How Google News penalises exclusive journalism

Listened to an interesting talk last week by Matt Loney, editor of ZDNet UK, who pointed out an interesting trend for online news sites: being first with the news isn’t the best, because Google News doesn’t think something is worth listing as a news story until a few sites are running it.

But then Google News puts the most recent story at the top of its list. Which means that the site that got the exclusive sits at the bottom. And, people being what they are, they click on the top link. So that most recent posting, which is just following up the rest, gets the eyeballs.

That’s a complete inversion of what journalists have hankered after for years – the exclusive, the scoop, the ‘beat’ [US]. Now, the way to be seen is to have the most recent timestamp, not the first, groundbreaking story.

So Matt said that what many sites are now trying is simply reposting their story once it’s come to GN’s radar in order to push themselves up the list. Perhaps I should start an “unintended consequences” category; I think the murder of scoops by robot would come under that.

9 Comments

  1. Charles, this is absolutely true in my experience. Since I arrived here at Macworld five years ago I think we have achieved a fairly good reputation for occassional news breaks, and so on. However, I have definitely seen enough to confirm the trend described in this, which is, frankly, a little frustrating. I still get a kick when I get in early, but today’s Internet is getting a litle like a&r, “what do you think?”
    For fun I visit http://www.ipod-dj.com/playlist
    All best
    Jonny

  2. I’m not convinced this is a bad thing.

    One of the things that I dislike about television news is the desire to be first with “breaking news.” They usually have very few facts and what few facts they have may be wrong (remember Dan Rather telling us about the Arab terrorists who blew up the Federal Building in Oklahoma City?) One of the reasons I like newspapers and the Internet is that any kind of “breaking news” has usually settled long enough for people to get the facts right about what happened.

    So I don’t mind seeing the most recent story first. It’s probably more accurate.

  3. The most recent one *might* be more accurate – but it’s likely just repeating what it found somewhere else. That often means that facts aren’t checked, just repeated more recently. Wrong stories can get pushed on that way too.

    And we’re not talking about TV news here; we’re talking about a form of print. And the important thing is that the site which *broke* the story, and had it first – ie did the good journalism – doesn’t get rewarded by having the visitors. Instead, people who lazily watch other sites, instead of finding things out, get the reward.

    That can’t be good for journalism and the discovery of facts, because it means that sites which do that discovery lose out commercially.

  4. Right, journalism in this country is on a serious decline and its Google’s fault. The fact is that far too much of what we get fed as news these days comes not from reporters trying to uncover stories but from pundits and their assistants feeding at the press release trough. So maybe Woodward and Bernstein wouldn’t acquire as much fame today if they broke the watergate scandal today. Who cares? The organization they did it for would surely know it was their exclusive, no matter what Joe Public knew. What’s important is that the populace be well informed and that news organizations reward such reporters. Not that reporters or organizations get wide adulation for being the first with a story.

  5. OK, so the pundits and assistants feed at the PR trough. But the problem is precisely this: if the lazy ones get rewarded *better* (because Google News puts their site, which was *last* to the story, at the top, where their ads get served) than the ones who do the work, the bean-counters will figure that it’s easier to let someone else do the hard work, and hire crap hacks.

    The fact you recall Woodward and Bernstein is significant in its own way. So quick, who was first with the story about Abu Ghraib? It’s not the same as the organisation that posted it most recently on GN. So will you go to the place which broke the story first, in the expectation in future of finding out more new stories? Or just reach for the easy option of what you’re served by a robot?

    From the inside, I can see the pressures on journalism changing year by year, and not in a good way. GN, however accidentally, is reinforcing those negatives.

  6. One of the things I like about Google News is the ability to read the same story from multiple sources, who might have spin or bias to paint a picture a certain way. It also exposes me to publications I might not ordinarily read, but now may because of Google News.

  7. But do you actually *read* all those multiple sources, or just skim their headlines? I agree that one sees more things, but I’d expect most people just hit the top link.

  8. Charles,

    Cumulatively, this is a good discussion on the uneasy relationship that exists between Google and the traditional media. You’ve skewered the bean counter argument precisely, although some of the responses here suggest that consumers of news place a lower value on exclusivity than hacks.

    Meanwhile, sharp elbows on the editorial side are interesting new development.

    Perhaps coincidentally, Matt isn’t the only editor at CNET Networks who is thinking about this.

    His counterpart in the US, Jai Singh, who presides over News.com, recently criticized Google News in almost identical terms.

    Last week, Singh told the Online Journalism Review: “If we’re the one who breaks the story, we show up last instead of first,” Singh said. “And the people who get the story last come up first.”

    http://ojr.org/ojr/business/1091660781.php

    Point taken. All the same, it seems to me that it’s not just Google News that’s responsible for pressurizing the media in this fashion.

    This is a trend that started long ago.

    Readers using the Web to gather news was the first stage in what some publishers refer to as the “commodization” of news.
    The issue at this point wasn’t exclusivity, but the fact that the media market’s barriers to entry suddenly collapsed, resulting in a proliferation of news and what you might call pseudo-news (“let someone else do the hard work, and hire crap hacks”).

    Google News is a further development. But don’t similar problems exist with RSS feeds in their current form? (Granted, however — with RSS, you can at least choose your preferred media outlets)

    Code-based machines, of course, are ill-equipped to make qualitative decisions.

    Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that CNET Networks (parent company of both ZDNet UK and News.com) is running a news aggregation service of its own, pitched in direct competition with Google News.

    This comes in two flavours. The first is News.com Extra (“the web filtered by humans, not bots”.)

    http://news.com.com/News.com+Extra/2001-9373_3-0.html?tag=header

    This, we have to assume, is a direct swipe against Google News.

    But it’s also worth noting that News.com also runs a second aggregation service on its site.

    Known as News Around The Web, this beta service offers “headlines are automatically generated from selected sources”.

    http://news.com.com/2049-12_3-0.html

    In other words, it bears a passing resemblance to Google News itself.

    Of course, CNET Networks is entitled to experiment with multiple ways of competing with Google. And CNET’s (beta) machine service may well be superceded by the (1.0) human one.

    Moreover, the existence of News Around The Web doesn’t reduce the validity of the arguments put forward by Loney and Singh. Both are excellent editors who, I think, oppose the somewhat self-serving argument proposed by some editors that news is slowly being commoditized.

    But behind this, there looms a significant commercial clash between paid search (Google, Overture) and traditional media (including predominantly web-based players like CNET).

    If I were working at Google now, I’d look at my competitive relationship with publishers in the same way that CNET looked at its competitive relationship with old-fashioned print publishers in 1998 (“Old media: we’re going to eat your lunch.”)

    The fact is that paid search is almost certainly attracting marketing dollars that would otherwise be devoted to traditional online ad formats.

    I don’t know if the Googlistas are right (experience tells me that winner-takes-all contests are rarely all they’re cracked up to be).

    Nevertheless, this is a big struggle. The jostling over news aggregation between CNET and Google shows that it’s got an editorial dimension, too.

    Peter Kirwan
    Co-Founder, Full Run Ltd
    || Tools For Tech Marcoms Pros || http://www.fullrun.com
    Telephone: +44 (0)7803 975234

  9. Having talked yesterday with Matt at ZDNet UK, I think it’s probably fair to add a qualifier. Matt says he has no specific beef with Google News — he was simply pointing out some of the novel pressures that impinge on editors these days. Additional clarification: Google News, he says, accounts for a very small amount of traffic that ends up on ZDNet (when I suggested “low single figure percentage points”, he didn’t demur). For sure, a broad commercial conflict exists between Google and the likes of CNET, but (clearly) the sites’ editors aren’t playing a commercial game.

    Peter

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