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June 9, 2009, 2:51 p.m.

Google News experimenting with links to Wikipedia on its homepage

The discrete news article, it has been said, is a framework that worked well in print but doesn’t make much sense on the web. News sites can offer context in a variety of ways that explode the story model, from visualizations to comment threads to what might be called the Wikipedia model of news. No, not collaborative editing, although that has its own advantages, but merely the structure of a Wikipedia article: one page devoted to an ongoing topic that’s updated throughout with new developments but can always be read, from top to bottom, as a thorough primer. Compared to a folder of chronological news clippings, well, I would always prefer the Wikipedia model.

So, too, would readers. Wikipedia became the Internet’s most popular news-and-information site in 2007, and its dominance in search results attests to the demand for authoritative topic pages over individual articles. Now, in a small but potentially crucial moment for the evolution of storytelling, Google News has quietly begun experimenting with links to Wikipedia on its homepage.

“Currently, we’re showing a small number of users links to Wikipedia topic pages that serve as a reference on current events,” Gabriel Stricker, a spokesman for Google, told me in an email this afternoon.

Sadly, I’m not one of those users, but I was alerted to this development by blogger Michael Gray, who viewed Wikipedia’s presence on Google News in a more-sinister light but helpfully provided screenshots. I grabbed the one above from Gray, highlighting a link to the Wikipedia page for the mysterious disappearance of Air France Flight 447. As is typically the case, there is no single page on the Internet with a more thorough, helpful, or informative synopsis of the crash.

Google News redesigned its homepage last month and began integrating YouTube clips from news organizations. Its cluster pages for individual news stories also got a makeover that more closely resembles a topic page than the old list of articles.

In his email to me, Stricker called the links to Wikipedia an experiment, which it is, but Google has made clear that it prefers the Wikipedia model of storytelling over discrete articles. In her testimony to Congress last month, Google vice president Marissa Mayer (that’s a link to Wikipedia, natch) said, “The atomic unit of consumption for existing media is almost always disrupted by emerging media.” She continued:

Today, in online news, publishers frequently publish several articles on the same topic, sometimes with identical or closely related content, each at their own URL. The result is parallel Web pages that compete against each other in terms of authority, and in terms of placement in links and search results.

Consider instead how the authoritativeness of news articles might grow if an evolving story were published under a permanent, single URL as a living, changing, updating entity. We see this practice today in Wikipedia’s entries and in the topic pages at NYTimes.com. The result is a single authoritative page with a consistent reference point that gains clout and a following of users over time.

It’s not a new concept, and news organizations like The New York Times have been working on it for years. (Kevin Sablan recently summarized the latest literature on all this — a topic page for topic pages.) And yet, the article and its close cousin, the blog post, remain the dominant frameworks for news reporting on the web. Radical reinventions of storytelling are, surprisingly, few and far between: Matt Thompson, the leading thinker on this subject, is trying “a completely different type of news site” in Columbia, Missouri, that’s worth keeping an eye on. And, now, Google News is toying with links to Wikipedia. Here’s hoping for more developments like this.

POSTED     June 9, 2009, 2:51 p.m.
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