Exactly what online news should be or become is a subject that consumed the “blue sky” discussions among publishers since the late 1990s. Despite every concept they’ve ever created, tried or untried, what publishers typically end up with is either something that looks segmented and departmentalized like CNN.com or NYTimes.com, or is basically a blog whose scroll reveals a history of news, like it was printed on a roll of paper towels.
So the concept that Google Labs began attempting yesterday with its “Living Stories” concept (whose name for some reason brings to mind a certain peacock) is absolutely not new. It’s been discussed before, in some fashion or another, and even approved — for what it’s worth. But on a large scale, it’s never been done until yesterday: assembling all the stories relating to a pertinent, current topic on a page devoted to the topic, not the publisher and not some permanent department of the publication like “Sports” or “Tech.”
Conceptually, the Living Stories concept makes a lot of sense, making the topic the center of the news. It requires the publisher to think differently about not only how news is presented, but how it’s gathered. Publications typically assign reporters based on their defined coverage area, or “beat.” Over the years, I’ve been involved in discussions on the subject of topic-centered publishing, and one question I’ve often heard raised is, “Won’t this mean we have to start designating topics to reporters rather than beats?”
At last, the Washington Post and The New York Times have decided to actually try the experiment in practice, and see the answers for themselves. The papers are Google Labs’ initial partners, although which paper came first is a matter for some debate — naturally, the Post‘s Howard Kurtz reported this morning that the Post was first.
As Google News product manager Josh Cohen implied in a blog post yesterday, the question of which came first isn’t as important as who’s providing the platform: “This project sprang from conversations among senior executives at the three companies. We shared thoughts about how the Web can work for storytelling, and the Times and Post shared their core journalistic principles. The Living Stories started taking shape over the summer after our engineering and user interface teams spent time in the newsrooms of both papers. We’re providing the technology platform, the Times and Post‘s journalists are writing and editing the stories, and we’re continuously collaborating to make the user interface fit with their editorial vision.”
Kurtz’ reporting also revealed an interesting detail: The platform that Google is providing will also serve as the container for the papers’ content — it will actually be hosting these stories, perhaps for as long as the next 90 days.
In the initial run, it appears that the Post and the Times have divvied up the rights to certain topics. For example, all stories pertaining to Health Care coverage are covered by the Post, while the Afghan War and the Swine Flu are topics delegated to the Times. This precludes the first stage of the experiment from being able to demonstrate what could have been its most impressive achievement: blending together the timelines and the resources from multiple sources, into a single portal.
Maybe a single portal cannot be accomplished without appointing some automatic algorithm as its gatekeeper — something like Google News, which publishers have learned to simultaneously love and hate. So will the culmination of the Living Stories project be a single, viable business model for online newspaper publishing, in which Google plays a role? Betanews asked Google spokesperson Chris Gaither this afternoon.
“Our goal from day one — a goal shared by both Google and our partners — has been to take whatever lessons we learn and tools we develop together and make them broadly available to any news publishers interested in taking these ideas forward,” Gaither told Betanews. “In the long term, this could be one of many solutions that increases the amount of time people spend on news sites, which could lead to more revenue for publishers. But right now we and our partners are most interested in experimenting with ways to build more engaging Web experiences for users.”
Next: Is there any money in it?
Is there any money in it?
Is there a plan for the Times and the Post to be compensated for their appearance in Google Living Stories? “As for direct compensation, this was a collaborative effort: Google provided the technology platform for Living Stories, the Times and Post’s journalists wrote and edited the stories, and we collaborated to make the user interface fit with these news organizations’ editorial vision,” responded Google’s Chris Gaither. “We decided with our partners that Google Labs was the best place to host this experiment for now as we test the ideas behind it, but our goal is for publishers to host Living Stories on their own Web sites.”
That’s a very interesting assertion, especially given Kurtz’ revelation that “the story pages will reside at Google Labs for an experimental period…and revert to the papers’ own Web sites if all goes well.” Apparently, Google Labs is working on software that would eventually enable online news publishers to present articles using the Living Stories format, through their own servers.
Whether these stories will be meshed together in a collective timeline, the way the first Living Stories test does now, may be undetermined at this point. That would imply that stories are also available through a single portal — a collective portal that publishers may perhaps “opt into” as an alternative or supplement to Google News, the company’s current released version of its aggregation service.
In the meantime, Google is actually offering the concept of the format as a kind of free contribution to the publishing community, assuming anyone out there had the software to accomplish it.
“Google Living Stories represents one possible implementation of these characteristics,” reads the company’s Principles of Living Stories, published yesterday. “Any news organization, however, can apply these elements for a living story section on their site.”
Or as Gaither put it to us, “If publishers decide to implement Living Stories on their own Web sites, they certainly can.
“Our goal is to innovate on existing presentations of journalism that take greater advantage of technological capabilities on the Web,” he added. “We hope that news publishers find the ideas embodied in the Living Story compelling, and consider adopting it on their own Web sites. For this reason, we plan to work on open source tools for creating Living Stories that any news organization can use. For the duration of this initial experiment, however, Living Story Pages will contain news content provided only by the Times and the Post.”
Although the “editorial vision” of Living Stories, for now, may represent the insight of just two publishers (which have collaborated together before — in the case of the International Herald Tribune, for 37 years), the financial vision for the system has yet to be supplied by anyone at all. Gaither told us that advertising — Google’s core business — will not play a role in Living Stories during the experiment.
But it’s unimaginable that Google would attempt this experiment on such a high level with zero business interest whatsoever. Last September, the company revealed in its response to a questionnaire from the Newspaper Association of America, that it was working on a hosting system for news content that would enable publishers to invoke a micropayment model, paying as little as fractions of a cent for reading articles from participating publishers…assuming publishers participate.
And that may be what Living Stories is truly about: getting at least two publishers to participate in something Google is doing.
“The news industry is undergoing a difficult transition, driven in no small part by print subscription declines and increased competition for classified and display advertising dollars,” noted Chris Gaither to Betanews today. “Journalism is an important source of the high quality information for which Google users search, and it’s crucial for an informed citizenry. We’re happy to see so many news publishers trying experiments, and we want to partner with them to help them build bigger audiences, better engage those audiences, and generate more revenue.”
That may also be what some publishers want — at least, that’s what one publisher said today in Google’s public forum for comments on Living Stories.
“It would be far more helpful to most news organizations if Google worked with publishers on developing new business models,” wrote Industry Standard Managing Editor Ian Lamont. “Looking at the prototype, I don’t see any indication that display advertising or other revenue-generation services are part of the plan, or how these pages would be adapted to online news sites’ existing templates that have revenue-generating services built-in.”