Google's "Living Stories" Aren't Terribly Alive

Google Living Stories is the search giant's latest attempt to show that killing newspapers is only collateral damage. Sadly, the Living Stories themselves are barely alive, if update times are considered.

As an experiment, Google is helping newspapers offer their content as topic-specific pages, something most publishers have yet to master on their own, despite years of attempts.

A joint project between the New York Times, Washington Post, and Google, the "Living Stories" are topical collections of stories created by each newspaper from its own content. Eight topics are presently available.

The new feature was introduced Tuesday on Google's Official Blog.

Google says that if the project is successful, it will open source the necessary program code and allow newspapers to host Living Stories on their own sites and package them with their own advertising.

The Google page that displays Living Stories is not at all attractive.

Nor is it living: Of the eight topics presented, the most recent was updated 11 hours previously and three topics were updated more than 17 hours before my visit. If that is "living," I'll go back regular "dead" Google News, which is remade every few minutes.

The specific topic pages, such as this one about "Battling Swine Flu" from the New York Times or "Washington Tackles Health Care" from the Post, are good collections of each paper's content, but nothing more.

Here are things to like (or not) about Living Stories:

Pros:

  • Living Story pages are not very noisy, limited as they are to a single publication's content.
  • The topic pages build brand loyalty and remind readers why they choose a specific publication by displaying all its coverage on the topic being presented.
  • This makes good content stand out. Reading a number of stories about one topic reminded me of how good the two newspapers really are.
  • The stories themselves do "live," in the sense that the pages show how a particular topic has changed over time.
  • The pages are a time-efficient way to stay updated on specific topics of interest.
  • Living Stories improves the newspapers ability to deliver news-by-topic, which has proven difficult for newspapers to master. Searching a sorting a Google's second-best skill, after delivering advertising.

Cons:

  • The Living Stories aren't very alive, in terms of how often they are updated. If you want up-to-the-minute news, Living Stories may not deliver it.
  • There are obvious limitations in showing content from only one source (also benefits, noted above).
  • How many times do you really need a topic page? If you are actually following a topic, then the page only repeats what you already know and have read previously.
  • I wonder how much human intervention the pages will require. It seems that a really good topic page will require at least occasional human intervention. This would be a major commitment for a publication with dozens, even hundreds of topics.
  • Really bad name.

I like the idea and execution behind Google Living Stories. I am sure newspapers will appreciate the help in building their topic centers.

Sadly, this won't dramatically improve newspapers' chances for survival.

David Coursey has been writing about technology products and companies for more than 25 years. He tweets as @techinciter and may be contacted via his Web site.

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