As many people probably know by now, Google came out with another of its Google Labs features on Monday: a Google News timeline view, which gives users the ability to see and scroll through headlines, photos and news excerpts by day/week/month/year. The sources of this data can also be customized to include not just traditional news sources but also Wikipedia, sports scores, blogs, etc. It’s a fascinating way of interpreting the news — not something that is likely going to replace a regular old Google News headline view, but an additional way of looking at things.
One question kept nagging at me as I was looking at this latest Google effort at delivering the news, and that was: Why couldn’t a news organization have done this? (I’m not the only one to wonder this). Why not a newspaper, or even a collective like Associated Press (which seems to prefer threats to creativity)? Isn’t delivering the news in creative and interesting ways that appeal to readers what we are supposed to be doing? Apparently not. Even the most progressive of newspaper sites still looks very much like a traditional newspaper — not that there’s anything wrong with that, of course. But is it too much to ask for a little variety? Why not have some alternative display possibilities available? Who knows, it might even con some people into reading more.
There are newspapers that get the creativity thing — and not only get it, but encourage it. The New York Times, for example, has a celebrated (and rightly so) group of journalist/geeks including Aron Pilhofer (@pilhofer on Twitter), Josh Harris (@harrisj), Derek Gottfrid (@derekg) and others who have put together some fantastic news feature/applications that combine data visualization and great usability. These run the gamut from interactive timelines for stories to displays that illustrate how many times particular words were used in speeches, and many more in between (including a different way to browse the paper called the Skimmer). They are also — along with The Guardian — well out in front of every other newspaper when it comes to providing access to their articles and other data through open APIs.
Unfortunately, this is the exception rather than the rule (the Washington Post had an interesting open-source effort called Post Remix many years ago — when the ultra-creative Adrian Holovaty worked there — but none of the ideas went anywhere). If newspapers want to alter the balance of power with Google, which they routinely complain is stealing their livelihood, then they should put a little brain power to work and get more creative, instead of trying desperately to think of new ways to sell the same package of news everyone else has.