Will Google’s News Lab Change Journalism?

Google News Lab

Google unveiled a new program targeted to journalists this week, dubbed News Lab. There’s been an ongoing effort by media companies new and old to “disrupt” the way news is reported and consumed. From the downfall of old-fashioned newspapers to the rise of personality-centered explainer sites, the industry has been roiled in recent years.

Can Google save it?

What’s Google News Lab all about?

Google introduced their new initiative last week by tying it closely to their mission to “ensure quality information is accessible and useful everywhere.” Google’s never stopped being primarily a search company, despite the success of Android and other projects like Chrome and Glass, and democratizing information is central to that business. In fact, most of its initiatives that appear, at first, separate from “search” usually just feed into it. Whether your cell phones, your browser, your watch, and so on…Google wants to make sure you use all its products in order to maximize its ability to provide information – and hence maximize its search business.

Enter News Lab, a set of tools to open information up even further by providing journalists with easier ways to tell their stories. According to project director Steve Grove:

Our mission is to collaborate with journalists and entrepreneurs to help build the future of media. And we’re tackling this in three ways: though ensuring our tools are made available to journalists around the world (and that newsrooms know how to use them); by getting helpful Google data sets in the hands of journalists everywhere; and through programs designed to build on some of the biggest opportunities that exist in the media industry today.

Google is essentially repackaging existing services like Trends, Maps, Alerts, and Translate, and marketing them specifically to journalists. News Lab currently consists primarily of tutorials as to how reporters can use these tools.

How has journalism changed in recent years?

Google’s effort is notable, in part, because it comes amid a revolution of sorts in the media industry. Within the last couple years, superstar journalists like Ezra Klein and Nate Silver left “legacy” outlets like the Washington Post and the New York Times. Klein’s Vox, Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, Re/Code from Wall Street Journal tech writer Walt Mossberg, and the First Look Media experiment headlined by Glenn Greenwald have all been part of this trend toward a type of journalism defined more by opinion, analysis, and context than bare bones reportage.

That’s in part due to the changing economics of the news business over the past few decades. Print newspapers were once largely subsidized by advertising. As the Internet revolutionized all forms of media, many news outlets put their content online for free. That had the, presumably unintentional, consequence of cannibalizing their main income source: there was less need to buy newspapers if you could read the articles online, so readers flocked there instead and advertising dollars shifted away from print. Newspapers that not long ago cost fifty cents or less for a daily copy now cost $1.50 or more (the New York Times is $2.50 for a weekday copy, and the Wall Street Journal $3).

Newsroom budgets were slashed, bureaus closed, original reporting more often outsourced to wire services. That led to a dearth of content and, for many readers, meant even less reason to buy a copy. Competition online had proliferated enough that even when the “legacy,” or old media companies, started erecting paywalls to recoup their losses, readers had many more options to choose from, many of which remain free.

Two trends emerged during this process. First, news organizations moved toward more explanatory work, focusing on analysis rather than the objective, “just-the-facts” style that had once been the gold standard. This emphasis on added-value at first copied The Economist, but today’s frame of reference tends to be Klein’s Vox and his Wonkblog launchpad at the Post.

The second trend has been the emergence of “citizen journalism,” or the ability of individuals out in the world adding to our stock of information by tweeting, Instagramming, Vining, and Facebooking news events from an on-the-ground vantage point.

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So where does Google fit in?

Google’s News Lab seems tailor-made for this era of contextual and explanatory journalism. It could also help reduce costs by making the tools to produce that kind of journalism standardized and widely available.

At the News Lab site, Google highlights several case studies of media companies like The New York Times, CNN, National Geographic, and The Verge building reports and analyses built using tools like Maps, Trends, and YouTube.

Google wants to help citizen journalists, too. It’s doing that with three new intiatives surrounding this new form of “eyewitness media”: the First Draft Coalition, focused on educating existing news organizations on how to use these reports; YouTube Newswire, a collaboration with Storyful to curate the best news videos; and WITNESS Media Lab, looking at how eyewitness videos can advance human rights.

Will News Lab be transformative?

The tools featured by News Lab are already in wide use by journalists; these social media and open-source data services are just the way stories get told today. That’s why the real transformation could be in how Google itself benefits.

As Business Insider points out, News Lab looks more like an evolution of Google’s two-year-old Media Tools. But it could also indicate a desire by the company to create its own content-management system, or CMS:

If it is able to leverage its technological capabilities through Google News Lab, it could become a platform for publishers who lack the technology and funding to create their own proprietary CMS. This scenario would likely see Google’s various ad products integrated directly into the CMS, which could boost its already dominant advertising business.

Google was likely paying close attention to Facebook’s own play to dominate the industry’s next evolutionary stage. The social network is not interested in search, per se, but has been moving its platform closer to an old-school “portal” style of site, where users can find all sorts of content without bouncing around the Internet. The goal seems to be ensuring users never actually click off of their newsfeeds.

That took a crucial next step earlier this year, when reports emerged of a new Facebook initiative that would see some news outlets host content directly on the social network. It’s a move that has sparked a great deal of controversy, with some critics saying it would give Facebook too much power over the industry. As late New York Times media reporter David Carr wrote last fall, Facebook “has become the No. 1 source of traffic for many digital publishers.” That fact gives it substantial influence over how those publishers handle their content creation and distribution.

Felix Salmon warned earlier this year that the Facebook move “could kill the news brand”; readers increasingly focus on the information in a story rather than where it comes from, so making those stories easier to access and more separate from the source might end up even further weakening the association between quality journalism and the brand that produces it. Salmon even anticipates “a world where talented individuals, rather than brands, make a good living by producing the kind of news content which ‘works really well’ on Facebook,” and where the social network “becomes the new YouTube.”

Which brings us back to Google, owner of YouTube, home of the recently-introduced YouTube Newswire mentioned earlier. The broader News Lab project might be anticipating the kind of atomized environment feared by Facebook skeptics, where news brands go to die and individual journalists produce and publish quality work using dynamic Web-based tools that . Google just wants those tools to be its own.