Just kidding?

Far be it from me to defend LA Times editorialists, but I think some critics are missing the attempted irony in their excoriated opinion piece about Google and newspapers — specifically, the new GoogleNews program that enables the subjects of news stories to respond. Robert Niles at the Online Journalism Review lead the lynch mob, performing a vigorous fisking of the Times.

The Times wrote: “Many publishers consider the Internet, and Google in particular, a greater threat to their livelihoods than Osama bin Laden.” And Niles harrumphed in reply: “The Los Angeles Times this morning insulted its readers in a stunning editorial that compared Google with Osama bin Laden and showed why Times editors simply do not understand the medium that is growing to dominate the news publishing industry.”

When I read about this kerfufflement elsewhere, I assumed — as you probably would — that I’d agree with Niles. But reading the Times piece, I think that bin Laden line was so over the top it was intended to mock Luddite ink-stained wretches and distance the wise, newfangled Times from those old fools (including, it would seem, their new owner, Sam Zell, who, the editorial reminds us, “once famously asked, ‘If all of the newspapers in America did not allow Google to steal their content, how profitable would Google be?’ “).

In the end, I read the Times editorial as a defense of Google against frequent charges that it is competitive with newspapers.

The Times acknowledges, albeit without enthusiasm, that this new Google feature may expose news stories’ mistakes: “News organizations have their flaws, and the added comments on Google may demonstrate that.” Indeed. But then they go on to argue that journalism is about asking questions and these sources’ comments will go up not as a result of questions and without questioning in response and so this isn’t journalism.

The Times dismisses Google’s new feature and thus says that Google isn’t competition. I would certainly agree with that. Many of those aforementioned Luddite newspaper publishers who fear Google more than bin Laden would disagree. But I say Google is the new newsstand. It is a way to be found and read. It is a reporting tool. It is a presentation tool (with maps and such). It is now a means of continuing the journalistic process by getting response and with it more viewpoints and facts. Google could also be your ad sales force. Oh, there’s much to fret about Google’s power. But as journalistic competition? No, it’s not trying to compete. And I think that was where the Times was trying to get, if by an odd detour. I think.

Now having said all that, I agree with many of Niles’ criticisms — especially of “stenographic journalism” — and I’d say that the editorial was clumsy at best. Irony — if that is, indeed their intent — is hard, especially in L.A.

But more important — and here’s where I vigorously agree with Niles — the editorial was the wrong response to the Google feature. The proper answer from the Times — and every other newspaper in the country — should have been: “Me, too. Good idea, Google. News source, you don’t have to go to Google to respond to, correct, clarify, or augment articles. You can do it right here at our newspaper.com. We don’t just welcome this new opportunity to listen better and get more perspectives and facts. We will beg you to do it. Because it will improve jouranlism.” That is what the Times should have said.

And that’s in essence what Dave Winer is suggesting when he again proposes that newspapers should host the blogs of everyone they quote. I don’t know that I’d want to be hosted by a bunch of newspapers. But I would want them to open up the right of response there and I would want them to link to my own blog (a process we are starting to see in places such as the Washington Post). That’s what the Times should be doing with its editorial: linking to Niles and Winer and me and encouraging the discussion to continue. That is the real lesson Google is teaching.

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  • I think it’s time for everyone to take a deep breath and calm down about Google and Google News. They are helping newspapers today, and they will be of less help in the future. See my post, “Tough times ahead for Google, even tougher for Google News. The day of human judgment is coming” (Steve Boriss, The Future of News).

  • Francis Burdett

    Well yes, all praise to google’s experimentation “Because it will improve jouranlism.”

  • Hey, thanks for the post. It’s a sign of bad writing when so many people miss the point, and aside from you, just about everybody seems to have missed the point of this editorial. I’ll take the rap for that. The comment about Osama was meant to be ridiculously over the top because, as the Times’ editorial board has said in the past, publishers have been quite wrong about Google. And that includes the guy soon to be my boss. Maybe it was confusing to readers to include a non-genuflecting reference to the new boss….
    Anyway, some readers also seem to think we were criticizing Google by saying it’s not journalism. Umm, we’re not *that* hubristic. We were simply trying to remind people of the shortcomings inherent in its approach. For starters, unfiltered does not equate to true. And IMHO, it’s a really bad thing if people assumed that the comments are, in fact, screened for truth. They won’t be. That’s not to say newspaper stories are, but at least there’s often some critical thinking at work there.
    Here’s the scenario that really troubles me. Investigative reporter digs up tons of documents showing that Company X lied to regulators. Reporter calls Company X, which curtly denies wrongdoing and stonewalls. Reporter writes story, including denial. Company officials then use Google to launch a lengthy and utterly bogus defense of their behavior. Is that a value add by Google? Sure, it’s just as easy to dream up the opposite — where a reporter writes something that’s just plain wrong and Google provides what amounts to a high-profile forum for a correction. And maybe that will end up being the predominant use. But there’s no telling, and in the face of conflicting assertions, Google won’t be giving readers any help figuring out who’s right. As the editorial says, that’s not its mission.
    BTW, we do give people fora to respond to stories about them after they run. In addition to letters to the editor and op-eds in the newspaper, we have the Blowback section online. It would clearly be better if we enabled people to comment and discuss stories online on the same web page as the stories themselves, and we’re on our way there. So yes, what Google’s doing is a prod for us to come up with a better mechanism online. All criticism on that front is accepted.
    One last point: the criticism of journalists’ listening skills (and those of the organizations they work for) is apt. But Google’s new feature isn’t just about that. It’s also about giving newsmakers a route around skeptical ears. We in this biz get it from both ends, remember; we’re stenographers *and* deaf. But sometimes, we’re also capable of recognizing when someone is lying, spinning, dodging or obfuscating.
    I’m not arguing that less information is better than more information. I’m just saying it’s good for readers to understand what they’re looking at and how it got there.

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  • The problem with the Times making that comment is that they have been so backwards with the Web (as all of Tribune Co. has been) that it doesn’t come off as ironic.

    If the Post made that comment, we’d all get it. But when an extremely backwards and faltering paper makes that comment, it seems like the truth.

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