Personalized presentation and delivery
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The front page of the Los Angeles Times Web site gives two choices for home teams: the Dodgers and Angels. That might be fine if you’re a native Angeleno. But what if you’re a transplanted Chicagoan? Or what if you don’t care for baseball, but you’re intensely interested in the University of Southern California football team because your high school friend is the starting nose guard for the Trojans? Why can’t your sports page lead off with the teams you want?
Slowly but inexorably, online news sites have begun moving in the direction of letting people personalize not only their news content but also their news experience. That means equipping consumers with the tools to cut through the clutter by broadening their choices, including how and when they want to consume the news.
Personalized news presentation comes in several different flavors:
• When users control or influence which stories, features and links should appear on a news site’s front page or other key pages.
• When users determine the look, arrangement, layout, color scheme and other visual information on those pages.
• When users are given more choices about the timing and delivery method of their news content.
When online news publications have made a small bow in the direction of personalized presentation, most of their executions have been akin to cutting up a newspaper and reordering it. Hey, look, I can put sports on my front page! That’s fine, but can the user choose more personal or idiosyncratic subject matter for her front page: baby product recalls, or multiculturalism, or the Scottish Highland Games?
At the Christian Science Monitor, Mycsmonitor.com combines the user’s stories and headline links with the editors’ top picks of stories. Will we ever get to the day when the online publication’s front-page content is completely chosen by each user? “Probably not,” said Denise Mallett, product manager. “Our philosophy here is: We don’t care if you don’t like news about the Balkans or other farflung places. We feel it’s our job to tell you what we consider to be the most important things happening in the world today.”
Given the mission of a news publication, that makes sense. Editors shouldn’t be the sole arbiter of what goes on a news site’s front page. But neither should readers. The optimum solution is a hybrid model of top news chosen by a team of news professionals combined with news meaningful to each user. To be most effective, personalized news should serve as a supplement to readers’ news diets, not as a replacement.
The role of journalists will be elevated in cyberspace as users come to appreciate the time saved by professionals who help us sift through what’s important to us as a society and community. Readers do not want professional journalists removed from the news equation, but they do want to be included in the process. Tell me the day’s top stories on your front page, but let me add my personalized content and bookmarks. Let me compare your papers’ movie reviews against other film critics’ reviews. Let me configure your site’s front page to include the columnists, reporters, features and comics I like, instead of forcing me to scout them out in a dozen different places.
Let me be a partner in the news.
Sometimes, you just want the news delivered to your digital doormat, no frills, no thrills. Infobeat was built on that simple, powerful idea. The personalized news service Infobeat, which John Funk founded in June 1996 by borrowing from his personal credit cards, grew to more than 3.5 million daily e-mail subscriptions in three short years. Funk said he studied USA Today and other mass-circulation publications with an eye toward slicing and dicing the news into discrete categories: world news, crime news, weather and so on. The result, Funk said, was essentially “an entire newspaper by e-mail.” Users could create a customized stock portfolio and choose from among 20 categories of news provided by the wire services and rewritten and categorized by Infobeat’s small editorial team.
“It really did get down to the level of sending out millions of individualized e-mails, with almost no two alike,” Funk said. “At the core of our business, we were content publishers exploiting e-mail as a wonderful vehicle that allowed us to do more with content publishing than any other channel or medium we could pursue. To this day, there’s no other platform or application that lets companies go out and touch their customers in such a direct way.”
Online newspapers, too, use e-mail as a vehicle for delivering personalized news for people with an intense interest in a subject. The San Jose Mercury News helped pioneer the field by giving users a choice of technology-news e-mail updates several times a day. CBS Marketwatch offers three financial-news editions a day. The Wall Street Journal offers 15 different e-mail products. Other publications have followed suit, having discovered that building a lasting relationship with subscribers through e-mail newsletters is a superior strategy to putting up a Web site and praying they’ll return every day.
By 1999, the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press found, nearly one-fifth of Internet users got customized news reports and an equal number received e-mailed news. Among heavy online news users, 29 percent got customized news updates and 27 percent received news by e-mail.
E-mail remains just one delivery option, however. America Online has adopted a strategy called AOL Anywhere: Get the news on your pager, cell phone or Web browser, by fax, printer, wireless modem, or on TV. Other media organizations have recognized the need to adapt to consumers’ changing news delivery needs.
Attracting a smaller but growing audience are alert services that deliver personalized news with a much greater degree of specificity. These come in a few different varieties:
• Niche news alerts. Several online publications have experimented with free personalized news services, letting users enter search terms for items they want to be alerted about by e-mail. Enter a narrow topic such as “heart transplants” or “Ohio State football” and the service will deliver stories on that subject to your e-mail in-box, either in real time or at designated intervals. Philadelphia Online, The Wall Street Journal and Nando, the online news service of McClatchy Newspapers, are among the sites that have experimented with such a notification feature, to mixed results. Somewhat more sophisticated is Knight Ridder’s NewsHound, a customizable online news search and retrieval service that delivers personalized information to subscribers by sniffing out newspaper and wire service content.
Lexis Nexis, the subscription-based news archive that stores articles from thousands of newspapers, magazines and other sources, offers personalized news services that send e-mail alerts on breaking news throughout the day on topics the subscriber has selected in advance. Excite’s NewsTracker, a free online clipping service, lets users track keywords that appear in 350 news providers, including national and regional newspapers; it then searches for matches and stores them on a page for users to access at their leisure. “We supply personalized news to people with specific tasks to perform,” said product manager Dana Graves. “For example, a college professor teaching a course in hate crimes was challenged by his students to prove that hate crimes still occur in this country. He created a custom topic for his online lesson plan and had his students track the news stories about hate crimes all over the United States. They came away convinced.”
• Personal agents. HealthScout is one of a new breed of personal agents that retrieve daily news and information about your special interests. The Internet company’s reporters produce more than a dozen articles a day covering the latest health news; the site’s news services and affiliates provide additional feeds; and its editors tag each article for relevance to hundreds of health topics. Every four hours, the company’s computers score up to 1,000 articles for their relevance to each health interest in a user’s personal profile. Some are interests the user selected from a 700-topic list; others are inferred from a health-risk questionnaire the user can take. The scoring takes into account how important the news is as well as who you are. A breakthrough in breast cancer would outscore one on acne — unless you’re a teenage boy. Whenever news breaks that’s of special significance to you, HealthScout will send you an e-mail alert.
• Premium business-news alerts. Only a handful of companies have survived in this highly competitive space. Serving a clientele that includes top executives, sales and marketing managers and public relations professionals, these news personalization subscription services let you track customers, competitors, markets, technologies, favorite personalities, players or sports teams and then delivers the news in real time via e-mail, pager, cell phone, mobile wireless services, personal Web pages or pop-up screen alerts.
With the growing ubiquity of personal digital assistants and palm-held devices, alert services will become an increasing part of our lives. If you’re looking for a house in a specific neighborhood, within a certain price range, with a certain number of bedrooms and in the right school district, you’ll want to know just as soon as the house goes on the market. If you care deeply about the Dodgers, you might want a batter-by-batter update sent to your pager. If you want to know when major political news breaks, you’ll want to be tipped off electronically.
NEXT: Personalized context