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Opinion Google News failed us, says New York Times

Google's logo displayed in Paris on Feb. 18. (Lionel Bonaventure/AFP)

The New York Times put three investigative reporters on the story of President Trump’s family financial history. What resulted was a scoop of thunderous (if perhaps underappreciated) proportions, highlighting all the suspicious and downright fraudulent tax schemes pursued by Trump and his family members. The investigative team identified “295 streams of revenue that Fred Trump created over five decades to enrich his son.”

A spinoff of that investigation in May determined that Trump’s “core businesses” lost $1.17 billion over the decade from 1985 to 1994. It’s because of that story that New York Times Publisher A.G. Sulzberger nourished a gripe against Google.

“So we do this major tax investigation. We have exclusive documents and exclusive sources. No one’s able to match it,” said Sulzberger on Tuesday at the Code Conference. “Right now, the New York Times has spent two years, we have gotten this story to the world. And Google alerted the story — God bless 'em. It’s a big deal. This story’s a big deal and Google alerted them. They alerted CNN’s version.”

Here’s the Google News alert in question, per the New York Times:

The beneficiary of that alert appears to have been this CNN aggregation job: “New York Times: Tax documents show Trump businesses lost more than $1 billion in a decade.” It’s a capably written summary, but it’s also entirely derivative of New York Times news investment. There’ll be no knocking CNN for doing a quick and professional aggregation of a significant story; not doing so would have been shortchanged its readers.

The questions here, rather, funnel toward Google. How in the world did its alert system credit a downstream version of such a big story?

In his discussion with Recode’s Peter Kafka, Sulzberger said he’d “flagged” the matter for Google. In turn, this blog asked the New York Times if it had received a response. “Google said they’d look into this matter and we’re waiting to hear more. They did not issue a new alert,” wrote spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades Ha in response to questions from the Erik Wemple Blog. Ha cited another example in which Google News issued an alert for a Times op-ed written by Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes — an alert crediting a summary written by CNBC. Perhaps Google News alerts are biased toward cable news?

The Erik Wemple Blog on Tuesday sent a request for comment to Google, supplemented by another on Wednesday. We have yet to hear back.

The publisher’s dismay echoes mainstream media laments of years past, when whippersnapper digital media outlets devised fail-safe ways — cut-to-the-chase summaries, compelling headlines — of robbing traffic from their enterprise stories. Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the New York Times, recalls how the Huffington Post (these days shortened to HuffPost) used to game search engines to hijack the newspaper’s traffic. One example was a New York Times piece on the WikiLeaks war logs. “Within minutes, HuffPost had its War Logs story up based on ours and won on [search engine optimization],” recalls Abramson in an email. (She was managing editor of the newspaper at the time.)

These days, the focus of industry concern has moved upstream, to the role of Google and Facebook in siphoning the Internet’s digital advertising revenue and forcing news outlets to make a living off subscription revenue. At a House hearing on Tuesday, advocates for the news business — including David Chavern, chief executive of the News Media Alliance — advocated for the Journalism Competition and Preservation Act, which would create a four-year antitrust exemption to news businesses, the better to empower them to bargain for a better deal vis-a-vis the tech giants. “What we’re asking for is the ability for news publishers to act collectively to bargain for a better, more sustainable arrangement,” Chavern told CNN Business. “Because the platforms now [take] advantage of all of our content and return very little of the money back to sustain the future of journalism.” Fix those alerts, too.

Read more from Erik Wemple:

NYT publisher: The ‘Trump bump’ is ‘overblown’

Why is the New York Times wary of cable news?

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