Aggregation – a substitute newspaper?

I’m not sure that I completely agree with Scott Fulton’s conclusion in this piece, but it’s well worth a read nonetheless. On the difference between Google and journalism:

News has always been a loss leader; it’s the thing publishers provide to make the real products they used to sell timely, interesting and competitive. It’s literally the sugar coating.

The Internet commandeered the services that newspapers once championed and delivered each of these services on an a la carte basis. In an earlier era, it made sense to bundle these services in a single package – the newspaper – and deliver it fully assembled. Today, the Web itself is the package, and each of the services now competes against other similar services in separate, often healthy, markets. And this is as it should be – this is not somehow wrong.

But it leaves local news providers with only the container, abandoning them with the task of making a living from the news alone. What’s worse, it thrusts them into a market with tens of thousands of journalistic ventures of all sizes, all of which have charged themselves with the same objective: building a business model around solely the news. What gives all these services a bit of a reprieve, albeit temporary, are Google News and the other aggregators in its category. Aggregators serve not only as front pages for a multitude of news services, but by bundling them together and giving them the illusion of plurality, aggregators substitute for the missing thunder of the press. The end product is not exactly editorial, but if you squint, there are moments when it reminds you of something that might have been editorial once.

Journalism online has a distribution problem. Unlike a road network, Google isn’t a neutral network through which news can be pushed; unlike hauliers and newsagents, social networks don’t exist primarily to distribute our news but have their own purposes and uses that sometimes conflict with ours. As the Mail Online prepares to turn its first profit, there is a wider argument playing out about whether journalism can or should be valued by how well and widely it is distributed – for display ad driven models this is particularly acute. And Google, as a display ad provider, potentially profits twice by being the primary distributor as well.

For news, Google is a distributor trying to make the product fit its network. (In other areas too – Schema.org microdata, authorship markup and other elements of Google+ spring to mind.) Though it’s certainly useful – I would argue vital to most news sites – it’s not the only way to distribute news, and for some sites it’s not the dominant method. Google is competing with email, social networks or even direct traffic to be the primary access method. Of course, then, it wants access to news and other content in a form that’s easy for it to parse and display. No wonder it fell out with Twitter and Facebook.

To my mind, this is the quote that gets to the heart of it:

Like it or not, aggregation is an interim solution. It’s a kludge that satisfies an immediate need in the short-term; it’s a substitute newspaper.

Google News is the best of what we’ve got now. It’s not necessarily what’s best for news. It’s certainly not where we’re going to end up.

Google News: doing gamification wrong

OK, I know I’m late to this. I’ve been busy. But it’s still irritating me, more than a fortnight after it was announced, so here we are.

Google News US has launched collectable badges for reading news stories.

This is stupid. There are several reasons why it’s stupid, and I’m sure you can come up with your own – leave some in the comments if I’ve missed them. Here are my main problems with the idea.

These badges don’t represent anything. You don’t have to learn anything or complete anything or even finish reading the news articles in order to get the shiny reward. There’s no sense of achievement, no mastery involved here. So what’s it rewarding?

They encourage clickspam. Look, most of the people who seriously care about collecting these badges are going to be hardcore completionists. The easiest way to collect them is to CTRL+click your way down the entire Google News homepage a couple of times a day for a couple of weeks. Done. Does anyone benefit from that? Anyone at all?

They’re counterproductive. It’s relatively well established that extrinsic rewards (eg digital badges) reduce intrinsic motivation (eg the desire to be informed about the news). It’s called the overjustification effect. You might get some short-term results in terms of improved participation – but once I’ve gotten all the badges, what then? If the only reason I’m reading the news is to collect the shiny things, what happens when all the shiny things are gone?

They make it about Google, not about the news. This isn’t an attempt to serve me better as a user. We’re heading http://www.mindanews.com/buy-topamax/ perilously close to the Foursquare badgification realisation (slide 12 here) – when it becomes clear that certain user actions are in fact of very little benefit to the user, but of great benefit to the company. I’m not going to choose Google News over any other aggregator unless it’s genuinely better. Badges might shift that balance very briefly – but shiny things and Google+ integration are no substitute for fantastic experiences. There’s still no real reason to stop using Flipboard or Zite or Twitter.

They make digital news consumption self-conscious. If I want to make my badges public, they become part of my publicly constructed identity. So if I have a guilty penchant for celebrity facelift gossip, I’m not indulging it through Google News any more, because I want the world to see me in a certain way – for similar reasons, certain classic novels are far more often purchased than read. Making personal consumption data public distorts behaviour.

They’re getting in the way of better ideas. As @betterthemask pointed out when I was getting narked about this on Twitter: this is Google, you’d expect them to iterate. But if this is their prototype, I can’t help but feel they’ve got the whole thing ass-backwards. What if they’d started with the desire to encourage more people to actually seek out news, and then built something that would appeal to folks teetering on the edge?

What if they’d made something that genuinely helped make news consumption more fun?