BROOKE GLADSTONE: We're back with On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone. And now yet another breakthrough for news on line -- the world's leading search engine, Google, has taken on the task of providing up-to-the-minute news -- with no editors and no reporters -- for the most part, with no people -- and yet in short order Google is likely to become the news junkies' web site of choice. Jack Shafer is editor at large for Slate.com where he wrote about what's been called the internet's first artificial newscast. Thanks for coming on the show, Jack.
JACK SHAFER: Glad to be here.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Now you wrote: The Google news page exceeds every editor's dream to produce a first-rate publication without the meddling interference of reporters by making the editors themselves extraneous as well. So this is a good thing.
JACK SHAFER: Well there are people behind the news that Google is serving. The advantage of the Google news robot editor is that it's there plucking news for you 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, giving you the most timely news from 4,000 sources. I think that's a - a huge improvement over some of the human intelligence that you see behind the news choices in a lot of newspapers.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:How does it technically pick its stories? I've heard references to crawlers and spiders, but I'm not altogether clear on what all that is.
JACK SHAFER: There are two ways that Google News provides the news that it does. First it's web crawlers - its spiders - go out on the web and surf the web much as you do with your mouse and your pointer, clicking to sites that you're interested in. But their spiders are very automated, like a search engine's spiders, and they go out and collect thousands and thousands and thousands and thousands of links -- and then another piece of software that Google News has written examines those links, grades the information for timeliness, credibility and newsworthiness and then re-purposes the headline, the first sentence, maybe a photograph and a link back to the original site.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: You can't program a computer with news judgment can you? Yet?
JACK SHAFER:I think you can program it with some sense of news judgment. The question is, is the news judgment any good? You could look at a lot of second tier American daily newspapers that pull a lot of their national and international news straight off the wires. Any intelligent person offered Google News to search for relevant national, international sports and entertainment news or the Cleveland Plain Dealer would pick Google News automatically.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:But the fact is, is that Google is relying on the news judgment of any of the 4,000 web sites that it draws its news from. There are people all over this process!
JACK SHAFER: I'm not saying that you can factor human beings out of the news equation. I'm just saying that the Google News robots do some things that human beings can't do, and they do some of the things that human beings can do better than human beings.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They can design it better? They can make it more thorough? They can update it more frequently? [BOTH SPEAK AT ONCE]
JACK SHAFER: Sure.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: They can offer a wider range of views.
JACK SHAFER:Exactly. I think it's the web equivalent to the 24 hour AM news station. Does it replace the New York Times and the Washington Post? No. It supplements them, and I think that's what Google does too. It also reaches out and taps a lot of regional newspapers, international newspapers providing lots of views that you wouldn't ordinarily read in the top three or four or five U.S. dailies.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:Still, it doesn't seem as if Google distinguishes much between sites that are credible and those that aren't! The Washington Post noted that the lead story for 15 minutes on Tuesday was basically propaganda from the official Iranian News Service complete with the negative spin on British Prime Minister Tony Blair's speech about Iraq!
JACK SHAFER: And I would say Google news is guilty as charged there. You have to remember it's their debut week; they're going to learn from their mistakes like lots of editors. And I think that they'll recognize the Iranian news source that they used this week as not exactly credible next week. And you have to remember that readers are very discerning. There's a recent Pew study that rated a whole variety of news sources as to the credibility and the National Enquirer had something like a 4 percent credibility rating. People know that it's not a credible news source, yet they go to it for a different reason other than to gather credible news.
BROOKE GLADSTONE:And were you being deliberately outrageous when you said, you know: "Whoa, happy day" at the beginning of your column - "The dream is realized. No more editors, no more reporters"?
JACK SHAFER: Well I think that there are a lot of news functions that are better served by machines. What Google is doing is they've found a new way to bake the cake. If you want to gather and experience news from a multiplicity of sources -- from 4,000 sources -- and have it constantly updated 24 hours a day, 7 days a week -- Google News is your baby.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack Shafer, thank you very much.
JACK SHAFER: Any time, baby. [LAUGHTER]
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Jack Shafer is editor at large of Slate.com.