J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

My Own Institutional Battle With Google News (circa 2004)

Posted by chanders on April 8, 2009

The Gist for the Twitter Generation: The difference between my NYC Indymedia conversations with Google in early 2005 and the AP’s back and forth with Google in 2009 are instructive. In essence, the radical Indymedia network did everything it could to get aggregated by the monopolistic corporate search engine Google. We were worried that Google wouldn’t index us because of our politics or because they wouldn’t understand what we were doing. We had to fight to get on Google’s list, we thought we belonged on their list, and we wanted Google to “steal” as much of our content as they possibly would.  The AP, on the other hand, would love to return to the days when a website like NYC Indymedia wouldn’t have shown up (even occasionallly) in any index of what’s authoritative news, or what constitutes “journalism that matters.” They still haven’t gotten used to the idea– even after having 7 years to think about it– that ordinary people can occasionally be journalists, and that these people would want to give a bunch of their journalism away for free.

Now, the rest:

In all the recent brouhaha about the AP’s saber rattling at Google and Google News, the comment that struck me the most was this one from AP Senior Vice-President Sue Cross. “One goal of The A.P. and its members, [Cross] said, is to make sure that the top search engine results for news are ‘the original source or the most authoritative source’ not a site that copied or paraphrased the work.”

This whole situation reminded me of my own  battle with Google News, one that took place more than 5 years ago. It’s a very different battle than the one the AP was fighting, though. At the time, I was working for the citizen journalism website  NYC Indymedia, which was probably at its institutional height. In early 2004, those of us with the Indymedia network (which was actually kind of like the AP insofar as we were a news sharing coop made up of local member organizations) first noticed Google News. We quickly decided we wanted our own radical journalism websites included in the Google News index– we thought that what we were doing really was journalism, and we thought that Google News would provide a useful cultural “certification” of the fact that ordinary people could occasionally be journalists. In December 2004, a volunteer with the Michigan Indymedia shared some bad news with the rest of the network:

Subject: suggestion: michiganimc.org
Date: Thu, 28 Oct 2004 22:25:43 -0400

I would like to suggest the Michigan Independent Media Center for Google News. please let me know more.

Date: Wed, 08 Dec 2004 14:12:54 -0800
From: Google News
Subject: Re: [#16123069] suggestion: michiganimc.org
To:

Hi,

Thank you for your note. We apologize for our delayed response. We have reviewed http://michiganimc.org but cannot include it in Google News at this time. We do not include sites that do not have a formal editoria review process. We appreciate your taking the time to contact us and will log your site for consideration should our requirements change.

Regards,
The Google Team

My own response to the Google News argument was incredulous:

Its absurd that google would try to claim that we “have no editorial policy” when in fact, between newswire moderation guidelines that some IMC’s have adopted and center column procedures, we have more editorial guidelines than many of the organization google includes in its index.

In fact, our own NYC Indymedia website had been engaged in its own conversations with Google News about getting our news agregated by their index, with better results

From:
Subject: news source
Date: Sat, 26 Mar 2005 20:48:14 -0000

NYC Indymedia is a moderated, interactive website that features stories, images, video and audio. The site’s focus includes both local to New York City and across the world. nyc.indymedia.org is also the web presence of the award-winning Indypendent local tabloid, which has a bi-weekly printed version.

From: Google News <source-suggestions@google.com>
Date: Apr 6, 2005 6:35 PM
Subject: Re: [#23526808] news source
To:

Hi,

Thank you again for your submission. We apologize for our delayed response. We have reviewed NYC Independent Media Center and will be including it in Google News in the near future. You should be able to find  your articles in Google News within four to six weeks.

Thank you for providing your articles to Google News.

Regards,
The Google Team

What were some of the articles the NYC Indymedia was hoping to get indexed on Google News? Even though the winter of 2004 / 2005 was a bleak time politically, NYC Indymedia was probably at its institutional height. Between the time we first started bugging Google News and the time we got indexed, we were publishing features almost daily (these features were editorially curated as the best of the website.) Most of them were submitted by volunteer activists, people officially unaffiliated  with the team that ran the site.

Articles included: “Manhattan DA Launches Investigation Into “False RNC Testimony,” “Student Residence on CHARAS Site Nixed,” “Interview With Christine Datz-Romero, co-founder of the Lower East Side Ecology Center,” “Bloomberg Launches 2005 Re-election Campaign Inside South Bronx Security Bubble,” “John L. Hess (1917-2005): Journalism Takes a Big Hit,” “NYC IMC Readers Weigh in on ‘The Gates,” and much more.

These were all pieces of original, volunteer journalism (they drew on documents, interviews, and direct observations). We thought it was important Google index them.

We knew we weren’t the AP, but we knew what we were doing was journalism. And were amazed by the amount of journalism people were doing on their own and were submitting to NYC IMC. They were doing it because they loved doing it and had something to say.

The difference between my conversations with Google in early 2005 and the AP’s back and forth with Google in 2009 are instructive, and might shed light on how the newspaper industry got to this point. In essence, the radical Indymedia network did everything it could to get aggregated by the monopolistic corporate search engine Google. We were worried that Google wouldn’t index us because of our politics or because they wouldn’t understand what we were doing. Unlike the AP and the big-city newspapers, we weren’t on the early “short list” for Google News. We had to fight to get on the list, we thought we belonged on the list, and we wanted Google to “steal” as much of our content as they possibly would. Indeed, Indymedia’s presence on Google News prompted an attack on Google from the right wing blogosphere.

I’m no partisan of the belief that “What Google Would Do” is the answer to our social problems. I think Google is a quasi-monopoly with a lot of control over my life, that has dubious privacy protections and a bad relationship with public libraries. My general view on them is closer to Siva Vaidhyanathan’s than Jeff Jarvis’s Even at the time we were talking with them, they screwed a lot up, even in terms of understanding exactly how their news algorithm worked. We never saw them as a political ally. But they answered our emails, and then eventually added a bunch of us to their list– including Michigan IMC:

Google News-

Thank you very much for your reply.  Please visit

http://michiganimc.org/mod/info/display/policy/index.php

for our formal editorial policy, which is strictly enforced by the editors of the Michigan Independent Media Center.

Additionally, our Feature Articles RSS feed is available at http://michiganimc.org/features.1-0.rdf.  All feature articles go through an additional review by the editors.

I hope this clarifies for you our editorial process, and we look forward to your reply.

Sincerely,


Date: Mon, 20 Jun 2005 18:21:48 -0700
From: Google News

Hi,

Thank you for following up with us. We apologize for our delayed response. We have reviewed the site http://michiganimc.org and will be including it in Google News in the near future.

Regards,
The Google Team

Now, the AP is mad at Google News because they are making money indexing their content, and they want their own cut of the cash. They’re threatening to take the content away from the online community and threatening to block it from the Google index. They’re even tossing around the notion of creating ther own content aggregator:

The AP plans to build an online destination where it hopes Web users can easily find and read its news stories and those of other content creators … The Web search giant “has a wacky algorithm” for collecting news stories, AP Chief Executive Tom Curley says in an interview. “It does not lead people to authoritative sources.”

As an alternative, Curley plans to create “landing pages” that would host articles from any news sources that allow their headlines on the site. Participating outlets would share revenue generated by ads placed on those pages, “monetizing content in an ecosystem that would be different from the Google ecosystem,” Curley says. The sites would include both national and local media outlets.”

The AP, in other words, would love to return to the days when a website like NYC Indymedia wouldn’t have shown up in any index of what’s authoritative news, or on any list of what constitutes “journalism that matters.” They still haven’t gotten used to the idea– even after having 7 years to think about it– that ordinary people can occasionally be journalists, and that these people would want to give a bunch of their journalism away for free.

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