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Opinion: Is Google News scapegoating technology?

Google News seems to always lag behind other sites in reporting breaking events

By Paul McNamara
June 27, 2008 12:00 PM ET

InfoWorld - Well, the company did cite a technical problem as the reason that the Google News front page was an hour later than other online media outlets in reporting the recent death of NBC journalist Tim Russert.

If that's the real reason -- and you can color me six shades of skeptical -- it's a technical problem that appears to crop up immediately following the final breaths of celebrities ... not to mention other major breaking news events.

According to the June 24 issue of The New York Times: "The death of Tim Russert of NBC News this month quickly became a top article on the nation's biggest news sites. The front page of Google News took about an hour to catch up. Google blamed a technical problem for the delay and said it was not a sign that its news site, whose content is compiled entirely by computer programs, lacks timeliness."

The "technical problem" (eye-raising quotation marks are mine) must also have bitten Google News in the behind upon the sudden death of the Rev. Jerry Falwell on May 15, 2007. On that occasion, perhaps owing to Falwell's greater fame, it took Google News less time -- just over a half-hour -- to catch up with its speedier media brethren.

The real technical problem with Google News is that it depends solely on software to assemble its main page -- nary an editor is involved -- a fact Google has long touted as a virtue. (Yes, this is a personal matter, too.)

Google News is great at aggregating news once coverage has gotten rolling across the Internet. That's what it does: sweep major stories into nice neat piles. It's also great at indexing stories -- mine are often available via Google News within 20 minutes of being posted on my blog.

However, it's the need for a pile that makes Google News so slow when a story is red hot. Until that pile forms, the software apparently is reluctant to deem the story worthy of being featured on the home page.

It's not just major news outlets such as CNN that do it better: Even social media sites such as Fark do a better job than Google News of putting the biggest news events in front of their audiences faster. This occurs because such sites have editors who can wield such power. While I cannot say for certain, I'd bet good money that Fark reported Russert's death well before Google News.

Personally, I learned of Russert's death via an e-mail from another Network World editor who had spotted a one-line bulletin on the Web site of CNN, an organization that understands the meaning of breaking news. As I started rummaging around the Internet looking for details, it never even occurred to me to check Google News.

That's because when news is breaking -- and I mean breaking right now -- Google News is the last place on Earth anyone interested would want to be. An hour or so later, they're champs.

George Carlin on technology

It's not my favorite Carlin bit -- that would be "A place for my stuff" -- but the comic genius, who died last week at age 71, did have a rather riotous take on technology, too. If you've never seen this one, you can have a look at it here on Buzzblog.

Reprinted with permission from InfoWorld. Story copyright 2012 InfoWorld Media Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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