Fries with that sir? Google invents McNews.

Media criticism.
Sept. 24 2002 7:41 PM

Automated News

The new Google News site, news untouched by human hands.

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"This page was generated entirely by computer algorithms without human editors," boasts the fine print at the bottom of the Google News Web site, which debuted a significantly upgraded beta yesterday. "No humans were harmed or even used in the creation of this page."

The Google News page exceeds every editor's dream—to produce a first-rate publication without the meddling interference of reporters—by making the editors themselves extraneous as well. Instead of assigning humans to gather and present the news, Google News delegates the task to software developed over the last nine months by five Google engineers (presumably all human).

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According to the site's FAQ page, Google News software continuously crawls more than 4,000 Web news sources, looking for the most relevant articles from the most reputable sources. From those results, other Google automatons auto-generate news pages for its various section fronts, sorting them into: "Top Stories," world, U.S., business, sports, entertainment, etc. The pages include the source of the article, a clickable (back to the originating site) headline, the story's first sentence, and often a news photo. By my stopwatch, Google News produces all new section fronts every 12 minutes or so, satisfying even the most attention-deficit disordered news appetite. Enterprising readers who want to dig deeper can retrieve stories culled by Google News over the past 30 days by using keyword searches.

Google News isn't the first site to crawl the Web and aggregate the news in real time, but it's easily the best effort so far. Each Google News entry includes a time stamp, so you can know if the news posting is piping fresh from 10 minutes ago or a six-hour-old moldy oldie.

Given its myriad sources, Google News easily trumps such leading homo sapien-powered news sites as CNN.com, MSNBC.com, and the New York Times on the Web, each of which limits itself to stories written either by wire services or their own staffs. Yes, the New York Times'account of, say, Blair's dossier on Iraq's weapons is well-done. But wouldn't you rather dial into "Top Stories" on Google News where you can instantly click to competing pieces by Fox News, the Toronto Star, Voice of America, and 887 other accounts? Unless you're a New York Times fetishist or employed by MSNBC.com, Google News or a similar site will soon become your first stop for breaking news: No team of human editors can compete with 24/7 robots.

But once human editors realize that they can't compete with robots, will they continue to produce? The conventional wisdom has held for some time now that breaking news is a commodity, like corn or gasoline, and that its producers can't add enough value to it, even with clever packaging and marketing, to distinguish it from breaking news on other sites. "Notre Dame Beats Michigan 25-23" or "Trade Bill Defeated" is enough information for most breaking news consumers. The solution for heavily branded news sites such as MSNBC.com has been to distinguish themselves by providing a combination of commodity news and non-commodity fare—premier writing by star columnists, exclusive scoops, and multimedia—and to build audiences through referrals from their other media appendages, such as cable TV and links from allied Web sites, that commodity news sites or regional news sites can't afford.

As a result, the top 10 news and information sites still garner an overwhelming majority of the Web news and information audience. But as currently constituted, none of the top sites is a match for the array of fresh news fetched instantly by Google News' spiders from 4,000 sites. Surely news consumers will reduce their visits to the home pages of the top sites once they find out about Google News.

I suspect that the abundance of direct links from Google News to second-tier sites run by ABC, CBS, Fox, UPI, and a variety of U.S. and foreign newspapers and the lack of links to the first-tier sites of MSNBC, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, Washington Post, and New York Times indicates that those sites are blocking Google News' spiders from harvesting stories, presumably because they still want readers to enter through their "front door" where they'll click more stories. [Sept. 24, 9:25 p.m. correction: I didn't see a New York Times, Washington Post, or Los Angeles Times link on Google News until after this item went up, when suddenly a Times link appeared. All apologies.] But even that will change because sooner or later, one of the lesser of the first-tier sites, such as the Los Angeles Times, will see that it can't beat the New York Times head to head on the Web and will start letting Google News crawl and post from it.

At the beginning of the Web era, circa 1995, Internet seers predicted that the Web would "disintermediate" the mass media, causing the established news and media franchises to crumble, as eyeballs migrated from the dullsville of daily newspapers and television to spicy, new Web sites being erected by the millions in cyberville. Essentially, Matt Drudge and his ilk were supposed to knock the New York Times off the news map. But instead of croaking from disintermediation, the established media giants reintermediated their audience by moving their content to well-designed portal pages jammed with news, sports, gossip, and shopping tips.

The technology behind Google News threatens disintermediation once again, encouraging readers to click on the Jerusalem Post and then on BBC rather than starting at CNN. But just as the media's top dogs defeated disintermediation the first time around, they're likely to find a strategy around it this time, too. I predict that by New Year's Day, at least one of the Web's top 10 news and information sites will have partnered with Google News and at least another one will have ripped off the Google News strategy by remodeling their portal to crawl thousands of outside sites.

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