Online news publications should take advantage of personalization’s promise
This column appeared in the December 1998 issue of The American Journalism Review.
Should online news publications personalize their content?
To date, they’ve shown a remarkable indifference to one of the fundamental hallmarks of new media. While mass media like newspapers, magazine and TV newscasts bring the same information to large numbers of news consumers, the Internet makes it possible for news transactions to be micro-targeted to individuals.
Since 1996, Web portal sites such as My Yahoo, My Excite and My Netscape have grown in popularity, with users able to select favorite news topics, stocks, TV listings, sports teams, horoscopes, and other interests, plus handy reminders of friends’ birthdays or relatives’ anniversaries. Millions of people now use these “personalized pages,” often as their starting point for surfing the Web each day.
So why the resistance by online newspapers? Old media traditions, in part. “Publishers are used to thinking within the box,” says Vin Crosbie, a new media consultant in Greenwich, Conn. “Editors put up pages and force readers to drill down to find what they want. They feel threatened now that they’re losing their gatekeeper role.”
There’s also confusion about what personalization really entails. I see three major trends emerging:
• Personalized content. Personalization lets readers tailor the news to their narrow interests. Critics of such “Daily Me” offerings fear that readers risk missing important news that doesn’t fit their profiles.
“If someone wants to personalize his settings to say, ‘I only want to see stories on Clinton and Monica,’ that rubs me wrong as a journalist,” says Christian Hendricks, president of Nando Media.
True enough. But why frame the issue as a choice between polar opposites? Personalized news should serve as a supplement to readers’ news diets, not as a replacement. Readers still want to know what’s important to us as a society and community. But no editor can tell which additional stories I would find compelling, valuable or useful as an individual.
If I have breast cancer, I may want to read not only your medical writer’s story on new research developments but reports from other news services, too. If I’m a walnut farmer, I want to know about all the agricultural news that doesn’t make it into my hometown paper or onto its Web site.
A few news organizations have made nods in this direction. The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition lets you customize your news by company or by industry (banking, health care or media, for example). CNN Interactive, with 500,000 subscribers to its Custom News, offers similar news categories. But all these first-generation attempts fall short of true individualized news.
• Personalized news experience. The front page of the Los Angeles Times Web site gives two choices for home teams: the Dodgers and Angels. Well, what if I’m a transplanted Chicagoan? Or what if I don’t care for baseball, but I’m really interested in USC because my nephew is a starting tackle for the Trojans? Why can’t my sports page lead off with the teams I pick?
I believe users want not only a richer, deeper news experience but also a seamless, integrated Web experience that gives them a fair amount of control over news delivery and consumption.
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, puzzles and comics I like, instead of forcing me to scout them out in a dozen different places.
Here’s where online newspapers have a clear advantage over aggregation sites like Yahoo: Readers form relationships not with topics but with columnists, writers and features, whether the name brand is Howard Kurtz, Rush Limbaugh, Dear Abby or Doonesbury. Exploit those habits.
Personalization is not about narrowcasting. It’s about broadening the reader’s content choices and navigation options.
• Personalized services. We’re seeing the beginning glimmers of Web sites that facilitate commercial and personal transactions between merchants and consumers. Targeted advertising is part of that wave.
“Everyone hates ads — except for the ads you’re interested in,” Crosbie observes. “What car you’re going to drive and what house you’re going to live in matters more to you than what’s happening in Bosnia.”
Absolutely true. Targeted advertising is still in its infancy, but look out when retailers take advantage of these new tools to tell you about those golf clubs you’ve been waiting to go on sale, or that new jazz CD that’s getting rave reviews.
Technology is putting the tools of personalization in our hands, but online publishers have not yet made the psychological leap. Personalization, though slow to take off, is new media’s destiny. Far better to embrace it than to cling to an eroding mass-media mindset.