Not a day goes past without some media person blaming Google for everything that’s going wrong with their business. So it was nice to see Google doing something unambiguously helpful for the newspaper industry, by announcing the open-sourcing of their Living Stories framework [see cheesy video below].
Living Stories is an experimental way of organising and presenting news content online. It’s intended as an internet-native way of presenting news content online. If you had never seen an actual newspaper in your life, and wanted to publish news on the net, you might come up with something like Living Stories.
The essence of Living Stories is the aggregration of ongoing coverage of a particular issue in one place, which is constantly updated. You can browse by news, features, quotes, significant people, video etc, and it all hangs off a central timeline that acts as a powerful reader orientation tool.
Have a look at the New York Times’ LS page on the Politics of Climate Change. In my view it’s the best single news and commentary resource on climate change I’ve yet seen – in half an hour you can see more quality content on climate change as would take hours if you were just searching for pieces in Google. It’s like all the best bits of Wikipedia, but without the downside of not knowing who was responsible for producing it. I strongly recommend playing around with Living Stories to see what online news can look like.
What makes it work is that it organises content the way people use it online. On the whole most newspaper websites rely on a ‘page’ metaphor, where content is tucked away on separate pages, making it difficult and labour intensive for users to read ‘across’ a topic (you need to keep going back to Google, searching for yet more new articles on the topic you’re interested in).
But people want to read across an entire topic; that’s why search engines are so popular, and sites like wikipedia too. LS lets you do this, giving you a snapshot of the entirety of an issue almost instantly, yet with enough depth to engage for hours. And because it’s updated constantly, new material can be pushed out to you in a seamless flow (it’s easy to see how this could be integrated with Twitter, Facebook or RSS).
From a commercial perspective it also seems to make a whole lot of sense. According to Google 75% of those who’ve used LS prefer it to traditional articles, while average time spent on a LS page is 9 minutes. The LS format strongly encourages readers who arrive via search to not just read one page and leave, but to hang around and read across the issue, and also to return. The value for advertisers is drastically higher.
Really, Living Stories is just a starting point for publishers. It’s one of many possible futures for news content online, and publishers could (and should) use it as a launch pad for their own experiments (for instance, the look and feel could be dramatically improved). It’s really a fantastic free present from Google to publishers … now, who will have the imagination to use it?
(I am not holding my breath)