What news can do for Google (and itself)

How about a search of only original reporting?

In recent months, I’ve heard a lot of news executives complain about Google and transparency, particularly in relationship to search. “We don’t know why our stories come out on top one day and down the next,” one said. The implication: Google should share its algorithm’s rules so the publishers can mold their news to it.

No. That is the wrong way to look at this. Editors and publishers shouldn’t be surrendering their news judgment to Google. Shouldn’t they, the news professionals, be telling Google how Google should judge the news? Shouldn’t they be identifying the news that is original, relevant, and important and urging Google to point to that?

Editors and publishers might argue that they do that now. But, of course, they don’t. They tout everything they do as original, relevant, and important. But that can’t be. Look at any given story on Google News.

All those 1,447 articles can’t be original. The cause of this surplus of content is the business model. Every publisher needs an article to fill a page to attract a reader to get a pageview to sell an ad. That’s why they all rewrite each other, to make their own stories. It’s a business model built on volume, on news as commodity—not news as service, not news that delivers original and relevant value and impact.

How do we fix that? A few weeks ago, I wrote a post here asking what Google could do for news. Now I’ll reverse that and suggest what news could do for Google—and itself.

Start here: What if news organizations labeled their original reporting and what if Google had a service that pointed only to that original reporting?

The benefit to journalism is clear: More audience for original reporting would bring more advertising and economic support to that reporting. Taking away the economic incentive to rewrite the rewrites of rewrites of somebody else’s news — most of those 1,447 articles—would dramatically reduce the wasteful inefficiency of the news industry and allow for a better path to profitability and the reallocation of journalistic assets to real journalism: that is, original reporting. Original reporting would pay.

Of course there is a moral hazard lurking on this road: Every news organization could lie and selfishly claim original reporting. Or 1,446 reporters would call the same source to “match”—as we say in the trade—the original story, adding nothing new.

Google could police the cheats and liars. But once again, I say that shouldn’t be Google’s job. It’s journalism’s job. What would it look like if the poobahs of journalism old and new—editors, reporters, academics, and publishers of repute—got together and agreed to standards for labeling original reporting so they would get more support for that original journalism? If one of their club misbehaved, they would eject the miscreant.

No matter the mechanism, the point is that it is in the enlightened self-interest of quality journalism to send signals of such quality to Google so that Google can, in turn, support the good stuff. This is in Google’s self-interest as well, for it wants better search results. Google’s Matt Cutts and the just-departed inventor of Google News, Krishna Bharat, have often said that they seek signals of originality and quality to improve search.

Indeed, it is even in the enlightened self-interest of quality news organizations to send audience to the quality journalism of others. How often have you read a story on a tech blog or even a major news site only to find through proper attribution that the original story came from, say Re/code? Shouldn’t those other news organizations just link to Re/code rather than rewriting it? Wouldn’t that be the proper thing to do, supporting Re/code’s original work? Shouldn’t these other outlets then get busy and do original reporting themselves? And if they do, wouldn’t Re/code link to them? Follow a Golden Rule of linking: Link unto others’ good stuff as you would have them link unto yours. Or, yes, I’ll say it: Do what you do best and link to the rest. That way, news and reporting become additive rather than merely repetitive.

The link isn’t the only mechanism that could support original reporting. I’ve also been arguing for the embeddable article—news that travels to where the readers are with its brand, revenue, analytics, and links attached—and I’ve used that technology to help establish a network that shares content and audience in New Jersey’s news ecosystem. In my prior post about Google and news, I explored the idea of containers for news that could travel anywhere on the web.

And original reporting isn’t the only signal of quality that we should be sending to Google and rewarding in the news ecosystem. There are others: Why should everyone write the same inadequate background paragraph when we could all point to a few sources of great backgrounders on complex stories? Why shouldn’t, say, public broadcasters that use only :15 from a lengthy and in-depth interview post the whole thing online so others can mine it and, with proper attribution, find more value in it? Why shouldn’t we do better linking directly to sources and source material? See also Richard Gingras’ and Sally Lehrman’s suggestions for trust marks.

The only cure for the commodification and cheapening of news is to move away from business models built on volume over value.

Chartbeat’s holy crusade to move to advertising sold on attention time rather than mere impressions is a step in that direction. Google can help by sending traffic to original, quality journalism.

But only journalism can cure itself by engaging in an honest and open audit of the real value it delivers: not volume but value, not mere content but relevant service. This process must include commercial executives, who will need to find ways to sell quality and value to advertisers and the public. What is quality journalism? What is merely content that fills pages to get eyeballs to get ads? What is journalism’s real value and impact?

What do we sell when we sell the news? As the Brian Williams affair demonstrates, TV news sells personality, popularity, celebrity, not the value of journalism. Newspapers and online news sites sell eyeballs by the ton to advertisers, not really the relevance of journalism for people’s lives. Magazines and now some online sites sell attention and engagement—oftentimes entertainment—and not the impact of journalism in communities.

Until we in journalism and the news business start valuing real journalism and original reporting we’ll just keep rewarding the same old shit.


After asking what Google can do for news and now what news can do for Google (and itself), next I’ll ask what Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, Salesforce, YouTube, and other technology companies can do for news. Your thoughts?