Silicon Valley & Technology

Google Spikes Free-article Requirements on Publishers

Google is ending a decade-old policy that required publishers to provide some free stories to Google users — though it’s not clear how many readers will even notice, at least for the moment.

Publishers had been required to provide at least three free stories a day under the search engine’s previous policy, called “first click free.” Now they have the power to choose how many free articles they want to offer readers via Google before charging a fee, Richard Gingras, vice president of news at Google Inc., wrote Monday in a company blog post.

The goal is to help publishers build up digital subscriptions, an imperative for many media outlets that pay large sums for news production but are starved for advertising revenue.

Google’s previous approach had let readers skirt paywall policies by typing a headline into Google and getting access to a story without having it count against a monthly free article limit, said Kinsey Wilson, an adviser to New York Times Co. CEO Mark Thompson.

Impact on readers

Many online readers may not notice a change overnight unless they visit a particular site several times a month without subscribing. And not every publication blocks users from reading stories with a paywall. Newer digital-only outfits tend not to.

Newspaper companies that do cut off readers tend to do so after a certain monthly allotment of free stories. The Times offers 10 free articles, for example; the Boston Globe, two.

Newspaper companies are trying to cope with steep declines in print-ad revenues as advertising has moved online. Google and social media companies like Facebook and Twitter are powerful drivers of traffic for publishers. But mandated freebie articles can complicate publishers’ attempts to bolster their paid-subscriber base.

News Corp.’s Wall Street Journal had turned off “first click free” for its four main sections in January. It then lost half its Google traffic to articles, said spokesman Steve Severinghaus. Google would demote a publisher’s content if they didn’t use first click free, but now says that won’t happen anymore.

Jason Kint, the head of the Digital Content Next media trade group, said he expects Google’s change will lead to news sites enabling more subscription models, making it harder down the road for web users to gorge themselves on stories from a particular outlet without paying for it.

Turning to subscriptions

Subscription revenue is increasingly important for newspaper publishers. Print-ad revenue continues to shrink, and Facebook and Google are gobbling up most digital ad revenue. Research firm eMarketer says the two companies will take in 63 percent of U.S. digital ad dollars this year.

Facebook, too, is working on a way for news articles to charge readers for articles they share and read on the social network.

News outlets have become more aggressive at challenging the Silicon Valley giants. In July, news outlets sought permission from Congress for the right to negotiate jointly with Google and Facebook, given the duo’s dominance in online advertising and online news traffic.

In a statement Monday, News Corp. CEO Robert Thomson said Google’s change would be good for journalism if “properly introduced.”

In months of testing with Google, reducing those free clicks from three to zero “generally improved” subscription rates, the New York Times’ Wilson said. But he added the Times continues to assess whether to actually reduce the number of free clicks now that it can. He said it was “not simply a mechanical decision” because the Times’ mission was in part to make sure its news was available to a wide audience and to set the news agenda.

Google says it made the changes after feedback from and experiments with publishers. The company also says it wants to make subscribing to publications a more streamlined process and says it is working on ways to use its artificial intelligence capabilities to help publishers find new subscribers.

Economy & business

GM to Offer 2 More Electric Vehicles in Next 18 Months

Even though gasoline-powered SUVs are what people are buying now, General Motors is betting that electric vehicles will be all the rage in the not-to-distant future.

The Detroit automaker is promising two new EVs on Chevrolet Bolt underpinnings in the next 1 ½ years and more than 20 electric or hydrogen fuel cell vehicles by 2023. The company sees its entire model lineup running on electricity in the future, whether the source is a big battery or a tank full of hydrogen.

“We are far along in our plan to lead the way into that future world,” product development chief Mark Reuss said Monday at a news conference at the GM technical center north of Detroit.

The event was billed as a “sneak peak” into GM’s electric future. The company also pledged to start producing hydrogen fuel cell vehicles for commercial or military use in 2020. And it promised an increase in the number of electric fast-charging stations in the U.S., which now total 1,100 from companies and governments, taking a shot at electric competitor Tesla Inc. by saying the system would not be “walled off” from electric vehicles made by other manufacturers.

Tesla has 951 fast-charging stations globally that can only be used by Tesla owners.

The hastily called event was short on specifics, and it came just a day before the CEO of Ford Motor Co., GM’s prime competitor, was to announce its business plan that likely will include electric and autonomous vehicles as priorities.

The two new GM electrics in the immediate future likely will be SUVs or a sportier car designed to compete with Tesla’s upcoming Model 3 sedan, Reuss said. The Model 3, which is now in the early stages of production, will go hood-to-hood with the Bolt, starting around $35,000 (excluding a $7,500 federal tax credit) with a range of over 200 miles. The Bolt starts at $37,495 excluding the credit.

Behind Reuss and other executives were nine vehicles covered with tarps that the company said were among the 20 to be unveiled by 2023. GM pulled away the tarps on three of them, clay models of low-slung Buick and Cadillac SUVs and a futuristic version of the Bolt that looked like half of an airport control tower glued to the top of a car body. The rest remained covered.

The company wouldn’t allow photographs of the vehicles, and it wouldn’t say if any of the vehicles it showed were the ones coming in the next 18 months.

Reuss said the new vehicles that aren’t built on the Bolt platform will have GM’s next-generation electric architecture, which he said will be more efficient with longer range than the Bolt’s 238 miles. Through August, GM has sold 11,670 Bolts, which is less than 1 percent of GM’s total U.S. sales so far this year.

Reuss promised that the new vehicles will be profitable as people become more accustomed to the advancing technology. “We can’t just flip a switch and make the world go all-electric,” he said.

Silicon Valley & Technology

Facebook to Hire 1,000 People to Review Ads After Russian Buys

Facebook Inc plans to hire 1,000 more people to review ads and ensure they meet its terms, as part of an effort to deter Russia and other countries from using the social media network to interfere in others’ elections, it said on Monday.

Facebook said last month that it believed people in Russia bought about 3,000 politically divisive ads on its network in the United States in the months before and after the November U.S. presidential election.

Since its disclosure, Facebook has faced questions and calls for increased U.S. regulation from U.S. authorities. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg has outlined steps that the company plans to take to deter governments from abusing the social media network, the world’s largest.

In a statement on Monday, Facebook said it would add more than 1,000 people over the next year and invest more in software to flag and take down ads automatically.

“Reviewing ads means assessing not just the content of an ad, but the context in which it was bought and the intended audience – so we’re changing our ads review system to pay more attention to these signals,” the company said.

Facebook said it had 17,048 employees at the end of 2016, excluding contractors. In May, it said it would hire 3,000 more people over the following year to speed up the removal of videos showing murder, suicide and other violent acts that shocked users.

Like other companies that sell advertising space, Facebook publishes policies for what it allows, prohibiting ads that are violent, discriminate based on race or promote the sale of illegal drugs.

With more than 5 million paying advertisers, however, Facebook has difficulty enforcing all of its policies.

The company said on Monday that it would adjust its policies further “to prevent ads that use even more subtle expressions of violence.” It did not elaborate on what kind of material that would cover.

Facebook also said it would begin to require more thorough documentation from people who want to run ads about U.S. federal elections, demanding that they confirm their businesses or organizations.

Economy & business

US Manufacturing Activity Hits 13-year High

U.S. factory activity surged to a more than 13-year high in September amid strong gains in new orders and raw material prices, pointing to underlying strength in the economy even as Hurricanes Harvey and Irma are expected to dent growth in the third quarter.

The economic outlook was also bolstered by other data on Monday showing a rebound in construction spending in August. The acceleration in manufacturing activity and the accompanying increase in prices could harden expectations that the Federal Reserve will raise interest rates in December.

The Institute for Supply Management (ISM) said its index of national factory activity surged to a reading of 60.8 last month, the highest reading since May 2004, from 58.8 in August.

A reading above 50 in the ISM index indicates an expansion in manufacturing, which accounts for about 12 percent of the U.S. economy. The ISM said Harvey and Irma had caused supply chain and pricing issues in the chemical products sector. There were also concerns about the disruptive impact of the storms in the food, beverage and tobacco products industries.

The hurricanes are expected to chop off as much as six-tenths of a percentage point from gross domestic product growth in the third quarter. Harvey, which pummeled Texas at the end of August, has undercut consumer spending and weighed on industrial production, homebuilding and home sales.

Further weakness is likely after Irma struck Florida in early September, causing widespread power cuts. Manufacturing outside the areas affected by the hurricanes remained strong in September. The ISM survey’s production sub-index rose 1.2 points to a reading of 62.2 in September.

A gauge of new orders jumped to 64.6 in September from 60.3 in August. Factories reported paying more for raw materials, with the survey’s prices paid index surging 9.5 point to 71.5, the highest reading since May 2011.

The dollar rose against the euro after the data. Prices for U.S. Treasuries were trading higher as were stocks on Wall Street.

Construction spending rises

In separate report Monday, the Commerce Department said construction spending rose 0.5 percent to $1.21 trillion. July’s construction outlays were revised sharply down to show a 1.2 percent plunge instead of the previously reported 0.6 percent drop. Construction spending increased 2.5 percent on a year-on-year basis.

The government said Harvey and Irma did not appear to have impacted the construction spending data as the responses from the Texas and Florida areas affected by the storms were “not significantly lower than normal.”

In August, spending on private residential projects increased 0.4 percent, rising for a fourth straight month.

Spending on nonresidential structures increased 0.5 percent, snapping two straight monthly declines.

In the wake of Harvey and Irma, nonresidential construction spending could fall in September. According to the Commerce Department, Texas and Florida accounted for 22 percent of U.S. private nonresidential construction spending in 2016.

Investment in nonresidential structures such as oil and gas wells has been slowing as the boost from recovering oil prices fizzles. Private construction projects spending increased 0.4 percent in August.

Outlays on public construction projects rebounded 0.7 percent in August after slumping 3.3 percent in July. Spending on state and local government construction projects increased 1.1 percent in August. Gains in September are likely to be curbed by the hurricanes.

Texas and Florida accounted for 15 percent of U.S. state-and-locally owned construction spending in 2016, according to the Commerce Department.

Federal government construction spending tumbled 4.7 percent to its lowest level since April 2007.

Arts & Entertainment

Nobel Literature Prize: Honoring the Elusive ‘Ideal’

When Alfred Nobel established the literature prize in his name, he perhaps could have benefited from an editor. The terms of his will leave the prize’s exact intentions tantalizingly vague – making the literature award one of the most debated and entertaining of the Nobel Prizes.

The Swedish industrialist said he wanted the prize to recognize “the person who shall have produced in the field of literature the most outstanding work in an ideal direction.”


On Thursday, the Swedish Academy will announce whom it considers to have met the criterion of “ideal” for the 2017 laurels.


A look at some aspects of the Nobel Prize in Literature:

What is ‘Ideal Direction?’


The Swedish Academy hasn’t ever had a consistent view of this, but appears to cycle through concepts.


In an article on the Nobel Prize website, academy member Kjell Espmark traced at least seven distinct periods in the 20th century interpretations, ranging from the early years’ “conservative idealism” honoring church and family, through an Everyman period in the 1930s when Sinclair Lewis and Pearl Buck won, and more recently, a determination to award the prize to writers outside Western traditions.


Just five countries have accounted for nearly half the literature prizes since 1901: France, the United States, Britain, Germany and Sweden.


What counts as literature?


In 2015 and 2016, the award went to writers outside the conventional conception of “literature” as novels and poetry. Svetlana Alexievich’s books are artistic sociopolitical reportage, and Bob Dylan’s lyrics arguably have more power as song than on the page.


If the academy is determined to be adventurous, it could find other forms of art to consider as literature.


Graphic novels, for example, arguably have built up the moral weight and imaginative power to be considered literature that goes beyond entertainment.


A Nobel prize for graphic novels “doesn’t seem unreasonable at all,” Gabriel Winslow-Yost, an editor at the New York Review of Books, told The Associated Press.


Like Alexievich, “some of the best of the past couple of generations of American cartoonists have been especially concerned with the effects of large-scale political forces on particular individual lives; that’s true of Art Spielgelman, true of (Chris) Ware, true of Dan Clowes,” he said.


And if Dylan’s song lyrics count as literature, is there a case to be made for opera librettos?


Stephen Wadsworth, director of opera studies at the Juilliard School and author of one libretto, said he could envision the prize going to an author whose work had been adapted for opera, noting laureate Maurice Maeterlinck’s play, “Pelléas and Mélisande,” was the basis for Debussy’s famous opera.


Aside from that “there are probably a few librettists who would tell you that they should get Nobel prizes. But they would be wrong,” he said.


The presumed favorites


Kenyan novelist, playwright and essayist Ngugi wa Thiong’o leads the speculation at many bookmakers, with perennial favorite Haruki Murakami behind by a nose.


Another name that surfaces year after year may find her chances marred by popularity. “We’ve had to cut Margaret Atwood’s odds … following ‘The Handmaid’s Tale”s Emmy win last week,” Alex Apati, a spokesman for Britain’s Ladbroke’s betting house, said in an email.


In any case, setting Nobel odds appears to be less rigorous than assessing sports teams’ prospects, relying on the wisdom of the crowd rather than deep reading.


“While we don’t employ someone specifically to work on pricing up this market, between them the traders keep a close eye on things,” Apati said.


Amos Oz, Ismail Kadare, Adonis and Don de Lillo also are regarded as strong contenders, according to the odds.

Outliers: Trump?

Bookmakers are offering potentially lucrative bets upwards of 1000-to-1 on Kanye West and President Donald Trump. One might make a credible argument for West – metrical complexity and inventive rhymes constitute a kind of poetry.


But Trump’s prose rarely rises above the entertainingly pedestrian – and it’s unclear whether the books are his work or the production of ghostwriters.

Silicon Valley & Technology

WWW Foundation: In Africa, Offline Gender Inequalities Being Replicated Online

In most of the world, more men are connected to the internet than women. But in Africa, this gender gap has been widening, according to ITU, the U.N. agency tracking the ICT sector. Nanjira Sambuli, who works with the World Wide Web Foundation in Africa, Southeast Asia, and Latin America, sat down with VOA’s Jill Craig in Nairobi to explain how offline inequalities are being replicated online.

Arts & Entertainment

Ancient Rocks and Fossils Await Park Visitors

After visiting the diverse landscapes of Dinosaur National Monument once, national parks traveler Mikah Meyer knew he had to come back. In addition to the site’s ancient land formations and dinosaur fossils, the massive park — which stretches across two states — is also home to a river canyon made up of unique rock formations. Mikah experienced them all and shared with VOA’s Julie Taboh why the site is now among his top five favorites.

Economy & business

US Supreme Court Rejects Samsung Appeal in Warranty Dispute

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday refused to consider a bid by Samsung Electronics Co Ltd. to force customers who have filed proposed class-action lawsuits against the company to arbitrate their claims instead of bringing them to court.

The justices left intact a lower court’s ruling that purchasers of certain Galaxy smartphones made by the South Korean electronics company were not bound by a warranty provision that compelled arbitration of customer complaints.

Warranties with arbitration clauses have become common in consumer electronics and other industries. Courts and regulatory agencies increasingly are scrutinizing arbitration agreements that seek to limit options for resolution of future disputes.

The Samsung case involves two smartphone buyers from California who separately filed proposed class-action lawsuits in 2014 over concerns about the products’ performance and resale value.

Neither Daniel Norcia, who owned an Galaxy S4 device, nor Hoai Dang, who owned an SIII, saw the arbitration provisions when they bought the phone because the language was placed deep inside the warranty booklet and not mentioned on the box, according to their legal papers.

The agreement states that all disputes must be resolved through arbitration, and specifically rules out class actions.

Samsung tried to force the customers to arbitrate their claims, but a unanimous three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in San Francisco denied the request in January. The court said Samsung did not provide proper notice of the arbitration provision and neither customer had expressly consented to be bound by it.

Appealing to the Supreme Court, Samsung noted that the 9th Circuit decided that the warranty was valid except for the arbitration provision. Samsung argued that the 9th Circuit ruling violated a U.S. law called the Federal Arbitration Act that requires arbitration agreements to be treated equally with other contracts.