Google’s Gingras: ‘The future of journalism can and will be better than its past’

The following address was given by Richard Gingras, director of news and social products at Google, as the opening keynote of the annual conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) on August 9, 2012 in Chicago.

I’m honored by the opportunity to speak here tonight. When it comes to the future of journalism, there is no more important audience than the one in this room. It is you who will nurture, guide, and enable those who invent journalism’s future. We can talk tonight about the emerging news ecosystem. We can discuss its many emerging attributes. However, much of the invention that will occur, that needs to occur, will be the inventions of those you inspire.

Allow me to note a few points of context about me. I am not a journalist. Not that I wouldn’t be proud to accept that label. But I haven’t earned my stripes. While I have created several news products, and in a few instances, held the title of editor, I have never reported a story or worked deeply enough in the journalism trenches to ever be comfortable using that label.

I am a technologist. I develop and architect products. I have spent a third of a century working in the fields of new media. This does not mean I have answers. In fact, all it means is that I have had the opportunity to make more mistakes than all of you! And with those mistakes, I might have attained insights into the architecture of information ecosystems and their evolution over the course of the last 30 years.

These are extraordinary times. The media landscape is in the process of being completely transformed, tossed upside down; reinvented and restructured in ways we know, and in ways we do not yet know. The process of change is far from over. Indeed, it will never be over. The pace of technological change will not abate, it will only quicken. The consumer Internet is less than 20 years old. The emergence of Google and the power of search occurred only 15 years ago. Less than 10 years ago saw the eruption of the blogosphere. And only five years ago, the notion of social networks had not entered our consciousness. What will be the next startling innovation?

Looking just at the social dimension, let’s also note that it is also only in its infancy. The history of social networking is, at best, in its first chapter. There is much, much more innovation waiting to happen. We certainly recognize that at Google with our efforts with Google+. We are tremendously excited by the prospects. We are fascinated by what we are learning. We are eager to continue to try new things, to explore new arenas.

One realization is that social is not just about Friends and Family. It’s also about people you don’t know but should know. Just as Google News uses algorithms to find, cluster and present news in near realtime, we are now using algorithms to identify and harvest interesting and popular posts, mapping those posts to the interests of individual users – and enabling them to discovery new people, new communities, new experiences.

I started my career decades ago in the comparatively simplistic world of television programming and counter-programming. We are now combining the use of computer programs along with the basic concepts of media programming to drive discovery over the full matrix of the social graph, the interest graph, the functional graph, the geo-graph.

Yes, these are interesting times. They are exciting times. Yes, there has been tremendous and painful disruption but let’s consider the huge positives that underlie that disruption.

Beneath the disruption

There are no longer any barriers to publishing -- everyone has a printing press. There are no gatekeepers. Technically, anyone can publish and have his or her expression available to anyone in the world. We have more voices participating than ever before. We have more publishing than ever before. Of course, that does not mean it’s all high-quality expression but if one looks at things statistically, which I tend to do, and assume that wheat-to-chaff ratios stay reasonably the same, then we have more good content as well. It might be hard to find, but it is there.

There are also many new ways for people to consume and share news: from the emergence of the social layer of the Web to myriad new devices and form factors. And, there are powerful new technologies that can change what journalists do and how they do it: whether it be the evolution of new media forms, the ability to engage audiences, the use of computation for analysis and reporting, or the ability to report in multiple media forms with a device that fits in your pocket

In my view, the future of journalism can and will be better than it’s past. We have never had a more open ecosystem for the expression of information and ideas.

Let me note that much of what I will say will be my own personal observations and not official Google pronouncements. Please accept it as that. My work at Google has certainly given me an excellent perch with which to observe the ecosystem and its evolution.

Where Google fits

Google’s position with respect to the changes in the journalism ecosystem goes back to what has been and what will continue to be its core mission: to connect the dots between a consumer’s interests and informational needs and the most relevant available knowledge from the best possible sources.

Today, Google News puts current events coverage in front of an audience in excess of one billion unique users per week -- Google News, by the way, is not so much as it is a “freshness engine” underneath myriad Google properties, most specifically Google Search, globally scouring the Web for the latest current events coverage. We do that in 72 countries and over 40 languages. We just launched an edition for Serbia as part of an ongoing expansion of our coverage.

In doing that, all of our efforts are focused on quality. How can we find the highest quality coverage from the best possible sources, the best article on any given subject or news story. We do all of that algorithmically for Google search, Google News, and now, as I mentioned, we are working to apply our algorithmic prowess to the social realm as part of our efforts with Google Plus.

Before I talk further about the future of news, and as much as I believe the future is all we should be thinking about, I’d like to touch on a bit of historical context.

Rethinking the past

I often sense that people believe that the challenges facing journalism are all about the business model, and more importantly, that somehow the foundation of the prior journalistic era, the newspaper business model, was somehow etched on tablets brought down from the mount. This is not the case.

Newspapers historically were not hugely profitable. There was tremendous competition. Most cities had multiple papers – four, five, six or more from varying viewpoints, areas of focus, and quality. It was a tough business. In each market, the largest circulation paper did well, a few others did okay, and the remainder struggled.

Starting in approximately 1949, television ad revenues grew from zero to nearly 20 percent over the course of the following decade. A huge portion of that revenue came at the expense of newspapers. Newspapers went from owning 37 percent of the advertising market to 25 percent or so.

As a result, we saw a steady decline in the number of newspapers, from five down to one, in some cases two with a joint operating agreement. We went from having a rich set of voices to having only a few. From a democratic perspective, this was not a good thing.

However, for the newspapers left standing, it marked the introduction of 40 years of extraordinary profitability. They went from fighting for every ad dollar to having near monopolistic control over local ad pricing. They had tremendous distribution leverage and used it to fullest advantage.

The open distribution of the Internet destroyed that leverage, but the openness of Internet also brought the potential for many new voices. Would anyone really want to flip back the clock on that change? Disruptions of media marketplaces have happened before and will happen again. The 40-year golden period of newspaper profitability began with a disruption and ended with one.

The openness of the underlying distribution architecture of an ecosystem has a huge impact on the number of voices and the levels of profitability. The more controlled the distribution, the higher the profitability but the fewer the voices.

The distribution architecture also impacts product design. The golden era of near-monopoly newspapers also saw the expansion of the product to be all-things-to-all-interests -- or at least those interests that made economic sense with large circulation audiences.

Lifestyle sections, gardening sections, and so on, expanded the product model. Indeed, beyond classifieds, it was these “soft” news sections that drove profitability. However, that product model doesn’t quite work in the open ecosystem of the Internet. All-things-to-all-people portals have become irrelevant as the Web has matured and spawned thousands of editorial products focused on nearly as many niche audiences. That gardening section is competing against a dozen excellent sites that focus only on gardening.

But again: the change in the underlying distribution architecture and in the underlying business model of news is but one aspect of the extraordinary transformation that is currently playing out.

Rethinking the future

In light of these dramatic changes, we need to rethink every facet of the journalism model. I’m not suggesting that everything MUST change, but a comprehensive rethinking is a necessary and valuable intellectual process. We owe it to ourselves, we owe it to the importance of our journalist mission to consider and reconsider all options, all opportunities for positive change. Frankly, that re-thinking, that re-creation will happen whether we want it to or not.

It will happen because young innovators and entrepreneurs will approach these opportunities with no baggage, no old models to protect. Their canvas will be fresh and clean. Existing players are challenged, if not crippled, by their reluctance to “eat their own young." Entrepreneurs bear no such burden!

I don’t say this to criticize strategic decision of traditional media outlets. A few years ago, someone said to me, “why didn’t newspapers respond more quickly when Craigslist came onto the scene?” That is far easier said than done. At that time most major newspapers were public companies. I can’t criticize the decision of a CEO at that time to not jeopardize their classifieds business, the fattest of cash cows, in response to an emerging upstart and still answer to the demands of Wall Street. Far easier said than done however cogent the lesson therein.

Rethink everything. That’s what must happen. That’s what will happen. Let’s look at several key dimensions. By the way, there are dozens if not hundreds of dimensions to explore, questions to answer. These are but a few.

What is the nature and purpose of a website when most of the inbound traffic comes from search and social? Four years ago, many news sites saw half their traffic come to the home page. By traffic I mean inbound uniques, not page views, not the returning visits of loyal users. Today, due to continued growth in traffic from search and social, home page traffic is typically 25 percent of inbound audience. That means 75 percent of inbound traffic is going to story pages.

What do these changes in audience flows say about site design? Indeed what do they say about the very definition of a website. Should we not flip the model and put dramatically more focus on the story page rather than the home page? Or for that matter, on that corpus of content and media we call a "story."

How do we approach content architecture in an edition-less medium with a near limitless capacity for storage and accessibility? The architecture of news content has barely changed, particularly as practiced by traditional media outlets. It continues to mirror the edition-oriented nature of the prior medium form -- streams of articles that appear one day and drop into the archive the next. Should we not explore and adopt new approaches that, like Google’s earlier experiments with “the living story,” maintain the full expression of a reporter’s efforts in one place behind a persistent URL where I can more readily build value in the link economy of the Web?

“Digital First” needs to be more than a catchphrase. It must drive a deep rethinking of our product models and behaviors. We have both the capability and the need to do things differently.

What is the evolution of the narrative form in a medium dominated by updates, bullet points, and posts? As McLuhan said, “Every new medium begins as a container for the old.” While early radio news began with the reading of newspaper articles, that model was quickly superseded by a shorter crisper style that was appropriate to the radio medium.

In a culture dominated by updates, bullet points, and posts, read increasingly on smartphones and tablets, are there approaches to conveying in-depth journalism that move beyond the long-form narrative?

I’m not suggesting that the long-form is dead, but what is the right form to convey knowledge in a rich media ecosystem increasingly oriented towards short bites of content consumed on various mobile devices?

This is not the world of my dad reading the newspaper for 90 minutes before dinner. Can we learn from the approach of sites like ProPublica who create a series of social posts, each disclosing an additional nugget of journalistic knowledge and wisdom?

How can we take better and full advantage of computational journalism? One major technological impact is the opportunity to use computer science to assist with reporting efforts, to parse massive data sets, to monitor public sources of data. Can investigative journalism aggressively leverage computational journalism to not only help with stories but eventually become persistent, automated investigative reports? Let me repeat that: persistent, automated investigative reports. Why not? We have only seen the earliest, modest efforts in computational journalism. The potential is huge.

What tools does a journalist need to have? What new tools are now necessary, given we have no real limit on publishing capacity and no technical barriers to realtime publishing that can readily accommodate multiple forms of media? How might we support reportorial efforts such that it is easier to gather large amounts of info and use much more of that information to good effect? Since our medium can now accommodate the full expression of the reporter’s work, is there not huge value in developing new tools to support a reporter’s efforts? Who out there will drive the creation of a toolset we might call Reporter’s Notebook 2.0?

What is the right approach to organizational workflow? What is appropriate given current and future advances in how news is gathered, organized and presented in a virtual, do-anything-from-anywhere, 24/7 medium? What is the job definition of a reporter, of an editor, of a computational journalist as the underlying models change? What is the role of a reporter in a medium that not only enables audience engagement but requires it?

Does this not suggest a complete rethinking of editorial roles and organizational workflow? Are there new approaches that better allow news organizations to leverage the assistance of the trusted crowd, as was done by Josh Marshall and Talking Points Memo in winning their Polk prize. Might we benefit from systems that allow small news orgs to collaborate and work together?

How can we create work cultures of constant innovation? Again, the pace of technological change will not abate. It will only quicken. To think of this as a period of transition from one state to another is unwise.

How do we staff news organizations with the appropriate resources and the appropriate mindset such that constant innovation is imbued into the organization’s DNA and into the role of every participant?

The approach I am wary of is the creation of a Chief Innovation Officer within a company. This suggests that innovation only occurs in certain roles rather than being part of each and every role. Companies that do this well, for example Apple and Google, are constantly pushing innovation in every corner of their enterprises. Apple thinks out of the box about the box! Google builds cool features but then spends as much, if not more, time making sure that feature can happen instantly via a constantly evolving infrastructure that can provide both speed and cost-efficiency.

Innovation is not just about a sexy new user interface. It’s not just about what we do, it’s also about how we do it. Innovation is about taking risks and trying things. Mistakes will be made. That’s a good thing. That’s where true learning happens. I understand why this wasn’t the case in the past. There wasn’t the need. Change happened slowly. Those days have past.

What is the right curriculum given this new landscape, given these new opportunities? How do we equip and guide students with the right skills and mindsets? 

We need to rethink everything, including how we teach journalism. How can we best teach newswriting and reporting for this new media landscape? And teach the ability to be creative with the form? How can we best provide the research skills, the data mining skills for this new media landscape? Should there not be more combined programs of computer science and journalism?

Can we give journalism students enough of an understanding of content architecture and product design to think creatively about content architecture and product design? Can we give them enough of an understanding of the relevant technology and tools to continue to readily adapt to tomorrow’s technology and tools?

At a journalism conference a year or so ago I heard a journalism professor bemoan the fact they taught students Flash only to have it fade from use. Really? Every one of those students learned valuable and transferable skills. Authoring tools change. Understanding of programming concepts and models persists and evolves.

Can we give them enough of an understanding of the business aspects so that they can actively participate in the evolution of that business model? The time is gone when one side of the organization can practice determined ignorance of the other. Let’s not conflate the value of knowledge with the practice of ethical decision-making.

Can we build out faculty that values the need for change as much as it respects depth of experience?

Can we enable in our students a sense of personal entrepreneurship, not necessarily to build companies but to build and evolve their own careers? Can we inspire a mindset that is comfortable and ultimately confident in taking creative risks so that they thrive in fast-changing environments? The 40-year, one-company career is a thing of the past.

With great technological change comes great opportunity. And with great opportunity comes great responsibility. Among its many powers, the Internet has the ability to provide support for any opinion, any belief, any fear and give it greater volume.

Sadly, political players, interest groups, and even media companies know all too well that affirmation sells far better than information. Our society’s need for credible journalistic knowledge and wisdom has never been greater. While the evolution of the Web has been hugely beneficial it also raises the bar. How might we evolve our craft to build trust in journalism and restore some semblance of cognitive-reasoning?

Yes, the future of journalism can and will be better than its past. In fact, I believe we are at the beginnings of a renaissance in the exploration and re-invention of how news is gathered, expressed, and engaged with. But the success of journalism’s future can only be assured to the extent that each and every person in this room helps generate the excitement, the passion, and the creativity to make it so.

May you enjoy the journey, and more importantly, might you inspire others to enjoy theirs.


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