Why has Google News gotten so useless?

The one thing you should be able to count on Google doing–with robotic if not remorseless consistency–is finding things on the Web. But the Google News site it launched in 2006 keeps going from useless to more useless as successive redesigns purport to improve it, and I’m giving up on asking why.

First, sometime in the second half of 2017, the desktop version quietly dropped the “Search Tools” menu that lets you search by date. That right there is a dealbreaker in any newsroom: If you want to know which publication got to a story first, you must be able to limit your query to articles posted before a day, month and year.

Then Google’s mobile and desktop searches started not matching–at all.

Later, the mobile version of Google News went on the same feature-starvation diet as the desktop edition, leaving it just as woeful in everyday use.

More recently, Google News has stopped showing snippets of stories, as you can see in the first screengrab here. It only offers headlines–which, now that search-engine optimization has boiled much of the creativity out of that exercise in compressed prose, may not even be that fun to read.

The crazy thing is that you start a Google search at the company’s home page, then click or tap the “News” tab atop your first results for ad-free, news-only results, you will get the old version of Google News. That still lets you focus a query by date, still provides a preview of a story’s text, and still doesn’t make me long for the metadata that I’d get in an analog, paper-based library.

So why does Google foist this impostor news-search site on us and insist that we click to a second page to access a functional version of it? I have no idea. I’ve tweeted about this too often, including tagging Google’s news v.p. Richard Gingras, and I’ve personally lobbied Googlers (most recently at last year’s Online News Association conference) to fix the damn site, but nothing has changed.

I’m left to think that Google just doesn’t care to make a news-search site that journalists–or any involved citizen–would want to use. So I’ve been increasingly leaning on Microsoft’s Bing News, which does offer the minimum-viable-product functions of a date-limited search and story-snippet previews. I suggest you go and do likewise.

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Weekly output: AirPlay gaps, smart-home security

This will be a short workweek for me on both ends. I can’t expect many people to answer my e-mails tomorrow, and then the second half of Friday will be occupied by me starting my journey to Barcelona for Mobile World Congress. This trip will be seventh to MWC; if you will be heading there for your first time, you may appreciate the cheat sheet I wrote last year.

2/13/2019: More smart TVs are getting Apple AirPlay but that doesn’t mean you’ll be able to use it, USA Today

Now that connected televisions from Samsung and others are arriving with support for Apple’s AirPlay in-home media streaming built-in, many more people are likely to discover how many cable-TV apps disable this output option.

2/15/2019: A new tactic for smart-home security: shaming Walmart, Yahoo Finance

I wrote about an open letter from the Mozilla Foundation, the Internet Society and several other interest groups urging Amazon, Best Buy, Target and Walmart to stop selling insecure Internet-of-Things hardware. One complicating factor: There isn’t any canonical list of secure or insecure IoT gear that a retailer or a customer could consult. The best such option at the moment seems to be Mozilla’s Privacy Not Included, which excludes a great many devices.

The old financial records that I do keep

It’s now two months until tax day, which means that it’s time for some financial paperwork. By that I don’t mean starting my 2018 return–I haven’t even gotten all my 1099s yet–but discarding records from prior years that no longer retain any legal relevance.

This tidying up has sent a raft of old statements and forms into the recycling (with every instance of a Social Security Number torn out for subsequent shredding), and now the file cabinet is no longer packed so tight.

But there are some tax and financial records that I’m keeping even though I no longer have to: the 1040s, W-2s, and checkbooks of my college and post-college years.

Those documents tell a story of a simpler and more painful financial time–an annual income in the low twenties, paychecks with only three figures to the left of the decimal point, ATM withdrawals that rarely exceeded $30, and a checking-account balance that I struggled to keep above $2,000.

(Fortunately, rents around D.C. were a lot cheaper then.)

Being reminded of the cramped state of my finances back then helps me feel better about them today, even after all the lousy things that have happened to the journalism business lately.

But the more important part of this exercise is not cultivating nostalgia but renewing empathy–for anybody who’s living paycheck to paycheck, or who’s just a slow month or a government shutdown away from having their bank balance erode enough to show only three digits to the left of the decimal point.

Weekly output: digital technology and personal relationships, vulnerability reporting

I got in a quick trip to New York this week, thanks to an invitation to speak at a conference at Columbia University that arrived after the event organizer read the Data Privacy Day piece I wrote for the Washington Post last month.

2/7/2019: Panel IV:​ Connection: Building or Destroying Personal Relationships?, Greater Good Gathering

I talked about the problems and possibilities of social media–more of the former than the latter–with Fred Davie of the  Union Theological Seminary, the University of Southern California’s Todd Richmond, the Women’s Media Center’s Soraya Chemaly, and Robin C. Stevens of the University of Pennsylvania’s nursing school. My contribution to the discussion was suggesting that these social apps might be less amenable to abuse if their development teams weren’t dominated by people whose race and gender render them immune to the usual racist, misogynistic word vomit online.

2/8/2019: How you can report security problems to tech companies like Apple, Yahoo Finance

This post unpacking Apple’s delayed response to a 14-year-old’s discovery of a serious vulnerability in Group FaceTime–which looks pretty good compared to how many companies handle “vuln” reports–went through a couple of post-publication revisions.

How I turn notes into quotes

Since the issue of how journalists take notes during interviews has come up this week–courtesy of former New York Times executive editor Jill Abramson’s cringe-inducing declaration that “I’ve never recorded“–here’s how I capture quotes from an interview, a speech or a panel.

The usual answer involves a keyboard. For everyday note-taking, I type the most interesting sentences I hear into an Evernote file. That demands a certain amount of parallel processing, as one part of my brain decides if a sentence-like string of words is worth memorializing and another sends my fingers skittering across the keys, but it generally works for stories that don’t center on one person’s quotes.

I know that real-time transcription involves a risk of transposing a word here or there–it’s amazing how many places an adverb can land in a sentence–so I quote conservatively when writing.

If, however, I’m writing a story around an interview or a speech, I’ll record the whole thing while also taking notes in real-time. That’s a two-device proposition: While I type on my laptop, my phone is on the table or otherwise far enough away not to pick up my keystrokes.

(The one time I tried recording in Evernote on my laptop as I typed was a disaster, with the soundtrack of my keystrokes sounding like a herd of small animals running back and forth over the keyboard.)

If I’m covering a public speech or panel, I usually get the additional backup of streaming video of the event that I can replay afterwards.

I’ll also record instead of trying to jot down notes if I’m having a conversation with somebody while we both walk, as if we were in an Aaron Sorkin drama. Trying to take notes on my phone in that scenario invites typo-ridden notes at best, bumping into somebody at worst.

But while recording an interview ensures that I won’t miss a turn of phrase, it also at least doubles my writing time, since I need to play back the entire thing, usually more than once, to ensure I got the quotes correct. Automated transcription services–my friend Ron Miller is a huge fan of Otter, so I’ve now signed up for that–can speed the process, but I doubt I’d copy and paste from a machine-learning model’s transcript without a reality-check replay of the recording.

In all of these scenarios, the speaker in question can make the job easier or harder. Practiced orators who elocute in precisely-formed sentences are a pleasure to transcribe, while fast talkers and people who interleave their dependent and independent clauses escalate the difficulty level.

Or I can just do the interview via e-mail and not have to worry about any of this stuff.

Weekly output: Data Privacy Day, PBS digital strategy, trust in traditional media, Huawei charges, Trump’s DoJ on Facebook, VPN reality check

This week featured a personal record of sorts: three stories published in a day, each at a different outlet and one at a first-time client.

1/28/2019: Big tech firms still don’t care about your privacy, The Washington Post

I wrote most of this essay about the fauxliday that is “Data Privacy Day” in an hour or two on Friday of the previous week.

1/28/2019: PBS’ most-of-the-above digital-video strategy, FierceVideo

This piece started with my researching streaming-TV options for a relative and discovering that none included the local PBS station. Fortunately, it ended with Boston’s WGBH telling me that it expects to be one or two “over the top” video services by this fall.

1/28/2019: New study finds trust in traditional media (mostly) transcends partisanship, Columbia Journalism Review

This is my first byline at CJR. This publication offering an exceptionally author-friendly contract encourages me to make sure that it’s not the last.

1/29/2019: Huawei allegations, Al Araby

i made a quick appearance on this Qatar-based news channel, overdubbed live into Arabic, to recap two new rounds of federal charges against the Chinese telecom-hardware giant.

2/1/2019: Why Trump’s DOJ doesn’t want to break up Facebook, Yahoo Finance

I wrote up assistant attorney general Makan Delrahim’s talk at the State of the Net conference Tuesday, outlining why he seems uninterested in revisiting the Department of Justice’s approvals for Facebook’s acquisitions of Instagram and WhatsApp.

2/1/2019: Why VPNs won’t always keep you safe online, Yahoo Finance

The immediate motivation for writing this reality-check reassessment of virtual-private-network services came from a comment a reader left on Monday’s Washington Post story, but I’ve had the idea floating around my head for a while.

We finally got an Amazon Echo

More than four years after I first tried out an Amazon Echo, there’s now one in our house. Even by my late-adopter habits, that’s an exceptionally long time for us to pick up on a tech trend.

But waiting so many years did allow us to get an Echo at a good price: $0.00. Late last year, Verizon added a free Echo to its menu of promotions to new and renewing Fios subscribers, and the company (also the parent firm of my client Yahoo Finance) included us in this offer even though we only pay it for Internet access.

(Even weirder, this free Echo came on top of being offered a lower rate for a faster connection. I guess I should see that as belated compensation for us missing out on other new-customer incentives Verizon’s offered since our fiber-optic connection went live nine years ago today.)

We got the code to redeem for a free second-generation Echo a couple of weeks after our speed upgrade went through, I waited a week to cash it in, and our new voice-controlled gadget arrived Friday. I promptly found a spot for this cybernetic cylinder in our kitchen.

So far, I’ve set up our Echo with only a few skills: it can play Pandora Internet radio, read the news from WAMU and can control our Philips Hue lightbulbs. (The Echo’s role as a smart-home hub is the use case that I utterly ignored in the first-look post I wrote for Yahoo Tech.) I’ve already determined that the Alexa app does not make for a great grocery-list manager, so I’m now going to see if Todoist can better handle that role. And I’ve changed one setting from the default: Because we have an eight-year-old at home, purchasing by voice is off.

There’s a lot to learn, but at least I’m no longer quite so illiterate at such a major tech platform. I just hope I can keep up with our kid, who already talks to Alexa far more than my wife and I combined.