By Howard Kurtz
Wednesday, December 9, 2009
Take the engineering mystique of Google, add the prestige of The Washington Post and New York Times, throw in the spice of secret meetings, and what have you got?
A new online tool that, well, isn't exactly going to revolutionize journalism. But those involved in the partnership between the California software giant and two of the nation's top newspapers see it as a first step toward changing the way news is consumed online.
It's called a living story page, and Google executives are touting it as their contribution to the beleaguered newspaper business. The idea is to simplify things for readers by grouping developing stories about a hot topic -- say, Tiger Woods -- on a single Web page, with updates automatically highlighted at the top of the screen.
"So much of what you see online today is a reflection of the way it's told in newspapers," says Josh Cohen, senior business product manager for Google News. "They haven't taken advantage of what the Web offers to tell news in a different way."
By grouping the stories at http://livingstories.googlelabs.comday after day under one Web address, the Times and Post could boost their Google rankings, which would tend to push those pages toward the top of the list when people search for that subject. After the Tuesday launch, the story pages will reside at Google Labs for an experimental period of two to three months, and revert to the papers' own Web sites if all goes well.
"Over the coming months, we'll refine Living Stories based on your feedback," Google says in a blog posting. If the format gains traction, Google plans to offer it to any interested newspaper, magazine or Web site, at no charge.
For now, The Post is launching three such pages, on health-care reform, D.C. schools and the Washington Redskins. The Times has five, devoted to Afghanistan, executive compensation, global warming, swine flu and health care.
R.B. Brenner, deputy editor of The Post's new Universal News Desk, which oversees its print and Web operations, says the "one-stop shopping" approach could spare readers from having to hunt for previous stories on a subject. "The idea is that users, news consumers, are interested in experiencing news in different ways, and it's important for news organizations to be experimenting. . . . The question is, when you take the car out for a spin, what are the advantages?"
The confidential meetings, which began last spring, grew out of conversations between Eric Schmidt, Google's chief executive, and Donald Graham, The Washington Post Co.'s chief executive. Google later began separate discussions with senior Times executives.
The initiative comes as some media executives, led by Rupert Murdoch, are blaming Google for grabbing their content without charge when newspapers are struggling to generate enough revenue to support their newsrooms. A generation of Web surfers has grown up searching for individual stories rather than visiting major media portals.
"Google is a great source of promotion," Schmidt wrote last week in a Wall Street Journal opinion piece. "We send online news publishers a billion clicks a month from Google News and more than 3 billion extra visits from our other services, such as Web Search and iGoogle. The claim that we're making big profits on the back of newspapers also misrepresents the reality."
For a company that invented Google Maps and Gmail, the living story pages lack technological bells and whistles, although multimedia elements could be added later. Topic pages, which collect a media outlet's work on a specific subject, already exist at the Times and at such aggregation sites as the Huffington Post.
Readers of each story page can click on a list of themes, such as "test scores," "labor issues" or "the racial divide" on The Post's D.C. schools page. Other choices include "events," "articles," "images," "videos," "graphics" and "opinion." A timeline of key developments appears near the top. Stories deemed by editors to be more important get bigger play, perhaps with a photo. Readers can choose to display a list of stories with the latest or oldest at the top. When they return to a page, new material since their last visit is highlighted. And clicking on certain words within an article causes small boxes -- such as a picture and brief bio of D.C. Schools Chancellor Michelle A. Rhee -- to pop up.
One advantage of collecting pieces on the same page is that many paragraphs of background material -- needed in a daily paper because editors don't know who has read the earlier stories -- can be eliminated. But Post editors are concerned that the overall process could eat up valuable staff time unless it is made more automated.
During the process a half-dozen Google staffers spent three days in the Post newsroom in May, trailing editors and reporters with notepads and video cameras like some archaeological expedition. "The culture of Google is a culture of engineers," Brenner says. "We exist in different worlds."