Google News: Trust the algorithm

I’ve written about the potential dangers of Google and Facebook using algorithms to recommend news, with the basic fear being that they’ll recommend stories that confirm my biases rather than “feed me my vegetables.” But Nieman Lab has an interview with the founder of Google News who has quite a different take on what he’s doing:

“Over time,” he replied, “I realized that there is value in the fact that individual editors have a point of view. If everybody tried to be super-objective, then you’d get a watered-down, bland discussion,” he notes. But “you actually benefit from the fact that each publication has its own style, it has its own point of view, and it can articulate a point of view very strongly.” Provided that perspective can be balanced with another — one that, basically, speaks for another audience — that kind of algorithmic objectivity allows for a more nuanced take on news stories than you’d get from individual editors trying, individually, to strike a balance. “You really want the most articulate and passionate people arguing both sides of the equation,” Bharat says. Then, technology can step in to smooth out the edges and locate consensus. ”From the synthesis of diametrically opposing points of view,” in other words, “you can get a better experience than requiring each of them to provide a completely balanced viewpoint.”“That is the opportunity that having an objective, algorithmic intermediary provides you,” Bharat says. “If you trust the algorithm to do a fair job and really share these viewpoints, then you can allow these viewpoints to be quite biased if they want to be.”

[emphasis from Nieman Lab]

A few thoughts:

1. It is very encouraging that Krishna Bharat is thinking about this, even if only as a piece of what he’s doing.

2. He’s right that whether or not you can trust the algorithm matters tremendously.

3. I remain skeptical that there’s any incentive for the algorithm to challenge me. Does he believe doing so will provide something I want and am more likely to click such that this vision fits nicely with Google’s bottom line? Or is he suggesting that he and his team are worried about more than the bottom line?

Bottom line: it’s great he’s thinking about this but he needs to explain why we should really believe it’s a priority if he wants us to truly trust the algorithm.


How I read

Last year The Atlantic Wire ran a terrific series in which it asked various thinkers and bloggers to write up a description of “What I Read.” From Clay Shirky to David Brooks, every response was interesting in its own way. Go read them all.

I’ve been meaning for a while to write my own answer, and my media diet has shifted a bit lately, so now is as good a time as any. You’ll notice I titled this post “How” rather than “What”. My aim is to focus more on the technologies and strategies than on the content (though there will be plenty of that baked in). That way, you can take any suggestions you like and plug in your own content based on your own interests.

So here’s how my information diet works…

NPR Hourly News Summary

As I leave my house on the way to work every morning I plug headphones into my Android phone and open up the (free) NPR app and click “Hourly News Summary”. This gives me a 5 minute rundown of all the biggest news items and corresponds absolutely perfectly with my walk to the subway (up here in Boston, we call it the T).

Morning Email Newsletters

I have about a 20-25 minute subway trip to work, and here’s why that’s tricky: I’m underground almost the whole way, without 3G. So I need ways to read that don’t require my mobile browser.

For that reason, I subscribe to a couple of daily newsletters. Normally, I HATE mixing my info diet with my inbox, but I make a couple of exceptions for the sake of my commute.

I start by reading Ezra Klein’s Wonkbook, a morning roundup of public policy-related news and analysis. I just added The Boston Globe’s top headlines email, since everyone I work with will have seen the Globe’s front page by the time I get to the office. I’m considering adding Politico’s Morning Energy to my inbox, since I work in clean energy; right now it’s in my RSS reader.

Once I get through the newsletters, I usually go to Everpaper on my phone. More on that later.


As soon as I get to work, I fire up both Twitter and Google Reader. For a lot of people, Twitter is their primary news source. I’m not there yet. I follow maybe 150 people through two different accounts, and have them broken into lists like “Friends”, “Professional Contacts”, and “Influencers.” I follow these lists with Tweetdeck.

I use Twitter to share lots of what I read, to comment on stories, and inevitably to find links. Who I follow on Twitter is biased towards who I actually interact and converse with, like David Roberts at Grist or Nick Jackson at The Atlantic Tech.

I also occasionally use Twitter to try out new bloggers or news sources, to see if I want to make them a staple of my reading. Which gets me to a major point: I try not to ever rely on Twitter for my reading. I’ll explain what I mean in the next section.

Google Reader

I’m a big RSS-addict and Google Reader is still far-and-away the backbone of my reading. But even I spend less time in it than I used to, due to Twitter. So while I don’t necessarily read every item in my Reader every day, I think of it as my backstop at this point. If I’m busy at work, I may miss most of what’s being shared on Twitter; my RSS reader is the place I go to catch up on whatever I may have missed.

At this point I’m picky about the feeds I subscribe to for that reason. My RSS Reader is my “bare minimum” reading, the stuff I’ll make sure to get to at least once a week, whether or not I have time to take in all the stuff that passes through my Twitter feed.

If you do care about the “What” in addition to the “How”, here are my feeds by topic area: General, Politics/Policy, Internet/Media/Tech, New York Times, Climate/Energy (that last one is way more than bare minimum since I rely on it for work) plus I subscribe to some Boston-specific news.


With no 3G on the subway, Instapaper is a lifesaver. (Actually, since I have an Android not an iPhone, I use Instapaper+Everpaper, which works well.) I come across a lot of articles throughout the day via Twitter, RSS or email that are too long to read on the spot, so I add them to Instapaper, using a plugin for my browser. Instapaper saves all the text from the article and then Everpaper downloads the articles directly to my phone. So on the way home from work, I usually dig into a magazine-length piece I found earlier in the week.


I’d be remiss if I declined to mention that I find a lot of great stuff via friends on email and Facebook. Though, truth be told, that’s secondary to my evolving diet of RSS and Twitter feeds. Also, I swear I do read books, although almost exclusively nonfiction. If I’m in a good book, I usually read that on my way home from work, instead of a magazine article on my phone.

How do you read?

I really do recommend reading The Atlantic Wire series. But I also recommend sharing your own methods. How do you manage your intake of information? I’m always adjusting my process (podcasts and email newsletters are both relatively new for me) and I’d love to hear how others read. Feel free to share tips in the comments, or if you write your own post, leave me a link to it. Or let me know on Twitter (@wfrick).


Just ask nicely

Despite being a huge fan of the New York Times, I’m reluctant to subscribe when the paper institutes its paywall. There are a couple of reasons for that, but in this post I’ll focus on just one: I’d rather be asked to support good journalism than forced to pay for it.NYT Office

Being asked to support a worthy cause triggers an assessment of that cause’s importance to society, whereas being asked to pay triggers a selfish cost-benefit analysis.

Is the good or service in question worth the money?  Could I find it cheaper elsewhere?

The NYT has lots of terrific content but in an information economy characterized by abundance it has to compete against lots and lots of quality, free content.  I’m constantly overwhelmed by intelligent, valuable content that I’d like to read/watch/listen to.

If managing my information intake is a matter of weighing quality content against quality content, looking for any slight preference for one feed over another, why would I select the one that requires an annual subscription?

Moreover, while reporting may still be expensive, quoting is cheap.  Even if every major news source put up a paywall, bloggers could still quote a couple key grafs on their way to offering analysis.*

In short, I believe that the marginal benefit offered by outlets like the NYT will not meet my own criteria for being “worth paying for.”

I’d much rather be asked to give to an organization whose work I want to support.

Some might see this as hopelessly idealistic.  How many people would really donate?  Perhaps it is, but so is the alternative.  I just don’t see many sophisticated readers weighing the cost of subscription against the wealth of free content online and deciding to subscribe.

One final note: the membership model at one point under consideration by the NYT strikes me as closer to what I’d like to see.  Ask loyal readers to become dues-paying members, for which they get access to extra content in exchange for offsetting the cost of keeping most of the website freely available.

*At this point I think it’s fairly non-controversial to suggest that America’s copyright regime is overly restrictive and that further restricting it, so as to prevent the sort of quoting I refer to, would be incredibly damaging.