?Who needs reporters?" Howard Kurtz asked in his Media Notes column on Google News.
Who needs editors?
Well, Google does. Without reporters or editors Google has nothing to feed on, nothing to offer the seekers turning to Google for instant pathways to information. Google doesn?t exist without other Web sites. Google Groups doesn?t have content without the posting of tens of thousands of contributors. And Google News would be the equivalent of a fire without oxygen if the reporters, photographers, editors and others responsible for producing online journalism weren?t doing their jobs.
What Google does is make all of this information accessible in aggregate form.
Thinking about it I?m reminded of one of my favorite childhood stories ?Danny Dunn and the Homework Machine? wherein Danny Dunn, who thinks he is using a computer to do his homework, discovers that he has to teach the computer in order to learn. In the process, he learns more than he would have had he simply done his homework assignment on his own. [Thanks to Google I now also know that this was a favorite story of one of the creators of Usenet, of Esther Dyson and of numerous denizens in the realm of science, leaving me to wonder where I went wrong.]
Yes, Google News is produced entirely by computer algorithms. Those algorithms rest on the back of human know-how and engineering that in turn is based on the way humans make decisions. (It sounds a lot more fun to say it?s untouched by human editors -- raising a lot of snickering in newsrooms everywhere.) The algorithms enable Google to ?auto-generate? a constantly updated site drawing on thousands of resources at a pace that even a fleet of humans working at the speed of Marion Jones on an Olympian circuit couldn?t match. It gives new meaning to ?that?s so 10 minutes ago.?
Google relies on more than content from the news sites. It relies on the judgment of human editors, oxymoron or not. ?We?re completely dependent on all of the news sites,? says Marissa Mayer, Google News product manager. The algorithm factors in how a story is played on news sites along with the perceived credibility of those sites and recent frequency of use. The latter helps explain why an ABCNews.com story that doesn?t make the front page at ABC's site might lead the page at Google News, as was the case Tuesday with a story about violence at Kashmiri polling places.
Unlike editors across the news spectrum on Monday who knew when to switch the headline from ?Torricelli Might Withdraw? to ?Torricelli Withdraws,? Google?s Torricelli lead headline lagged far behind even the headlines clustered below it.
Which is one way Google News builds the case for edited sites while it builds traffic to them.
?We welcome Google into this space,? says Steve Jones, executive producer of ABCNews.com. During a 10-minute span when Jones and I were on the phone nearly 500 referrals -- i.e. users following links -- came to his site from Google News.
The Kashmir story didn't make ABCNews.com?s front page ?because its focus is too limited for our audience. That?s a story out of our international section.?
That editorial judgment is one of the aspects that separates ABCNews.com from competitors CNN.com and MSNBC.com, explains Jones. ?The top of our page is not going to change with each news development. We?re not programming our site thinking that users come in every 30 minutes to see what?s going on. We?re more interested in people who check in once a day.? Often as not ABCNews.com will lead with original reporting coming out of the network?s news shows.
When MSNBC.com, CNN.com and ABCNews.com led with the Iraq-United Nations? agreement on inspections Tuesday, Google, crawling 4,000 news sources around the world, zigged with Torricelli and the discovery of a German kidnap victim?s body.
It can be fun to watch the stories bounce around the page from update to update or see the ?in the news? list change. I?m betting people were clicking on Betsy Bernard?s name just to see who she was; a few minutes later she was gone, deemed no longer ?in the news? by Google?s computer.
One of the redesign features CNN.com touts -- ?User?s Picks? -- comes at news judgment from a different direction. CNN?s computers track the stories being viewed by users to produce a list of 10 user favorites updated every 20 minutes. Placement can have a lot to do with popularity. When CNN noticed a story on a section page about the bodies of Chinese World War II pilots being returned was garnering a lot of interest, the story was moved to the front page. It quickly made the ?User?s Picks? list.
?By monitoring what our audience is most interested in, we?re able to be more responsive,? explains Mitch Gelman, senior vice president and executive producer of CNN.com. The CNN redesign started in August 2001 and was postponed for several months by September 11, finally launching in September 2002. Gelman declined to discuss Google but was more than willing to talk about the roles editing and automation play on CNN.com.
In addition to the ?User?s Picks,? CNN is using a combination of the two to produce more depth for the site. Each section like ?Technology? or ?Science & Space? now further subdivides into subsections populated by 40 stories on that subtopic. Why 40? ?It just seemed like a good round number. It looks good on a page,? says Gelman. The number allows CNN.com to offer a balance between ?relevant news and completely old news.?
Those 40 stories are automated based on templates but the sections and the front page are based on editorial judgment. And Google benefits from CNN's editorial judgement.
It?s too early to tell what kind of impact Google News can have on traffic to news sites. As ABCNews.com?s Jones points out, ?they were always one of our top referrers because of the collection of news and information sites they had anyway.? Google makes no attempt at subterfuge, clearly labeling the actual location of the stories.
The site is generating 1,000-6,000 visits a day to startribune.com, according to editor Ben Welter. ?We?re happy for the traffic. I?m sure a small fraction of visitors will become regulars,? he wrote in an e-mail that described Google News as ?benign at this point.? Welter has no plans to block Google?s crawls. One Internet chain plans to block access to wire stories but will allow access to local news.
Google?s Mayer says the company respects the wishes of sites when it comes to Robots.txt, a script Web site operators can use to exclude search engines? crawlers. In fact, Google has heard from more sites wanting to know how to use Robots.txt to get their site included rather than excluded.
Google News is in the testing phase now, says Mayer, determining how valuable the tool can be for users. At some point, though, Google has some decisions to make about Google News -- predominantly how will it make money? That?s when Google News could shift out of the benign, welcome stage. How do you sell a product that relies on other company?s brands and intellectual property without crowding into their space or taking income away from them?
Mayer?s response: ?Google has always been very ethical in its handling of that.? Given the instant buzz around this product discussions between news organizations and Google on this topic can?t begin too soon.
The more robust version of the Google News beta that launched in September also has sections but doesn?t drill down any further. It?s a clunky effort without any sense of order, although it?s not hard to see Google?s Entertainment page or Sports page becoming a starting point for some users. At the same time, I?m not sure why anyone with a serious interest in those subjects would start with Google when there are many, better, more organized resources from which to choose. Without better judgment and organization, Google News is a combination flash card, links list and parlor game.
Still, Google News has all the makings of a valuable resource best used when viewed as part of a palette instead of an entire picture. Valuable to users -- and to news sites, as well, if they play their cards right.
Staci D. Kramer is Editor at Large at Cable World and was a contributing editor to Inside.com. Based in University City, Mo., Kramer's clients have included Time, Life, the Detroit Free Press, the Chicago Tribune, The New York Times, Multichannel News, APBNews.com, mediainfo.com, Editor & Publisher, The Sporting News, St. Louis magazine, several major papers in Canada, and numerous others. Her work has been syndicated by the Los Angeles Times Syndicate, reprinted in two books and she has even co-produced a segment for "Nightline."