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October 30, 2002


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By Raoul V. Mowatt
Tribune staff reporter
Published October 30, 2002

Through the goggles of Google, the world's top news topics on Monday included obvious choices like the sniper case and Sen. Paul Wellstone's death. But Florida State and "Game 5"?

The Web site recently introduced an upgraded version of the newsgathering page it launched in April: colorful, completely computerized, constantly updating from 4,000 content sources, and with algorithms selecting stories instead of editors.

Since the new incarnation was unveiled in September, Google says millions have tried it. And with an increasing number of Americans drawing at least some of their journalism from the Web (about 1 in 5 do, and 5.9 percent say it is their primary news source, according to a study by Nielsen Media Research Inc.), Google News at six months raises some important questions.

How does Google's news page compare with all the other media out there? How easy is it to use now? And how do stories and pictures assembled and arranged by algorithms feel to human readers?

"Anything that's automated is always going to have problems," said Sreenath Sreenivasan, who teaches new media at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. "But the way they've done it is so useful."

Marissa Mayer, Google News product manager, said that when the site started in April, it drew from 150 sources and updated itself once an hour. Now it refreshes about four times an hour.

It may seem odd that a search-engine company is dipping its toes in the waters of journalism, but Mayer said it makes sense. "Our mission is to organize the world of information and make it universally accessible and useful," she said. "And news is a part of the body of information that's particularly useful to people."

Mayer said her Silicon Valley company has been getting suggestions constantly on how to tweak the service, but wouldn't say when it might offer the next upgrade. Google is free and has no ads itself. But after fine-tuning the news search, Mayer said, her company would figure ways to make it profitable.

Here are some observations about http://news.google.com based on interviews and experiments.

- By the numbers: The front page generally has 26 stories, accompanied by 20 small photos, and links to the latest variations. Under its major headings -- World, U.S., Business, Sci/Tech, Sports, Entertainment and Health -- there are 20 stories apiece.

Good news: That should be more than enough for the most hardcore news junkie, great for an overview of what's out there, along with a sense of how fresh it is. "The best thing they do is give you the time stamp so you know when it's updated," Sreenivasan said.

Bad news: Since the stories are chosen in the electronic equivalent of a popularity contest, you can forget anything on quirky, off-the-beaten-path subjects. Local news? Not a factor at present.

- Width and depth: Stories can have links to accounts posted by dozens of sites, if not hundreds. For example, Google gave links to more than 1,500 stories on the D.C. area sniper, about as many about the death of Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-Minn.) and 675 stories about the latest in Palestinian/Israeli tensions. A reader interested in the World Series could find 1,900 stories about it, as covered by MLB.com, the Miami Herald, Sporting News, the San Francisco Chronicle and the New York Times. "It basically gives people a quick glance of what news sites around the world are determining are the top stories," said Jonathan Dube, publisher of cyberjournalist.net, a site that explores the intersection of technology and media.

Good news: Conventional news sources individually just can't match the ease with which you can compare and contrast a story's treatment or research a particular topic extensively. Similarly, you can look for columns, in-depth analysis or just-the-facts-ma'am approaches.

Bad news: Many times, links refer to the same Reuters or Associated Press account posted by different sites. The sheer volume of links can make it harder to sort through and find a unique take, let alone the most interesting one. Dube said without the ability to sift out repeats, "right now, it's just kind of a novelty."

- Its roots are showing. As a natural evolution from its search-engine ancestry, the site has a convenient place right on top to scour for specific stories.

Good news: It's more powerful than some of the other news-site search engines. It can dig up stories as far back as 30 days ago. Most search engines on individual media sites only allow a week's searching for free. Dube said the search engine is more powerful than its competitors and probably the most useful part of the site.

Bad news: It's still not as powerful as it could be. It doesn't allow you to search by date, or filter out some of the 4,000 sites, or use search terms as sophisticated as you might be able to find on some databases.

- Top 10: Google has a list of 10 topics that are in the news, judged by what terms come up the most frequently on the Web sites it searches.

Good news: Top 10 lists always rock. Just ask David Letterman.

Bad news: The selection of the topics and the stories underneath them sometimes seem puzzling. To take a Monday example, the list had overlaps (Game 7, Anaheim Angels and San Francisco or Walter Payton and Emmitt Smith, who eclipsed Sweetness' NFL rushing record.)

Brazil's President-elect Luiz Inacio Lula, actress Winona Ryder (who is facing a shoplifting trial), the late actor Richard Harris and "Wall Street," all make sense as hot topics right now.

But another category was "Latin America," which doesn't seem inherently any more newsworthy than "Asia," "Europe" or "the United States." That category brought up links to such disparate stories as Shakira winning 5 awards at the MTV Latin America awards, assessments of the prospects for Latin America's economic and political future, and a New York Times restaurant review.

- Computer magic: As a selling point, the site has bragged that no humans were harmed in putting it together.

Good news: The automation would seem to minimize the possibility of bias. It would hypothetically be faster than human counterparts.

Bad news: Human editors sorting through thousands of stories on the box-office success of "Jackass," say, might narrow it down to the best ones. Google just gives the stories in reverse-chronological order.

Sometimes, in its frenzy to put words and pictures together, Google pulls a headline from one news source and a photo from another. A headline from the Independent about Tim Salmon lifting the Angels in Game 2, for example, had a photo of a New Jersey columnist. And a headline from the Washington Post about the prosecutor in the sniping case entering the spotlight ran alongside a photo of sniper suspect John Lee Malvo.

Oops.

So who wins the 21st-Century equivalent of John Henry vs. the steam engine? Google has enough power to make it a must-bookmark.

But how much is there in the service that surprises, really, or that separates it from the herd? Is the wide group of sources it uses a satisfactory substitute for an editorial vision, for a soul?

Its readers continue to be the judge of that.

Copyright 2002, Chicago Tribune


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