You know I'm starting to think I should only update this blog on the weekends. Throughout the week the news that dominates tech news tracker Techmeme tends to be about Microsoft, Google, Facebook, and other companies developing new products, buying one another, and offering new services.
Very few products are launched on the weekends, and Techmeme tends to show discussions in the blogosphere about things like blogger/journalism ethics. That could be the Calacanis/Wired magazine blowup regarding emailed interviews or the history of blogging, traditional news, and ad placement.
Anyway, this week people are talking about an editorial in the L.A. Times. Google News plans to offer subjects of news stories a chance to respond to articles. No, Google doesn't write the articles. It just aggregates them from other sources, but along with a headline and intro for each article, it will offer a link to comments. If you're the CEO of a company that was profiled or lambasted in an article, you can post a comment that will be visible alongside the article. It doesn't look like there are plans to open this up to casual users who want to comment on articles.
But the L.A. Times makes a few low blows at Google here. First is the old battle cry that Google is stealing publishers content (you know, as opposed to driving traffic to web publishers). But second is the fact that these user comments are not journalism, and in fact will highlight the importance of good journalism.
That may be true. By offering unfiltered, unedited, un-fact-checked comments that may be written by PR folks rather than CEOs, Google is putting comments on near-equal footing with thoroughly researched articles written by experienced journalists. But it's not like Google is claiming that journalists aren't necessary. In fact, Google News wouldn't exist if there weren't quality news publications providing material which Google can link to.
But does that mean there's no value in Google's plan to add comments? As Robert Niles writes in the Online Journalism Review, "Goodness, we wouldn't want the sources in our stories to have a chance to respond, would we? /sarcasm."
Because no story is ever really complete. In fact, this is one of my pet peeves about news stories, especially public radio stories. In print you know an article is concluded because there are no more words on the page. In radio, journalists are often struggling to tie things up at the end of a story in such a way that you know it's over. It'd be a bit startling otherwise just to hear a last line and then suddenly hear the anchor introduce another story. But not every story has a neat ending.
I'm not better than any other public radio reporter at finding good ways to end a story. I'm just as guilty as anyone else of writing "and so Timmy will have to continue to wait for his big chance" kind of cliche endings. But that doesn't prevent me from cringing a little every time I hear myself or someone else using a trite line to end a story.
Anyway, back to the original point here. No story is ever truly finished. And so I'm all for anything that lets people continue the conversation. If Google were trying to pass the comments of as journalism, that would be one thing. But they're not, so I'm not really sure what's got the L.A. Times editorial staff all worked up. If anything, my complaint is that Google's plan doesn't go far enough. Comments shouldn't just be for newsmakers. There should be a whole user forum for people to comment on stories. The best comments would be posted alongside article headlines on the front page, whether they come from people quoted in the original article or from a really insightful commenter who may have nothing to do with the story.