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How tech’s giants want to re-invent journalism

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Some of Silicon Valley’s biggest technology companies reject suggestions they are now news organisations.

But they nevertheless think they have the prescription for what news media must do next…

First, the disclosures: “We’re not a news company,” Google’s head of news products and Google+ programming Richard Gingras told media executives at the Paley Center’s international council of media executives in Madrid on Thursday. “We’re a platform,” Facebook’s journalism manager Vadim Lavrusik duly followed.

Oh, really… ?

Kill the article

“Do we not deserve to rethink the architecture of what a ‘story’ is, the form of presentation and narrative to meet the needs of people who are consuming, not just by articles?,” Google’s Gingras, who previously led Salon Media Group and pioneering online community The Well, asked at the gathering.

“As Larry Page once said to me,” Gingras relayed, “‘Why don’t reporters do more footnoting?’

For 15 years, one of the big promises of online journalism is harnessing hypermedia to better present contextual information. Linkages can easily be made between distinct events in ongoing stories, portions of those stories can be elucidated.

But Google tried to show news producers this promise two years ago, with its Living Stories system for exploring story timelines, and canned the project following experiments with leading news organisations. Content production systems are still mostly designed to celebrate the classical narrative story.

Context is king

People want analysis from journalists,” Facebook’s Lavrusik advised. He showed data from the social network’s recent engagement with news brands suggesting ”posts with journalists’ analysis receive 20 percent more referral clicks (than others).”

“Most newsgathering is still done in a very traditional way,” Lavrusik told me. “In too many places, it’s still ‘this is what’s happening’, not contextualising what’s happening. What needs to change is – there’s a lack of discovering why this is happening, the context.”

SQL at J-school

We need to rethink how we teach journalism,” Google’s Gingras proposed.

“There will be a day – and it should not be far from now – where we can create persistent forms of stories not written in narrative form but in (Google) Fusion Tables and query strings, status updates and tweets.

“This is a renaissance of media and journalism,” he said, explaining “computational journalism” can amount to “the reinvention of the reporter’s notebook”

Less is more

“Because everyone can publish now, how do you show you’re the person to go to?” Facbeook’s Lavrusik asked.

“Media companies have approached it from ‘we need to chase more eyeballs, we need to create more content’. So journalists who created a few articles in one week are now doing that in one day.

“But content isn’t scarce – it’s the contextualisation and making sense of that content that’s becoming scarce.”

Nevermind the homepage

Seventy-five percent of uniques are coming from external sources, only 25 percent are coming to the homepage,” Google Gringras warned. “This is significantly higher than it was three years ago.

“That suggests we’re not seeing a reconsideration of the design of the site in the first place.

“You go through your site redesign and 90 percent of your focus is on the homepage, because that’s how you present yourself to the world,” Gringras told the assembled news bosses.

Facebook’s Lavrusik backed him up. “I completely agree (with) this idea of re-thinking the article page design,” Lavrusik said. “The way news pages are designed is still the traditional way. It doesn’t line up with how people are discovering that content.”

Find the niche in the haystack

Amongst the biggest challenges for news media’s adapting to digital is highly specialised competition from disaggregated niche services and outlets to newsgatherers’ big, broad brands.

“Large media organisations need to rethink how they segment,” Gingras professed. “There are many niche products out there.

“Should we not reconsider the validity of that all-things-to all-people brand in favour of a stable of acquired or built brands?”

We’ll be talking about these media issues and more at paidContent 2012, May 23 in New York City.

12 Responses to “How tech’s giants want to re-invent journalism”

  1. ITProPortal

    So, in a nutshell, the wolf is guiding the sheep to the slaughterhouse. Wouldn’t be a surprise if Google buys (or build something similar to) Narrativescience.

  2. Renee Marie Jones

    You count success as “clicks” because that’s what easy to count, not because it really means anything. You can get a lot of clicks if you lie to your customers, making them think you have something they want … they will click to get there, but leave as soon as they realise they have been “had.” That’s what’s wrong with big media … all show and no substance. You will go down the drain trying ever harder to peddle your crap until finally you reach the end you deserve: bankruptcy.

  3. Tim Bajkiewicz

    I’m constantly stressing context with my journalism college students, but news orgs aren’t set up to highlight this or reward it. It’s about feeding the “beast.” As great as it would be to have something like Google Living Stories, I’m not convinced people would flock to it. We’ve had contextualized info available in different forms for a long time and they’ve never gotten much traction.

  4. Donn Friedman

    This discussion is moot if there isn’t an economic model to support truth-seeking. Many different ways of story telling are valid, but changing the method of telling the stories, the devices that deliver the stories or the data-structure of the news won’t feed the storytellers.

  5. Dilyan Damyanov

    Some valid points in the article as well as in the comments. Proof, perhaps, that interactive/collaborative storytelling is indeed better than the traditional linear approach?

  6. JeanSFleming

    Very interesting piece with many valid points, but also a major assumption – that the “facts” are self-evident, available, and agreed upon. Part of the journalistic task is uncovering the facts, and as we know from some of the great reportage that has national and international consequence, the self-evidence of these things is not, in fact, crowd-sourceable. While the twitter reporting on the Arab Spring has been a fascinating element of the story, it surfaced impression, anecdote and fragments. The journalist’s role is to take those fragments, fact check them, and frame them into a coherent, verifiable data set. Whether or not that form is a story or other form, is open for evolution, but the need for digging and fact checking cannot be lost.

  7. Ana Bee

    Except people still THINK in linear narratives. Journalism is also about getting people to read/hear/watch the story, not just click on it and get referred to another and another and another in an infinite loop of headlines from which nothing is understood.

    Stashing a lot of links around the story, even if they lead to all sorts of content, is not good enough. No amount of tweets will help unless you truly integrate them into the linear narrative.

    At least until; we breed a hum,an being capable of reading few things at once.