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Platforms shine a light on original reporting

“Google and Facebook are actually late to the party compared to some of their smaller competitors.”

In 2019, some of the world’s biggest tech platforms announced big plans to better highlight and reward “original reporting.”

In September, Google announced that it would alter its search algorithm to “help us better recognize original reporting, surface it more prominently in Search and ensure it stays there longer.” This is a significant change from the past, when the News box put a premium on recency and often highlighted aggregation over the original source material. To make this shift, Google has tasked the 10,000 human raters who train its algorithms with factoring in two new criteria. First, whether the work is a piece of important original journalism; and second, the reputation of the publisher, based on whether it has won certain prestigious journalism prizes.

In October, Facebook announced that it would take a similar approach in its News Tab, a new feed that it is slowly rolling out to U.S. users. Facebook hired former journalists to pick stories for a prominent section called “Today’s Stories.” One of the criteria for Today’s Stories is original reporting, which Facebook defines as “new information or media (ie, interviews, photos) that no other outlet has.” But it remains to be seen how serious Facebook is about its new curated tab: Most Americans still don’t have access to it, and those who do must navigate through a series of menus to find it.

Google and Facebook are actually late to the party compared to some of their smaller competitors. In Apple News, human curators select five “Top Stories” that appear to the left of the home screen on all iOS devices; appearing in Top Stories can boost an article’s views by a million or more. In an interview with Apple News editor-in-chief Lauren Kern, The New York Times described how the app’s editors — many of them former journalists — look for features and longer investigations to round out “Top Stories.”

Meanwhile, the news reader app Pocket has long favored long-form journalism and original investigations; it rose to new prominence after it was acquired by Firefox and began to power a “Recommended by Pocket” story carousel in the browser. The editors of another news app, Flipboard, curate a digital “magazine” called “10 for Today.” Among the criteria they have outlined: “Is it a well-done story from a respectable source?…We start with a story that’s subject line worthy — that is, a story so big or noteworthy that we think either you must know or that you’ll want to know about it.” These apps already curate the kind of original reporting that Google and Facebook are now experimenting with in the world’s biggest feeds.

We likely won’t begin to understand the impacts of Google and Facebook’s changes until deep into 2020, and many questions remain. “Original reporting” is a relatively subjective criteria; besides investigative journalism projects, what will make the cut? Will favoring “reputable” publishers inadvertently penalize newer newsrooms that have less name recognition? Can curators accurately identify which publisher broke a story if it appears without attribution on another major outlet? Will Facebook give the News Tab actual prominence in its app?

Despite the potential pitfalls, we could see major changes to the kind of content rewarded with top placements in Google and Facebook. And because Google drives 30 percent or more of many publishers’ traffic, the effects could be huge — especially as original reporting tends to be expensive to make. In 2020, this spotlight on original reporting could begin to shift the economics of modern newsrooms toward more investigative roles.

Helen Havlak is vice president of The Verge.

In 2019, some of the world’s biggest tech platforms announced big plans to better highlight and reward “original reporting.”

In September, Google announced that it would alter its search algorithm to “help us better recognize original reporting, surface it more prominently in Search and ensure it stays there longer.” This is a significant change from the past, when the News box put a premium on recency and often highlighted aggregation over the original source material. To make this shift, Google has tasked the 10,000 human raters who train its algorithms with factoring in two new criteria. First, whether the work is a piece of important original journalism; and second, the reputation of the publisher, based on whether it has won certain prestigious journalism prizes.

In October, Facebook announced that it would take a similar approach in its News Tab, a new feed that it is slowly rolling out to U.S. users. Facebook hired former journalists to pick stories for a prominent section called “Today’s Stories.” One of the criteria for Today’s Stories is original reporting, which Facebook defines as “new information or media (ie, interviews, photos) that no other outlet has.” But it remains to be seen how serious Facebook is about its new curated tab: Most Americans still don’t have access to it, and those who do must navigate through a series of menus to find it.

Google and Facebook are actually late to the party compared to some of their smaller competitors. In Apple News, human curators select five “Top Stories” that appear to the left of the home screen on all iOS devices; appearing in Top Stories can boost an article’s views by a million or more. In an interview with Apple News editor-in-chief Lauren Kern, The New York Times described how the app’s editors — many of them former journalists — look for features and longer investigations to round out “Top Stories.”

Meanwhile, the news reader app Pocket has long favored long-form journalism and original investigations; it rose to new prominence after it was acquired by Firefox and began to power a “Recommended by Pocket” story carousel in the browser. The editors of another news app, Flipboard, curate a digital “magazine” called “10 for Today.” Among the criteria they have outlined: “Is it a well-done story from a respectable source?…We start with a story that’s subject line worthy — that is, a story so big or noteworthy that we think either you must know or that you’ll want to know about it.” These apps already curate the kind of original reporting that Google and Facebook are now experimenting with in the world’s biggest feeds.

We likely won’t begin to understand the impacts of Google and Facebook’s changes until deep into 2020, and many questions remain. “Original reporting” is a relatively subjective criteria; besides investigative journalism projects, what will make the cut? Will favoring “reputable” publishers inadvertently penalize newer newsrooms that have less name recognition? Can curators accurately identify which publisher broke a story if it appears without attribution on another major outlet? Will Facebook give the News Tab actual prominence in its app?

Despite the potential pitfalls, we could see major changes to the kind of content rewarded with top placements in Google and Facebook. And because Google drives 30 percent or more of many publishers’ traffic, the effects could be huge — especially as original reporting tends to be expensive to make. In 2020, this spotlight on original reporting could begin to shift the economics of modern newsrooms toward more investigative roles.

Helen Havlak is vice president of The Verge.

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