Speaking before a Senate subcommittee in May 2009, Marissa Mayer, Google's vice president for search products and user experience, noted that "the structure of the web itself requires the presentation of news in a way that's fundamentally different from its offline predecessor." So far, newspapers haven't been able to find ways to garner user loyalty or to create compelling experiences and clear options to keep users on their sites once users are directed there by a query to a specific story. Google thinks it may have a product that will change that.
Described on the Google Blog (http://googleblog.blogspot.com/2009/12/exploring-new-more-dynamic-way-of.html) as "a different approach that plays to certain unique advantages of online publishing," Living Stories (http://livingstories.googlelabs.com) is a fascinating effort to "unify coverage on a single, dynamic page with a consistent URL." Created in collaboration with partners The Washington Post and The New York Times, Google's Living Stories is a new, collaborative effort to experiment with "news made for the web."
The project was announced by the three partners at a press conference in New York City on Dec. 8. The New York Times' Martin Nisenholtz described the experiment as "the germ of something quite interesting." Many in the industry are hoping the alliance leads to greater cooperation with Google and will help create new pathways for newspapers to break into profitable web publishing.
If the first few months of the service go well, it is expected that the web service will move from Google to the publishers' sites. Google will then also offer the platform to other interested publications at no charge. At this point, Living Stories is an experiment in Google Labs and only has eight topics posted.
Three key design concepts drove the development. First, a news story should be connected in a single webpage location rather than be scattered across the web connected by URLs. This allows users to either quickly scan the news or to easily drill down to get the level of detail that they need.
The second concept was ease of exploration. Each story in Living Stories has "an evolving summary of current developments as well as an interactive timeline of critical events. Stories can be explored by themes, significant participants or multimedia."
Lastly, Google wanted a system that would support "smarter reading." If you log into the system, updates to key stories will be highlighted every time you return, and older news will be summarized to save space and time. They are still linked to the page, but they are not given the priority placement and space that they had in previous user visits to the site.
Taking a Quick Tour
Google offers a quick video tour of the system (www.youtube.com/watch?v=1ZhCY9FF608&feature=player_embedded), which does a good job of presenting the page design. Each story page begins with a summary section at the top: an overview with a focus on the most recent events. Key concepts and events are highlighted for easy navigation to levels of greater detail or specification. Under the summary is a timeline of significant events; each event is linked to article content for further exploration. Below the timeline is the stream of updates that make up the coverage within that publication. Each update includes a brief summary as well as links.
If logged in, a user will find information from previous visits collapsed and only the newer articles or information in full representation. Events or stories considered more significant are given more space on the page. Each entry offers a "read more" option to quickly get fuller treatment of that story.
Filters are listed along the left-hand side of the page to allow users to quickly drill down to the specific type of information they want. You can also subscribe to email updates or RSS feeds for specific topics, to push new information out to you as it occurs.
In the uproar over Google's role in providing access to information content, news media have chastised the company for "going rogue" and riding roughshod over publishers in its efforts to harvest and present information on Google News. With this venture, Google shows that it has applied many of the principles it has learned on design and usability to the product and has made a serious attempt to apply these to the interests of individual presses.
However, newspapers are not the only organizations that need to better define their presence on the web and reinvent themselves for the internet era. Information publishers serve the reference market for information. They, too, should be nervous about their future ability to profitably repackage information in this emerging marketplace.
Another interested industry sector is libraries and information centers, which are currently grappling with issues of branding their identity on the web, leveraging their content, and providing information services in the age of the internet. Google's effort to provide a new type of model for the intellectual integration of web-based information is one that deserves serious attention.
Breathing New Life Into the News
Even Google's Eric Schmidt acknowledges the continuing beauty of the print newspaper: "It is a model of simplicity and speed compared with the online news experience today." His vision for the future of news is described in a recent opinion piece in The Wall Street Journal this way: "It's the year 2015. The compact device in my hand delivers me the world, one news story at a time. I flip through my favorite papers and magazines, the images as crisp as in print, without a maddening wait for each page to load. Even better, the device knows who I am, what I like, and what I have already read. So while I get all the news and comment, I also see stories tailored for my interests" (http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748704107104574569570797550520.html).
Living Stores is certainly one interesting effort to move the news into the 21st century; one built on cooperation and shared experience. As Schmidt notes: "Google wants to work with publishers to help them build bigger audiences, better engage readers, and make more money. ... I certainly don't believe that the Internet will mean the death of news. Through innovation and technology, it can endure with newfound profitability and vitality." With Living Stories, Google is working to revitalize the information industry.
The Washington Post media critic, Howard Kurtz, called Living Stories the "first step toward changing the way news is consumed online" (www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/12/08/AR2009120802319.html?hpid=topnews). However, Living Stories is certainly not the first or even a truly unique endeavor. The New York Times already has its own Times Topics pages, including an excellent one on Health Care Reform. The Washington Post has Special Reports, including one on Health-Care Reform 2009. Google's Living Stories topic is from The Washington Post, titled Washington Tackles Health Care Reform.
In October 2007, the BBC began an experimental project called BBC Topics (now dormant). As explained by the BBC's Stephen Betts at the time, BBC Topics was also an effort to reorganize BBC content from across its many webpages and multimedia entities in a dynamic way to better serve its users (www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/bbcinternet/2008/06/bbc_topics_how_it_works.html).
In future updates of Living Stories, it would be nice to see a mobile version for users on-the-go, as well as ways to link to content beyond any single information source-from bloggers to source documents to other content providers (magazines, newspapers, news organizations, governments, etc.).
Just as print newspapers, magazines, and other outlets have developed efficient systems of design, layout, and usability, web efforts such as this represent important early steps to managing and creating meaning from all of the information available on the web. Goggle, which earlier this fall introduced "Fast Flip" (http://newsbreaks.infotoday.com/NewsBreaks/Google-Gives-Users-a-Fast-Flip-to-the-News-56402.asp), has given us yet another interesting model of information design and access. Let's hope this is just the beginning.