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Sumner Lemon: News By Algorithm
posted by: Sumner Lemon <>, on: Fri, August 14, 2009
filed under: Goldfarb Center

Sumner Lemon '93 is a correspondent for IDG News Service, a technology news service based in Boston, MA. He lives in Singapore. 

News By Algorithm

On a recent Sunday afternoon, I caught up with a good friend and fellow hack named Mike Magee, who lives in Oxford. As the day slowly wound down, we sat in the courtyard of the Rose & Crown pub turning over the challenges and opportunities now facing technology journalists over pints of Old Hooky ale.

It wasn't long before our conversation turned to the central role played by Google News, which uses a search algorithm to rank top news stories from around the world. There is much at stake for the media industry in these rankings.

A highly ranked story on Google News will send large volumes of traffic to a Web site. That ability to drive traffic -- and therefore advertising dollars -- makes a high story ranking on Google News desirable. As a result, these rankings  can sway editorial choices, helping to determine which stories get covered and which ones don't.

Figuring out how Google News works isn't easy. Google discloses little information about the site's search algorithm, including how stories are selected, ranked or ignored. Of course, that hasn't stopped editors and journalists alike from trying to reverse engineer the algorithm, searching for clues to how it works with varying degrees of success.

Mike nicely summed up the challenge that Google News presents, and its implications, in a column published earlier this year: "But if all the hacks in the world are chasing the same story, where does that leave a breaking story? Unless a heap of other news organizations and the journalists that work for them are thorough and don't rely on Google News, it's likely never going to make it into the Google News list."

As I rode the train back into London that evening, it struck me that Mike and I couldn't have picked a better place to have our conversation. The Rose & Crown sits on North Parade, a quiet lane that marks the northernmost lines of the Royalist army at the siege of Oxford during the English Civil War.

If the media industry today feels besieged by the Internet and the influence of search engines like Google News, there's no one to blame but the profession itself. Too many news sites and stories are driven by the notion of what's popular, relying on tools like Google News as a barometer of reader preferences and relevance.

That's not to say there is anything intrinsically wrong with Google News.

The search engine is a great tool for readers, giving them insight into current events and allowing them to find stories about people and places most relevant to them. But it's important for readers to recognize that sites like Google News have limitations, to understand that they offer only one perspective on what is happening in the world.

For journalists, news sites that merely chase the big story of the moment face a difficult and uncertain future. When information is widely available, it loses its value.

The publications and news sites that survive the transformation that the media industry now faces will be those who dig a little deeper, that take the time to build relationships with sources and chase down their own stories. Over time, these news sites are the ones that will offer better value and, ultimately, succeed.


Sumner Lemon '93 is a correspondent for IDG News Service, a technology news service based in Boston, MA. He lives in Singapore.