Google`s Living Stories: the Final Nail in the Coffin for Paper Media?

Google has earned the wrath of publishers before. You’d be upset at Google, too, if it looked like the search giant was going to put you out of business — or at least force you to seriously rethink your business model. Living Stories, one of Google’s more recent endeavors, presents news in a whole new way…with repercussions likely to be felt at every big newspaper.

Google is so financially successful that it appears as if the tech giant doesn’t feel as if the rules apply to them. During a time when most companies are cutting down on their free services and applications, Google keeps churning them out. Nor do they stick with the safe bet. Now they look set to do news publishers one better.

Their latest endeavor, Living Stories, is perhaps their most interesting and daring yet. A global study recently found that the age of the average Internet user is 28 years. It has also been found that those in their mid- to late twenties don’t really read newspapers anymore. Even worse, online newspapers are severely struggling to draw readers in and generate any kind of revenue.

None of these facts deterred Google from teaming up with The New York Times and The Washing Post for Living Stories, which according to Google is “an experiment in presenting news designed specifically for the online environment.”

Essentially, the new project offers complete coverage of an on-going story in one location, which is prioritized by one URL. Google believes this will allow their users to quickly navigate between news articles, opinion pieces, and features without long waits for pages to load.

The Living Stories site explains that “each story has an evolving summary of current developments as well as an interactive timeline of critical events. Stories can be explored by themes, significant participants, or multimedia. Updates to the story are highlighted each time you come back and older news is summarized.”

{mospagebreak title=What’s the Story?} 

So, the question remains: why on earth does Google care how the news is presented? According to an entry in the official Google Blog, the company is very concerned about the “future of news” and many of the questions that arise around the topic, such as whether or not publishers should charge for news online, how sources of revenue should be replaced, and how accountability of journalism will endure during the digital age. The most pressing question, according to Google, is whether news will even survive in the digital era.

Google has literally revolutionized the Internet, business, and technology as we know it, so it should come as no surprise that the company is setting out–intentionally or not–to revolutionize the way news is done. Any journalism major could tell you that news stories are written in a style described as an “inverted pyramid,” basically meaning that the important facts are written at the very beginning. This isn’t the case with other types of writing, where things are alluded to or the major points of the story are built up before they’re revealed.

News stories lead with importance, and as the article continues, the less important aspects of the story are discussed. This is the way it has always been, and since the advent of the Internet, news stories that develop over the course of the week are written about repetitively, with the new information at the top and the previously reported facts following.

Google isn’t the first to point out how inefficient this is; nor is it the first company to try to do something about it. Two years ago, Yahoo developed a concept for grouping articles, and ended up calling it Yahoo News Topics. Yahoo may have done it first, but it seems as if Google is going to do it better, bigger and more successfully. The major difference is that Google sees publishers using Living Stories on their own websites, not just on Google.

According to Google, what is often overlooked in the debate concerning the future of the news is the nature of the news story itself and “the experience of how it’s read online.” The California-based company believes that it’s “just as important to experiment with how news organizations can take advantage of the web to tell stories in new ways; ways that simply aren’t possible offline.”     

{mospagebreak title=How the Experiment Works} 

There literally is no way to refer to Google’s new endeavor other than to call it an experiment. Not only does the company itself refer to it as that, but it appears as if no one knows what will come of Living Stories or if it will last. It’s simply an exciting, unprecedented way to present the news, but whether or not anything will come of it is up to readers and Google.

Obviously as a company, Google isn’t famous for its journalism skills or journalistic integrity, and rightfully so; the company has nothing to do with media in that way. This is exactly why they chose to team up with two of the nation’s most long-standing and respectable publications: The New York Times and The Washington Post. Though it’s obvious that Google has very strong opinions about how information should be presented and experienced on the web, they don’t have the clout, experience, or know-how that these two publications do.

So during the summer of last year, Google began meeting with industry insiders in hopes of their providing insight on how to develop the concept of the “living story.” According to Google’s blog, “the project sprang from conversations among senior executives at the three companies [Google, The Washing Post, and The New York Times]. Thoughts were shared about how the web can work for storytelling and the Times and Post shared their core journalistic principles. The Living Stories started taking shape after our engineering and user interface teams spent time in the newsrooms of both papers.” The technology giant is providing the technology platform needed to make the experiment happen, and the two respectable publications are writing and editing the stories that are featured on the Living Stories site.

As users can see from the very simple website, Google’s Living Stories is still a prototype; it was only launched in December of last year in a sector of the company called Google Labs, which is an area reserved for products that are not yet ready for the big time. Currently, Living Stories only has stories from the Post and the Times, but it’s already providing readers with new ways to interact with the news featured on the site. Google hopes that their experiment will eventually convince major publishers to present their news in a similar way. Then, of course, Google can step in and make their tools and research available to interested publications. Surely it just won’t be out of the kindness of their hearts, either. They are a business, after all.

{mospagebreak title=Will Publishers Switch Formats?} 

Publishers aren’t really lacking in options as far as digital distribution models. As readership and advertising began drastically declining a few years ago, publishers began actively seeking out new and inventive ways to make up for revenue losses in print circulation and advertising.

As a matter of fact, the day Google’s new Living Stories experiment was launched, five major publishers announced they were going to build an online storefront for readers to buy magazines and newspapers. It is believed that many of these efforts were spurred by Amazon’s Kindle model, which pays publishers 30 percent of the revenue generated from the sale of their periodicals.

Given this information, why would a publisher opt for Google? According to Josh Cohen, senior business product manager for Google News, “it’s a happy union of developing a reader-friendly experience while maximizing a website’s rank with search engines that can drive traffic to a publisher’s website. A page containing links to many stories on the same topic tends to rank higher with search engines than a page with a single story. This explains why Wikipedia is often at the top of a search results page on any given query. On the search side, there’s a single page to point to," Cohen said. "Instead of thousands of links, there is a single point of reference. And that’s helpful for users as well."

Will it be Successful?

Any online news reader who’s become sick of the inverted pyramid style of news writing discussed earlier will surely gravitate towards Google’s Living Stories, whose main focus is to experiment with a different format for presenting news coverage online.

According to Google, “Living Stories try a different approach that plays to certain unique advantages of online publishing. They unify coverage on a single, dynamic page with a consistent URL. They organize information by developments in the story. They call your attention to changes in the story since you last viewed it so you can easily find the new material. Through a succinct summary of the whole story and regular updates, they offer a different online approach to balancing the overview with depth and context.”

The site is also very user-centric. Not only can readers customize pages based on the topics they’re interested in, but each of their pages will also automatically update to include new stories on the topic. Google’s Living Stories will also remember what the reader has already viewed so that it can offer newer or related stories and photos the next time they log in.

In a hyper-efficient world, it only makes sense that the model of the average news story will change, making it easier to follow and giving readers options as to how it will be followed. We’ll just have to wait and see if publishers follow suit.

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