In a blog post on Thursday, Google announced algorithm changes aimed at elevating original reporting.
When you search for a news story, Google's algorithm ranks certain articles above others. In the past, both the Search and News algorithms have been criticized for instances where aggregated stories appear above the original breaking news story — in effect, rewarding outlets for reposting news instead of breaking it first.
These changes — already implemented in Search and soon to roll out in News — are meant to highlight articles that Google identifies as "significant original reporting" and to keep them in a "highly visible position" for longer.
Of course, Google notes that there is no arbitrary standard for what constitutes original reporting, so it will rely on an older technology to make sure its algorithm works properly — humans.
Google counts on more than 10,000 human raters to review and evaluate its search algorithm. These raters follow a lengthy document of search rater guidelines, which Google has also updated to reward original reporting:
To illustrate the update, in section 5.1 of the guidelines, we instruct raters to use the highest rating, "very high quality," for original news reporting "that provides information that would not otherwise have been known had the article not revealed it. Original, in-depth, and investigative reporting requires a high degree of skill, time, and effort."
News algorithms don't usually boost original reporting and local journalism
Major news algorithms have struggled to highlight original reporting, especially from smaller local outlets. For example, a recent study found that more than 80 percent of the articles on Apple News come from just 20 sources, and those sources are almost entirely large national outlets.
Nicholas Diakopoulos, the author of the study and a news algorithm researcher, cited a breaking news story about an Oregon abortion ruling that was originally reported by the local newspaper The Oregonian, but was featured on Apple News in a story from The Hill, a national outlet that merely linked to The Oregonian's report.
The funneling of traffic to top outlets is troubling, according to Diakopoulos, who found a similar trend on Google back in May.
"The big publishers get more and more traffic, and they're reaping all the rewards of that traffic in advertising revenue and potential subscriber revenue," Diakopoulos told Business Insider. "It's a bit concerning when you have that much concentration from an economic point of view, but also from a democratic view."
Neither Google nor Facebook were immediately available for comment.
An Apple News breakdown
There are two sections on Apple News: Top Stories, which are chosen by human editors, and Trending Stories, which are chosen by an algorithm. But Diakopoulos didn't find much difference in the concentration of outlets, regardless of whether they were chosen by a human or a computer.
On Top Stories, the top 20 percent of sources accounted for 76 percent of articles, with The Washington Post and CNN ranking highest, the study found. On Trending, the top 20 percent of sources accounted for 84 percent of articles, with CNN, Fox News, and People ranking well above others.
In total, only 20 sources accounted for more than 80 percent of articles in both sections, with local and regional publications far underrepresented in Top Stories and not a single one selected by the Trending algorithm, per the study.
"When you only have 20 sources giving you information, it is limiting your view of the world," Diakopoulos told Business Insider. "You're often just getting this generic national perspective of what's going on."
Facebook is also looking to build out a dedicated news section with human editors, but there's history to suggest it won't do a much better job at sourcing original reporting and local journalism. Back in March, Facebook claimed there weren't enough local news stories to support its "Today In" local news section. However, it's expressed optimism that it can find ways to support local journalism, even as it plans to award financial grants to news outlets.
"Everyone can learn from working together," Anne Kornblut, Facebook's director of news initiatives, told the Associated Press in March.
Google, Apple, and Facebook have drastically changed how we consume news and what information is available to us. They have captured a large share of online advertising revenue and directed traffic to the biggest publishers, leading to financial difficulty for smaller, local outlets — and less quality information in many parts of the world.
Now, Google is trying to reward publications for dedicating the time and resources to investigative reporting. It is both a step in the right direction and long overdue.