At Yahoo, using searches to steer news coverage

Last Updated 06 July 2010, 16:08 IST

Welcome to the era of the algorithm as editor. For as long as hot lead has been used to make metal type, the model for generating news has been top-down: editors determined what information was important and then shared it with the masses.

But with the advent of technology that allows media companies to identify what kind of content readers want, that model is becoming inverted.

The latest and perhaps broadest effort yet in democratising the news is under way at Yahoo, which on Tuesday will introduce a news blog that will rely on search queries to help guide its reporting and writing on national affairs, politics and the media.

Search-generated content has been growing on the Internet, linked to the success of companies like Associated Content, which Yahoo recently bought, and Demand Media, which has used freelance writers to create an online library of more than a million instructional articles.

But the use of search data has been limited more to the realm of “how to” topics like “How do I teach my dog sign language?” than questions about the news of the day like “Where does Elena Kagan stand on corporate campaign donations?”

How it works

Yahoo software continuously tracks common words, phrases and topics that are popular among users across its vast online network. To help create content for the blog, called The Upshot, a team of people will analyse those patterns and pass along their findings to Yahoo’s news staff of two editors and six bloggers.

The news staff will then use that search data to create articles that — if the process works as intended — will allow them to focus more precisely on readers.

“We feel like the differentiator here; what separates us from a lot of our competitors is our ability to aggregate all this data,” said James A Pitaro, vice president of Yahoo Media. “This idea of creating content in response to audience insight and audience needs is one component of the strategy, but it’s a big component.”

In strictly economic terms, the power of technology that identifies reader trends is incredibly potent as a draw for advertisers.

Yahoo paid more than $100 million this year for Associated Content, which pays writers small sums to write articles based on queries like “How do I tile a floor?” or “How do I make French toast?”

“They have a tremendous potential power to wring higher value advertisers out of targeted content,” said Ken Doctor, a media analyst and author of “Newsonomics: Twelve New Trends That Will Shape the News You Get.”

To demonstrate the power of search technology as editor, Pitaro is fond of telling a story about one of the most popular articles to appear on Yahoo’s sports news site during the 2008 Summer Olympics.

Yahoo had been monitoring search traffic patterns and noticed that its users kept trying to find out why divers would shower after they got out of the water.

So Yahoo sports writers looked into the question and posted an item titled “The mystery of the showering divers.” (It turns out the warm water from the showers keeps divers’ muscles limber. Their muscles contract when they emerge from the warm water into the cool air.)

“So while our competition was covering a lot of the bigger, broader topics, we were covering topics that were a little bit more behind the scenes,” Pitaro said.
Niche approach

This niche approach to the news, filling in gaps in the coverage where other media outlets are not providing content, is the best way Pitaro feels The Upshot (at news.yahoo.com/upshot) can gain traction in a crowded media landscape.

“If you’re a news start-up, focusing on breadth would be the wrong way to go,” he said. “What we’re seeing is the market getting increasingly fragmented. And because of that you can survive by owning a niche category.” The Yahoo model, which flies in the face of a centuries-old approach to disseminating the news, is certain to be viewed suspiciously by journalism purists.

“There’s obviously an embedded negative view toward using any type of outside information to influence coverage,” said Robertson Barrett, chief strategy officer of Perfect Market Inc., a company that helps news organisations make their content more detectable to search engine algorithms.

Barrett, a former publisher for the Web site of The Los Angeles Times, said many mainstream media outlets would start to come around to the idea if they did not feel pressured to let it affect their coverage.

“There’s a middle ground here in which publishers and news organisations can learn a lot about their audiences and what they want in real time and take that into account generally,” he said. “But that does not need to affect the specific story assignments.”

Yahoo news editors say they intend to be selective in using data. The tricky question for Yahoo becomes how much it will insulate its editorial decision making from the very businesslike thinking that has made Associated Content and Demand Media successful.
Asked whether he was concerned that signing up with Yahoo had rendered his career as an editor obsolete, The Upshot’s editor, Andrew Golis, laughed.

“I certainly don’t hope that,” Golis said, adding that he and Yahoo’s other journalists would use the search data as a supplemental tool. “The information is valuable because editors can integrate it into their decision making. It’s an asset. It’s a totally amazing and useful tool that we have at Yahoo. But it does not lead Yahoo editorial content.”

(Published 06 July 2010, 16:08 IST)

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