Dan Meredith and Andy Golding are software engineers at Google, working as part of the News Team responsible for developing the Google News service. They might just have made one of the most important statements to come from the direction of Google for a long time.
Posting on the official Google News Blog they have announced that "Starting this week, we'll be displaying reader comments on stories in Google News."
OK, on its own nothing to get too excited about, but read on because there is a twist of epic proportions.
"We'll be trying out a mechanism for publishing comments from a special subset of readers: those people or organizations who were actual participants in the story in question."
The idea is to bring a broader perspective to the news, while retaining a level of professional objectivity. So rather than just having the report by the journalist concerned, with assorted opinion from anyone who fancies adding a comment as you find with most blogs, you will get comments only from those people directly involved with the news story itself. What's more, these comments will be published in full with no editing whatsoever.
Of course, there is nothing wrong with everybody and their uncle commenting to blog postings such as this one, it is the very nature of blogging after all. But speaking as a professional journalist myself, most comments provide no real additional value to the story itself. Indeed, they are usually (and no offence to anyone commenting to this) of the letter to the editor from Mr Angry variety.
From what I can gather it will work by you simply submitting your comments along with a statement showing how you are connected to the story. But how connected do you need to be, how many levels you can be removed from the core and still qualify for comment. According to Google News business product manager Josh Cohen, posting at Search Engine Land the answer is "If you're mentioned in a story or quoted in it, you're a participant. Even if you're a reporter writing the story itself, you're a participant."
But what if you are not mentioned in the report but are directly involved with story matter nonetheless? Will Google still give you a voice? Something that will need to be clarified sooner rather than later, and despite the claims of not applying any editorial policy to the system does rather seem to be shouting out a requirement for exactly that.
I like the idea of being able to restrict the comments at a news only site such as Google News to just those people involved with the story, providing a new dimension and possibly taking it in directions the original author had not thought to go. I like the idea of this democratisation of reporting without losing the integrity of the article.
What I am not so sure of is how Google intends to manage such a Herculean task which is bound to create an enormous amount of work for those responsible for moderating the news comments. How will they ensure that only bona fide people connected to the news are commenting? What measures will be in place to verify the identities of these people and stop any nutjob from attempting to bias the article to further whatever private or political agenda? "We don't have editors, and we don't verify anything other than identity for the comments -- the statements are from the contributor only. We'd only remove comments with proper legal process. Even if these comments are false…" Cohen claims.
There seems little chance that any of this can be determined by an algorithm, this is not going to be a task that can be automated like so many Google services. It will involve manpower, and lots of it. What remains to be seen is how adding comments adds to the bottom line, because unless the advertising revenue increases sufficiently to cover the staffing cost I simply cannot see Google underwriting it for too long.
Still, at the end of the day I applaud Google for taking a stab at becoming a serious news reporting service and not opting for the easy option. Sure, that advertising revenue is the real driving force here, but as a means to an end establishing what has the potential to become the first truly valuable merging of professional and citizen journalism has to be a good thing. Doesn't it?