Monday, July 12, 2010

The Chron's Massive Fail on Sunday Business Feature Should be a Wakeup Call to Newspapers

Wow. The San Francisco Chronicle ran a feature in their Sunday business section yesterday about two of their major hometown companies -- Google and Yahoo -- and somehow managed to get it totally wrong. Not just a-few-facts wrong. But 180 degrees wrong.

I did a double-take at the headline: "Yahoo and Google in high-tech news war." A war? Really? I follow Yahoo and Google's news ventures pretty closely, and I had never heard anyone talk about them being in any kind of a war. Yahoo and AOL? Absolutley. But Yahoo and Google? No.

OK, fine. Maybe I'd missed something. I quickly ran through the article to see which high-powered observers the Chron was crediting with this bold observation. Turns out: None. Yes, the article quotes the highly respected Danny Sullivan of Search Engine Land. But Sullivan only describes what the two companies are doing in the news space: Yahoo is creating its own content; Google is continuing to index other publishers' content. He says nothing about them competing with each other, much less being in any kind of a war.

The Chron also quotes a Gartner analyst. But even that guy simply comments on one of Yahoo's tactics. He says nothing about any kind of Yahoo-Google competition.

So how did the Chron come to its conclusion? The trigger seems to have been the fact that both Google and Yahoo made news-related announcements in the past couple of weeks. Google News launched a redesign. Yahoo launched their new Upshot news blog. Fine. But, it's huge leap to go from coincident announcements (regarding minor tactics, at that) to drawing an overarching conclusion about the two companies' being at war.

Another pass at the story took me back to the lede. And herein may lie the source of the headline. The lede reads: "Google Inc. and Yahoo Inc. are redefining the online news experience, but in diverging ways that underscore the evolving identities of the search giants."

Woah. Hold on a second. Did I read that right? "The evolving identities of the... search giants"?!

OK. Now everything is becoming clear. If you think Yahoo and Google are competing "search giants," I can see how you might write a lede talking about how their different approaches to news is "underscoring their evolving identies." (Which, btw, says nothing about them being at war, a fact we'll get to later.) But, um, hello, Chron. Did you miss that whole Yahoo-selling-their-search-business-to-Microsoft thing? That took place, oh, a year ago? Which means Yahoo, by their own admission, has not been a search company for a year.

I'm a bit flabbergasted. How could the Chron possibly not be aware of this? Anyone who's been following Yahoo to any degree knows that
Yahoo ceded its search service to Microsoft and instead is focusing on content, with the goal of becoming the leader in online display advertising. This is not a secret. CEO Carol Bartz talks about this every time she steps up to a podium. Which, again, if you're following this, puts them at war not with Google, but with AOL, which also wants to be the leader in online display advertising. (This article on CNET, from way back in December, nicely sums up the real Yahoo news war, the one with AOL.)

So that was mistake #1: positioning Yahoo & Google as in competition with each other by identifying Yahoo as a search company. Mistake #2 was the headline. If you read the article closely, nowhere does it say the two companies are "at war." It just says their different approaches to news "underscores" their "evolving identies." Who knows where the headline writer came up with the idea for the headline, but there it is, smack-dab on the front of the Sunday Business section.

So what does all this have to do with the future of news? Simply that it's alarming harbinger of the state of things when San Francisco's major newspaper not only doesn't get a major local business story right, but that it gets it 180 degrees wrong. I'm picturing all those people who read the story yesterday and are now walking around with a totally wrong understanding in their heads. The paper's readers now have a categorically wrong understanding of a not-insignificant business story.

I can't tell you how this happened. I don't know the reporter who wrote the article, much less the editor(s) who reviewed it, nor the copyeditor who penned the headline. So I don't know how an error of this magnitude could have taken place.

But a massive fail like this should be a wakeup call. News organizations have a noble purpose: to help their readers understand their worlds. An error of this magnitude, where a news organization doesn't simply get a few facts wrong, but gets a story 180 degrees wrong, a story that was not that difficult to get right, underscores that the way newspapers are operating is simply not sustainable. They need to go back to the drawing board and completely rethink how they're doing what they're doing. It's one thing not to be able to do as extensive coverage you used to be able to do. It's another thing to be operating in such a way that a major Sunday business story is 100% wrong. Nobody wants that--not us, not the Chron. We need to stop pretending that we can continue as we always have. We do, finally, have to sit down and figure out a new way forward.