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.

Another case for the news wiki

From Steve Myers’ interview with Jimmy Wales, published yesterday:

People do often come to Wikipedia when major news is breaking. This is not our primary intention, but of course it happens. The reason that it happens is that the traditional news organizations are not doing a good job of filling people in on background information. People come to us because we do a better job at meeting their informational needs.

Jason Fry adds further analysis today in a piece about rethinking sports reporting:

It’s a quietly devastating indictment of journalism. And Wales is absolutely right, for reasons explored very capably a couple of months back by Matt Thompson. Arrive at the latest newspaper story about, say, the health-care debate and you’ll be told what’s new at the top, then given various snippets of background that you’re supposed to use to orient yourself. Which is serviceable if you’ve been following the story (though in that case you’ll know the background and stop reading), but if you’re new you’ll be utterly lost — you’ll need, to quote Thompson, “a decoder ring, attainable only through years of reading news stories and looking for patterns”. On Wikipedia, breaking news gets put into context — and not in some upside-down format that tells you the very latest development that may or may not affect the larger narrative before it gives you the basics of that narrative so you can understand what that news means.

Along these lines, Wikipedia was the third place I looked for information after hearing about the swine flu outbreak last April; the first blog post I read and stories provided by the New York Times iPhone application proved inadequate.

How should a news wiki be executed? I have my ideas but the only real way to find out is to experiment.

#swineflu and the changing news ecology

On Saturday, I spent the day discussing the evolution of the news at BarCamp NewsInnovation Philly. It was something I had planned on attending for over a month and, as such, I had a pretty good idea on Thursday and Friday of what I wanted to discuss. With the story of swine flu infections breaking all around us, though, I was certain we had something new that we had to talk about: the role of the news organization in an ecosystem with multiplying non-traditional means for information dissemination.

It’s the biggest story of the weekend, no doubt, but there’s a meta-discussion to be had too. I first caught wind of the story late Friday night while waiting for Sean Blanda to pick me up from PHL. Processing through Google Reader, I briefly skimmed Xark!’s “Flu: Don’t panic, but pay attention.” The honest truth, however, is that I didn’t pay attention and it didn’t stick. The next morning as we drove to Temple University for #bcniphilly I was skimming through Google Reader on my iPhone again. This time I came across a post from Vinay Gupta on how you should take action if it becomes a pandemic flu (i.e. what steps you should take to be proactive). His perspective is what perked my interest to learn more.

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