What’s News?

This is a busy week for me. I’m going to see a movie tomorrow night (a preview of the new “Terminator movie”); I’m having a joint “Birthday Dinner” on Thursday night with a friend (we have a birthdays a fortnight apart, so we’re celebrating in the middle), and on Friday night, I’m going to the “Andrew Olle Media Lecture”. So yeah, lots to write about.

But tonight I’m at home, listening to music and reflecting on the talk I just attended at the University of Technology Sydney, by Richard Gingras, who is Vice President of “Google News”.

“In 1985 newspapers were the internet of their day” he told us, “answering our daily needs for everything from what was on at the movies to where to buy your new fridge.” Though many of those newspapers are no longer with us, he said he remains optimistic about the future of journalism, citing examples such as “The New York Times”, “The Guardian” and a Canadian media group called “Village Media” as examples of digital success.

The last group was an interesting inclusion. In contrast to the other two newspapers which remain “newspapers of record”, he explained the “Village Media” group focused strongly on community, resulting in high market share and lots of local advertising. “What made many newspapers successful” he told us, was “focussing on community first to support the accountability journalism”.

He then went on to describe what some people call “solution journalism”, but which he calls “constructive journalism”. He said it wasn’t “happy news”, rather it was journalism which sought to better explain the news, to better understand why things happened, and to offer options which might exist for the future.

His interviewer was Peter Fray, the former Sydney Morning Herald editor, who heads the Centre for Media Transition at the University of Technology. Ever the good journo, Peter asked about a proposal the government is considering, from the Australian Competition & Consumer Commission” around revenue sharing. In short, companies like Google would financially contribute to the future of journalism in Australia and other countries.

“No other company has contributed more, financially, to journalism”, he said, in a statement which took me (and I suspect others) by surprise. At the core of his argument was how their links to articles and in particular, their links to articles in the newspapers you subscribe to, has kept many newspapers alive.

“Generally people don’t search for news topical information”, he told us, “It’s more likely day to day searches like a new fridge”.

Unlike “Facebook” and “Apple” and their “closed environments”, the business platform of Google is based on the open web.

He also worked at Apple for a number of years, and said there was a story which could benefit journalism in the future. He told us the story of why Apple stopped distributing manuals. “You shouldn’t need a manual. You should just design better”. The same applies to news, he added. News stories shouldn’t need an explainer, they should be better explained, he said, or words to that effect.

I was also interested to learn that during big breaking news events, they tweak the algorithm towards fact-based reporting. He noted when those big events happen, “opinion” thrives because it’s inexpensive, and because “opinion” is everywhere at a time when people just need to know the facts.

Obviously there’ll be some bits you’ll agree with, and other bits you’ll disagree with, and obviously he’s a paid employee, but either way I thought it was interesting to hear what he had to say.

Peter Fray and Richard Gingras


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