Google, Facebook and the Death of Journalism

Technology is not journalism, and "personalized newspapers" aren't either.

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There are scholarship opportunities for students with specific interests, including journalism.
There are scholarship opportunities for students with specific interests, including journalism.

Google quietly announced the death of journalism on February 21, 2013. Facebook, Silicon Valley's other science and technology juggernaut, wrote its epitaph on March 7.

Google's coroner's report for journalism came, curiously enough, in a small announcement on its "Official Blog,"the only place that any Google pronouncement is ever actually made.

"Our first-ever Google Journalism Fellowship winners," said the headline over a five-paragraph post announcing the seven lucky winners of Google's new fellowship contest.

It was an alluring fellowship offer—journalism students from around the world would get a $7,500 stipend to spend 10 weeks working with non-profit organizations trying to make sense out of a vastly fractured national media landscape. They'd also spend a week with the Knight Foundation, and then a week at the Googleplex in Palo Alto.

[READ: Lessons Learned From Sheryl Sandberg's New Book]

That's hard to resist, which is why 2,300 students from all corners of the globe applied.

"We had so many applications—on the last day they poured in at a rate of roughly one every two minutes—that we extended our review period by a week to make the selections," the Google post said.

But it's at the end of the blog post's first paragraph—the one that all journalism students learn is where you succinctly wrap up the Who, What, When, Where, and Why of any good news story—that Google reveals what it believes is the likely future course of journalism.

"The interest the Fellowship attracted clearly demonstrates the need for these types of opportunities, especially as the worlds of journalism and technology increasingly become one," (emphasis added) said the Google blog post.

Google believes technology and journalism are morphing into one entity, that digital web platforms with user-generated content, story curation and aggregation (e.g., Google News) and niche information services that look wonderful on your mobile device are somehow a fine substitute for journalism.

Only they're not.

Technology is most emphatically not journalism. Google is simply (and dangerously) wrong about this. Journalism involves trained, intuitive, discriminating human beings who can sort through chaos and nonsense and arrive at a story that people understand. Technology, no matter how elegant, doesn't do this.

[READ: Google Glass? A Smartwatch? No Thanks]

But Google also doesn't care. They're forging a new future where, in fact, technology and some pale shadow of journalism do become one.

And, once that's happened, we will be less informed as a result. Digital technology widgets, bytes, packets, and streams will have replaced human evaluation of what mass audiences should know and understand. The death of journalism will be complete.

Meanwhile, Facebook in its own way joined in writing journalism's obituary on March 7—the day that Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg announced a dramatic new change in the News Feed, the first page that every user sees when they log onto their Facebook account.

Facebook wanted to make the News Feed more relevant for each individual, Zuckerberg said as he announced the new design. It will emphasize visual content but, more importantly, will "tailor" the news content for both the individual's own taste and match that content up with more visual, exact advertising.

[RELATED: Facebook Getting Ready to Change News Feed]

Facebook wants to create "the best personalized newspaper we can" for each and every one of Facebook's nearly 1 billion users, Zuckerberg said.

The problem, of course, is that this won't actually be a newspaper—at least not as journalists might think of it. It will be a technological creation of highly specialized widgets of social network information, not an actual newspaper.

Zuckerberg's concept of a "personalized newspaper" is also, not coincidentally, something that will be vastly more attractive to advertisers who would like to zero in more closely on potential customers. That, clearly, is the real goal of this new "personalized newspaper" concept of the Facebook News Feed.

Zuckerberg has said in the past that Facebook wanted to find a better way for advertisers to offer up rich visual displays (big pictures and videos) inside the "news" content on Facebook pages. Apparently, he's found that path.

But one thing this new Facebook "personalized newspaper" News Feed is not is a form of journalism reborn. It's technology that curates and aggregates what individuals would like to see more of and hear more about.

And here, as in the case of Google's own vision of a future where technology and journalism are one and the same, we will collectively be less informed because individuals will largely hear, see and read about only those things that fit in their own personalized information world tailored by Facebook's tech-driven News Feed.

Don't get me wrong. Science and technology will always drive change, which is a good thing. The human species is built to evolve, grow, adapt, and expand. The digital information age is no different than other ages in this regard.

But that doesn't mean we should pretend that this new digital information age is something it's not. Google and Facebook are both, in their own way, simply wrong in their characterizations of what technology is replacing, brick by brick. Technology is not journalism, and "personalized newspapers" aren't either.

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