Google Labs has launched an innovative news-reporting experiment in partnership with The New York Times and The Washington Post. Called Living Stories, the venture aggregates related content on specific news topics onto dedicated web pages that are continuously updated.
"Through a succinct summary of the whole story and regular updates, they offer a different online approach to balancing the overview with depth and context," wrote Google software engineer Neha Singh and senior business product manager Josh Cohen in a recent blog post.
Exploiting the Web's Advantages
At the top of each Living Story is an evolving summary of the latest news developments, with the latest updates highlighted each time the reader comes back to the same page. The summary is immediately followed by an interactive timeline of critical events; further down, readers can explore stories by themes, significant participants, and multimedia.
With Living Stories, everything related to an individual news topic resides on the main page. To view full articles or browse multimedia content, the reader clicks to expand the content he or she wants to view. Readers can also click to minimize any materials already seen.
Having a dedicated URL for each story topic enables readers to quickly navigate between news articles, opinion pieces, and features without long waits for pages to load. In this respect, Google's experimental approach appears particularly well suited for use on wireless e-readers and other portable computing devices.
"The power of Living Stories would be useful to readers on any wireless device, including e-readers as well as mobile phones," said James McQuivey, a Forrester Research vice president and principal analyst. "Neither device is particularly good at enabling the hunt-and-peck process people have to go through to search for news stories."
Keeping Consumers Engaged
Many traditional publishers have long complained about the negative impact the web is having on their ability to generate revenue from subscriptions and advertising, arguing that the way Google and other online news aggregators make use of their content hinders their ability to make money. In a recent New York Times editorial, however, Google CEO Eric Schmidt noted that the current crisis in the print industry is merely the latest example of a traditional technology being forced to adapt to a new, disruptive world.
"Meeting that challenge will mean using technology to develop new ways to reach readers and keep them engaged for longer, as well as new ways to raise revenue combining free and paid access," Schmidt wrote. "I believe it also requires a change of tone in the debate, a recognition that we all have to work together to fulfill the promise of journalism in the digital age."
One of Google's long-term goals is to develop openly available tools that could aid news organizations in the creation of Living Stories pages, or at least use some of their features. McQuivey noted that having a single page that refreshes automatically and combines the most relevant content into a single view is ideal, but he is unsure whether it would provide any particular benefit to publishers.
The downside for publishers comes from the fact that Google is still the gatekeeper, and that the essence of the Living Stories experience comes from the convenience of having it all in one place.
"As a result, the publisher's brand remains secondary and the reader is unlikely either to pay for this experience or launch [into other unrelated] ad-sponsored pages located at the publisher's site," McQuivey explained. "Google has done a great thing for consumers, but as is often the case in digital media, what's best for consumers doesn't always benefit the publisher or producer of content."