On News: Google, RSS, Editorial

I'm still at the mercy of what are ultimately little bots scouring the WWW to surface what mathematicians think is the right stuff.

My Melting Brain
My Melting Brain
My Melting Brain
My Melting Brain

These are hyper-interesting times. Hyper in all meanings of the word. More than ever it’s a perfect descriptor of our news – it comes at us streamed in small chunks on Twitter, piped across RSS feeds from thousands of sources, and, increasingly, mashed up into a headline buffet abetted in large part by the explosion of tablets and “news discovery” apps.

It especially hit home last week when I reviewed a bunch of these news apps.

They’re uniformly impressive. But what I realized when I sat down with, say, Flipboard for an hour or so over a glass of wine is that the editorial voice is slowly in danger of fading into the ether. Or maybe it’s already happened, and I’m finally coming to terms with the fact that we rarely sit and read a publication cover to cover, be it WSJ, Wine Spectator, Businessweek (what’s up with that one these days?!)  or even casual reads like Car & Driver, Popular Photography, etc. These are some of my favorites.

When C&D changed editors recently, you knew it. The magazine’s tone changed. Not better. Not worse. It — along with the aesthetic — was just different. I doubt I would’ve caught that difference so much if I was just reading piece meal off an RSS reader. The Huffington Post – okay, there’s editorial tone. Like it or not (what’s up with the salacious right hand column?!), Arianna Huffington has a (sometimes shrill) voice. It’s cutting, opinionated, authentic.

Then there’s Google News. My first stop of the day 99 times out of a 100. I scan the headlines, see what’s happening in the US, maybe a few top world stories, then head deep into tech. Though based on what I’m sure are some of the most advanced, amazing algorithms, I’m still at the mercy of what are ultimately little bots scouring the WWW to surface what mathematicians think is the right stuff. I’m not complaining. I think it’s brilliant, that Google News. It’s fast, and uses a clean, almost retro, interface that gets the job done. However, again, coming back to the editorial. What of it?

Wouldn’t you know, just as I was polishing off this short bit, I came across a related article on the NYT blog that asked: “Should Google play an editorial role in presenting readers with news?

It’s a question we don’t get to answer, though the conversation it stirred at Zeitgeist, Google’s conference in Arizona, was pretty interesting. Seems like broadcaster Ted Koppel is none too pleased with society’s fascination with the superficial – chasing entertainment/news instead of news/news. He’s probably not alone in perhaps feeling as if journalism in this country has already fallen two-thirds down the abyss.

Does that then mean Google is not just a technology company (and, of course, it’s also now a pop culture institution); that engineers, not journalists, not writers, not experts in their given fields, are now the invisible hands feeding us Scarlett Johansson phone hacking updates?

Larry Page said in response, “I see this as our responsibility to some extent, trying to improve media.”

Interesting times. Hyper-interesting times.

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