Making news useful – again?


Yesterday at the Googleplex, journalists, technologists and Googlers converged for the Tech Raking summit. Our goal was to figure out how to break news of its bad habits lingering from the pre-Web era. We compared notes about our own organizations, shared examples of stories and projects, and dreamed up ways to serve you better. Here’s what we’ve got so far.

By Terrance Gavan

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Terrance on Tech.Photo by Dan Devine.

A meeting this week about where news is going is intriguing only because the more important question is .. what the hell is news?

We are moving rapidly toward a blurring of fact versus fiction as old time news product managers like the Times of London and New York are becoming less relevant.

Fact Checkers?

Old news. Anachronisms.

We don’t need fact checkers because facts are being left behind by the pace of the technology currently dogging the heels of the rag trade.

To wit: If they get it wrong? Someone is going to fire off a twitter and correct it.

Stories change today like a Transformer on HGH.

Scores of bloggers hop on a story and the information is disseminated in a cat’s blink. News can no longer wait for the laborious and painstaking process of checking the facts. Speculation and the rabid rush to be “first” is the chum on the water. Cable News is less and less concerned with getting it 100 percent right. They want it first.

Bloggers and tweets are fed to a furtive cognoscente of news junkies with provisos. “Wolf, the bombs are dropping and I’m hearing that it’s the rebel forces… but don’t be surprised if it’s the government attempting to foment retaliation… yada yada yada… This is Charlie Vague reporting from Syria… we got it first… and we’re close enough baby!”

If Watergate had happened today instead of in the insular age of careful journalism?

BernWood, WoodStein and Bradleeeeeeee… would have fallen to the wolves at the door.

So… this is an interesting conference at the Googleplex

The Problems

“We need to rethink every facet of the journalism model,” said Richard Gingras, VP of News at Google, to start off the event. “I’m not saying everything must change,” he clarified, but news providers need to find new ways to understand how their job should be done.

The newspaper is a sticky idea. It worked for a long time. But because we love it so much, we’ve wound up with a model for news websites that sticks to the idea of “front page news.” The few hits of the day are visible, and then the content drops into an archive.

The news audience is evolving faster than news providers, though. Gingras told us that, only a few years ago, 50% of the inbound audience went to the front page, and the other 50% went straight to stories or other pages. By now, 75% of traffic is going to stories. A minority of visitors ever see a site’s front-page curated presentation of the news.

But the problems go deeper than just presentation. News is a commodity now. It spreads virally across many media through new tellings and retellings. The Web is finally real-time. It doesn’t happen in instants and static pages. It happens constantly. News organizations no longer get to control the story. They have to do more than inform to stay relevant.

News sites have to be useful.

To be useful, news sites need to be information tools, not just sources. Journalists are the people with the time and skills to gather all the needed information into one place and filter out the rest. Data, machine-readable information, has to become human-readable somehow. But the value of information is not just in the knowledge of it; it’s in what you can do with it.

Site designs need a do-over to work the way audiences want them to. News organizations need to think of their sites as products needing constant innovation. We can build software around public data sets or data gathered through investigation. Instead of just telling readers how to interpret the data, news organizations can give them the tools to look at it, figure it out and use it.

News isn’t just about information. It’s also storytelling. Anyone can publish text, photos or even video to the Web now. But technology enables new, compelling storytelling techniques that could shine in the hands of dedicated news organizations. For example, Nonny de la Peña taught us her notion of immersive journalism, using video or virtual reality to show customers what it was like to be therefor an event in the news.

High technology has shaken up journalism, but it offers the industry promising ways to relearn its craft. The most important opportunity we have is to get to know our audiences better. Getting to know you will help us inform you and build things that you need.