Will Google Kill News Media?

As Google positions itself to be a total online content provider, the question of what is next for the search engine giant might be at least partially forecast by journalists Matt Thompson and Robin Sloan.

Matt Thompson, deputy editor for online content for startribune.com, the Web site for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, and Robin Sloan, who works for Current, a San Francisco-based cable and satellite TV network, have created "EPIC 2015." In the short movie, the two peg the growing Google as the death knell for the slumbering Fourth Estate, which loses its gatekeeping and publishing role to the Internet.

The eight-minute piece--produced by the Museum for Media History, a fictitious construct of Thompson and Sloan--swerves between the plausible and the dramatic, tendering a prophecy that is both alarmist and maybe inevitable.

Future History

Sample the scenario: On Aug. 4, 2011, The New York Times will lose a case against Google in the Supreme Court, in which the newspaper claims that the search engine's fact-stripping robots that rearrange news stories gathered by its search bots according to its users' tastes violate copyright regulations.

The decision marks a huge win for Google, which merged with Amazon.com three years prior to form Googlezon. Combining Google's search technology and Amazon's social recommendation engine, the two companies created a comprehensive service that provides total customization of content, news and advertising for its users.

After the ruling, The New York Times ceases publishing online in a feeble protest, instead becoming a print-only newsletter for the elderly and the elite, according to the movie.

Thompson and Sloan envision Google expanding its acquisitions and then combining Blogger, G-mail, and Google News services plus Amazon's recommendation system into the Google Grid, a universal platform for users to store and share media.

Google then refines its search algorithm and starts to construct news stories dynamically, stripping sentences and facts from sources and recombining them according to specific user interests.

By 2014, Google creates EPIC, the Evolving Personalized Information Construct, its own categorization system that filters and delivers news. Users contribute news bits, and they are rewarded with a small slice of Google's advertising revenue depending on the popularity of their contribution. Information is delivered to users based on consumption habits, demographics, interests and even interests of their friends.

Low Profile

Thompson said in a phone interview that the idea for the movie came from brainstorming about how advanced algorithmic work by companies such as Google could change the way information is indexed, along with the increased capability to remix those facts. The two picked Google as the film's protagonist because of "sheen of mystery" around it that few other companies have, he said.

Since the film was released on the Internet late last year, it has been widely circulated on blog sites and in several articles. The Financial Times reported that media mogul Rupert Murdoch had seen it, Thompson said.

But The New York Times hasn't written about it, Thompson said, and Google has been "curiously mute."

"I don't think I have spoken to a single employee of Google," Thompson said. "I'm sure they've seen it."

Alternate Futures

The first version of the short piece, called EPIC 2014, ends ominously: "At its best, edited for the savviest readers, EPIC is a summary of the world, deeper, broader and more nuanced than anything ever available before. But at its worst and for too many, EPIC is merely a collection of trivia, much of it untrue, all of it narrow, shallow, sensational.

"But EPIC is what we wanted. It is what we chose, and its commercial success preempted any discussions of media and democracy or journalistic ethics," the piece says before closing. An updated version of the movie--"EPIC 2015"--ends a bit more upbeat, with a former New York Times digital edition journalist finding work collecting broadcasts from citizens based on their locations using GPS (Global Positioning System).

Both versions of EPIC can be seen at Robinsloan.com.

While the specifics may be hyperbole and speculation, the market already reflects converging media and IT companies into total content and communication providers.

Google announced in September an improvement in its video service that lets users upload their own videos and view them within a Web browser without additional software. Yahoo is backing the Open Content Alliance, a group planning to create an online archive of digital collection of books and films. Similarly, Google has its Google print project for digitizing books. And eBay's recent purchase of Skype Technologies makes it a convergence contender.

"EPIC 2015" is "hopefully something that we can look back on in the years ahead and think it captured what was going on," Thompson said.

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