SUNDAY TRIBUNE: 6 OCTOBER 2002
GOOGLE has pulled another rabbit out of its technological hat. It has recently launched a news aggregate service running alongside its massive search engine facility. Google News searches out the leading news stories on the web and presents them grouped by subject.
The new engine has been in test mode since early this year and was fully launched a couple of weeks ago. Already reports suggest the new service is pulling in a huge amount of traffic. So far comments seem to be very positive on the service. Nobody, even Google, is making a big deal out of it. How times have changed?
Four or five years ago, a number of big sites attempted the same project, although on a much smaller scale. Headlines from sources across the web were posted in one place and saved people having to visit numerous sites. But back then, the existence of such sites led to a stampede of experts predicting that such technology was going to turn the world of newspapers upside down.
Since then, that has actually happened but it has nothing to do with the internet or the web. After all the technological wizardry that was laid out for consumption, newspapers are still one of the most important sources of news for many millions of people. For lots of reasons. Okay some goliaths of the publishing world went online with trumpets playing and cheque books waving, but they were convinced by their financial advisors there was huge money to be made. How?
Well the spin meisters had their grandiose tales of the wonders of technology while the real gurus spoke about disintermediation. Even the word itself could only be pronounced after lowering some alcohol. The gurus forecast that time was not on the side of newspapers and they had better get moving. Which a lot of the big ones did. The rewards seemed too good to ignore. By going online publishers were going to make enormous savings on production and distribution costs. Plus there were all these millions of people going online and advertisers were going there too. Fear of being left behind in the technological 'revolution' also had a role to play.
The noise-free introduction of Google News comes then with much relief at the silence from the rooftops. But it also comes at a time when there is some serious discussion on the role of news in society, online and offline. This is largely centred around the monopolisation of publishing, with newspaper titles coming under the control of a small and diminishing number of global corporations.
The role of news also seeps into the broadcasting debate, where news ranks as one of the central planks in defining and mapping out the future of public service broadcasting. What has changed over the last four or five years, is that the internet was going to guarantee that public service dimension. Information would be free. Free as in unimpeded. There was no need to get all worked up over monopolisation when the web was there. In any case it didn't matter because newspapers' days were numbered.
Nothing of the sort happened, of course, and newspapers have now settled down nicely on the web and view it mainly as an advertising and marketing tool. There are exceptions, which provide reader forums and feedback, but they are few and far between. Printing links at the end of stories was also a welcome move and allowed readers to further investigate. It also showed how both media could beneficially interact with each other.
But in general, newspapers have been pulling away from the web, certainly in providing online editions in full. The switch to subscription and registration has vastly reduced the availability of established newspapers on the web. Searching for much-needed revenue streams, many online editions bordered their content, save for a few tasters on the home page. That this happened at a time of major downturn in the stock markets perhaps reveals a truer picture.
It was costing too much for full online editions. Publishers were not getting the returns sufficient to justify the cost and on the cusp of recession the accountancy offices had their carpets well worn.
The Irish Times had the good sense to get a hold of the Ireland.com domain name. For a time there, such a name could have been sold for maybe $2m or $3m dollars. For a while also, Ireland.com was by far and away the most visited news site in Ireland and it also had huge traffic from outside the country, particularly the United States.
As a brand name, it was synonymous with The Irish Times and helped to give the paper a very strong internet presence and identity. Considering the success of Ireland.com, it can only really be for financial reasons that the paper decided to turnstile its online edition. Regardless of how the subscription model is doing, the cost of producing the online edition will have gone down significantly.
Unison.ie, the portal of the Independent Newspaper Group, has stopped short of charging, but visitors must register in order to see the full edition. More interestingly, the site's terms of service specifically prohibits linking to any of the pages without permission. Referred to as deep-linking, there has been serious opposition to the practice in the US, where fair use rights are considered to be an important component of copyright.
For one reason or another the days of the no charge newspaper are quickly coming to an end. And that could become very tricky for Google News in the future. Should Google decide to bring in some sort of payment or subscription charges, the company might find that access to news sites will be denied. Those news sites might very well get upset that their content is making money for someone else. Copyright might also come into play on this issue, which is standard procedure these days. Are newspaper headlines and intro straps copyrighted? Can such copyrights be enforced? Time will tell.
But between now and then, the new search facility gets the internet and the web doing what they're very good at: gathering and publishing information. Gathering in Google New's case amounts to over 4000 news sites checked for updates every fifteen minutes. The engine ranks a news article based on how recently it has been published, the number of stories devoted to it and the popularity of a particular news source, or the amount of links to it.
The sources are the key that makes the whole thing work. On a search last Wednesday night using the words 'Nice Treaty', the sources included (in no particular order) The Daily Telegraph, the Irish Voice, EU Business, Ireland Online, The Western People, Radio Free Europe, Maltamedia News, International Herald Tribune (France), the Budapest Business Journal and The Salt Lake Tribune.