Journalists vs algorithms

The migration of journalism and the influence of Google News

Last month the international tech and music event, Uprise Festival, was held at the RDS in Dublin for the first time. Tipped as being one of the top five talks was  The Migration of Journalism, hosted by media experts Amanda Connolly and Mark Little. Connolly is currently the head digital editor at Newstalk, while Little is the founder of news company Neva Labs, and previously led the Twitter media team in Europe. Individually they discussed the transformation of news reporting from a printed to digitalised platform, and how the Google News algorithm is a threat to media companies trying to reach their target audiences.

Before online news was official born in the early 1990’s, Little recalls having to buy a broadsheet in the morning and wait until 9pm to sit and watch the news on the television. There was a limited source of news and what was reported was accepted as fact. Today, with the dawn of social media and Google News, even the age of foreign correspondence is gone. On-site images and online reporting has taken precedence, contributing to the international web community of over 7000 news sources. Now, by simply keying words into the Google search bar, you can take your pick from a personalised flood of headlines.

The Google News patent application published in 2012 allows a quick and single glance at how the algorithm works. A major factor to filtering the news headlines is based on the user’s individual interests and search history. Connolly realised the significance of this after searching for her newly published article. Her media company was the first to be tipped on the crime case, but when she Google searched for her published article, it came up as second on the News ranking. A decade ago her article would have been the hot-off-the-press news that the public desired. But Google News has now changed the game and is making up its own rules.

The Google News algorithm is compiled of factors such as the quantity of content published by the media group, the “freshness” of the article, location and diversity, according to the patent application. Despite many funded attempts to crack the algorithm by media companies, it remains inscrutable. There’s no point in trying to solve it, says Connolly. You can hire SEO experts and people trained in analytics, which will inevitably be to no avail. All that there is left to do is to foster “better connections with your readers” and to promote loyalty.

News groups have reacted to this shift in distribution and have become the news powerhouses for the millennial readers. Resisting this movement somewhat are the Legacy papers, older names in the news industry, who have resigned to prioritising its physical newspapers. Although their printed platform was once the commanding and indisputable method of news delivery, their target audience is being replaced by those of the digital era. To stay afloat, they can only to follow the migration patterns of other news sources.

Little emphasised the point that a recorded view does not always correlate to real engagement. It is far better to have people read the entire article rather than just “viewing” it, which is part of the nature of social media. Advertisement revenue is made from views, but with the ranking metrics of Google News a lot of so-called “one hit wonder” newsgroups can take the lead in the listings and accumulate revenue as a result. With loyalty comes more real engagement – and views – as a result. This relationship between reader and news provider was more recently tested by the Fake News phenomenon, causing people to demand a better quality and legitimacy from their sources.

Both a curse and a blessing, the outbreak of Fake News has compelled Google News to refine its headline filtering mechanism. In a blog post written earlier this year by Ben Gomes, vice-president of engineering for Google Search, the company promised to “demote lower quality content” and try to eradicate “misleading and downright false information”. At the same time, the surfacing of Fake News provides a welcome spotlight on the accurate and well-written articles of legitimate news groups. It also supports the future of journalism that Connolly and Little envisages, in the form of paid news subscriptions.

Unlike the articles you could be directed to through Google News, a subscription could offer news in the form that suits the reader’s needs. Little promoted the idea of three returns: a return in identity via personalisation, a return in attention by giving concise reports, and a return on intention through providing sound and accurate journalism. By paying for news, albeit for ideally the same price for a price of coffee, readers can block ads and get the product they want. Both Connolly and Little agree that jumping on the bandwagon of various platforms provided by tech giants, such as Facebook live and Snapchat, can be beneficial but not necessary. The focus must be on the content and the link between reader and news company, a relationship that survives the rise and fall of platform trends.