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.


Michael Andersen December 8, 2009 Reply

I’m with you almost ’til the end, Daniel. Why is it unfortunate that Google is the innovator here? Isn’t it fortunate that a company that specializes in filtering information is helping develop software for contextual journalism?

Especially without securing a revenue model up front?

Also, haven’t the NYT and WaPo been working with Google on this for months? Just being smart enough to work with Google on this requires a few ounces of the innovative thinking that most newspapers seemed to lack five years ago, when they still thought they were monopolists.

Newspapers have definitely failed to appreciate the journalistic possibilities of software. But why should we expect them to? I doubt software will ever be their core competence. Better for the smartest papers to build partnerships like this one.

Daniel Bachhuber December 9, 2009 Reply

Fortunate for Google, I suppose, and fortunate for the news organizations involved if they’re able to negotiate a beneficial cut when there’s money involved.

A “company that specializes in filtering information” sounds awfully like a description for a news organization, however, and the schtick I’ve been on for the last year or so is all about increasing the technical capacity of news organizations. “Newspapers” seem to have forgotten the importance of this. They’ve always had designers and competitions for the most state of the art printing presses, right? The environment has shifted and they need to shift competency too to keep up.

Granted, there’s been a lot of good experiments coming out of The New York Times’ Interactive Group, but creativity like Living Stories is something I’d love to see on their domain, not Google’s.

Michael Andersen December 9, 2009 Reply

Yeah, I hear you. I’m probably biased on this — when I look at newspaper companies I tend to overemphasize the editorial stuff and editorial-controlled Web stuff.

I bet you’re right that their technical expertise is excellent in the field where they make all their money: print production.

You’re the software expert in this conversation, but I don’t see why we should look to newspapers as the companies that should do great software engineering. Don’t economies of scale mean that maintaining state-of-the-art software requires a national or global player, while maintaining a state-of-the-art printing press is an inherently local/regional investment?

I think the 90s concept behind Tribune, Knight-Ridder, and the other national chains was that newspapers could pool the cash from dozens of local gushers and form national/global enterprises that would build great software. But it seems at this point that the big corporations didn’t pull cash out of all their little fiefdoms fast enough to compete on software technology. And now they’re trapped in a debt spiral.

To state the obvious: I’ve given up on hoping that any legacy news organizations can lead innovations. I might be wrong, but that’s one of my guiding assumptions at the moment.

Michael Andersen December 9, 2009 Reply

Er, to clarify: legacy news organizations can change. But I don’t think they’ve got any incentive to drive change, and I don’t see why we should spend energy pushing them to do so. They’re not inherently noble companies, and there’s no reason to wish for their success in particular.

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