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What Is Google’s Editorial Line?

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Sat, Jun 19, 2010 at 5:05 pm

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What Is Google’s Editorial Line?

Google’s charm offensive to the news industry continues with Google News inventor Krishna Bharat talking optimistically about the future of journalism at Stanford earlier this month. (Watch it here).

What Bharat did not talk about was perhaps more interesting than what he did.

Bharat’s talking points generally followed James Fallows wet kiss of the search giant in last month’s Atlantic magazine. As summarized by Next Web, he predicted five developments:

  1. More specialization of journalistic organization.
  2. More extensive use of social networks.
  3. More efficient payment systems
  4. Smarter ads
  5. New ways of packaging

What he didn’t talk about was Google’s latest foray into curating the news, Editor’s Pick, first reported by Nieman Journalism Lab last week (a few days after Bharat spoke.) NJL’s Megan Garber reported that a small percentage of Google News readers are now get a link to stories selected by editors from “less than a dozen news outlets, including The Washington Post, Newsday, Reuters, and Slate.”

As Mashable notes

“… although it is only a small test, it marks a significant shift for Google News, which includes the footer tagline: “The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program.”

Nor did Bharat mention Spotlight, now a standard feature of Google News, which offers an algorithmically-derived selection of what the company describes as  “in-depth pieces of lasting value… and other stories of enduring appeal.”

As NJL noted last September

“Judging by the story selection and a brief explanation by Google, the Spotlight shines on longer features that have bounced around blogs for a few days. Lifestyle and opinion pieces do particularly well, and The New York Times is a frequent source.”

Maybe these two experiments aren’t successful enough for Bharat to call attention to them but I think a more likely explanation is that they have a common denominator that is sensitive: they are experiments in which Google is exercising editorial judgment. They signal that Google sees a market opportunity in improving the content of its search function, according to journalistic criteria.

As software engineers, Bharat and other Googlers naturally prefer to talk about algorithms. But the fact that Spotlight stories are picked by an algorithm matters less than the fact that the algorithm itself was designed to reflect a certain set of journalistic values that are deeply political.

In the case of Editor’s Pick, the politics of the partner news organizations is narrow, even for the United States. Why Slate and not the Weekly Standard? In a global context, the range of partners is pathetically narrow. Why Reuters and BBC and not Al-Jazeera and Agence France Presse?

The fact is that as Google seeks to collaborate with the traditional news organizations, it is inevitably moving into the news business itself. An increasingly important and unavoidable question that Google prefers not to address is: who sets the editorial policy in Mountain View?

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This post was written by:

Margot Williams

- who has written 49 posts on Inside Google.

Margot Williams has more than two decades of experience in roles as investigative researcher, research editor, database editor, technology trainer and library director at The New York Times, The Washington Post, Gannett newspapers and Time Warner. She was lead researcher on two Pulitzer Prize-winning teams at The Washington Post for reporting on terrorism in 2002 and for an investigation of the use of deadly force by the District of Columbia police in 1999. Margot is the co-author of “Great Scouts! CyberGuides for Subject Searching on the Web” (Cyberage Books, 1999) and contributed to the “Networkings” column in The Washington Post for five years.

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