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From AJR,   June/July 2010  issue

A Web-Centric Approach To Traditional Journalism   


By Abby Brownback
Abby Brownback is an AJR editorial assistant.     

It's not as legendary as Noah's ark, not as revered as Joan of Arc, not as ornate as the Arc de Triomphe--but the arc of an ongoing story, one that guides from past to present, is the centerpiece of how readers process the news.

And Google's Living Stories is an attempt to capitalize on this linchpin of the reader's experience with a new style of news presentation.

In a two-month experiment, Google partnered with the New York Times and the Washington Post to marry "Google's purely Web-centric sensibility and the journalistic sensibility" of the newspapers, says Martin Nisenholtz, senior vice president for digital operations for the New York Times Co. The union created one destination page for each of nine test storylines, from the Washington Redskins to swine flu to health care reform.

Almost blog-style, articles written by Times and Post reporters were posted to the page dedicated to a particular ongoing story. Atop the page is a summary of the story to date, which serves to orient and provide context to readers who enter in the middle of a running story, and a timeline of significant events related to the saga. Below, a navigation bar lets readers filter and organize the articles by subtopic, by type of piece (news, feature, image, etc.), by importance or by date. Each time users visit the story's page, articles they have read are collapsed or grayed out, allowing them to focus on the latest news.

This "organic, ongoing way to tell stories" helps readers follow along as a story unfolds rather than pick up the fragments of the narrative from a host of different sites, says R.B. Brenner, the Post's deputy universal news editor.

"When you go to an individual article on the Web..oftentimes it feels like it just ends, and there's no place to go," Nisenholtz says. "You can't go back in time, and you often can't go to tightly related photos or video. It's hard to get the whole context of the story by looking at an individual article."

Nisenholtz likens the differences between the way Living Stories captures "the ongoing arc of the story in one place" and traditional news Web sites to the differences between Google's Gmail, which groups e-mails, replies and forwards in threads, and other e-mail servers that do not.

"Some people prefer a more traditional, linear view of e-mail," he says. "Some people prefer a more conversational approach. It's a different way of organizing the content."

Likewise, Living Stories is a new way for readers to engage with online content, says Josh Cohen, Google's senior business product manager. "The Web allows for better personalization," he says. "This is a better experience for the user. That's the ultimate benefit."

The numbers seem to indicate a much better reader experience. Visitors to the Living Stories site spent an average of nine minutes perusing stories per visit, compared with the average 30 minutes per month spent on a typical news Web site, according to Chris Gaither, senior communications manager for content for Google News.

Salon also has recognized the value of unifying story themes. Late last year, the pioneering Web magazine launched topic pages that give readers the context and background for a single article on a running story, like immigration or the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico. The pages, which are similar to Living Stories, not only have increased site traffic, but also play a crucial role in the media's responsibility to make as much information as possible available to readers, says Chief Executive Officer Richard Gingras, who worked on Living Stories when he was a strategic adviser to the senior team at Google News. "It should always be our objective to create a more comprehensive and useful experience for our readers.

"It is absolutely necessary for us..to figure out how to get the most out of every piece of content we create."

For both Living Stories and Salon, that means harnessing new technology and paying attention to changing reader habits to turn old models of journalism into ones that fit how people get news today--through social media referrals, search engines and, less and less frequently, direct visits to an organization's homepage.

"For our survival, it's really important that we as an industry continue to catch up with the fact that people are consuming news so differently than they used to," Brenner says.

Google wants this mentality to take hold with news operations worldwide, so in February it open-sourced the code that creates the Living Stories template, and in April it released an application and a theme that enable people to use the template on WordPress, a popular blogging platform. Google never intended to house the project permanently on its Web site, Cohen says, and it wants publishers to continue to experiment with the concept. "The purpose of the experiment is that people can build on it," he says. "What we want to do is make it accessible to anybody out there who's creating content for the Web [and] find different ways to ensure the online news space is rich with experimentation and innovation."

Also in April, Google representatives met with about a dozen publishers to outline the ideal Living Story and how to begin using the project within the context of an existing news Web site. Salon and Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative-journalism powerhouse ProPublica attended, along with USA Today, CNN and the United Kingdom's Telegraph.

Though "the lion's share of our journalism is investigative and tends to cover things after they've happened," ProPublica's Scott Klein wrote in an e-mail interview, the organization sees the project as a "powerful storytelling device," particularly for rolling stories. Editors are discussing how ProPublica can repurpose elements of Living Stories to support its depth pieces, to personalize articles or to assist in aggregation.

"Telling stories in a Web-narrative way is necessary for the future of news," says Klein, the Web site's editor of news applications.

To date, ProPublica has built timelines--including one that details some of the shooting deaths that followed Hurricane Katrina--and a scrolling sidebar inspired by Google's initiative. Strong traffic to the stories with these elements demonstrates their success, he says.

Limited technological resources have prevented Salon from creating timelines for its topics pages, Gingras says, but the site has started building slideshows that break content into more digestible pieces. Gingras attended Google's summit to learn about possibilities for using the open-sourced code.

But Living Stories didn't wow everyone. "I'd like to think a true marriage of those things"--quality content from the Post and the Times, and Google's technology--"would be more novel than what I saw there," says Rich Gordon, an associate professor and director of digital innovation at Medill at Northwestern University.

There is a need for "a compelling site that provides this context approach to news," Gordon says, because most news sites do a poor job of summarizing previous information and linking to relevant material that can orient the reader who is new to a story. However, "we haven't seen a great and stellar example of what I'm imagining," he says.

Living Stories did, however, partially inspire an experimental class that Gordon helped develop at Medill. Graduate students are tasked with planning and operating a news Web site, Chicago Loopster that, according to the site, "delivers the back story behind the city's biggest headlines..combining fresh reporting with past stories."

About 80 percent of people are not "news junkies," Gordon says, and this demographic is not well served by current news sites. Those who have not followed a story from the beginning often find it confusing to enter in the middle of a narrative. So instead of finding the biggest news of the day and posting it online quickly, journalists need to think of readers' needs, Gordon says. Reporters must identify readers' assumptions, answer their questions and help them understand the story by packaging elements in a way that engages even non-news junkies.

"We do a really good job of publishing the latest breaking news on online news sites, but if you're not the kind of person who follows every twist and turn, what we offer you on most online news sites is unsatisfying," he says.

And those interested in adopting elements of Living Stories admit they are still discussing and experimenting with how to use the concept most effectively, including "how it could function as an immediate breaking news device, or whether it works best in the realm of a topics page," Brenner says.

What's most important to Google, Gaither says, is to "get people thinking differently about how to present not only news but information on the Web that's very user-friendly."