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The Google News "Osama Death" Sample Highlights Some News Coverage Woes

Today, Google News did a post about the death of Osama bin Laden. Disappointingly, it offered no statistics on what was most read, shared, topics most covered. The post did share a “sample” of 100 links to coverage about Osama bin Laden from representative sources. So, I decided to go where Google didn’t — to see what that sample might tell us. In short, good stuff about Google News, yes — but lots of flaws, too.

The coverage seemed pretty heavily skewed toward the mainstream media. I wondered if they all turned out to be saying the same thing. Yes, you did have plenty of general summaries.

But as I went through the stories (and my idea of highlighting each of them proved way too much work), I did come across a number of things that stood out to me. Here are some highlights (and there will be some typos, sorry — had to dash out before my usual proofing. I’ll catch them later).

The Non-Local, Non-Baltimore Sun Story

Above, the Baltimore Sun focuses on a local angle. That’s why I pulled it out, initially. It’s an example of how Google News (and its news aggregator kin) are bringing local stories relevant to a larger audience that might not have seen them in the past.

But then I looked more closely. This isn’t a Baltimore story. It’s coming out of Philadelphia. And it’s not even from the Baltimore Sun but rather than the Associated Press — the same story that Google will have had hosted through its AP deal on its own site, plus duplicated across many other sites.

For example, the Chicago Tribune “story” in the sample is actually from AP. So’s the Detroit Free Press story. And the Seattle PI’s story. So’s the Mercury News on “RIP Osama Forever” graffiti (I know, graffito) found in, oops, my hometown. Gads!

So this is actually a big Google News fail. This story really shouldn’t be showing up in Google News, when Google itself hosts an “official” copy through a deal with the AP. Instead, it’s an example of how Google News continues to fail with the news duplication issue that it has struggled with for years.

How Much Is Too Little?

You may have missed the little catfight that broke out between TechCrunch and Mashable this week. Actually, it was TechCrunch writer MG Siegler who was annoyed that Mashable seemed to be blogging about anything under the sun in little nuggets apparently just to get pageviews, part of a greater trend in tech blogging. For its part, I think Mashable never responded.

Above, the BBC Radio 4 story above shows some natural “news nuggeting” that happens. Here, a small sound byte is turned into a news story — and in Google News, it will compete coequally with all other types of stories, regardless of depth.

Google News can be filled with such nuggets. Indeed, the sample was filled with such nuggets.

Are they done purposely to chase pageviews. When last year’s San Bruno gas pipeline explosion happened, I remember being very annoyed that the Examiner felt it had to constantly be rewriting it story, seemingly for this purpose:

But then, I looked at the Los Angeles Times:

It was effectively doing what news organizations and wire services have long done, a “write though,” constant updates to a story. Chasing pageviews too? Maybe. But also part of what is native to some news organizations.

In the end, news nuggets whether done purposely to chase pageviews or happenign naturally remain a challenge to news search engines like Google News.

Billboard On Bin Laden?

In the aforementioned catfight, AllThingsD’s Kara Swisher jumped into the fray, pushing back on Siegler’s allegation that Bin Laden was “killing tech blogging” by tweeting “many Osama bin Laden posts all over tech blogs were terrific btw.”

Indeed, they were. Not that you’d have gotten that impression from the Google News sample given out today, though to be fair, the malware issue got a nod in the links, and Wired covering aviation geeks trying to ferret out details on the helicopters used also made the sample.

I mean, one of the biggest stories was the man who unknowingly tweeted the raid. Where that that story first get reported? I watched CNN talk about it days later. I learned it first hand through Techmeme, and tech blogs took off with it.

But the bigger point is that the story, like many stories, doesn’t just have one mainstream media generic news angle.

Case in point: Billboard was in the Google News sample:

The was a music angle to the story. It makes sense for Billboard to be covering this. Just like, apparently, there was crazily-enough a Harry Potter-angle that E Online (also in the sample) covered.

US Magazine writing to what celebrities tweeted? Glad it wasn’t me who had to write it, but it was in keeping with what the publication does. MTV deciding it needs to cover the social media angle? Dunno.

PC Word doing a general story? Weird.

I actually share some of Siegler’s same concerns that Google News — and Google in general — can reward sites that go off their regular topics in a quest for greater pageview glory. It’s not supposed to happen (see Under The Hood: Google News & Ranking Stories), but it does (see The Google Sewage Factory, In Action: The Chocomize Story).

When it does, it’s incredibly annoying. As a publisher, it’s also incredibly deflating if you work hard to build in-depth content on a particular topic. As a publisher, it’s also clearly enticing that Google News operates in this way.

Hopefully, Google News will get the balance right. That’s because any story can have great angles within niche areas. Those do deserve recognition and visibility.

It’s Fair Use When Mainstream Source Quote

Over the past two or three years, we’ve had continued cries that blogs are just ripping off hard working mainstream publications who seemingly employ all their journalists in warzones and are going bankrupt serving freeloading visitors who don’t pay for content.

Did I miss anything there?

But here’s the Christian Science Monitor in the Google News sample quoting another source, Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News:

Now, is that fair use, or will Murdoch be attacking the Christian Science Monitor as a parasite, as he has blogs? And Google for rewarding the Monitor, including highlighting its “coverage” in today’s post — coverage that also later pulls a nugget from a Los Angeles Times story.

The reality, of course, is that fair use can be in the eye of the beholder. Blogs take, I’d say, more than their fair share of criticism for seeming to “cherry-picking” news nuggets from mainstream sources, which themselves often don’t realize the value of nuggetizing their own content. Which Google, of course, rewards. See, you can always turn any problem in the world back to blaming Google.

What About The Ads?

Hmm, do you think the families of victims celebrating Obama’s death went “Hot Dang” and wanted a hamburger? Suffice to say, I found this ad (carefully targeted by Google’s AdSense system) not in keeping with the story:

These about the a Navy SEALs video game, were at least well targeted:

For the most part, however, I can report that nothing really stood out for me in terms of ads, either appropriate or inappropriate or just noticing them period.

Pretty Diverse, Lots In Depth

I’ve mostly highlighted the negative rather than accentuating the positive. There is lots of great stuff in the sample. It’s a pity, actually, Google itself didn’t provide some analyis rather than just giving a source list (it has, however, provided a list of 150,000 stories about Osama Bin Laden from May 1-5 for those who want to do their own analysis (you can download it here).

Among the stories that especially caught my eye, as reflecting the diversity of content you might find through Google News:

The Google News post was mainly a reflection on how far it has come since 9/11 — when it didn’t exist at all (my story below covers this and how poor Google was as a source on that day, with screenshots).

I agree. It has greatly improved. It’s hard for me to think of getting news without it, or without news aggregators in general. In fact, I’ve long had a tweet in mind to put out that the right moment — this seemed the right time. So here it is.

I’d rather have my story echoing in the echo chamber of a news aggregator than not heard at all.

Far from killing news services, aggregators like Google News I’d argue are making their content visible to people who would have never seen it before, and giving the news consumer a diversity and richness of content that’s unrivaled to what we’ve had in the past.

And yet, despite this great advance, there’s so much more left to do to improve. Here’s to Google, and aggregators everywhere, to keep working on the issues.

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