The importance of Google’s Living Stories

Google's Living Story for Afghanistan

Google, in collaboration with The New York Times and The Washington Post, dropped a bombshell today in the battle for the future of news: Living Stories. The new project is described as “an experiment in presenting news, one designed specifically for the online environment,” and there are currently pages for eight different topics, including the climate change negotiations, the war in Afghanistan, and the healthcare debate.

There are four reasons why Living Stories are a Very Important Thing:

Topics are introduced with context. Each has an approachable, up-to-date summary at the top of the page that acts as a primer for the issue. The primer includes links, too; if the reader wants to learn more about a specific event presented in the summary, it’s just a click away. Let’s compare: The New York Times topic page for global warming and Google’s Living Story for climate change. In my opinion, Google’s information hierarchy wins.

Time is heavily leveraged for perspective. The clickable timeline with milestone headlines underneath the initial topic summary is a powerful method for understanding how the “living story” has unfolded to date. Stories are also presented in reverse-chronological order, making it easier to dive back into history for deeper understanding.

Filtering by the abstract components that make up an ongoing story is absolutely brilliant. For the Afghanistan page, this means “All coverage” can be filtered down to “The Global Response,” “Casualties,” and “The Afghan Elections,” among others.

“No updates since last visit.” The future of news is personalized. More importantly, personalized in the sense that the news knows what’s news to me.

A critical ethos of contextual journalism is to drive understanding. The goal should be to present a topic in such a way that the new information starts where the reader is at, and then lends the opportunity for the reader to learn as much as they have time for. The nut to crack is how you scale this method of presenting information across all of the topics a news organization may cover. That riddle involves what the information architecture looks like, how you incorporate production into the editorial workflow, and how you ensure the pages stay consistent and up-to-date.

In the Times article about the announcement, Josh Cohen of Google News said “if [Living Stories] worked well, Google would make the software available free to publishers to embed in their sites, much as those publishers can now use Google Maps and YouTube functions on their sites.” From the business perspective, it’s again unfortunate that Google is the one seriously innovating with the intersection of technology and journalism. Derek Willis notes that Living Stories was built “in collaboration with news organizations” using their APIs. Google Search was built in collaboration with content producers and their XML sitemaps.

Content doesn’t matter without the package. The package is how you make the money, and Google looks like it’s doing serious experimentation with one key component of a rebooted system of news: context.