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Does Google Even Understand What News Is?

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The art of verbal self-defense can be tricky. Ramble on while defending yourself against critics, and you can expose yourself to new criticisms. For a recent and clear case study in this misstep, look no further than Google’s (s goog) own Eric Schmidt. In a Wall Street Journal opinion piece titled “How Google Can Help Newspapers,” Schmidt set out to argue what has been said a million times before, and what everyone but news executives in denial will admit: The Internet isn’t killing news, it’s forcing it through a painful evolution into a new business model.

The op-ed came a few days after Rupert Murdoch made a gutsy bluff to block Google from indexing stories on News Corp.’s (s nws) sites. Murdoch is no dummy, and all his huffing and posturing is aimed less at preserving a dead business model than at testing his leverage in a new one –- the way a mischievous kid tests a new babysitter to see what he can get away with. And it was cunning of Schmidt to push Murdoch back on his own playground. But in the course of stating the obvious –- Google isn’t killing newspapers –- Schmidt made a few spurious arguments of his own.

He begins with a fantasy of reading a “news gadget” that “knows who I am, what I like, and what I have already read.” We all have our fantasies, but this one strikes me as a bit dystopian and suggests a fundamental ignorance of what news actually is. Much of the news I read these days I don’t like. But I need to read it, and print newspapers are very good at putting it in front of my eyes.

Google’s algorithms are very handy for shopping or entertainment recommendations. But I don’t like it “personalizing” news. Serving readers news based on what they’ve read can lead to a kind of tunnel vision where they’re insulated from the dissenting views and unpleasant truths. Newspapers emerged to serve communities, and communities are inherently hotpots of dissent. Targeting news stories as if they were advertisements runs counter to that important service. I want a news gadget bringing me stories that make me uncomfortable.

Schmidt’s op-ed also ignores the reality that search engines are by design very helpful at finding ways past news paywalls. Most everyone knows that Journal stories have long been available for free by typing the headline in Google (although Google appears willing to close that loophole). Even without free access via Google, news will leak through paywalls as blogs and rival newsrooms dutifully excerpt or summarize the most important stories.

Another thing Schmidt blithely overlooks is how conversational the web has become through social media. No one is going to mention on Twitter or Facebook a story cloistered behind a paywall. The evolution of the web is pushing users away from paid content, not toward it. And it’s generally not Google’s practice to hinder the technology as it evolves.

Finally, the very notion that search engines offer news for free is flat-out wrong. Google doesn’t charge its users money, but takes its payments in a currency just as precious — user data — that helps advertisers target ads at readers, whether they want them or not. As Schmidt himself noted, “Advertisers are willing to shell out a lot of money for this targeting.”

If Google really wanted to help newspapers, it wouldn’t just share revenue -– as its promising to do with its ungainly Fast Flip -– but would share its real treasure trove: unrestricted access to the data of its users.

I respect Eric Schmidt and what he’s led Google to accomplish on the web. It’s ironic, though, that his thinking stumbles once he tries to express himself on the printed page. It makes me wonder, does Google really understand news?

62 Responses to “Does Google Even Understand What News Is?”

  1. I join the opinion that this article is basically FUD. Very disappointing for such a tech-and-media-savvy site as GigaOm. Main issues:
    1. Personalization = what types of stories I like (e.g. technology, finance, containing the word NASA etc.). It’d be hard even for Google to understand your taste in news and try to provide you only with stories that you’ll enjoy. Not to mention it makes no sense as no one is reading the news for sheer entertainment value.
    2. “Search engines are by design very helpful at finding ways past news paywalls. Most everyone knows that Journal stories have long been available for free by typing the headline in Google”. That’s nonsense. Search engines have no way of reading past paywalls unless the publishers themselves let them through. You can read WSJ articles via Google because the WSJ opted-into Google’s “First Click Free” progrm (look it up). Even if there’s no paywall, publishers can easily hide their content from Google by using robots.txt.
    3. You failed to notice the Schmidt repeatedly mentions monetization – ads, subscription and micro-payments. The message as I read it is that Google wants to help newspapers monetize their content online while providing great experience to the users.

  2. Newspapers can use “google analytics” for free which tells them who visits their websites and where they are referred from. So google does share the information and it is up to the newspapers to take advantage of these tools. Google is also sharing information in other ways besides analytics, perhaps the author, Kevin Kelleher, of this news item didn’t research just like the people he defends didn’t.

    It is also disingenuous to suggest that google keeps lots of info on web traffic. They only look at aggregated data. If the newspapers were innovators like google has proven to be they could invest in the Internet and collect this data too.

    I love the quote Eric found about from Murdoch: “complacency caused by past monopolies, not technology, that has been the real threat to the news industry.” This is exactly what sums up Murdochs own perdicament now!

  3. “but would share its real treasure trove: unrestricted access to the data of its users.”

    I think it’s safe to say they won’t do that. Needless to say if they did they would breech data protection acts in several countries, and possibly some EU laws to boot. User information is valuable in it’s own way, but only when you have the resources to use it.

  4. Unconvinced

    I think it’s possible that Google has a much better understanding of what news is. News used to be something you acquired from a trusted brand. The Times, The Post, The Journal, etc. Now news is consumed like any other form of entertainment. Consider news channels like Fox, MSNBC and CNN. These venues are much closer to newstainment than what might have traditionally passed for news. People don’t want to read things that contradict their established opinions. They just want to reinforce what they believe they already know.

  5. “Schmidt’s op-ed also ignores the reality that search engines are by design very helpful at finding ways past news paywalls.”

    The Google/WSJ deal is by agreement of both parties. Murdoch could lock it down anytime he wished without Google getting access at all. You make it seem like Google is sneaking into the paywall somehow. Give me a break.

    “Most everyone knows that Journal stories have long been available for free by typing the headline in Google”

    Oh, really? So if I go down the street and ask some random Joe about this, he’ll know? Or do you mean “most every tech-savvy, longtime web user”?

  6. Two words. Fox News. Is that the model we should aim for? What about if you lived in a city with only one newspaper being a Murdoch one. All I can do is “glance” across pages and pages of biased crap. Hardly exposing me to everything. Murdoch will only be in something for himself and shateholders (and so is Google)

    • If you search for a phrase like “net neutrality” on Google, you can see their ability to weight information and influence public opinion to align with their self-interests. Can’t blame them for it, except that they, like Fox News, preach from the church of “fair and balanced”.

  7. Sorry to be rude, but this article is just a lot of FUD. Deliberately tries to misrepresent Eric Schmidt’s op-ed. Other commenters have already torn apart the argument against ‘personalization’ of news. Regarding ‘free’ – isn’t it obvious that when Schmidt says free, he means people don’t pay for the service in currency? Don’t we all already know that Google gathers data about users in exchange for the free service? Did we need this blog post to state the obvious?

    It’s fantastically naive (trying to be polite here) to suggest that Google should share data about users with news sites. If Google does that, shouldn’t Google share the same data with other sites it indexes? Doesn’t that mean Google should be sharing users’ data with the entire world, cuz… hello… Google indexes the entire Internet!

    I started coming to Gigaom to read good quality posts that made sense. It is very disappointing to see some Gigaom posts lose objectivity and stop making sense sense either because of some misguided sense Gigaom writers have of being cynical towards Google or because some writers feel downright anti-Google.

  8. What I realized by reading your article, but what you apparently don’t realize, is that there is no right or wrong. For me, Eric Schmidt is totally right. Every day I face the problem of information overload. And I haven’t found the perfect solution to solve this problem yet, but google reader and google news do a pretty good job for me. And I also think it’s important to know about the general news to know what’s going on in the world, but it only goes to a certain extent. I like to for example that Michael Jackson is dead, but I’m sick and tired of hearing about it after every news outlet has talked about it endlessly for the past months or so.

    But other people who are very average in their news consumption may like it better to just read what the news paper thinks it’s best for them.

    I think you can compare it to the strategies of iPhone versus Android. the iPhone strategy is a one size fits all device with little room for personalization. the Android strategy is one with many devices to choose from, each device having much room for personalization and tweaking.

    • Stefan, thanks to you and others who have made thoughtful replies here.

      I wrote this post after noticing that many people (including me) had repeatedly blasted media executives for being clueless about the Web. There’s no argument that, for the most part, this has been the case so far. But what about looking at it from the other way – do Web executives understand news? To me, the question isn’t controversial, but logical to ask.

      Before the Web, it was mostly top editors who decided what stories you should read. Thanks to Google and others, the distribution of news stories is now more democratic. Just as journalists can stumble in their judgments, why can’t engineers and Web executives?

      Or to put it another way: 2015 is a long way off. The question of how exactly Google will be personalizing and sending us news is far from settled. So I think it makes sense to ask these questions and have this discussion today.

  9. Kevin,
    I think you’ve made the typical business journalist mistake of taking the words of an industry goliath at face value (used to happen all the time with Bill Gates).
    Firstly your headline is a bit silly: Schmidt isn’t professing to be a news expert, he’s professing to be a web expert, and if old media companies want to use that medium, they need to be willing to adapt to the web’s rules (not Google’s rules).
    I use Google News to give me feeds based on keywords, eg. ‘Barbados’ (to check on my 2nd home’s domestic news and international footprint). It gives me good and bad news, from a plethora of sources, many of which I would not have discovered without it. So, rather than ‘tunneling’ my news, it actually diversifies it.
    As for search engines finding their way past paywalls, not the high quality stuff. You know who the leaders are on the web in generating revenue and protecting content? Porn sites. Schmidt’s point is that news media companies need to start learning a few web lessons, rather than griping about the web (again NOT Google) not following their old rules.
    The notion of Google sharing ‘unrestricted’ access to its treasure trove of user data is ‘flat out wrong’. It would be thoroughly wreckless, not only for their business model, but also their users.

    I’d like to bat this back at you, Kevin: do you (and these news media companies) really know what the web is?

    • Schmidt’s comments weren’t made off the cuff or in a private briefing. He wrote them in an opinion piece as Google’s CEO and Chairman, a piece that was very likely reviewed and vetted by others at Google. As such, it’s entirely fair to take them at face value.

  10. While I do agree with much of this, you argue that personalized news creates a tunnel vision. Well, even print newspapers offer that.

    At the top of every news organization is someone that, ultimately, looks at the company below them as a legacy, something to leave their foot-print on. More commonly than not, this person will push whatever personal slant on news that they have, along the way.

    I think what Schmidt was explaining is that if you are a Conservative that likes to only read conservative news, this theorized device will give you popular conservative news.

    However, if you like to read both sides (as it sounds like both you and I do), the device would be able to do that as well.

    Furthermore, this is a double edged sword. If Google were to share its precious user-data, that would indeed help the market get back to making money with a no-middleman marketing scheme. However, I largely believe the public would be in an outrage over the concept and therefore, would discontinue the use of Google, thus making its targeting methods null-and-void.

    It is far better, in my opinion, for Google to hold to their unwillingness (even if it is just a hope and a dream) of doing evil in order to maintain a majority trust with its user base. Personally, I’m a much bigger fan of Google having my user data and passing percentage points for advertising to the news site b/c of an agreement between them rather than sharing my information.

    Maybe that’s just me.

  11. Antoine Bonnin

    Interesting article, defining news is a real problem since most of what we hear and see is usually filtered by private interests which will put profits ahead of journalism. Your point about “news gadget” misunderstands Schmidt’s point. When you say “strikes me as a bit dystopian and suggests a fundamental ignorance of what news actually is”. The “news gadget” which understands your preferences would result in a widespread unhappiness and suffering? It’s one thing to critic someone about something they’ve said, but the use of glittering generalities do not help your argument.

    “The evolution of the web is pushing users away from paid content, not toward it.” Actually I believe the opposite is happening unless we give up the use of monetary currencies across the world. The future of the web will see more people pay for specific pieces of content. Niche content and their providers are the future of the web. People will pay for what they really enjoy.

  12. Mark Osborne

    Good commentary, but avoiding unpleasant news is the norm with the mainstream media already – the only difference is that much of the media simply avoids reporting on things they find unpleasant. A perfect case in point is the complete absence of any reporting on ClimateGate by the big three evening newscasts, despite the fact that this story has been discussed by the New York Times, the Drudge Report, the British press, etc. and has been an active story for the past two weeks.

  13. I also have to agree with Tim F. I try to read about 500 or so articles on urban transit, city planning and other related topics a day. I want to see all articles based on that topic but I don’t want to read through every single newspaper in the United States for one article in each paper. I don’t mind if there are dissenting article because i want to know what the other side is saying. So far google news alerts are the best way to do this but I still have to wade through the bs to get to the gems of the day. And a lot of times even key words don’t work to find articles. The real question here is whether newspapers or news as a whole knows its audience. While I like knowing generally what’s going on in the world, I also want to know specifically whats going on in my industry.

  14. I agree with this article in some respects (I particularly dislike the idea of Google feeding me news instead of just return my search results), but I see two big problems with your point.

    First, the click-by problem is caused by lazy programmers taking shortcuts and not properly securing their site. If my bank forgot to lock their doors, and someone stole the money, would they yell that it is the phone company’s fault because they listed the address? That is exactly what these sites are doing. If the story is not free, the site should make sure that the visitor is validated at the page, and re-direct them to a login screen if not. This is what any legitimate programmer would do. Google isn’t to blame here. All it does is let them know that the story exists, and where to find it.

    Second, Your last few paragraphs are extremely far off the mark. Google is a search engine. They let everyone know that the story exists and where to find it. They collect advertising dollars for that service. Considering the fact that Google is indexing the news sites for free, I would say that Google -ALREADY IS- helping out the newspapers. Telling everyone that the news is there is not robbery, it is free advertising.

  15. Kevin Kelliher makes some elegant points about the value of serendipity in news and the unlikelihood of algorithms delivering that or the “water cooler” conversations we all need for social currency. Search has done and will do many wonderful things, whether Google or Bing or Wolfram or Hakia, but there is a value to journalist curation — not to mention creation of content. Kelliher may be right that it’s not the Internet killing news but we do all have to work to protect and fund those producing news, particularly those who do it from expensive, important and dangerous places like Iraq, Afghanistan or Antarctica.

  16. “but would share its real treasure trove: unrestricted access to the data of its users.”

    There is helping business partners for mutual benefit and then there is just being stupid, and giving away a core part of its competitive advantage to newspapers or anyone else would be the latter? Why on Earth would or should Google want to do that?

  17. Google is the king of fake open source. You make the great point that “free” is their marketing term. At their core they are not about giving anything away, but milking their “right place at the right time” monopoly in the precise spirit of Microsoft.

    Just another greedy corporation past the phase of innovation and into the phase of exploitation; Murdoch is at least honest.

  18. “If Google really wanted to help newspapers, it wouldn’t just share revenue -– as its promising to do with its ungainly Fast Flip -– but would share its real treasure trove: unrestricted access to the data of its users.”

    Ummm. Don’t give Schmidt any ideas. Our personal data is already flowing from one entity to another behind our backs as it is.

  19. Sure, the web’s conversationality has greatly increased, and that’s tearing down pay walls. I’m not sure how this can be laid at the feet of Google, especially if they’re trying to help papers with pay walls enforce them…

  20. One of the most rational and sensible pieces I have read on this debate. The thing is there is a massive shake up happening and there will continue to be for the next 3 years but nobody knows where it will end up, not Schmidt, Not Murdoch and certainly not you or I. What you can be sure about is that news and paid journalists will always be around. For all the citizen journalism and real time reporting there needs to be proper reflection and reporting on the stories and that will always come through paid journalists. Where they work and how their salaries will be paid is anybodies guess

  21. I was going to post exactly what Tim F. did. There’s different levels to personalization…it doesn’t imply anything you’re uncomfortable with won’t be visible to you. But you could make it leave out stories that have zero interest for you, uncomfortable or not. I think Schmidt’s example of rating to tweak this is describing exactly that.

    Also, you mention Google advertiser targeting, though neither Google News nor Fast Flip display advertising on their pages, so the revenue argument does not make sense. It makes even less sense for Google to be sharing their user data with the news sites. They’re already providing each other benefits – Google gets news snippets, and in return the news sites get more viewers since you can’t read the story on Google News. There’s no incentive for Google to share the user data they collect.

    • Niraj, these are good points. I’d point out that tweaking implies a want, not a need. Many times what people want – a second mortgage, one last drink, news you like – are exactly what they don’t need.

      You’re right that there is no incentive for Google to share its user data, and my suggestion they should was made cynically because they never will. But my point was that this is incredibly valuable data that could help news sites, who have every incentive to ask for it.

  22. I’m not sure your own points are very strong, Kevin. Personalization doesn’t inherently mean “stories you want to read”; certainly, personalization can involve “stories I don’t want to read but I think are important.” Secondly, your second and third points are contradictory: first, you say that the social nature of the web means that news will find its way past paywalls, and then you say that if a story is behind a paywall, it won’t be discussed socially.

    • I don’t want news served to me based on what some algorithm assumes might interest me. How I form my interests comes from reading unexpected news.

      No newsreader is going to think a 35-yr-old woman living in SF who often searches for fashion brands and computer gadgets might enjoy a story about the politics of an obscure tribe in Zimbabwe, or about NASCAR. I would read both, and open my mind to new experiences and new passions.

      It’s not about where you’ve been, its where you are going. Google should stay out of my way and stop trying to influence me in order to get me to buy their advertisers goods.

      After all, do not forget that despite lots of flashy brands, Google is an ADVERTISING COMPANY.

  23. Well, you’re basically correct in what news are: uncomfortable… but on the other hand nobody said that Google would only present comfortable news to you.

    The logic could simply be turned around to deliver you the things you should read instead of only recommending more stuff that you possibly like to read:

    Not like “oh, you like X? so you probably also like Y”…
    More like “oh, you like X? then you should probably also read Z, although you might not like it”

    It’s too early to asume the outcome of Schmidt’s ‘fantasies’ — but Google is certainly not interested in creating users living insulated from dissenting views; it needs users ‘searching’ (!) for new things…

    • It is early, Erik. Still, while I don’t know what percentage of news readers seek out news that makes them uncomfortable, I suspect it’s small. Some people want to shut it out – just look at how many people who follow only one cable news channel as if it were a sports team. One of the benefits of a print newspaper is that it is by nature impersonal – you are forced to get the good with the bad on your doorstep.

      Maybe Google and others are moving in this direction, but when Schmidt imagines a news gadget giving me what I like based on what I have read, it sure doesn’t sound like it.

      • Scott, Seattle WA

        I read Schmidt’s comments rather differently; for “like” I imagined he was talking about personalizing the news the way that Google News already does… not by excluding specific stories that might make you uncomfortable, but by allowing you to focus on the types of stories you find interesting. It’s more about categories than stories… if you like space news, for instance, it’s about serving up content that has that focus, not about leaving out the ones where the shuttles explode.

        You could be right, but I think the leap you are making hinged on the word “like” is further than the context seems to support, and so far I haven’t seen any evidence that Google is going further with this than the news organizations themselves have gone (already perhaps several steps too far, of course).

  24. Martyn Davies

    But then on the subject of “personalized news”, you need only look at Murdoch’s own Fox News that does a pretty thorough job of “insulating from the dissenting views and unpleasant truths”.

    • A good friend, an SF liberal to end all liberals, recently had to spend a lot of time in the South. Many of the hotel rooms apparently only included Fox News as a news channel (according to her).

      She came back last night and said, “you know, I expected it to be so much worse. I mean, yes, many of the commentators lean conservative, but the opposite view always has a say. I found it to be informative and thought-provoking even if I often disagreed.”

      Therefore I’m forced to wonder – do you ever watch it? Or simply bleat the party line?

      And why do people like you always insist on inserting politics into a tech story? I know you think all technophiles are liberals, but you are way wrong. You lose credibility.

      • Scott, Seattle WA

        I think you are the only one pulling politics into this. It is hardly political to point out that Murdoch, a focus of the story, already runs a “news” organization that primarily succeeds by doing exactly what Kelleher is claiming people don’t want.

        Slim may be reacting to the same phantom you were, but he is simply proving the point that Martyn made by pointing out that almost all news sources already provide exactly what Kelleher says “isn’t news.”

  25. Susan Schimatior

    This very point was argued in the new book “Wired for Thought”. In fact, Schmidt’s example of a news tool that knows who you are came from the book and the author argued, not as Schmidt does, that this will complement offline news and bridge the time gap without affecting the quality or varacity. Maybe Schmidt is borrowing ideas b/c hasn’t formulated one for himself yet but we can’t blame him at this early a point. These are very interesting times in news and it is interesting to watch it all play out.

    • Imagine this – you watch a news item on terrorism, you search for the terminator movie, look up for a hardware store..and then there’s a knock on your door. Thanks to google algorithms and google’s submission to the FBI, you now have the right to remain silent, anything you say or dont, and anything you did on that stupid netbook, will be used against you.

      Wow, the price you pay to get ads targeted to you!