Google’s advice to newspapers

Over the past two weeks, I’ve blogged about Jeff Jarvis’ book, “What Would Google Do?” as has my guest blogger, friend and colleague, Amber Smith. Both of us distilled ideas from the book, applying them to our experience at newspapers.

This week, Google itself testified at a U.S. Senate Subcommittee that looked at the future of journalism.

So, now instead of asking, what would Google do? I’ll tell you, what Google said newspapers should do.

My assessment is based on testimony of Marissa Mayer, Google’s vice president for search products and user experience. Read Paid’s assessment of her message. Scroll down for links to others who spoke at the hearing.

“The structure of the Web itself requires the presentation of news in a way that’s fundamentally different from its offline predecessor.”

That quote from Mayer  likely won’t surprise anyone, but it sums up her message. Of course, you say, the Web is different. We just present news differently online than we do in print. But the question is: Do we really do that? All the time. Every day. Mayer says we must.

Key points from her testimony:

Update stories constantly: She notes this as a benefit of the Web. I’d say it  sure beats the days when we had the best story in the world, and we couldn’t tell anyone until the next morning. Now us print types can beat TV, radio, anything. But do we it every day? It’s a challenge because it takes time, it changes our routines and it’s particularly tough on those slow news days.

One concern Mayer raises is that news Web sites often publish several articles on the same topic, sometimes with nearly identical information, but their own URL. This means these different stories compete with each other in terms of placement in search results. What does she suggest:

  • Publish evolving stories under one permanent URL as “a living, changing, updating entity.”
  • She says news sites should follow the example of  Wikipedia entries, which start as one thing and then are updated and evolve, but remain at the same URL. (Let me be clear; she was not suggesting news sites be open to public updating  like Wikipedia, just that all the versions stay at one URL. ) She notes that The New York Times’ online topic pages approximate this purpose.

Link, Link, Link: She notes that the linking ability of the Web also provides benefits to journalists because Web pages can connect “to voluminous supporting materials without worrying about column inches.” True. Again. Do we always do that? Probably not, because it takes time, it alters our routines, and our technology isn’t always set up for it. Mayer says we must.

New atomic unit of consumption: She argues that the unit of consumption of news is now a story, not a newspaper. In other words, online readers don’t browse through the newspaper’s Web site in the same way they  might flip through the sections of a print publication. They end up at the site through a Google search that lands them on a particular story. Often they may never see the news site’s home page or anything else on that site.

She aptly compares this to the way we used to buy an album of music — remember those? — but now we download a single song. So journalists must assume the reader is viewing that story “independent of the rest of the publication.” Therefore, the story must have:

  • Sufficient context through linking.
  • A mechanism for clearly showing the latest information about the story, which some readers may be following over time.

What next? The Web offers such easy navigation.  But news sites need to take advantage of this, Mayer says, by anticipating the reader who finishes a story and asks “What Should I do Next?” I think she’s suggesting curation here, by noting that news sites should provide readers with links to related stories, background pieces, interaction opportunities. She compared this function to the way will suggest a product based on your search.

In essence, what she is saying is pretty much throw out your old-fashioned newspaper thinking. You need to completely change how you go about reaching readers because, guess what, the rules have changed. What worked then, won’t work now. The technology is different, and online can’t mimic print. It’s a new medium. I hope the news media heeds this advice.

Who else spoke at the hearing?

Steve Coll, former managing editor of The Washington Post.

Arianna Huffington, of the Huffington Post.

Alberto Ibarquen, president Knight Foundation

James Moroney, CEO of the Dallas Morning News.

David Simon, former Baltimore Sun staffer who wrote the “Wire”

What do you think? What have I missed? Share your opinion.


7 thoughts on “Google’s advice to newspapers

  1. Great summary, Gina. Thanks for writing it up. These ideas are important not because “Google said so” but because they reflect the real behavior of people using the Web.

    In addition to books about digital businesses, journalists need to be reading stuff by Clay Shirky, Larry Lessig and Henry Jenkins so they can shift their orientation from print to digital. I’m in the middle of reading Lessig’s Remix right now, and I keep thinking of how many journalists don’t understand content production from Lessig’s perspective.

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  3. @Mindy McAdams

    Good point. Mayer’s tips are relevant because they reflect how people use the Web.

    Also, thanks for suggestions on other books. Just reserved Shirky’s book from library. Will add Lessig’s and Jenkins’ to my list.

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  7. I don’t read any newspapers anymore. Reading all the news on the internet is much comfortable, there is no need to cut a tree in order to read the news and the most important of all you can share opinions with others regarding something you just found out.

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