Krishna Bharat founded Google News in 2002, partly in response to the US-centric news coverage served up by the American media after 9/11. Since then, the project has had its ups and downs with news publishers — a rocky relationship that seems, of late, to have moved away from the frenemy zone and settled into something more genuinely collegial.
At a talk he delivered at Columbia’s J-school last night, Bharat discussed that relationship — “the elephant in the room,” he called it (particularly so in a room that happens to be full of journalists) — but focused more on the opportunities that technology affords the news producers who are open to it. During a Q-and-A after the talk, Bharat did reveal a bit — a bit! — of news: As of yesterday, Google News story pages include story-related tweets. And Google News is working on an update to its user interface — a slider system of some kind — that will launch sometime soon. (Sree Sreenivasan, Columbia’s dean of students and the talk’s moderator, pressed Bharat for more info about the feature’s release date. But: “I don’t want to comment about that,” he replied.)
Mostly, though, Bharat’s talk — officially, Columbia’s annual Hearst New Media Lecture (Bharat is this year’s Hearst New Media Professional-in-Residence) — offered advice to practitioners about the interplay between journalism, technology, and entrepreneurship, and hinted at the role Google can play in advancing all three. “Our goal, ultimately,” he said, “is to end up with an ecosystem that has gotten beyond the bottleneck we’re in now and is actually thriving.”
“Technology and journalism have this dance that has gone back in time,” Bharat said. Roughly once in a generation, he noted, a new technology — the telegraph, the radio, the television — has come along that somehow disrupts the existing journalistic infrastructure.
But disruption need not be a bad thing, provided news producers — as businesses and as institutions — are able to adapt. And today, in fact, “the innovations in technology are driving journalism,” Bharat said. Twitter, for example, wasn’t created as a distribution platform for breaking news, but that’s now an important element of its identity. “So technology can have unintended consequences to journalism.”
And one way to ensure that those consequences be beneficial to news outlets, rather than the opposite, is to deliberately topple the barrier that’s divided journalism from technology — particularly when it comes to human resources. (“Ultimately, you should be paying for talent and nothing else,” Bharat said.) And so: “You really need to embed technologists and journalists together.” And not just together within a large organization, but together in a more intimately cooperative sense. “They have to be together in the newsroom,” Bharat said. “And that’s what’s going to make the difference.”
“When journalists think they’re producing content, pure and simple, they’re wrong,” Bharat said — in the same way that a Starbucks barista thinking she simply produces coffee is wrong. “You think you’re there for coffee, but you’re really there for the full experience” — the music, the collegiality, the reading space, the aroma, the brand. You pay for coffee, sure; but “the whole experience is what counts.”
The same is true, Bharat said, for news: It’s an overall experience rather than a simple product. And so news producers have an interest in producing not just quality content, but an overall experience of content consumption that is, to use the buzzwords du jour, seamless and friction-free. At the most basic level, “pages have to load instantaneously” — delays lead to impatience lead to, often, abandonment — and then, once a site is loaded, “you need an obvious next action that takes you through the sequence that the editor has intended for you.”
The challenge for publishers, Bharat suggested, is bringing the mindlessly implicit navigation of a print product — “a magazine-like experience” — into the patterns of digital consumption.
Bharat, in response to a question from an audience member, spoke briefly about The New York Times’ newest paywall. “I’m quite excited” about it, he said, “because it’s a very important and interesting experiment” — and one, obviously, with at least the potential to scale. “When our partners innovate,” he said, it’s a good thing — “because they’re investing in the future. And if that is a template that works, then a lot of other people will follow.”
At Google, Bharat noted, “we don’t really have a point of view one way or the other on paywalls” — except that, “if you can sustain the publishing industry, it’s a wonderful thing.” (Google itself recently rolled out One Pass, its Apple subscription service-like pay system for publishers.) But as for the Times’ metered-and-porous approach to paid content: “In theory, it’s a very good model — because what it’s trying to do is to say, ‘If you’re a big fan, I’ll charge you; for everybody else, the long tail of users who are casual snackers, I’ll still make money on them by showing them ads.’ It’s a very pragmatic approach.”
And that’s especially so because of the distributional significance of social sharing. “Even if you have a paywall, you still want to be found,” Bharat noted. “You want to be found more than ever.”
So for the TimesWall, “the devil is in the details” — and some of those details, of course, are the extra-large (and possibly extra-larger-than-intended) pores in the form of URL-chopping, NYTClean, and other wall-jumping hacks. “There are workarounds,” Bharat noted; “and I hope the Times is able to fix some of the workarounds and actually make sure the paywall is not leaky. And if they’re successful, then it’ll be a good model for lots of other people to follow. I wish them luck.”