Chan is a partner operations manager at Google News.
DL: What does journalism today need to be and do?
Chan: Great question coming from my perspective at Google News, where I have to make those decisions every single day when we review applications for news sites wanting to be included among our news sites. We ask questions like, “Does it have the attributes readers expect when they click on a story?” But I think the definition of journalism is changing all the time. It’s still valuable, relevant, timely information, but the presentation of it has been completely deconstructed.
I would argue that even tweets can be news, tweets can be journalism, but so are heat maps to explain affordable housing—all of that is journalism. It seems like a cop-out to say that just because I don’t have a rigid definition, I don’t know what it is; within the past five years, the Internet has basically atomized news sources, and everything is being lumped into “journalism.”
The journalistic platform is definitely different. Readers’ consumption habits are largely online, there’s a shift toward mobile. People are not getting their news from legacy media, and I think that’s all a good thing. Journalism is presenting itself in whatever mode readers are willing to adopt. But the ethics and principles are still the same. You need to have credibility; the source of the information has to have credibility.
A professional or trained journalist does have some unique perspective that makes them somewhat of an authority. But it doesn’t require a graduate degree. It could be the person whose backyard is the one that’s on fire in the local news, and that person takes a photo of it. That gives him more authority than the reporter who is parachuting in.
Authority is still highly important, but the way we discern that is highly different.
We used to have very explicit gatekeepers. If you didn’t work for an accredited institution, you weren’t credible. But that’s not how it works anymore. Today, we have a very egalitarian, democratic approach to journalism. My only concern is that people aren’t educated about who has credibility and who doesn’t.
I have a journalism degree, but does that mean I have more authority than anybody else who tweets? I have more knowledge and experience, I may take more of a philosophical approach to what I’m doing, but that doesn’t give me more authority.
The purpose of journalism school is to understand how best to present information, but I don’t think it’s necessary anymore. With the birth of citizen journalism, it’s important to know how to use people on the ground as a valuable resource, how to vet tweets, or how to vet people who write in to offer photos or quotes. Part of journalism now is being able to discuss what’s going on with other people interested in the space and figuring out this new model.
My experience five years ago is so different from what it would be today in journalism school. If I went back and did the whole program again, I would learn so many more skills. But it laid the foundation to give me an investment into the journalism industry, and it gave me connections to people who are doing great things. But journalism schools need to be open to looking at different models, to realize that it’s not the same as it was 20 years ago.
We need a fresh perspective every time we look at different news sources; new startups are investing in different kinds of business models about how to present news in meaningful, engaging ways. Journalism schools probably need to be much more like business schools.
DL: Did you get that out of your experience in journalism school?
Chan: I’m just one data point. I graduated in 2010, and most of the classes I took were really instrumental in getting me thinking and working with people who were doing really interesting things. The reason I got this job at Google News is that I met this person at an alumni mixer. I sent him an email and there was an opening, and because of that connection, I am here today. But they hired me because of my ability to stop on a dime and pivot, and I think they know I would be prepared to do that again. I can’t rest on my degree; I have to learn related skills, I have to always be ready to change.
DL: So that’s what you learned in grad school?
Chan: It wasn’t that fuzzy. They taught me specific skills. One of my most invaluable lessons was that I was terrified to do photography and video. They said, “You’re going to learn Final Cut.” It was about breaking me out of that mindset that I couldn’t or didn’t want to learn something. Now I can say I can use Final Cut, but in the larger setting, I know I can learn what I need to learn, whatever it is.
DL: But do you need to go to journalism school to do that?
Chan: You don’t need to go to journalism school to learn the basic fundamentals of writing a news story, writing AP style—though you can always improve on those things. I just felt so much more confident after experiencing more of a newsroom education. But it wasn’t about sitting in lectures. They said, “We are going to assign you a beat.” A lot of your homework is writing stories. The majority of the time I was an acting reporter. That allowed me to mess up in a much more accepting and learning/explanatory setting. They also taught me to be open-minded at Stanford. They taught me how to interact with people, what drives people to consume different kinds of information. Before I went to graduate school, I personally wasn’t ready to go into a newsroom.
My year at Stanford really honed my writing skills. It was hugely important, and it was the reason I got my first job (at Patch). They needed someone who could do everything. It was definitely my multimedia skills that made me a candidate for Patch as a local editor. Everyone had a basic journalistic background; that was a given. But what gave me the edge was multimedia.
Patch was a new experiment. They didn’t really have a job description. They saw I could do a lot of things that would make reading more engaging to readers. I knew that it couldn’t be a static article, that if it wasn’t visually appealing, people wouldn’t scroll down the screen for a story. They knew that I was adept at social media, being part of this generation; I was born at the right time for that.
I think Stanford was trying to teach us all these different skills so we would be ready no matter how the industry decided to pivot. Everything headed toward digital. Patch was online only. And it was such a phenomenal experience, it was exactly what I wanted out of school: It was a local newspaper moved to online.
DL: What does that mean? To be digital first?
Chan: Once you’re online, you open a host of capabilities. I got to be an entrepreneur. It was a new local newspaper, and I was coming in as the new kid. I had to do all my own marketing and PR. I love journalism, but I also really like all those other aspects. I got to be much more of a strategist. If you start out at a local newspaper, you’re only reporting. But with Patch, it was no holds barred: I was able to do anything I wanted. As long as I was expanding our brand within the community and doing what I thought best, I could do it. I was an entire news organization in one little person.
Just out of grad school, it was an incredible opportunity, and I took complete advantage of it. I was working 80 hours a week, seven days a week. I was so passionate about it; it didn’t occur to me that all my other classmates thought I was crazy, I was so passionate about the new model. And I still think it could have worked. I really believe that local is stronger than ever. Google recognizes that. Nobody is doing it yet in a way that is profitable, but people love their local news.
It was really sad when it didn’t work out, when the model was too expensive and it wasn’t sustainable. During the glory days, we had a budget of about $3,000 a month to hire freelancers. I had no experience managing a budget, and Patch enabled me to hone that skill. They never taught us; they gave us money, and I had to keep a spreadsheet about how I was spending it. I was managing a budget one day, putting up fliers one day, going to city council meetings at night.
What’s the skill set that journalism requires now?
Currency is key. I really think journalism students need to be adaptive. If you don’t stay on top of it, you’re going to be obsolete. I already feel outdated, there are so many things I don’t know.
DL: Does your job at Google require you to stay current?
Chan: The criterion for my job at Google was journalism. My team is really operations support. Besides my manager, I’m the only one with a journalism education. We do a lot of high-level overview about where the industry is heading. Google has a very unique perspective in the news space. We don’t want to drive innovation. We don’t create our own content. We are in a very unique position: Google the company wants to be really innovative. But Google News takes a back seat in supporting innovation among publishers. That manifests itself in various ways: We try to support as many platforms as possible. We encourage sites to be more social. We go to conferences to hear from publishers, how can we do it better? A lot of it is education; publishers don’t have a presence on the Web. We want them to apply to Google News. We promise them that they will surface on our home page.
If you aren’t in the Google News database, you are missing out on a huge portion of traffic. There’s no competition, we don’t have a quota for how many sites we take.
We have certain quality guidelines, and if you meet those, we would love to have you.
We’re aggregators, and aggregation is a different kind of skill set. The Huffington Post is about aggregation. Patch pushed aggregation. The tricky side on Google News is how to discern the original article from a reposting of it. Ranking is such a huge issue at Google: Who gets that coveted spot at the top of the rankings? One aspect of my job is to make sure editors are well served, and to be sure we are linking to the original content.
DL: How does any of that impact or relate to data journalism? Or robo-journalism?
Chan: You already have the data, it’s so easy for a robot to spit out an article. I am in support of that type of journalism. A journalist is too smart to be writing a story about an earthquake. If a robot can do that, then we can spend more time writing more complex, nuanced stories—like the Israeli/Palestinian story, which requires human intellect.
We try to automate everything we can at Google. We try to automate ourselves out of a job. Maybe there is a plethora of great journalism, but if we can automate some of those stories out, maybe we’ll have resources to do other kinds of stories. We talk about not having money to do those big stories, but you can start investing in real journalism if you have robots do the more mundane work. Even if you do that, you still need a person to manage that, you have to have an editor who still has a human eye on those stories.