Gini Dietrich

Google News Lab, Algorithms, and Content Creation

By: Gini Dietrich | July 7, 2015 | 
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Google News Lab, Algorithms, and Content CreationBy Gini Dietrich

Three years ago, I was introduced to Narrative Science, a company that trains computers to write news stories and create content or, better explained, how algorithms are becoming superior storytellers over journalists.

This still makes me a little hot in the head. I mean, the idea that algorithms can become better storytellers is insane, but the idea that they are is worse.

From the Wired article:

Had Narrative Science created this piece, it probably would not mention that the company’s Chicago headquarters lie only a long baseball toss from the Tribune newspaper building. Nor would it dwell on the fact that this potentially job-killing technology was incubated in part at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications. Those ironies are obvious to a human. But not to a computer.

But, as it turns out, some niche publications, including Forbes and other media powerhouses (who remain private), have hired Narrative Science to write stories and create content.

Three years ago, it was limited to Little League game results, where the stories are “written” from data entered by parents into a game scoring app called GameChanger. But the founder, fellow Utahan and Chicagoan Kristian Hammond, says in the next 15 years, 90 percent of all news stories will be written by computers.

Algorithms Write Stories

Stuart Frankel, the CEO at Narrative Science, showed me the process they use in order to create a computer-based story.

What’s interesting about this process is all of these pieces have to be there in order for the computer to write stories about Little League games or earnings reports or real estate in smaller markets that don’t typically get attention.

For instance, Forbes will do earnings reports for the Fortune 50 every quarter, but every other public company gets ignored because they don’t have the time, the human resources, or the budget to focus on everyone else.

An algorithm can take the data, the facts, the stats, and the angles and create a structure around earnings reports for the other 450 Fortune 5oo companies. And it can do it in seconds.

It won’t, however, provide context, irony, opinion, sarcasm, or humor into the story. Which, in the case of earnings reports, is fine because they are strictly data-driven stories anyway.

The algorithms write stories humans either don’t want to write or don’t have the time to write…and they’re doing it in four seconds instead of 40 minutes.

Introducing Google News Lab

Stu said:

We think if a story can be generated by data, it will be. We’re not shorting humans. We can generate parts of a story from the data that a computer is better at pulling, and a human can add the color or interviews conducted to broaden the appeal.

And now Google News Lab has launched, which is billed as, “a new effort at Google to empower innovation at the intersection of technology and media.”

But how, exactly, are they empowering that innovation? They’re not shorting humans. They’re helped journalists, bloggers, and citizen journalists pull data for part of the story while the humans add the color.

They are providing a new tool for telling data-driven stories and they are:

ensuring the Google tools are made available to journalists around the world (and that newsrooms know how to use them); getting helpful Google data sets in the hands of journalists everywhere; and creating programs designed to build on some of the biggest opportunities that exist in the media industry today.

It’s a new world where algorithms and humans are working hand-in-hand to produce some of the world’s best content.

What Does This Mean to You?

So what does this mean to a communicator?

I’d like to say we can all go about our lives as if nothing has happened, but that just isn’t the case.

It’s been three years since Narrative Science launched and now Google is getting into the space. While computers won’t replace us, they certainly are going to make us even more efficient and we must keep up.

Here is what you can do right this very second:

  • Check out the newly launched Google Trends. If I were to write a blog post about something happening in the news, I would go here and quickly scroll through to see hundreds of trending stories–everything from the gigantic crash at the Tour yesterday to the news that Kourtney Kardashian (finally) kicked her baby daddy to the curb. I can also see the women’s world cup and Shark Week are among the most popular topics right now. Easily there are four pieces of content from that five second search.
  • Go play in the Google News Lab tutorials. It’s broken into four sections: Research, report, distribute, and optimize. While this is created for a news journalist and investigative reporter, a communicator most certainly can use it for company news, brand stories, and content development.
  • Play with the tools inside Research. You’ll find advanced search, reverse image search, public data explorer, consumer surveys, alerts, news archives, the translate tool, and Google scholar. All of your favorite tools are now in one spot…and they come with tutorials on how to use them in your storytelling.
  •  Add visuals to your stories. You can add maps, a video, Google Earth, media tools alerts, or Google data to any piece of content to add more depth and more engagement.
  • Gain more readers or viewers for your content. Distribution is always the hardest part of content creation. Now you have access to the Google Play Newsstand to publish and monetize your work, Google, YouTube, and Google+. But, even though you likely already use those tools, there are tutorials for digging even deeper for distribution.
  • Optimize your efforts. Of course, you can’t do any of this without Google Analytics, which has its own tutorial in here, and it has how to attract loyal viewers on YouTube and how to keep your accounts secure.

But that’s not all! If you check all of this out right now, you’ll also find three projects Google has launched along with the news lab.

Check out:

  • First Draft Coalition. You know how you see a story and then you wait for “real” news outlets to verify it? Or you go to Snopes to see if it’s been discredited? Well, imagine you are the “real” news outlet. How do you verify a citizen’s account of what’s happening? First Draft Coalition has set out to be the place journalists check before writing a story.
  • Witness Media Lab. This allows citizens around the globe to provide eyewitness accounts on things that level the playing field for human rights. While it’s not an issue in the United States because we have free speech and the First Amendment, it’s not the case in many countries. Witness Media Lab is setting out to provide people a safe place to report on what’s happening in parts of the country that are not democratized.
  • YouTube Newswire. The YouTube Newswire is the hub for eyewitness videos from emerging news events around the world. The YouTube Newswire is curated by journalists at Storyful who discover and verify the best news, weather, and politics.

How Content Creation Will Change

So now the science behind Narrative Science that is available only to large media outlets is coming to us, though I’d venture to guess it’s still not quite as sophisticated because we humans still have to do the work.

But Google has made it as easy as possible for you to view the trends, pull the data, and distribute and optimize your content, once you’ve done the work only a human can do.

Now it’s your turn to go into the world and become a better content creator and storyteller using the technology you have at your fingertips.

What will you do today?

image credit: Shutterstock

About Gini Dietrich


Gini Dietrich is the founder and CEO of Arment Dietrich, an integrated marketing communications firm. She is the author of Spin Sucks, co-author of Marketing in the Round, and co-host of Inside PR. She also is the lead blogger at Spin Sucks and is the founder of Spin Sucks Pro.

  • This is BRILLIANT for Google. Imagine they can see what news stories are being written as they are written. They can then start grading the quality of it for SEO/AdWords and for likely readership volumes with display. They can then auction content ahead of it being published. They can content customers and let them know ahead of publishing that certain content would benefit them. 

    Think of it. Now instead of Conde Nast or Vogue doing the leg work of having sales people contact potential advertisers that fit special stories, sections, and issues….Google does it for you….while the content is being developed!

    Brilliant!

  • We use GameChanger and find the updates to be instantaneous and stellar. The grandparents love it. My Father-in-law always says it’s like reading about Connor in Sports Illustrated. It is scary how on target it is just by using stats!

  • I remember hearing an NPR story a few years ago about those automated services that provided stories about things like local sports. I, too, have a hard time with the idea that so much will be automated as we proceed into the future. It will be interesting to see what transpires.

  • biggreenpen i heard next year only cyborgs will compete in the tour de france and the NY Marathon.

  • susancellura

    Yay! I was hoping you’d write about this! And, it wouldn’t surprise me if Howie Goldfarb is correct about Google using this to their advantage.

  • danielschiller

    Oh, oh Mr Kotter… A rumor was circulating a couple of weeks ago re: suitors for a certain real-time amplification platform. Hmm.

    Plainly Narrative Sci is the next phase of what we called “content farms.” But Google News Lab is — unless I’m totally mistaken — something different altogether. Are they enabling data journalism? Well, it sorta suits their core business which is and remains search.

    I guess this takes the guess work out of content creation. But in all of this insight, how do you account for creating stories? Is that were we sapiens add our color?

  • Howie Goldfarb biggreenpen Are cyborgs much different than what Lance Armstrong turned himself into?

  • Howie Goldfarb So true. Equal parts scary and cool.

  • EdenSpodek Howie Goldfarb Hahah! That’s exactly what I was about to write. A part of me gets all hopped up about the coolness of it….and then…whoa.

    But I love Google for their constant ideas and innovation. It challenges us to keep on innovating right along with them to keep up.

  • danielschiller I don’t think Narrative Science is a content farm. Content farms, to me, are those that scrape content that doesn’t belong to you and post it as original content. These guys use stats and data to create stories that a human being doesn’t have time to write, but people still want. Like sydcon_mktg’s example of her kids and hockey. Their grandfather thinks it’s pretty darn cool to get his grandkid’s stats, but a human would never actually write that story (unless it’s a high school student for the school paper).

    The way I look at what Google News Lab is doing is part algorithmic writing, part data journalism, and part sophisticated search. So it’s a combination of Narrative Science and what we sapiens can do with access to the right data.

  • susancellura Of course they are! Think of all the data they’re getting now for themselves.

  • biggreenpen I actually was pretty hard on the Narrative Science CEO. And he said, “But Gini, a computer will never write a novel. And isn’t that what you’re most upset about?” And it was what I was upset about. I don’t care if a computer writes about the Fortune 99 company and their earnings report.

  • amybailey Howie Goldfarb biggreenpen My heart still hasn’t healed from the Lance Armstrong saga. It’s still too soon, Amy!

  • sydcon_mktg That’s actually really cool! I’m glad to know someone who is using it. I’m putting that information in my head to use later.

  • Howie Goldfarb OR GOOGLE CAN SELL ADS FOR SPIN SUCKS!

  • ginidietrich I forwarded you a few of the stories they generated about Connor so you can get a good feel for it.

  • sydcon_mktg You rock! Thank you!

  • danielschiller

    ginidietrich sydcon_mktg – I was thinking more along the lines of that ny’er profile of E. Spartz. I see the distinction — highly, highly personalized vs spammy, click bait. 
    We should all get schooled on Google News Lab.

  • danielschiller I’m getting schooled on it! I’m super interested. After our meeting today, I started digging into ADA25 and what we can do around that. Because you all are smart and I don’t want to get shown up.

  • danielschiller

    ginidietrich I need to too. Honestly, it was too early and I don’t recall what we discussed 🙂

  • danielschiller LOL!!

  • In an age when everyone is a thought leader and a content producer, I see this is a good thing. Easy access to data sources takes citizen journalism up a notch, and we’ve been heading down that path for a while, haven’t we? Most PR pros would agree that we’re engaging with “influencers” as much as traditional journalists. Innovations such as Narrative will push us more and more into the influencer sphere. But it won’t change the function of what we do as communicators, it’ll just alter who we’re communicating with.

    And perhaps it means that it won’t be enough to put fluff out there with some link backs and call yourself a thought leader.

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  • Thinking about this….

    I’m concerned that we’re following along with Google’s need for rules entirely too much in determining content marketing strategies. With these changes, the question of whether we should just STOP creating content and letting the robots begs an answer. Is it time? Is it coming? Will this become the new content marketing?

    The question is whether Google favors machine generated content over ours, and that’s a question of whether people share machine made content more than human made content. Do machine generated pieces of content “perform” as well or better than human drafted content? An interesting question to answer.

  • Seriously… you just gave me MORE to do? 🙂
    –Tony Gnau

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  • T60Productions Yes. AND. I’m having lunch with you today so you’ll have even more to do.

  • chelpixie But here’s the thing: You can’t stop content creation if you use Google News Lab. It makes you smarter. It gives you more in-depth data. It provides more context. But you still have to do the work.

  • IrisPRMgt Speaking of fluff with some links…wait til you see what I wrote today. My head wants to explode.

  • ginidietrich If Google’s machines learn to the point that they don’t need humans to work with Labs anymore….that’s the future I’m looking at when I ask. 

    Taking labs out of the equation, I’m curious if the machine generated content performs better. Then there’s the comparison between writing your own post and using Google’s lab to do it, which is better from a performance perspective.

  • ginidietrich IrisPRMgt It passes the sniff test of “not fluff.” I *may have to claim that there was a time in my own agency when we had to debate using social media at all. In hindsight, the fact that we argued about it seems bizarre.

    Or maying I’m just showing my age now.

  • ginidietrich

    JasMollica !!

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