Friday, June 17, 2005


Can Google News robot rival the newspapermen?


June 10, 2005
Can Google News robot rival the newspapermen?

By George Brock
Writing in The Times of London

(George Brock is the president of the World Editors Forum)

A potential nightmare faces the 'dead-tree-and-ink' business

WE ARE accustomed to the idea that media history has been made by editors
and publishers. That was in the past. Now the people who may next change
the way news is interpreted and delivered work in a two-storey building in
the Indian city of Bangalore.
They are not exactly editors or publishers: they are mostly young Indians
with PhDs in computer science. The interns who work in Bangalore for the
search-engine company Google are trying to teach computers to figure out
what is quality journalism. If they succeed, their impact on written
journalism will be profound.

When Google.s webmasters first launched Google News in 2001, its inventors
endured a lot of lofty ridicule from newspaper editors and writers
pointing out that no .robot. was ever going to be a better news editor
than a human. And Google.s system wasn.t perfect: it reported with a
straight face that Canada had arrested George W. Bush on war crimes

However, the smiles of the men and women in the dead-tree-and-ink
newspaper business are fading. Google News has six million users a month.
In the search-engine wars, this isn.t huge . Yahoo! News, edited by real
people, has bigger reach . but the implications are more intriguing.
Google News is produced entirely by computer algorithms that sift 4,500
internet news sites every quarter of an hour and produce news bulletins
ranking the stories by how many times they are found. Like most of Google,
the front page is bare bones: clusters of links through to the original
stories wherever they appear. You can customise a news feed on a
particular topic of your choice; there are 22 regional editions in nine

Once upon a time, fast, accurate news was in short supply. In a wired
world with a glut of news, Google wants to be the global positioning
system for people who need to navigate the information jungle.

For many people, and not just journalists, this is the stuff of
nightmares. For an entertaining summary of the case for the prosecution,
watch a short .mockumentary. in which Google.s news robots take over the
world.s news business. Without discrimination, the vast news engine spews
out data largely trivial and untrue.

Google News.s young Indian founder, Krishna Bharat, is not heading for
that dystopia. As the snags are being ironed out of Google News.s basic
model, he has already set his interns in Bangalore to work on subtler
filters to sift news.

Are the sentences and paragraphs copied from somewhere else and can that
story be discarded? Does the length of the story count? How many people
does the news operation employ? How many foreign correspondents does it
have? Above all, Bharat is striving to establish how to teach a computer
to recognise originality, a genuine scoop, clarity, concision, eloquence,
political impact.

.I see us as an integral part of the news community,. Bharat told the
World Editors Forum in Seoul last week. .Our relationship with newspapers
is symbiotic. We send traffic directly to the content provider . . . and
we amplify the amount of news being read..

Google.s experts see information being published on a range from history
books at one end to fast-breaking news on the web at the other. A reader
chooses how to trade off timeliness against mature reflection. That means
that newspapers have to be clear about where they sit and what their
readers expect of them in the balance between speed and depth. Newspapers
confused about this are those most liable to die.

Perhaps the most powerful evidence of the advance that automated news
.aggregators. have made is that their workings and effect are now on the
political agenda. American journalism weblogs debate whether the Google
formulas demonstrate an unintentional bias between Republicans or
Democrats. There was a vigorous disagreement at the conference between
Bharat and US and Japanese speakers over Google.s reluctance to reveal
exactly what sources it uses and how it adds or subtracts from the list.

But those arguments only go to show that Google News is a force for
change, like it or not.

George Brock is the president of the World Editors Forum

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