The Heatline of a Story

Google, apparently prodded by the ground covered by twitter news, has introduced a feature on its Google News search results that indicates what one might call the ‘heat’ of a story—how many sources are covering it over time:

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As with Google Search Trends, the stories below the chart are linked to the graph via letters (although one can’t click on the letters.)

The chart appears to the right of any news search:

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I think it’s clever, and a good way of merging two different Google services (and a third: the images in the bottom right hand corner.)

A note at the bottom explains the placement of stories on the graph:

The selection and placement of stories on this page were determined automatically by a computer program.

The time or date displayed (including in the Timeline of Articles feature) reflects when an article was added to or updated in Google News.

The example above, concerning phone tapping in the UK, indicates that things have quietened down a bit, although that could have more to do with it being a weekend than anything else.

I would imagine this kind of thing would be useful, too, for news organisations to let readers navigate big stories. The sheer number of stories on one particular issue make it hard for users to find the most relevant ones, or to be able to see where that story sits in their coverage timeline.

When Old Media Buys a Community

MSNBC, owned by MSN and NBC, has bought Newsvine, a sort of citizen journalism, blogging and news-sharing site. But who stands to lose from the deal, and what does it tell us about the equity of Web 2.0?

One commenter on the page that announces the news hits the nail firmly on the head:

In the end I feel dejected, sad and I guess just a little like we should have seen this one coming. What, pray tell is going to happen to OUR huge sums of ad revenue? I mean you guys are making mad loot out of this deal, what about our money?

The deal was cash, but terms were not disclosed.

It’s one of the unresolved paradoxes of Web 2.0 (and citizen journalism): How do you reward those who make a website like Newsvine what it is? Or at least, how do you avoid making them feel hopelessly exploited?

This from Calvin Tang, a co-founder of Newsvine:

I personally would like to thank all Newsvine users who have helped make Newsvine what it is – the most vibrant and active community of users on the digital news media landscape. In addition to being one of the most powerful and unique publishing platforms on the web – the open dialogues, the free and creative expression of ideas and the genuine manner in which all of you participate on the site are some of the foremost reasons that msnbc.com found Newsvine to be an attractive company to partner with.

To be fair, Tang does point to the possibility of “an adjustment to the way contributors are compensated based on suggestions from users.” It’s not clear what this is: At the moment anyone with their own “column” on Newsvine gets 90% of ad revenue derived from visitors to that page. And all content is owned by the person who creates it.

Newsvine is actually hugely popular among those who use it: about 1.2 million unique visitors per month, according to Read/Write Web, and growing at an average rate of 46% per quarter. The site, R/WW says, gets about 80,000 comments and 250,000 votes a month. That’s pretty good traffic in a couple of years.

But still there’s the nagging feeling that money is being made on the backs of others. If all those producing the work were interested only in wider exposure, then the MSNBC deal is good — lots of opportunities for their writings to be read by a wider audience.

From the comments a lot of Newsvine users feel a sense of loyalty and protectiveness towards the site and its founders. And although it’s obvious that the best exit strategy for a site like this is to be bought out by a bigger player, probably one in old media, the illusion that something like Newsvine is an antidote to old media is an important one to maintain; how many, otherwise, would expend effort and time contributing for free if they felt the primary goal of the site was to get bought out?

Money is probably of little consequence to most of those using Newsvine. They’re more interested in the satisfaction that comes from “owning” a community. But inevitably money changes the equation: it is that very community, not the site per se, that has attracted MSNBC’s dollars. Should not the community, therefore, be entitled to some of that money?

Of course, the community itself, by not being party to the discussions with MSNBC nor beholden to the deal, can just up sticks and leave if it doesn’t like the outcome. And that’s where the other illusion kicks in: MSNBC can’t buy the community, although it may feel it has. It can buy the site where that community has built its camp. Make the wrong moves, not make enough moves, or fail to spread the wealth, and it may wake up one morning to find the camp has faded away in the night.

Newsvine – Msnbc.com Acquires Newsvine

Netscape Diggs In and Elbows Out the Competition

AOL/Netscape has launched a beta of its new homepage that looks uncannily like Digg, a hugely popular site for techies to publish stuff and have their stories sorted by popularity. Actually it not only looks like Digg, two of the top three stories are Digg’s. AOL’s been smart tho: visit the source page and you can only do so within a big black sidebar that keeps you wedged inside the Netscape site. (You can’t resize it, but you can turn it off, but obviously by default. Meaning it will open with every external link you click on. Oh, and it’s really slow to load.)

Perhaps by coincidence, or by the efforts of a few Diggers, those two Digg stories are less than complimentary about AOL: The first, AOL Copies Digg (“Check out what this is based on”) and the second  Trying to cancel AOL (“Here’s a recording I did of a conversation between myself and AOL while trying to cancel an account I no longer needed. It was old, and I hadn’t used it in a REALLY long time, I just never got around to cancelling it. Enjoy!”)

A piece by Reuters says that this new site has “editors, which Netscape calls anchors,” who “can choose to highlight what they consider important stories.” This might be the top portion of the page, but I assume the anchors are not highlighting the two stories mentioned above. Or maybe they are, in some wild new form of self-flagellating transparency?

I won’t get into the journalistic implications of all this here. But there’s a telling comment by Netscape.com’s new general manager, dot-com news entrepreneur Jason Calacanis, to the Reuters reporter: “We don’t have to do a level of journalism that you guys do,” he said, referring to traditional news organizations. “You guys take it 90 yards, we take it the next 10.”

The reporter didn’t pick up on this. But when sites like this basically suck content from other sites, from NYT to Digg to Reuters, to form the basis of their homepage, and then link to that content within a sidebar that squeezes the original website partly out of view and off the screen plaster, that 10 yards looks mighty cheap for the yardage you get. Whose content is it now? Who’s making money off whom? And who is the smartest person in the room?

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Google News Discovers There’s A Reason Why Journalists Exist

Here’s an interesting take on Google News I hadn’t thought of before, from Dana Blankenhorn, an Atlanta-based writer. He’s mad at Google for apparently allowing in to its news trawl clearly partisan sites that aren’t news, but opinion. At the same time, he says. Google is separating out blogs from its news searches — possibly because it may launch a separate search engine, as part of its buyout of Blogger, former host to loose wire. So anything that uses blogging software is out, sites that don’t, but have some kind of ‘news’ on, are in.

As Dana points out, this leaves a very skewed picture of the news at a sensitive time in American politics. With so many candidates and activists running blogs — especially among the Democrats — the apparent decision to leave blogs out but others in is being used by Republican webmasters to push political views into what is a news site. “Given the current intensity of American politics, this has a real effect, and seems to give Google a real ideological bias,” Dana writes.

I haven’t explored this allegation more fully: It will be interesting to see what Google have to say. I guess the broad lesson from this is that Google News is a news site, and therefore has to abide by certain rules whether it likes it or not. But Google is not a news site, in the sense that it has journalists, editors and photographers out there making editorial decisions about what is news and what isn’t, since it automates its news searching and presentation. Indeed, it proudly acknowledges there are no humans involved.

So Google will have to make a choice: include everything in its news trawl to avoid accusations of bias (at the moment it numbers 4,500 news sources), restrict the news to only bona fide news outlets, or install a team of editors to ensure the material that appears on the website, and the way it appears, are balanced.

In the end, of course, news is not something computers do well. I know: I’ve seen big news agencies try to do it. Even simple stock market reports require some human distillation to make them meaningful (and not look silly). Google, perhaps, is just finding out that there’s no really cheap way to enter the news business.