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Anna Jane Grossman

Anna Jane Grossman

Posted: September 22, 2009 12:25 PM

Is Google Killing (or Helping) Journalists?

What's Your Reaction?

If I try to think back about my life before Google, things get kind of hazy. Cue the harp music: I see stacks of National Geographic...card catalogs...AOL CDs in the mail...slap bracelets...lots of flannel. It wasn't a pretty time.

When I was a kid, my mother and I had an Encyclopedia Britannica circa 1962, but we largely used my dad as our source for all knowledge, be it the biography of Julius Caesar or how to get to West 72nd without having to change subways. Just the other day, he wowed me with the information that Beethoven's Fifth was an anthem for soldiers during World War II because the "Ba-Ba-Ba-Bum" happened to be Morse Code for V, as in Victory. Who knew.

When my dad was a kid, his source for seemingly unknowable was The Answer Man, a radio personality who responded to listeners' questions about everything and anything. Truth be told, he probably wrote the questions, too... Dad recalls, however, that there were two questions that stumped even The Answer Man: How many buffalo would it take to fill the Grand Canyon? And: Do ants dream?

Sometimes, one of my parents would suggest I call the public library. The "Ask a Librarian" phone line at the New York Public Library still exists. I only tried this once. I was in high school, and, for some reason, I absolutely had to know how many times Jesse Jackson had been arrested. The librarian just laughed.

But then came Google, which I started using when I was college in early 2000. I think I've hardly gone a day since then without looking up one thing or another. I'm a very faithful user: my feelings have never waivered...except maybe once briefly after a handsome Google employee stood me up for a date. But I was back on it within the hour.

Not to sound conceited or anything, but I really believe I'm an above average Googler. My friends and I have even toyed with the idea of having Googling contests to see who can find obscure information fastest. Anyone else want in?

According to my web history (accessed, through Google's Chrome browser, of course) I average 8,000 searches a year. I can't think of hardly anything I spend that much time doing, other than blinking. Indeed, most journalists I know use Google with exceptional flair and finesse. Journalism is largely about finding things out, discerning truths, and making new and interesting connections between seemingly disparate elements. Superior Google-usage is as important a skill as having a good notebook, a working laptop and a phone. Also, it's free. I know a lot of laid-off journalists these days who Google full time. They no longer have Nexis access, or expense accounts, or even company voicemail, but no one can take away their Google. (And thank goodness, because otherwise how would they be able to write articles for all the publications out there that will gladly take their work without paying them?)

So, when I read a recent Wired magazine that Google searches may soon be history, it made me nervous. In his article, The Answer Engine, Steven Levy talks about Wolfram|Alpha, a new kind of search engine that threatens to make Google look like a kindergartener. "Type in a query for a statistic, a profile of a country or company," Levy writes, "and instead of a series of results that may or may not provide the answer you're looking for, you get a mini dossier on the subject compiled in real time." Um, hello? Excuse me? This was supposed to be my job!

Journalists don't have much going for them. We put up with tiny salaries -- if we make anything at all. We often struggle with things like punctuality and hygiene. As a whole, we're just not the most stable lot. I once sat a few feet away from a star reporter who'd parade around with a bottle of Jack in one hand and a teddy bear in the other, but I'll never say who. It was Sridhar Pappu.

We have so little...Don't take this inflated sense of internet-usage superiority away from us too!

I've been contemplating obsolescence for a while now, thanks to the research I put into my new book OBSOLETE, but it honestly never really occurred to me that the way in which we use search engines today would soon seem antiquated. Years ago, AskJeeves promised a service that promised to answer queries posed in normal question syntax, but it ended up just giving you a list of results a la Google (except not as good). Of course, when using any search engine, I take some solace in the fact that one still has to make up a good question in order to get a worthwhile answer--and that's something journalists can do. I suppose that's why Levy poses the hypothetical Wolfram|Alpha question "How many Nobel Prize winners were born under a full moon."

A good question indeed. Suppose you want to know if you'll increase your own child's chances for greatness if you induce labor on a full-moon. Or...Well there must be lots of reasons you'd want to know this. Unfortunately, Wolfram|Alpha isn't working at full capacity yet. Its answer to this very question?

Wolfram|Alpha isn't sure what to do with your input. 

Good thing there's an intrepid journalist tapping away at this keyboard. Let's see. 2003 Noble Prize in Physics winner Vitaly Ginzburg? Birthday is October 4, 1916.


How about one of the 1923 winners, the great Irish playwright William Butler Yeats-- a June 16th baby, circa 1865?


What about 1984 Noble Prize in Chemistry winner Carlo Rubbia, born on March 31, 1934?




For old time's sake, I called the New York Public Library and asked them if they knew which Nobel Prize winners had been born under full moons.

"That is a very good question," said the nice librarian. That is a very good answer. He put me on hold for two minutes, then told me that he had no idea.

So, I ventured a second query:

"Are you hiring?"



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