Living Stories can reinvent the article

Google's Living Stories platform fills a big gap in the content universe

Content consumers — the people who seek information but don’t create or curate it — are getting a raw deal.

Why? Because static articles don’t capture the kinetic energy newsworthy topics generate. Real-time updates are flawed, too. Twitter can’t offer context or deeper analysis. And RSS is most useful if you’ve got the time and energy to curate your sources. That’s like gardening, though: some people love tilling the soil, but most just want to eat.

Tools of ChangeUntil recently, there was no middle-ground content product. No service that combines editorial oversight with the archival quality of articles and the real-time info-drip of Twitter. But a few months ago, Google teamed up with the Washington Post and the New York Times to test a new content model called Living Stories that addresses the missing link in the content chain.

The first batch of Living Stories focused on things like health care, education reform, the war in Afghanistan and other broad topics with lots of viewpoints. Here’s how the project was originally described when it was launched back in December:

Living Stories try a different approach that plays to certain unique advantages of online publishing. They unify coverage on a single, dynamic page with a consistent URL. They organize information by developments in the story. They call your attention to changes in the story since you last viewed it so you can easily find the new material. Through a succinct summary of the whole story and regular updates, they offer a different online approach to balancing the overview with depth and context.

Early execution on Living Stories wasn’t all that impressive (“dull” was the defining characteristic). But the white-label look was just a starting point. Living Stories was built to be a tool; a new type of content platform. The real innovation would take place beyond Google’s borders.

That’s why yesterday’s announcement that Living Stories is now available as an open source project is so exciting. Now we get to see what this thing is capable of.

Off the top of my head, I see three Living Stories projects developers at news or content organizations should immediately pursue:

  1. If your company has topic pages — many do, since they’re SEO magnets — look through your analytics and find the top 10. Create Living Stories around each of those topics and publicize the heck out of them.
  2. Build out internal toolsets that let editors and writers create new Living Stories on the fly. That way, they can quickly plant a flag around a topic and then fill it out as additional coverage is produced.
  3. Consider the public utility. Could the Living Stories platform become a community tool? A hub for targeted local events? News organizations get raked over the coals for missing big opportunities (classifieds, local search, etc.). Maybe Living Stories can play out differently.

The utility of Living Stories isn’t limited to newspapers, either. A book publisher could post chapters or use it as an author portal. The timeline component could be adapted for family histories. Academics could chronicle research. It’s a publishing platform, so you can do whatever you want with it.

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  • Justin Breitfelder

    Great post Mac. Could be some great possibilities for more interactive and engaging business-to-business content. Riffing off of point #1 above — business issues/topics are the essence of business content and generally speaking, the more engaging the content the better able you are to reach your business objectives. Whether you’re a corporate business brand using content to market services as part of a thought leadership marketing strategy or a business media brand using content to drive ad sales/subscriptions. Interesting that you linked to the Business Week project. I’d be curious to see some experiments with branded business content, at a research/idea-oriented brand. Which most good B2B services brands are. If this is easy enough, maybe I’ll find the resources to try something this year.

  • Nick Waye

    Kudos on the post. I wonder if this platform wouldn’t benefit from future Google Wave integration for more collaborative journalistic efforts. Imaging a team of bloggers crowd sourcing on a living story event over a real-time tool like Wave. Let’s hope some sharp developer out there has thought of this.

  • Mac Slocum

    @Nick — Funny you mention Wave. My first thought after it was first introduced last year was: this would be great for live blogging and breaking news. I could absolutely see that same functionality plugging in to the Living Stories platform. Makes total sense.

  • bowerbird

    perhaps we could use buzz to tell a living story about wave…

    um, i mean, we could use wave to buzz a living story…

    no, no, i’ve got it — a living story about the buzz on wave…

    oh gee, i’m so confused… where are my google goggles?


    p.s. i heard the joke at google is that your 20% time is “sunday”.

  • George

    Without knowing there’s a name for it, I think I’ve been doing something like that myself, with an Ongoing Topics page on my blog ( I came up with that idea because after posting multiple times on ongoing stories, I found it troublesome to add notes referring to previous and subsequent posts and related links in order to make sure readers got the big picture. The Ongoing Topics page helps keep that stuff together in an easy-to-find place.

    Anyway, after reading your post, I added a sidebar note on my blog’s home page pointing out that option to readers. Naturally, I headlined the note “Living Stories!” :-)