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Google: How To Save The News

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An article in the the new Atlantic, How To Save The News, looks at the changes coming to journalism in general and to newspapers specifically. Most originally, it looks at how the sometime newspaper slayer Google is working on changing the business of news delivery, thereby possibly saving the newspapers.

It has some interesting insights on the collection and distribution of news and information (something we do a bit of ourselves here at Discovery) -- albeit ones the author and sources probably don't even recognize themselves. Especially the big one: institutional bias. In this case, the bias installed by an institution into mass numbers of individuals who go out and in turn propogate the bias, often unwittingly.

Take this short blurb:

Except for an 18-month period when Bharat founded and ran Google's R&D center in Bangalore, his original hometown, he has been guiding Google News ever since. In this role, he sees more of the world's news coverage daily than practically anyone else on Earth. I asked him what he had learned about the news business.

He hesitated for a minute, as if wanting to be very careful about making a potentially offensive point. Then he said that what astonished him was the predictable and pack-like response of most of the world's news outlets to most stories. Or, more positively, how much opportunity he saw for anyone who was willing to try a different approach.
...
"But lately, a lot of my time has gone into thinking about the basis on which the product"--news--"is built.

Now think of the product not as the news, but as the journalists who report the news. How are they built? Or, rather, where are they built? Columbia, Berkeley, Ole Miss, etc. Is it any wonder that they have a pack-like response to news reporting? That they all think alike? After all they're all instilled with a similar journalistic worldview -- largely liberal.

So, it isn't surprising to read a description of news reporting like this (emphasis added).

"Usually, you see essentially the same approach taken by a thousand publications at the same time," he told me. "Once something has been observed, nearly everyone says approximately the same thing." He didn't mean that the publications were linking to one another or syndicating their stories. Rather, their conventions and instincts made them all emphasize the same things. This could be reassuring, in indicating some consensus on what the "important" stories were. But Bharat said it also indicated a faddishness of coverage--when Michael Jackson dies, other things cease to matter--and a redundancy that journalism could no longer afford. "It makes you wonder, is there a better way?" he asked. "Why is it that a thousand people come up with approximately the same reading of matters? Why couldn't there be five readings? And meanwhile use that energy to observe something else, equally important, that is currently being neglected." He said this was not a purely theoretical question. "I believe the news industry is finding that it will not be able to sustain producing highly similar articles."
We know from our uniform and repeated experience that once something like intelligent design is misdefined as, and equated t,o creationism, the label sticks. It sticks for exactly the reason that this story subtly highlights in explaining how hidebound traditional reporting is when compared to the internet age. A newspaper reporter defines the idea, and all future reporters at that publication (and many others when you consider somewhere as influential as the AP) simply copy the definition as the defecto standard -- no matter that it may be wrong or completely out of touch with reality. So, eventually you get thousands of reporters with one consensus reading, not five."

Still, that last line is actually good news for online information providers like Discovery-- we do not provide "highly similar articles" to the MSM.

The article contains some interesting ideas on how to produce a better news product, and why that is necessary to the survival of the news industry (within which Google clearly sees itself these days). In describing all the changes involved there was this obviously evolutionary description.

The other implicitly connecting theme is that an accumulation of small steps can together make a surprisingly large difference. The forces weighing down the news industry are titanic. In contrast, some of the proposed solutions may seem disappointingly small-bore. But many people at Google repeated a maxim from Clay Shirky, of New York University, in an essay last year about the future of the news: "Nothing will work, but everything might."
So, steeped in the idea of evolution are today's journalists, that they describe almost everything in these terms. Probably without even conscientiously thinking about it. Perhaps another result of institutional bias?

You can email brucechapman@discovery.org

1 Comment

Thanks for very interesting article. btw. I really enjoyed reading all of your posts. It’s interesting to read ideas, and observations from someone else’s point of view… makes you think more. So please keep up the great work. Greetings

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