Journalism June 2010

How to Save the News

Plummeting newspaper circulation, disappearing classified ads, “unbundling” of content—the list of what’s killing journalism is long. But high on that list, many would say, is Google, the biggest unbundler of them all. Now, having helped break the news business, the company wants to fix it—for commercial as well as civic reasons: if news organizations stop producing great journalism, says one Google executive, the search engine will no longer have interesting content to link to. So some of the smartest minds at the company are thinking about this, and working with publishers, and peering ahead to see what the future of journalism looks like. Guess what? It’s bright.

Living Stories. 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.

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.

This past winter, the Google News team worked with The New York Times and The Washington Post to run the Living Stories experiment, essentially a way to rig Google’s search results to favor serious, sustained reporting. All articles about a big topic—the war in Afghanistan, health-care reform—were grouped on one page that included links to all aspects of the paper’s coverage (history, videos, reader comments, related articles). “It is a repository of information, rather than ephemeral information,” Krishna Bharat said, explaining that it was a repository designed to prosper in what he called “today’s link economy.” In February, Google called off the Times-Post experiment—and declared it a success, by making the source code available free online, for any organization that would like to create a Living Stories feature for its site.

“If you are asking, ‘Has this moved the needle for us yet in a financial way?’ the answer is no,” Vijay Ravindran, chief digital officer of the Washington Post Company, said when I asked him about the experiment. “But it has brought to the surface many different ideas for changing our technology, changing our user interface. The idea that [Google] would work with us on a product and take feedback was very positive. It’s almost unique, compared with working with technologists who view ‘content creators’ as raw-material suppliers and nothing more.” He said that simply being able to work directly with Google engineers was a plus, for the implicit lessons in how they develop products and what they know about user behavior.

Richard Tofel, the general manager of ProPublica, a new nonprofit news organization that conducts investigative-journalism projects, described a similar collaboration. When an article or documentary by a ProPublica staffer is ready, it is carried by an existing news organization as well as on ProPublica’s site. Tofel met Don Loeb, another Google manager working with news companies, at a journalism conference in Berkeley last year and mentioned that Google News and Google Web searches often featured the paper that ran the story but not ProPublica. “He was receptive to the argument, and said that if the search algorithm was not rewarding creators, they would view it as defective,” Tofel told me. Loeb and his Google colleagues later asked for illustrations of searches that slighted ProPublica’s role. Whether or not there was ever an adjustment (Google never discusses such matters publicly), ProPublica’s results now come higher up.

Fast Flip. The Internet is a great way to get news but often a poor way to read it. Usually the longer the item, the worse the experience; a screenful is fine, clicking through thousands of words is an ordeal. Moreover, the gap between the print and online experiences is greatest for those high-end publications that put a lot of thought and expense into elements other than words themselves: the glossy photos of a fashion magazine, the info charts and pull quotes of a mainly text magazine like this.

The Fast Flip project, which began last summer and has now graduated to “official” status, is an attempt to approximate the inviting aspects of leafing through a magazine. It works by loading magazine pages not as collections of text but as highly detailed photos of pages as a whole, cached in Google’s system so they load almost as quickly as a (human) reader can leaf through them. “It was an experiment in giving you a preview of an article that was more than just a link to the title,” Krishna Bharat said. “It gives you a sense of the graphics, the emphasis, the quality, the feel. Whether you would like to spend time with it.” Spending time with an article, whether in print or online, is of course the definition of “engagement” and the behavior advertisers seek. The online manager for a well-known consumer magazine, who asked not to be identified “because Google is too central to our existence,” said that each day, Fast Flip was sending his magazine tens of thousands of clicks, which in turn had increased his site’s ad revenue. “What we don’t know is how many people are staying just at the Google site, and how the money is divvied up, which makes us a little nervous about the proportional value.”

“We’re not saying we have worked out exactly the right model,” Krishna Bharat said when I asked about Fast Flip details. “We just want news to be available, fast, all over the place on the Internet.”

YouTube Direct. Projects like Living Stories and Fast Flip are tactical in their potential. Google’s hope is that broader use of YouTube videos could substantially boost a news organization’s long-term ability to engage an audience. Amateur-produced video is perhaps the most powerful new tool of the Internet era in journalism, making the whole world a potential witness to dramas, tragedies, achievements almost anywhere. The idea behind the various YouTube projects is that the same newspapers that once commanded an audience with printed reports of local news, sports, crime, and weather could re-create their central role by becoming a clearinghouse for video reports.

Steve Grove, a former ABC news staffer (and another onetime intern for The Atlantic) has worked at Google since just after it acquired YouTube, three years ago. His team has tried to establish YouTube as a news operation on its own, for instance as a center for footage from Haiti after the earthquake in January. But Grove is also working with newspapers and broadcast-news stations to encourage them to use YouTube clips (while Google bears the storage and upload costs) as a way of reestablishing their role in their communities. For instance, Google offers, for free, the source code for YouTube Direct, which any publication can put on its own Web site. Readers can then easily send in their video clips, for the publication to review, censor, combine, or shorten before putting them up on its site. After a blizzard, people could send in clips of what they had seen outside. Same for a local football game, or a train wreck, or a city-council meeting, or any other event when many people would be interested in what their neighbors had seen. The advertising potential might be small, for YouTube and the local paper alike. The point would be engagement. Al Jazeera used YouTube Direct during the elections in Iraq this spring to show footage from around the country.

If YouTube Direct had existed when I was living in China, I could have set it up to receive videos from people who had seen something worth sharing: the aftermath of a huge event, like the Sichuan earthquake; local effects of pollution; new buildings going up or old ones being torn down; the other daily dramas of modern China. Of course some sites already carry videos. And of course YouTube is often blocked by Chinese censors, so people inside the country might not see what their neighbors posted. Such complications aside, I could quickly see the potential of a tool with which people could easily share information in a new way. Setting up such a site is next on my to-do list.

Another tool extends the lessons of the YouTube Debates during the 2008 presidential campaign, in which Grove invited YouTube users from around the country to send in clips of brief questions for the candidates. Anderson Cooper of CNN then introduced YouTube clips of the questions CNN had chosen to use. They ranged from serious to silly and included one asking Barack Obama whether he was “black enough.” YouTube has added a feature that lets users vote for the questions they want asked and has used the method effectively many times since then, including for an interview Grove conducted with Obama at the White House early this year. “We feel this is a tool with tremendous potential for connecting newspapers with their audiences,” Grove told me. “There is tremendous leverage to this kind of reporting.”

Whatever comes of these experiments, two other broad initiatives are of unquestionable importance, because they address the two biggest business emergencies today’s news companies face: they can no longer make enough money on display ads, and they can no longer get readers to pay. According to the Google view, these are serious situations, but temporary.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.
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