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July 24, 2014

Of Man, Machine, Google News' Editor's Picks and Emerging from the Dark Ages

It’s come to this: We celebrate the addition of humans (by proxy) to Google News.

Editor’s Picks is a new, prominent module on the right hand column of Google News. It showcases five links from two dozen of the biggest news brands — from MSNBC, to The Atlantic, The Wall Street Journal, ProPublica to the Guardian, Marketwatch, Reuters and the L.A. Times (but alas, no Yahoo News) — and offers easy-to-use instructions on how other publishers can get their content, for free, in front of Google’s many eyeballs. Publishers simply pick the stories they want represented and send ‘em off; that’s the proxy part because no Google person need be involved in editorial decision-making.

It’s a simple idea, really, a box of links, as old as the web itself. What seems revolutionary about, as Nieman Lab’s Megan Garber points out is that it seems like a departure from the ancient (2002) Google News dogma: “This page was generated entirely by computer algorithms without human editors…No humans were harmed or even used in the creation of this page.”

It kind of seemed cute then, this algo approach to the world. In the subsequent era, though, in which human editorial judgment has been diminished in value, and its funding put in jeopardy, it now seems like an approach from another age.

Go back to 2002, briefly, and we can see this simplistic Machine vs. Man way of thinking. In Google’s approach, the purest taken around news aggregation, man (and woman) was seen as interloper, getting in the way of the ultimate wisdom of the crowd. Newspaper people, of course resented The Machine, its ascendance and its job-killing nature.

For at least a decade, we’ve lived in this rhetorical age of either/or. Machine, symbolized well by Google News, and Man, symbolized by The Man, making his editorial decisions the old-fashioned way, on whim, wit and the indefinable “news judgment,” without regard to what the reader data said.

Now, we’re emerging, slowly, from the silliness. Newsroom editors are starting to use reader data, some through the day ( “The Newsonomics of WaPo’s Reader Dashboard 1.0“) to check their instincts against what the crowd of readers is saying it wants to read. The new tools and metrics able to inform human editorial judgment are getting better everyday, and there’s a new round of companies offering their real-time metrics-creating products to news publishers. That’s one positive sign we’re emerging from Man or Machine Dark Ages thinking.

And, now, Google News has — ta-da! — allocated a box, separate and independent from (let the record show) its algo news results, never mind that the algorithms themselves have been created, and are constantly tweaked, by humans. (Calling Werner Heisbenberg.)

That’s a small indication that the Machine is responding. What Editor’s Picks is a response to is an intriguing question. Yes, Google still is the huge driver of traffic to news sites, much as they differentiate the value of its many fly-by referrals from the relative few that make a meaningful revenue difference, sending, it says, more than a billion referrals to news publishers worldwide each month. Yet, its behemoth standing is being challenged on multiple fronts. Facebook, Twitter and Linked In are newly proving the power of social news links. Further, in Steve Jobs’ mythical world, which is fast becoming our own reality, search is so yesterday, replaced by a single-purpose (Apple-enabled), high-branded apps. With apps, search necessity is diminished, and we’ve already tiptoed into that world.

So, chalk up Google’s move as a marketplace move. Yes, it acknowledges that The Machine is not all we need, and that some nexus of Man and Machine, the algo of that combination still being written, will be a new order of the day.

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