Saturday, August 18, 2007

The L.A. Times tells its readers: 'Shut up'

Commentary: A Times editorial attacks the concept of reader comments on news stories, declaring Google a greater threat "than Osama bin Laden."

The Los Angeles Times this morning insulted its readers in a stunning editorial that compared Google with Osama bin Laden and showed why Times editors simply do not understand the medium that is growing to dominate the news publishing industry. A point by point rebuttal follows:
Many publishers consider the Internet, and Google in particular, a greater threat to their livelihoods than Osama bin Laden.

Who are these publishers, exactly? The Times' David Hiller? Ignore the straw man here and the reader is still left with The Times' belief that a search engine company which has helped millions of people around the world more effectively find the information they need, and that has paid publishers billions of dollars to create original content (full disclosure: including OJR and me, personally) is a greater threat to journalism and Western capitalism than a murderer who killed 3,000 Americans on 9/11.


After The Times lit its credibility on fire with that statement, one shouldn't need to dissect the rest of its ridiculous editorial.

But I will. ;-)

Among those who have taken particular offense at Google are some current and aspiring newspaper publishers, including Sam Zell (who's in the process of buying Tribune Co., owner of the Los Angeles Times), who once famously asked, "If all of the newspapers in America did not allow Google to steal their content, how profitable would Google be?"

Well, does Zell think Google is worse than bin Laden? I do not see that claim in what he said. Furthermore, I, and several other news industry executives, took apart Zell's myopia here in OJR when he made that ill-informed comment last spring.

Up to now, Google's news site hasn't been a moneymaker for the company, at least not directly. There are no ads on Google News, just links to stories on websites run by newspapers, magazines and other news outlets. Those links prompt people to spend more time on the news media's sites, potentially increasing their ad sales.

But Google now is doing yet another thing that's bound to get under journalists' skin."

Umm, perhaps I shouldn't speak for others here, but, as a journalist and a publisher, I like readers to spend more time on my sites, "potentially increasing [my] ad sales." That doesn't get under my skin at all.

This month, it announced plans to let people and organizations comment on the stories written about them. For example, if The Times ran another exposé on conflicts of interest within the Food and Drug Administration's drug-approval process, Google News would provide a forum for the FDA and any researchers or drug manufacturers implicated in the story to respond, unedited.

Goodness, we wouldn't want the sources in our stories to have a chance to respond, would we? /sarcasm

The feature implies that the stories aggregated by Google News are incomplete -- possibly because of limited space, but also possibly because of bias, neglect or ignorance. News organizations have their flaws, and the added comments on Google may demonstrate that.

Finally, a point of agreement. Reader comments on online news stories give readers the opportunity to provide a needed check on reporting flaws. No journalist should ever presume that a single news article ever is complete.

But Google's effort may have a happier side effect: It may illustrate why journalism is more than just aggregating information -- and why Google News isn't really its competition after all.

The essence of good journalism is asking the right questions. Google, however, won't ask anything of those who submit comments. According to the company's announcement, its only interest is that the submissions are authentic, not that they're relevant or even truthful. As a result, the comments section is likely to be larded with spin, hype and obfuscation. A seemingly heartfelt comment may carry the CEO's name, but the words will probably have been typed by corporate flacks.

Another point of agreement: "The essence of good journalism is asking the right questions." No, Google won't ask those questions, but its technology will enable readers to ask those questions, of reporters and of each other. And allows reporters to come back and ask follow-up questions of the readers who questioned the reporter in the first place.

This is is point that journalists who have spent their lives publishing in a one-way medium too often fail to grasp: That online reader comments are not a one-way medium, in the opposite direction. They are a two-way conversation, in which reporters can, and ought to, participate, as well.

Nor should The Times condemn Google for sins that many traditional journalists have committed. "Stenography" journalism runs rampant at newspapers which have cut reporting staffs to the bone. Readers of Dan Froomkin's outstanding White House Watch will be familiar with many examples of Washington-beat scribes dutifully "reporting" U.S. administration spin, with no effort to provide context or determine truth.

Furthermore, is the reader of this editorial to assume that The Times never runs quotes from CEOs in its paper that were in fact written by corporate spokespersons? If The Times' editorial writers truly believe that, I suggest they take a trip over to The Times' newsroom sometime.

There will be some valuable responses too, plugging holes in stories or correcting mistaken impressions.

Third point of agreement here. So why, then, is The Times attacking this technology which would plug holes in stories, correct mistaken impressions, enable readers to ask questions of reporters and provide a check on reporting flaws?

Google, however, won't help readers separate the factual wheat from the public-relations chaff -- a reminder that Google may strive to be the world's index, but it's not journalism.

If The Times wants to criticize Google's implementation of reader comments, that's fair game. Many good publishers have shut off reader comments because they didn't want the hassle of handling them. But plenty of system administrators have developed systems to allow readers and/or editors to filter comments, so that readers can separate the wheat from the chaff. By not acknowledging any of those, however, The Times allows its editorial to stand as a condemnation of the concept of enabling online comments to news stories.

So let The Times readers be warned: The Times doesn't get it. It hasn't enabled comments on its own news stories ( previously criticized in OJR), nor does it like the idea of others linking to and commenting on its stories.

As I said at the opening of OJR's annual unconference last spring, journalism should noy be defined by its process. Journalism ought to be defined by its end result: fresh, accurate information that helps its readers see a truth that they did not before.

Smart news organizations need to be blowing up their old ways of producing journalism -- not just publishing it, but reporting it as well -- in order to better provide more accurate and insightful journalism to beat the increased competition from millions of new content publishers online. To do that, publishers need to hear fresh perspectives, from their employees... and from the public.

But what does The Times tell them with this editorial?

"Shut up."

1 comment:

Kevin said...

While the commenting feature may indeed be quite useful is it right for Google to use content generated and paid for by others any way it sees fit? It's one thing to generate search results (which ultimately send users to the individual sites and help Google build its search, advertising and portal business). It's quite another to use that content to create whole new products and services; services that rip off the content from others and move the center of gravity away from the content providers and undercut their content business.

While some may be excited to take down big media a notch and for the potential for new checks on the power of the media, there are broader implications and risks over the medium and long term. And questions of fairness and property and copyright as well. It's up to the news providers themeselves to innovate, not Google or Yahoo or MSN - or get their lunch eaten by the competition. But the competition cannot build its business on the content of others. If the model is doomed and citizen journalism is the future, then let Google generate its own content.