Google can help is in areas like blight and urban sprawl. By using google Maps and overlays I showed the problem of sprawl in my own hometown.

    http://gwmac.com/google-earth-map-overlays-can-teach-us-sustained-economic-growth/

  6. Preston Bates (@prestonbates) says:

    August 30th, 2014 at 9:40 pm Reply

    Hey Om – This is the most thorough, complete, and poignant diagnosis of the current information economy I’ve read in weeks! Thank you! I humbly submit that our team at http://www.feedz.co/demo has solved several problems you mentioned, namely discovering micro-news in a context-rich platform in seconds.

    Our solution radically reduces bottlenecks in the information sorting workflow. It’s still in closed beta, but I’m looking for angel capital and strategic advisers, and I would love to work with you. To what email address can I send you our deck? I can be reached at feedzapp@gmail.com. Blessings, Preston

    1. Om Malik says:

      August 31st, 2014 at 8:45 am Reply

      Preston

      I will check out Feedz. Thanks for the heads up.

  7. bhankes says:

    August 30th, 2014 at 10:56 am Reply

    The contextual part is key, but gaining access to the information before it’s news would also be nifty.

  8. Hrvoje Dorešić says:

    August 30th, 2014 at 8:44 am Reply

    You are right Om. Only some media (the smart ones) have invested enough in the right kind of tehnology for their journalism. And those who did, keep it for themselves. Whereas the tohnology giants have realized they need to be open about all of it. Look at Google and how much they invest in talking with the tech community. Chartbeat is fine but it’s still not enough for journalists. I would love to have an app like you suggested. It makes sense. And it’s probably not so terribly hard to do. For Google… or Yahoo :) We could all help them.

    1. Om Malik says:

      August 31st, 2014 at 8:47 am Reply

      I hope they actually think about it and make something that fits the bill. It would be fun to see it in action and see what happens to the news flow. I am betting that it would be a net positive.

      If you have any product+feature suggestions, feel free to share and I will make sure the folks on Google News team see them.

  9. eideard says:

    August 30th, 2014 at 4:37 am Reply

    Brilliant.

    1. Om Malik says:

      August 30th, 2014 at 5:27 am Reply

      Thanks ed, you are just too kind

    2. Om Malik says:

      August 31st, 2014 at 8:48 am Reply

      :-)

  10. Nikohl Vandel says:

    August 29th, 2014 at 4:38 pm Reply

    oh, hmmmmm, I thought that’s why google acquired #freebase …. :-)

    1. Om Malik says:

      August 31st, 2014 at 8:48 am Reply

      They acquire so many things….

  11. Greg Neubacher (@Neubacher) says:

    August 29th, 2014 at 11:48 am Reply

    All terrific suggestions Om, wish I could have been part of that conversation. A few additional thoughts.

    Since Google now operates and regulates YouTube, which is one of the growing resources for journos worldwide, why not an area that has an automatic legal share approval option from the original source to instantly allow news organizations to use (with credit and copyright protection). All of the top international news organizations now require written approval from originators to use their videos, photos, etc. on-the-air and within published/web content. Also, quickly develop 2K and 4K video capabilities, as well as an HD/UHD-ready live streaming for breaking news, special events, etc..

    A key data search bank and calculator would also be a great help; access things like raw F.B.I. crime stats or state health department stats, etc. and have various ways to calculate/sort it to localized reporting interests. Also allows the average reader to sort the raw data and make up their own minds.

  12. gregorylent (@gregorylent) says:

    August 29th, 2014 at 8:20 am Reply

    you are talking about streamlining the delivery of content, and nothing about the worldview, the mindset, the assumptions that underlie content of the crap we call the “news” …which is really the “olds” .. same old crap, new package?

    and what about the government mouthpiece aspects of the “news” ?

    google, seeking to streamline the status quo .. as a way of maintaining it better?

    aiyo ..

  13. Rajiv says:

    August 29th, 2014 at 5:22 am Reply

    I am curious about this. There is a lot of stuff that is written about how we have more ‘information’ now, than our fellow humans had one hundred years back. This should allow us to make more intelligent decisions about issues like say, the environment. I think that we have more data, and we don’t have the time to allow this data to be processed in our brains to create information that we can use intelligently. Sometimes the data is wrong, and with the pressure to stand out in a crowded market, the news is often shrill and poorly analysed. I don’t know if Google can help here, but if they can it will be welcome!

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