The latest news-related product to emerge in Google Labs is 'Living Stories,' described by the company as "news, made for the web." The idea is that "complete coverage of an on-going story is gathered together and prioritized on one URL." The project is currently being tested with the New York Times and the Washington Post.
Currently there are eight 'living stories' on Google Labs. Each story has a page headed with a title and a brief summary and features a timeline upon which each update to the story is marked. The different articles published on the story are listed from the newest down, so a reader can read all of them while staying within one page. On the 'politics of global warming' page, for example, there is also a pop up graphic which allows readers to listen to quotes on the subject from various authorities.
The service also offers what it calls 'smarter reading' whereby "updates to the story are highlighted each time you come back, and older news is summarized."
The experiment will be on Labs for the next few months, according to a Google News help page and "We are going to refine all aspects of the format using the feedback we receive." The stories have been chosen by the papers themselves, and "we're continuously collaborating to make the user interface fit with their editorial vision," says the Google News blog. For now, the project is limited to the NYT and the Post. However, the Google help page states that "we plan to work on open-source tools for creating Living Stories that any news organization can use." A Google discussion group allows users to offer their thoughts.
Presenting stories organised by topic is an idea that the Associated Press has also been considering. In April, the organisation announced its intention to create search landing pages that would direct the reader to first local, authoritative sources on a story, and provide relevant background and context.
The unveiling of Living Stories comes hot on the heels of Google's announcement that it is to start incorporating real-time social network updates into search results, and at a time when tension between news publishers and Google is high. At the World Newspaper Congress last week, debate took place between Gavin O'Reilly, president of WAN-IFRA, and Google senior vice president David Drummond, with O'Reilly calling for "a more rigorous and unambiguous acceptance" of publishers' rights to decide how their content is used. Many publishers feel that Google is not adequately respected the copyright of their content and has too much control over their business models. For example, Rupert Murdoch has threatened to remove News Corp's papers' content from Google in coming months and Axel Springer is trying to push for payment from the search engine.
Google, however, seeks to present itself as an ally of publishers rather than a foe. CEO Eric Schmidt wrote an article in the Wall Street Journal last week in which he argued that Google is in fact a "great source of promotion" for newspapers and that in fact, the idea that Google is making big profits on the back of newspapers "misrepresents the reality." He maintained that "We want to work with publishers to help them build bigger audiences, better engage readers, and make more money," and that Google is "serious about playing its part."
Google does seem to be making an effort to work with publishers on new products such as this, and it clearly describes the papers involved as its partners, but the big question that will decide publishers on whether on not to collaborate is, will they be able to bring in more revenue? There is no advertising on Living Stories as yet, but if the experiment succeeds and it is adopted more widely then publishers would be able to sell ads alongside stories. Google did recently launch its first revenue-sharing project with publishers, Google Fast Flip, and announced changes to its First Click Free program which should allow publishers better control over who views their content. Will publishers and Google manage to find a satisfactory way to collaborate? Or might Bing still enter the fray?