Ever since news first met the Internet, informed observers have been predicting the death of print newspapers. When it didn’t happen after people began retrieving their daily news with the help of Internet search engines, the sages said it would happen after the major newspapers launched their own online editions. When it didn’t happen then, either, they said it would surely follow the rise of Weblogs, or “blogs,” those ubiquitous online forums of unsifted opinion. To no one’s surprise, newspapers kept on appearing on doorsteps and newsstands. But now comes a development that really does look like a threat to traditional print media: Google News.
Everybody knows Google, the quirkily named search engine that celebrates its own birthday and major U.S. national holidays with appropriately colored digital balloons and confetti. Since its launch in 1998, it has established itself as one of the most comprehensive and easy-to-use general search engines, occasionally adding a helpful new feature such as a translation service or an image search. But last month it took a quantum leap as far as English-language news junkies were concerned, with the addition of its revolutionary experimental News Page.
Why revolutionary? Because it’s the first news site, either print or digital, that is put together “without human editors,” as the small print at the bottom of the home-page proclaims. It’s all done by “computer algorithms,” which crawl the World Wide Web like many-tentacled octopuses to create a perpetually updating, categorized database of breaking news stories. Never mind the freshness: Television can offer that. Just think what Google News implies in terms of balanced coverage.
Here’s an example. Last week, Iraqi citizens went to the polls and “re-elected” Mr. Saddam Hussein as their president. Despite the fact that he was the only candidate, this was significant news in the context of U.S. President George W. Bush’s planned pre-emptive war against Iraq. Most Western newspapers reported the result — a predictable near-100 percent in favor of giving Mr. Hussein another seven years in office — as what The Associated Press called a “choreographed show of support” for their leader “in defiance of the United States.” But if you wanted to check other sources and their own words, Google News put them at your fingertips with over 400 reports on the referendum, new ones arriving by the minute and each labeled with its shelf life — 15 minutes ago, three hours ago, and so on.
These included not just mainstream U.S. news sources but less tractable publications like the Christian Science Monitor (which sent a reporter to Iraqi polling places to uncover the perhaps unwelcome news that most ordinary Iraqis were outspokenly in favor of Mr. Hussein), Britain’s Guardian and numerous “outside” voices like The Statesman of India and South Africa’s News24. As it happened, none of the 400-plus papers represented thought Mr. Hussein was anything but a murderous tyrant, but there was a bracingly wide range of opinion on the Bush administration’s response to him and its potentially divisive effect on the Arab world. No matter where you stand on the political spectrum, it would be hard to fault Google News for bias.
It’s the same with any news topic you want to pursue. The return of Japanese abductees from North Korea? Over 700 stories as of last Wednesday. The Washington, D.C., sniper? Again, more than 700 reports. The latest news on the Japanese economy? Nearly 3,000 stories since the beginning of October. The Middle East? Nearly 12,000 stories already this month. Incredibly, the pool of publications from which Google’s industrious search spiders bring back stories now numbers well over 4,000 — from The New York Times to The Japan Times, from the Mainichi Shimbun to Malawi Here. The question arises: With such diverse coverage available for free, who in their right minds would continue to subscribe to a traditional print newspaper?
At the risk of appearing self-serving, we feel we should point out several reasons for doing just that. First, the very survival of Google News depends on the survival of the traditional media. It is not an independent news-gathering entity; it is an unprecedentedly thorough assemblage of other news-gathering entities. Second, it gathers only raw data: breaking news — not analysis or opinion, philosophical essays or Op-Eds, editorials or letters to the editor. A newspaper is not just about hard news. It has local art, movie, theater and music reviews, comics, obituaries, classifieds, sports, recipes, crosswords and much more. Last but hardly least, it has the twin advantages even hand-held computers still haven’t managed to overcome, portability and readability.
Newspapers will be around for a bit longer. But in the meantime, Google’s spiders have certainly made the Web their own. And that’s not just spin.
In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
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