Google News deserves finalist status in journalism awards

Written by Adrian Holovaty on April 15, 2004

The folks on Poynter's Online-News mailing list have been debating whether it was fair for judges to have named the entirely-automated Google News a finalist in this year's EPpy Awards. Here, for what it's worth, is what I posted to the list:

I just took a look at the list of 2003 EPpy winners.

In 2003, ESPN.com was named Best Internet Sports Service. A prominent feature of ESPN.com is its Gamecast technology, which displays graphics and stats for sporting events in real time. Sure, humans somewhere enter that data, but as far as ESPN.com is concerned, Gamecast is automated. It is made possible by software algorithms.

Also last year, CBS MarketWatch.com was named Best Internet Business Service. That site has an amazing amount of dynamically created market information -- graphics, tables, averages, all sliced and diced in convenient ways. I'm willing to bet that few humans at CBS MarketWatch are involved with day-to-day generation of that content.

The point, as these somewhat contrived examples show, is that many Web sites -- and probably *most* big-media sites in 2004 -- are maintained by algorithms to some extent. Programmers, not necessarily journalists, write the code. Google News just takes that to the extreme.

Please note my bias as a professional programmer, but I'd say a news application developed by computer scientists is just as deserving of journalism awards as a collection of news stories produced by traditional journalists.

Comments

Posted by Mike D. on April 16, 2004, at 5 a.m.:

Well, I am definitely biased but I agree with you. The EPpy awards (in their own words) "honor the best new media work by media companies." This doesn't imply anything about the nature of the content other than the fact that it connects strongly with the audience. The "best new media work", as far as I'm concerned, could be anything from figuring out a way to reduce load times by 80%, to a month-long editorial tribute to the greatest home-run hitters of all time.

Adrian is right in that ESPN GameCast is fully automated. The fact that it doesn't require 20 people to run it every day is part of its appeal. It's not the perfect way to convey baseball on the internet, but it's a step in the right direction.

Google News is no different in that regard. The mere degree to which it is automated is telling of its genius. Instead of 2 or 3 people in a newsroom deciding what is most important in the world, the page content is determined, albeit in a rudimentary fashion, by what is observably popular. Google isn't entirely there yet, but they are on the right track.

So anyway, I guess all I'm saying is that, yes, it's fair to award an EPpy to an entirely automated system of expressing information to people. Especially Google News. Publishing, in the past, has relied largely on the human element to aggregate what's important and and distill it into little chunks; but we're finally getting to the point where computers can do a better job at that. If someone designs a system whereby you always get the news which is most important to you, automated or not, that is award-worthy in my opinion.

Mike

ESPN.com

Posted by Nathan Ashby-Kuhlman on April 16, 2004, at 5:11 a.m.:

For me the crux of the discussion was not so much whether humans are better than programs but whether it was fair for a site that sort of leeches off of existing journalism to be considered journalism. Let's say Google News was in fact built by an army of humans rounding up links from around the Web, rather than an algorithm doing the exact same thing. That wouldn't make it any more or less "journalistic," in my mind, than the automated version.

I think what many journalists fail to realize is how important the distribution interface to the news is. The form all journalism takes is based on preferences by readers/viewers. Afternoon newspapers, for instance, are dying because readers don't prefer them, not because their journalism is somehow inferior.

Google News deserves significant credit for its innovations for online news distribution. Should it be considered journalism, though? I don't know. Is a 60-second radio news summary journalism? Is something like CNN's Headline News? I don't know either. But who cares! Ordinary Joes find all of them useful. And I think what is considered journalism in 30 years will be more dependent on what the ordinary Joes think journalism is than what we think it is.

Posted by Mike D. on April 16, 2004, at 2:51 p.m.:

Yeah, I would agree with just about everything you said Nathan. In scanning the EPpy Awards site, however, I don't really don't see any reference to word "journalism".

The awards seem to be more about recognizing "the best online services presented by media-affiliated companies". Perhaps then the title of this blog entry may be a bit misleading... or maybe the nature of the awards themselves may be misleading. But to your point, I agree that Google News may not be considered journalism... but it is definitely considered "Editing" and "Publishing" which is what makes up the EPpy acronym.

Posted by Josh Hallett on April 17, 2004, at 6:40 p.m.:

I have always seen tension between 'real journalists' as they sometimes refer to themselves and 'content providers' (how journalists refer to those who write or provide content for web sites).

What are your experiences?

Posted by Chris Heisel on April 19, 2004, at 12:02 p.m.:

I think part of this tension between "traditional journalists" and the likes of Google news, (and even RSS in my office), is that for too long content and distribution have been too tightly coupled in the newspaper biz.

If our ultimate goal is to get eyeballs on pages (and if the business goal is to get eyeballs on pages with ads, etc.) then the looser coupling that the Internet provides is a good thing... who cares if Google, Yahoo, etc. scrape your content and provide links back to your site, its free marketing!

Posted by Josh Hallett on April 19, 2004, at 4:27 p.m.:

Speaking of the relationship between journalists and content providers, here is a NYT story about that very topic: http://www.nytimes.com/2004/04/18/fashion/18WONK.html

Specifcally it's about web sites and blogs being first to post a story, but not always with the most accurate information.

Posted by Lucas Grindley on April 21, 2004, at 4:55 p.m.:

Everyone’s upset. And isn’t the cause of the issue our pride?

No one wants awards from one of the most prestigious journalism magazines going to Microsoft or AOL. Google is more likable, but that isn't less of an ego jab. Only journalists are supposed to comprehend the judgment needed to deliver the news, we like to believe.

To make the injury worse, this prestigious award is going to a computer program that replaces people. Which people? Journalists! But that harbinger is beside my point.

To me, this is a different sign of the future, when Microsoft and AOL actually do win journalism awards. How long until someone at MSN.com writes something worth a Pulitzer. How will traditional journalists react then?

Newspapers need to get in the game. There’s more competition out there than most of our newspaper editors are likely to consider when allocating budget resources.

- Lucas, heraldtribune.com

Posted by Helena on May 6, 2004, at 1:06 p.m.:

I feel that people rely too much on lables. At the end of the day what the most important factor in my opinion, is who provides the news in the most accurate way, making it enjoyable to read at the same time.

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