Once a day, I quickly skim my Google News homepage. There is usually something of marginal-to-slight interest, and thus worth clicking. Aggregated by GNews is a large and diverse range of online publishers, and as such the quality and depth of their productions understandably vary.
In this particular example, I was reading an article on an established local news site. Local news appears to be particularly attracted to some of the worst digital experiences imaginable, polluting the eyes with display advertising making the article itself almost impossible to read. Many of you know this already.
This local news site was carrying outbound links to articles from a range of other publishers. Again, you know the deal here: publishers embed a widget that runs approximately 50 image-plus-description links at the end of an article. I thought at the time that I should take a scroll through some of these, knowing that most of them are going to irrelevant to me.
I found some of these links quite horrifying:
On further research, Fiona Bruce, a popular BBC television presenter, appears to be happily married to her husband but not always seen with him — thus refuting both of the headlines above. The same goes for classical singer Katherine Jenkins and her male partner.
Here’s another one.
Carol Kirkwood, again, a popular weather presenter for BBC Breakfast, can’t lay claim to these headlines. First of all, if she was married to the “richest woman in the world” then it would dilute the same claim attributed to Fiona Bruce, and secondly, she can’t be married to “Him” and “the richest woman in the world” at the same time.
Nonsense, right? Here’s a final example.
I don’t need to say any more about this, other than Laura doesn’t exist.
As a reader, I find such content utterly dreadful, but the situation is perhaps worse for Carol Kirkwood, Katherine Jenkins, or Fiona Bruce — not to mention the Royal Family. They are being referred to, and commented on, completely incorrectly. The content doesn’t belong to the local news website, because it is merely embedding a widget. The widget’s provider possibly (probably) won’t accept liability either, as they are just using content scrapers or somesuch and promoting articles without checking them first. It’s a vicious circle of anti-liability that deliberately obfuscates the right of reply if a person talked about is done so incorrectly.
Cynical readers might think that because these are famous people, they should roll with the punches. But, that’s unfair. If they are famous then they deserve to be referred to correctly, and factually. I was going to say that newspapers are duty-bound to do this, but because these article aggregators are often used by newspapers, that prima facie doesn’t appear to be the case any more. After all, why should a reporter talking about Fiona Bruce be morally and legally obliged to talk about her correctly, when an aggregated article on the same page doesn’t?
“Native” publishing isn’t the moral arbiter that I’m perhaps making it out to be, anyway. Consider this article from the weekend, reported by local news site Edinburgh Live.
It’s a fascinating story. The byline suggests that it’s a complete fluke but, of course, it turns out later in the story that Mr Bradley is himself an EasyJet pilot. In reading the article comments, someone pointed out that this is an old piece of news anyway, so why is Edinburgh Live carrying it?
A quick Google search proves that the comment author is right. The story was published to Edinburgh Live and a number of other publications this weekend, although it was carried by Sky News amongst other publications over four years ago.
What is going on?
We have a situation where large, multinational media and publishing companies are producing articles which are out-of-date, and carrying “recommended articles” which are incorrect and likely to be libellous.
Such companies do it for a revenue model based on user volume and clickthrough ratios (CTR). The above story works on the — largely correct — assumption that many stories can work at any time out of context, so republishing is fine as long as they bring new readers. And, of course, I was one of those.
However, if we are to maintain any form of a quality reader experience on the web then such strategies need to be torched. The quality threshold for republishing old articles and carrying outbound links is practically zero. There isn’t a race to the bottom as it has already happened. There are few morals here.
The horrifying future for well-known people and celebrities is that my examples regarding Fiona Bruce et al are merely just the start. Such headlines and articles were once outsourced to authors in lower-cost companies who could write any old shit for a fee. This task is now done by procedural software, evidenced by Fiona Bruce and Katherine Jenkins being allegedly married to the same woman. When AI comes into play, Pandora’s Box of what can be said about anyone on the Internet is truly opened.
It’s hard for AI vendors to avoid being part of this, and the responsibility really lies with those publishers, whose degradation of the end-reader experience has caused a poisoning of the lake of content. It ruins trust on the part of the reader which in turn lessens their trust in better-intentioned, higher-quality content elsewhere.
For publishers, and I’m sorry to say this, but I’d rather have no local news on these types of sites at all, and for those websites/titles to close. They are doing untold damage not just to the reader but also to the reputation of the towns and cities that they serve, not just in terms of reader experience but also the prioritisation of news from elsewhere for the sake of eyeballs over what is really happening at a local level. Paid-for, high-quality content from publishers is something that they must consider for their future and for ours, as readers.
I very much doubt that this call for quality will be heeded by anyone. However, as we know from the world at large, historical pollution can’t be stopped, but future pollution can be at least contained.