The Promise of the Daily Me
From My News to digital butlers: An in-depth look at the different flavors of personalization
This in-depth report appeared Aug. 2, 2001, in the Online Journalism Review. Here’s the version on the OJR site. It was republished in the Law Library Resource Xchange. An earlier version was commissioned for inclusion in an online journalism textbook by McGraw-Hill.
For a look at the latest developments in personalization at media outlets, see the companion column, The second coming of personalized news.
No trend threatens the guardians of old media more than personalization. The very notion challenges the philosophical underpinnings of traditional media: We, the gatekeepers, gather the news and tell you what’s important. Under this chiseled-in-stone setup, editors sort through and rank the news, controlling everything from the assignment of stories to their tone, slant and prominence on the page.
Personalized news reduces the role of editors in the news equation. The reporter writes the story, the copy editor (if there is one) edits it, another person indexes it for easy retrieval, and the user decides what’s important.
Personalized news tips the balance of power toward the news consumer. 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 access to all the agricultural news from the wire services that doesn’t make it into my hometown paper or onto its Web site. If I’m a restaurateur, a competitor’s plans to open a business down the street is major news to me, far more important than the latest doings inside the Washington Beltway.
True personalization, in short, augurs a revolutionary shift in the balance of power between news provider and news consumer. Traditional assumptions about who gathers the news and who consumes it go out the window. Journalists now entering the field may be collecting, processing and disseminating the news in completely novel ways. How we think about news itself may be transformed, from a solid if predictably plodding product, scripted by a professional priesthood for a mass audience, to a more free-flowing fount of information that serves the individual needs of consumers.
The challenge facing the next generation of journalists is to find a way to hold onto the time-honored values of traditional journalism — accuracy, reliability, fairness, accountability — while embracing the changes in their craft that elevate the reader. If they accept the new realities dictated by the Internet, the new journalists will be light years ahead of publishers and old-guard editors who continue to think within the box of mass media. Mass media are about reaching large audiences and target demographics. Mass media control the content, form and distribution of the message. Mass media serve each person’s general interests while serving no individual’s specific needs.
The Internet, however, is not a mass medium. It’s a medium for the masses. The Net blows away the top-down, one-to-many model that governs old media. Instead, it encompasses one-to-one, one-to-many and many-to-many communication, with the individual firmly rooted at center stage. On the Internet, control of the content, form and distribution of the message passes back and forth between publisher, user and other participants. The user may adopt the mantle of reporter, editor and publisher, creating new forms of individualized content.
Personalization is not just a cool feature of new media — it’s intrinsic to new media.
Personalization is not just a cool feature of new media — it’s intrinsic to new media. Unlike radio, television or print, the Internet is the only medium that is inherently personalizable. Users can be reached simultaneously with one-of-a-kind messages. The old formula of editors and news directors having the lone say in determining what’s important has become an anachronism in cyberspace. The user, after all, is in the best position to know what he or she finds most interesting, valuable, useful — or newsworthy.
For print and broadcast media — even those with online presences — that’s a difficult proposition to accept, given the historical baggage of top-down media.
“When these players take their businesses to the Web, they bring along the mindset of a medium that delivers content to a passive audience. They do the sifting and choosing, and they give the customer what they hope is of interest to the readers,” observed Henry Sohn, vice president and general manager for network services at Yahoo! “The Web requires a different mindset. It’s an interactive medium, and everything else is secondary to that fundamental principle.”
Where does this leave the online journalist? In a role that’s changing — but more critical than ever.
Personalization does not mean that journalists should abandon their role of sorting, filtering, prioritizing and making sense of the news. But it does mean that users need to be brought into the process in a direct and meaningful way.
People want broad-brushstroke news to find out what’s taking place in the world at large, but they also want narrowcast news to find out what’s going on in their own world: the latest news in their specific field, news affecting their company, breaking news about people or sports teams important to them, local and community news (assuming that someone has done the reporting). News operations that share power and influence with individual users will be the big winners in the new information economy. Companies that cling to a one-way gatekeeper mindset will become increasingly marginalized.
Personalization is a slippery concept to get our arms around. As Sohn of Yahoo! pointed out, “Just clicking on a hyperlink is personalization — you’re deciding where you want to go.” Under that expansive view, every time you read a newspaper and toss the business section aside for the world news pages, you’re engaging in a personalized news experience. But it’s also a limiting experience: You can read only those stories that a team of news professionals has selected.
True personalization requires an extra step: a recurring set of interactions between news provider and news consumer that permits you to tailor the news to your specific interests. Imagine a publication made up entirely of articles of special interest to you: stories about your hometown, your college, field of study, hobbies and interests, favorite bands, TV shows and sports teams, along with coupons and discounts for all the stuff you need to buy.
Call it the Daily Me.
Is such an endlessly fascinating publication really possible? It is, although the early releases suggest that its full realization remains many years away.
An early experiment: fishWrap
Many of the current working versions of personalization can be traced to a class project by eight freshmen at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Media Lab in late 1992. “Our class assignment was to design a personalized news system for MIT’s incoming freshmen,” recalled one of the students, Brad Bartley, now a programmer at a high-tech firm. “To make them less homesick, we provided content geared to their specific backgrounds.”
For Bartley, that meant getting news updates about his hometown of Quapaw, Oklahoma, population 985 — or, at any rate, from his home state, given that neither Quapaw nor Oklahoma turned up with any regularity in the Boston media. To solve that info gap, Bartley, his fellow students and researcher Pascal Chesnais developed a customized personal news service called fishWrap.
Within a short time, the experiment spread from the freshmen class to the entire MIT community. It worked like this: A computer program asked participants for their hometown zip code, academic interests and personal interests. From that profile, the program looked for news from your town, region and state. Somewhat more clunkily, it matched keywords in your profile against news stories coming in from the Associated Press, Reuters, the Knight Ridder chain, Boston’s newspapers, foreign wires and other news providers. Then it bundled it all into a nice customized package and dropped it on each subscriber’s digital doorstep each morning. After a reader scanned a summary of stories in each news category, he could summon up the full text with accompanying graphics or audio on his computer screen.
With fishWrap, the community — not editors — decided which stories appeared at the top of the front page based on how many readers had called up the story.
FishWrap allowed subscribers to change their preferences or add new topics to their personal choices. Bartley, for example, built a personal page that zeroed in on computer technology, architecture, book reviews and photo essays. The program also detected changes in reading habits: It would pay attention to the kinds of news stories a person chose or sports teams she followed, and those items became more prominent on subsequent viewings. Finally, fishWrap ranked the order of the “page one” stories each day based on how many of the 700 or so subscribers had read the article, so that the most popular stories appeared at the top of the page. “No editors made those decisions,” Bartley said. “The community served as editor.”
Of the approximately 15 stories on fishWrap’s page one each day, a third were similar to what you would see on the front page of a newspaper, a third were technology-related (this was, after all, MIT), and a third were stories that the mainstream media generally didn’t consider newsworthy: coverage of rock music, movies, youth culture and other matters of special interest to college students.
Jack Driscoll, former editor of the Boston Globe and now a visiting scholar at the Media Lab, recalled the disdain with which the journalism establishment greeted fishWrap and similar personalized news projects, such as Create Your Own Newspaper (CRAYON), an online tool created by two students at Bucknell University. “Some naysayers in my profession didn’t like the whole concept, suggesting that it would turn readers into self-absorbed myopes. But I always argued that this provided a valuable service.”
Critics of the Daily Me have faulted personalized news services for filtering out news that’s important to us as members of the local, national or global community. The more personalized the news became, they feared, the more isolated we would become from one another. I beg to disagree. We live in a world where it’s impossible to become closed off from the world at large. News assaults us from all directions. What we can do, however, is build constructs to make sure the news I care about most deeply breaks through the noise and grabs my attention.
For the most part, personalized news is not about filtering out; it’s about funneling in. It’s about broadening the reader’s content choices and navigation options so that she gets the news she needs and cares about.
Different kinds of personalization
We can think of personalization in several ways:
• Personalized news content: The most common use of the term personalization refers to filters that give us control over the content selection process. By whatever means — a Web site that remembers who you are, a bot that trolls the Internet at your command — you have a greater say over the kinds of news, headlines and information that come streaming into your life. Think of this as the “what” of personalization.
• Personalized news experience: If personalized news selection is the main meal, personalized news experience is the tablecloth, candlelight and violin music. Users decide on the setting of their news experience, the frequency, and the method. We might access our personalized information via e-mail, pop-up screen alerts, pager, cell phone, mobile palm device, or Web page whose appearance we can alter. Think of this as the “where,” “when” and “how” of personalization.
• Personalized news services: Service journalism shines when it hands us tools to make the news more personally relevant and when it simplifies our lives. Personalized services might be about connecting workers, sharing products, or solving a chore or project. Think of this as the next stage of personalization, where an individual’s personal needs or work tasks are met, sometimes for a price.
All three of these categories overlap. What they all have in common, however, is an inherent bias toward empowering the user. Let’s look closer at these different approaches to personalization.
Personalized news content
We swim in data. Media have brought us such an abundance of information sources that we now face the problem of information overload. How to sort through the info glut that comes cascading into our lives every day? Media and technology companies have tackled the problem in widely varying and imaginative ways.
One spectacular early failure was PointCast, a company emblematic of high-tech publishing — and of the Internet gods’ fickle natures. The Silicon Valley company burst into prominence in May 1996 with the release of its personalized-news software. Within a year, more than 2 million people had downloaded the free computer screen saver. When a user dawdled too long between mouse clicks or chose the PointCast icon intentionally, the program took over his screen, turning it into a whirling kaleidoscope of personalized news, sports, weather, stock quotes and company information (not to mention animated ads), much of it delivered to his computer’s hard drive in real time if he was online.
But PointCast overreached itself, and within a year the magic had vanished. Though it had brought aboard a stellar list of content partners — including The New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Knight Ridder, CNN and Time magazine — the PointCast Network billed itself as “the first broadcast network on the Internet” at a time when the Internet’s broadband pipeline was woefully thin. Many users (including me) pulled the plug, fed up with its ceaseless appetite for bandwidth as well as the intrusive, nonstop advertising; others became disenchanted with the lack of specificity in the program’s broadly defined categories. In the end, usage plunged and the company, which had spurned a $500 million takeover offer by the News Corp. in 1997, ultimately sold at the fire sale price of $7 million two years later.
While PointCast failed to deliver the goods in its execution, its early success suggested that users hungered for news and information tailored to their individual needs. The search engine portals saw an opportunity and stepped into the breach.
The portals get personal
Following close on the heels of PointCast, Web portals such as My Yahoo, My Excite, My Netscape, My Lycos and My Snap (now My NBCi) launched personalization services. Each portal offered slightly different variations on the same pick-and-click theme: Users could choose favorite news topics, stocks, sports teams, horoscopes, TV listings, movie show times, lottery results and other interests. Many of the services also featured message boards, chat rooms, daily health tips, favorite Web sites, travel alerts and convenient reminders of friends’ birthdays or relatives’ anniversaries. Millions of us now use these personalized pages, often as launch pads for our online forays every morning.
To get their personalized profiles, users fill out online questionnaires, checking off subjects of interest — for example, political news, human-interest stories, romance movies — and entering more specific terms such as parasailing or telephony. The services then go to work, trolling for the requested news and information from their databases, their partners’ news feeds and the Web. Users can easily update their profiles and customize their choice of news providers.
Such services have had some measure of success: Mention personalization today and most people think of My Yahoo or My Excite. But only 5 to 10 percent of users at the portals register for the My services, perhaps because these first-generation tools only scratch the surface of personalization. Invariably, they rely on the same predictable wire services for general interest news. They require a tedious form of checkbox personalization that drives away most users. And they fall short of the promise, resulting in customization for the masses but little in the way of true one-to-one personalization.
Web news publications join the fray
A few online news organizations have followed the lead of the portals — but only a few. The Christian Science Monitor, Wall Street Journal, Los Angeles Times, MSNBC and CNN are among those that have offered personalized news in some form. A few others, like the Washington Post, are just now arriving at the party. (See The Second Coming of Personalized News.)
The Wall Street Journal‘s Personal Journal lets users customize to see certain features of its online edition every day as well as tracking specific topics. Neil Budde, publisher of WSJ.com, said, “The most popular thing on our site is the personal portfolio, which is a level of personalization that ties into the news with a level of granularity that’s meaningful to people.” A user can track how her stocks are performing throughout the day, and the Journal flags any story that mentions a company in her portfolio.
The Christian Science Monitor‘s Monitor Extra, which also requires a subscription, lets users select from customized news categories including art, religion, higher education, immigration, careers, media, education, gardening, book reviews, music, food, animals and geographic regions such as China, Mexico and the Middle East. In most cases, a staff member assigns each story that streams into the newsroom to a corresponding news category. “It’ll be a while before we trust the software to figure this out for us,” said associate editor Tom Regan.
Regan said the paper’s personalization efforts were modest but growing. “We’ve got to start reaching users who have time to read only a few high-value stories a day. Personalization lets you zero in on the news that matters most to you.”
The online operations of ABC, CBS and NBC have all taken a small step toward personalization by letting users choose a local TV affiliate. Plunk in your zip code and, voila!, up pops local news, weather and sports. Trouble is, the affiliates’ news feeds are basically shovelware and rarely contain detailed reporting.
‘Search-term searches are notoriously flaky, and users want to search the news in a baffling number of ways.’ – Travis F. Smith
Why haven’t online news operations made greater use of personalization? For a variety of reasons, including an unproven business model. But another obstacle is a technological one: The simple truth is that, financial news aside, most news doesn’t sort well.
Travis F. Smith, who helped set up the Los Angeles Times’ trailblazing personal search agent, Hunter, in the mid-1990s, put it this way in an e-mail interview: “Search-term searches are notoriously flaky, and users want to search the news in a baffling number of ways: by date, by major subject, by author, by type of story (opinions, letters, obituaries, reviews, profiles), by geography, and by topic area (crime stories, consumer safety, high tech, women’s issues).”
None of the current models fulfills personalization’s ultimate promise to deliver the news that’s most meaningful to each individual consumer.
“A lot of the efforts we’re seeing are brute-force customization at a base level,” said Daniel Farber, editor in chief of ZDNet, an online technology news company. “Most sites are providing customization to subsets of the population rather than true personalization targeted to individuals’ tastes and interests. If you’re doing true personalization of a higher order, you need much more intelligence involved and you need to be looking at a much larger data set of information provided by each user.”
That’s a formidable challenge. One answer touted by proponents as “The Next Big Thing” — and derided by detractors as “The Next Big Bust” — involves intelligent agents.
Bots and intelligent agents
Imagine this: a digital butler that roams the Internet, intuitively knowing your likes and dislikes, retrieving perfect strands of news and information that you never would have discovered through old-fashioned surfing. That’s the holy grail of personalization. At this point, it’s still a fantasy.
But give the tech-heads points for imagination, if not execution. Bots, also called intelligent agents or personal profile agents, are poised to help you find a job, download software, follow your stocks, search for bargain air fares, bid for auction items, grab image files or audio news clips and perform other feats of digital magic. Over time, your bot could be trained to learn that you love “Ally McBeal” and the Green Bay Packers, that you need the stock price of Intel every morning, and that Sheryl Crow bores you to tears.
Advocates such as Marcus Zillman, who founded and sold BotSpot, a Web site that tracks dozens of kinds of Internet bots, predict that these electronic serfs will replace both online newspapers and portals as the primary source of users’ online news in just a few years.
“For journalists in the very near future, people won’t be going to portals or online papers to get their news. They’ll be using bots,” Zillman said. “News in the future may be very different from what you’re seeing in the daily newspaper and on your local TV stations.”
‘For journalists in the very near future, people won’t be going to portals or online papers to get their news. They’ll be using bots.’ – Marcus Zillman
Perhaps so. But it begs the question of where the bots will find this wealth of relevant, fact-checked news if journalists aren’t part of the equation. More likely, in my view, is a landscape where bots play a growing role as a precision tool that helps people assemble personalized, highly targeted packages of news and information. That’s hardly cause for alarm inside the newsrooms of America. If anything, bot programmers will likely try to strike deals with new media managers to tap into the rich wealth of content processed by a daily newsroom.
In the Net’s early days, the most popular bots were shopping comparison bots that fetched the best price on consumer products such as CDs, software and games. Shortly after the online auction house eBay was founded in 1995, people used bidding bots that haggled to get the best price in a virtual transaction. Other bots obediently zip through cyberspace looking for any mention of your name, school, company, hometown — any term you designate. These bots have pretty much taken over the function of the old-time clipping services that send notices by mail whenever an individual’s name appears in a print publication.
Bots are commonly thought to search the entire Internet, but most of them troll only the major search engines or select Usenet newsgroups. The next generation of bots, proponents say, will be smarter, slicker and more comprehensive. While some bots grab entire stories, most retrieve only a synopsis or a few introductory sentences and provide a link for the user to access the full story.
Free-lance journalists ought to fare well in a bot-populated world. One can easily imagine automated bidding software programmed to scour the Net for articles on niche subjects. “People with bots will discover stories you’ve written,” Zillman said. “Their bots will strike a transaction with yours, allowing the bot’s owner to access your article for, say, a dollar or two.” Multiply that by hundreds or thousands of users and it can turn into a nice chunk of change.
That’s still a few years away. Today, bots may be good at finding things, but they’re lousy communicators. Experts and business interests have begun hammering out an agent communication language as well as developing tags or conventions that will help categorize content — a sort of digital Dewey decimal system.
Once they’ve licked the translation problems, though, there remains a larger problem: Bots tend to be dumb as a stick. Ask a bot for stories about mountain biking and you’ll get stories about the Himalayas thrown into the mix. Ask for an image of President Bush and you might get pictures of leafy, green plants.
“It’s easy enough to say, ‘Give me every wire service story that mentions the words Taiwan and semiconductors,'” said Andrew Leonard, author of the book “Bots” and a reporter for Salon. “Then you get fifty stories in your mailbox and you don’t read any of them. What you want is the one really good story about Taiwan and semiconductors, and Natural Language Processing technology just isn’t good enough yet for a bot to do that kind of selection without human help.”
One obstacle is that bots can’t yet distinguish between quality journalism and dubious sources of information. “The bots may work, but most people will choose to go to trusted names and sources of information,” said The Wall Street Journal’s Neil Budde. “So if you train it to fetch the news from these five reliable publications every day, I suppose that would work. But people like to read things in context, and I’m not sure they’ll like a news experience that blends Wall Street Journal articles with articles from other sources.”
Will we soon enter a golden age of news retrieval? John Funk, founder of the personalized e-mail service Infobeat, has his doubts. “I’ve been reading about bots for 15 years. The reality is, people are lazy, and training a bot is very hard. If the definition of news is something you didn’t know yesterday, how do you tell a bot to fetch you something you don’t know about?”
A first-time user at an art Web site might browse its collection of pop art. After two or three more visits, the site can predict with a fair degree of accuracy what other galleries he might like after comparing his behavior to the browsing habits of previous visitors. A message pops up on his screen: “Visitors with tastes similar to yours have enjoyed our abstract expressionism collection. Click here to visit our Jackson Pollock gallery.”
Creepy? Or cool? Depends on your point of view. “Personalization on this scale provides users with a higher level of personal service,” said Steve Larsen, founder of the annual Personalization Summit and head of the consulting firm Personalization.com. “A site that collects and stores personal profiles is treating you as an audience of one, not as part of an anonymous mass audience.”
Collaborative filtering works like this: You visit a site and fill out a form listing films you liked or hated. The site’s recommendation engine then compares your responses to, say, 20 other people who gave similar answers. Then it instantly suggests other titles based on movies they gave a thumbs-up to. No Roger Eberts, no expert film critics, just the shared experiences of an intelligent online collective.
Welcome to the Borg.
The entire enterprise cuts against our fiercely individualistic culture, but consider: Don’t we invoke this same process whenever we ask a trusted friend whether she liked a new movie? If you work in an office or spend a lot of time online, don’t you circulate the URLs of articles you find provocative or amusing? Collaborative filtering automates the word-of-mouth process, finding people who like the same kinds of movies, CDs, books — and news — that we do.
Sometimes, the results are laughably wrong; mathematical formulas are only as good as the laws of probability. But more often than not, the recommendations can be surprisingly dead on, and the more you use the tool, the more accurate the suggestions become.
Web sites such as Amazon and CDnow have used collaborative filtering technologies almost from day one, personalizing the book- and CD-buying process for millions of users. With enough technical resources, a CD site could take on a hipper look if it knew that a teenager was visiting; a jazz fan would find racks of Sonny Rollins or Roy Hargrove awaiting him, not Moby or Garth Brooks.
To date, no online news sites have put collaborative filtering to the test. After all, isn’t it the job of editors to recommend stories? But possibilities loom:
• “I can see a button at the bottom of a Web page that said, ‘People who read this column also seemed interested in this editorial or feature story,’ ” said Budde of WSJ.com.
• Publications like The New York Times Book Review enjoy a built-in community ripe for personalized recommendations. If you like novels by Tom Wolfe, short stories by Joyce Carol Oates, thrillers by John LeCarré and nonfiction works by John McPhee, chances are that a recommendation engine — based on the collective wisdom of Book Review readers and writers who’ve shared their likes and dislikes — could make winning suggestions far better than the Times’ own book critics.
• Larsen sees the day when a user can designate his or her own personalized circle of trusted advisers — sort of a daily What We’re Reading — to see which two or three online articles or news stories especially caught their fancy. It’s not implausible that we might be peeking over the shoulders of a Michael Kinsley, Maureen Dowd or Camille Paglia one day.
Collaborative filtering holds out great promise for personalized news and information. All that remains is for someone to figure out how to harness that potential.
Personalized news experience
Personalizing the news involves more than just content. It gives users a voice in where, when and how they want to consume the news. A personalized news experience can take several different shapes:
• Where: Mobile devices, Palm Pilots, cell phones with digital readouts — all are becoming ubiquitous in the news universe. Old-fashioned e-mail remains the most reliable way to maintain your specialized news diet each day. And a new phenomenon called metabrowsing lets you personalize your daily reading ritual even further.
• When: Video and audio sites let users watch and hear news segments on demand. News sites send alerts that tip you off to not only breaking national or world news but to news that matters just to you.
• How: Some Web sites are giving users the tools to cut through the clutter by letting them control which stories, features and links should appear on a news site’s front page or other key pages. Sometimes they can also tinker with the look, arrangement, layout, color scheme and other visual information on those pages.
Here’s a quick look at each of these:
Where: News that flows into any device
“Colleen and Clint use AvantGo in their downtime. AvantGo keeps them up on all the latest technology happenings with CNET, gives them late breaking news from CNN, helps them pick a movie to go to near the café thanks to Hollywood.com and even lets them order new CD releases from Amazon.com with Clint’s wireless modem.”
AvantGo has partnered with such content providers as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Yahoo!, Fodors.com, CNET and The Weather Channel. Those news and information sites know that in a wired world, people will want to consume the news in a seemingly endless number of ways, and so they’re forming partnerships to bring their content to people through personal digital assistants, mobile palm devices, pagers and cell phones in addition to their own Web sites.
Where: Daily news delivered to your doormat
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, which John Funk founded in June 1996 by borrowing on 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.”
A college professor teaching a course in hate crimes was challenged by his students to prove that hate crimes still occur in the U.S. He set up a custom news filter and had his students track the news stories about hate crimes as they occurred. They came away convinced.
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 several technology-news e-mail updates a day. The Wall Street Journal offers 15 different e-mail products. So does the Industry Standard (down from 18). 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.
Today, the e-mail customization features for most American newspapers still remain woefully lacking, in my view. Why can’t I be tipped off the next time a favorite columnist or reporter ‘s story appears, or the next time a stock that I own soars or tanks? Yes, it requires coding, cross-indexing and the like. But it has proved to be remarkably successful at bringing visitors back to a site.
The numbers tell the story. A third of Internet users in the United States have set up “personal preferences for the kind of information you want to receive,” according to a February tracking survey conducted for the Pew Internet & American Life Project. Among that group, 23 percent say they receive customized news, 20 percent get financial information, 14 percent receive entertainment news, 9 percent sports news and 9 percent health news through customized sites or services.
We’ll doubtless see that trend line grow, especially as people migrate from PCs to a host of mobile devices. AOL Time Warner now touts a strategy called AOL Anywhere: Get the news on your pager, cell phone or Web browser, by fax, printer, wireless modem, or on TV. CBS MarketWatch will send news alerts to your cell phone, pager or handheld device. The same goes for news and headlines from the New York Times, Washington Post and other news organizations.
Where: Gathering the news through metabrowsing
A new way of tailoring your Web news experience has cropped up in the past two years. Lumped under the general heading of metabrowsing, it refers to services or tools that retrieve multiple Web pages and let the user view them in a single place.
Companies like Octopus, OnePage and Clickmarks have sprung up on the premise that consumers and businesses want to be able to personalize and speed up the tedious task of sorting through news and information on dozens of Web sites.
I happen to like a simple little jewel called Quickbrowse. While services like OnePage and Octopus retrieve content from different sources and reformat it on a personal news page, Quickbrowse preserves the original look and feel of a publisher’s page, including advertising.
With Quickbrowse, you can combine any number of pages anywhere on the Web — news sites, sports sections, favorite columnists, weblogs, and so on — and then have a single file e-mailed to your in-box each morning. Click it open in your browser and you’ve got a single big old scrolling Web page. Or, even simpler, pick different sections of the New York Times, Washington Post, Wall Street Journal and MyYahoo and combine them into a super Web page.
The site’s founder, Marc Fest, a former free-lance journalist who lives in Miami, said he created QuickBrowse because he was tired of scanning the same sites for his work day after day. The response from online publishers has been positive, he said. Several asked to be included in the Quickbrowse Selections pages.
When: Multimedia news on demand
Streaming video lets users control both where and when they want the news. Newscasts and informational programming are becoming more asynchronous, giving consumers control over the stop and go of video and audio news feeds. This change is seeping into our lives almost imperceptibly, but it signals an important shift in our news consumption habits.
The FeedRoom lets consumers watch video clips of local news around the country by choosing the subjects they’re interested in. No more coming in halfway through a news segment and wondering what you missed. No more having to sit through other segments to get to the piece you really want to see. CNN.com, MSNBC and ABCNEWS.com also offer streaming video, though their selections are more limited.
AudioBasket does the same for audio. The company, which provides the news feeds for partner sites like Spinner.com, allows keyword personalization of audio news and information from CNN, ABC, PBS, NPR, BBC, CNET Radio and other news outlets. Users select their audio by news provider, topic and keyword to receive news, finance, entertainment, sports, travel, culture and technology programming.
When: Breaking-news e-mail alerts
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.
The New York Times recently launched a nifty College site that invites readers to sign up by topic — such as women’s studies, astronomy and law — and then sends you an e-mail alert when that subject appears on the Times’ site.
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 Excite product manager Sienna Skinner. “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. Visitors to the HealthScout network join for free and list the types of medical news they’d like to receive. The company’s computers keep track of the relevant articles and automatically alerts each user of appropriate matches. The system 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 significant news breaks that bears on a particular disease or medical condition, 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 use 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.
How: Personalized presentation and navigation
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.
While 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 start page! That’s fine, but can the user choose more personal or idiosyncratic subject matter: baby product recalls, or human cloning, or multiculturalism, or the Scottish Highland Games?
The Washington Post allows users to move elements around on their personal page and add links to outside sites. But Tim Ruder, the vice president heading up the Washington Post’s personalization efforts, makes the salient point that the user’s personal page is only one part of the equation. “Long term, we need to deepen the relationship with the audience by bringing some intelligence to the entire user experience. That means personalizing the navigation, exposing other elements, and letting this kind of functionality weave throughout the entire site.”
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.
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 associate editor Regan. “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 paper’s 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.
Newspapers’ historical role as the hub of the community puts them smack dab in the center of the local marketplace of news and information, civic discourse and public policy, commerce opportunities and personal services. Consider the rich “content” that newspapers can draw upon: not only hard news, but a reservoir of features, advice columns, community announcements, gardening tips, home furnishings, comics, horoscopes and advertising. That’s right: Ads are content. Job listings, apartment for rent, storewide sales — all of that is useful information to some consumers.
Over the decades, news organizations have erected artifices to maintain a separation between church and state, and that division has resulted in a tradition of editorial independence from business considerations. When reporters and editors keep faith with the readers rather than cater to the company’s bottom line, journalism is well served.
With the advent of the Internet, journalists face the challenge of embracing a medium where the ethos is still a work in progress and the divisions not so neatly delineated. The reality is that the Web is not first and foremost a publishing medium; it’s primarily a tool for retrieving information, communicating, and making transactions. On the Web, users don’t want to merely read about people, businesses, products and services. They want to be connected to them.
A user who reads a music review on RollingStone.com expects to be able to buy the CD with a couple of more mouse clicks. A high school student reading a roundup of best colleges in a major news publication appreciates an additional link that lets him submit an application online. The fact that RollingStone.com and the news publication receive a small commission for those transactions may upset ethics purists, but the real violation of trust would occur if Rolling Stone published a favorable review to increase sales or the news publication listed only colleges that paid them a fee and failed to disclose that arrangement.
On the Web, service journalism has transformed into transaction journalism, a term I coined in 1997 to describe the phenomenon of news sites giving users the opportunity to participate in an immediate commercial transaction. The practice can take the form of giving users the option to buy a book or CD they’ve read about on a news site — a useful service, in my view. Or it could cross the ethical line — something that is occurring with disturbing frequency, particularly by sites that have no journalistic traditions from which to draw upon.
The New York Times raised a ruckus in some circles in 1997 when it began linking its book reviews to a book retailer’s Web site. That’s only a glimmer of the transactional role for online publications that lies ahead. Soon, you won’t just read a review of a new restaurant in your local online newspaper: The paper will serve as an intermediary, asking you if you’d like reservations and then booking you a table for Friday night. To boot, it may inform you about a special dish or favored wine, produce a map with door-to-door directions, and suggest a nearby dance club for post-dinner entertainment.
Other possibilities abound: Looking for a special air fare to visit your relatives? A news site’s travel bot could scour the Net for bargain air fares, notify you when the price is right, book the flight, reserve your seat and have a rental car waiting for you at the airport. Heading to the Caribbean? A news site could start delivering news, weather and travel information about your destination as your departure date neared. Want to catch your favorite band next time it’s in town? A news site’s concert finder could alert you by e-mail, fax or pager when the concert is announced and then buy your tickets, since it knows your seating preferences. When your daughter’s school is closed by a snowstorm, your online newspaper could e-mail you with the news. When you’re driving by a sporting goods store, the tunes on your car radio might be interrupted with the news that the new tennis racket you’ve been lusting after has just gone on sale.
Is any of this “journalism”? Strictly speaking, perhaps not. But journalism is only one part of the news and information services springing up on the Web. Denise Mallett of the Christian Science Monitor believes that journalism needs to expand its core mission. “Newspapers already offer a wide range of services: coupons, calendars, marketplace, classifieds — none of that is journalism. If we’re to remain relevant on the Web, we’ve got to broaden our purpose while holding onto our news values. We’re not changing our journalism, we’re adding to it.”
Personalized news services
At the MIT Media Lab, context is king. In the mid-1990s, the Media Lab built an experimental news system called PLUM that tracked natural disasters. When a hurricane flooded the Florida keys or a dam broke along the Yangtze River, the computer would analyze the story, find out whom it was affecting, and then try to localize the news for the reader based on what it knew about her. The program made connections and “what if” analogies that treated the user as if she were involved in the story. If you were from a suburb of Boston, it would summon up a map and show you how the disaster would have played out had it hit your hometown.
What’s the personalized service here? Context. As any good city editor will tell you, good journalism brings the story home by adding a local angle.
“The problem with a traditional wire service is that they write the news for everyone and not for anyone, and each of us is an anyone,” said Walter Bender, executive director of the Media Lab.
In much the same way, online news organizations can take advantage of the Web’s interactivity to create compelling tools that people can use to make news and information more relevant to their own lives. Web journalism sparkles when it puts tools into the hands of individuals, letting you tap into a database to find out the best school districts for your child, the crime rate in your neighborhood, or how competing tax relief bills affect your family’s finances.
U.S. News Online does a good job of this. It offers a college cost calculator; a “matchmaker” tool that helps students find the schools suitable for them; a calculator to determine financial aid eligibility; and an intelligent agent that lets students register anonymously for recruitment by top schools. Other tools on the site include a best hospital finder that lets users search by specialty or location, and a retirement calculator that estimates how much you need to save to meet your retirement goals.
Looking for a new job or new car? Planning a wedding? Want to buy a movie ticket on the Web? You can, at an online newspaper today.
BabyCenter, the parenting site where I headed up a team of a dozen Web journalists, offers personalized tools such as a due date calculator, an ovulation calculator to help couples conceive, and other tools customized to a woman’s stage of pregnancy or a baby’s age. Pregnant women helped organize the site’s community area to let them swap questions and exchange information with other women due to give birth the same month. For these soon-to-be moms, the context of a community with women in similar circumstances provided a powerful, reassuring setting for information-gathering and emotional release.
We’ll be seeing more and more of this kind of service journalism as media organizations think outside the “news” box and mull income strategies to finance their Web operations.
Looking for a new job? The Personal Search Agent at Knight Ridder’s Philly.com is eager to please. Planning a wedding? Want to buy a movie ticket online? You can, thanks to the Washington Post’s partnerships.
Soon, you won’t just read a review of a new restaurant in your local online newspaper: The paper will serve as an intermediary, asking you if you’d like reservations and then booking you a table for Friday night. To boot, it may inform you about a special dish or favored wine, produce a map with door-to-door directions, and suggest a nearby dance club for post-dinner entertainment.
Hoping for a special air fare to visit the relatives? A news site’s travel bot could scour the Net for bargain air fares, notify you when the price is right, book the flight, reserve your seat and have a rental car waiting for you at the airport. Heading to the Caribbean? A news site could start delivering news, weather and travel information about your destination as your departure date nears. When you’re driving by a sporting goods store, the tunes on your car radio might be interrupted with the news that the new tennis racket you’ve been lusting after has just gone on sale.
Is any of this “journalism”? Strictly speaking, not really. But journalism is only one part of the news and information services springing up on the Web. Tom Regan of the Christian Science Monitor believes that journalism needs to expand its core mission. “Newspapers already offer a wide range of services: coupons, calendars, marketplace, classifieds — none of that is journalism. If we’re to remain relevant on the Web, we’ve got to broaden our purpose while holding onto our news values. We’re not changing our journalism, we’re adding to it.”
Personalized business services
Will people pay for a consumer service or streamlined information just because it’s personalized? Not likely. But more elaborate forms of personalization are beginning to appear.
Programmers and technology companies are cooking up peer-to-peer open-distribution systems that would turn an ordinary home desktop computer into a powerful database and server that could webcast news reports, share music files, video and photos, and run networked applications. Each of us would be able to not just publish content to the Web but broadcast it out to selected individuals or groups on a publication schedule that we determine. That’s personal publishing of a higher order.
About.com lets customers save any page from its site or the Web in folders hosted on the site, solving the common problem of users unable to find and retrieve information they’ve come across in the past. Users can make their collections available to others as well.
Other personalization services seem far removed from even an expansive view of a media organization’s mission: things like hosting of real-time meetings; networked business applications; storage for company data files; collaboration between remote and local teams on large-scale projects; customer-service relationship tools. Such services seem to dovetail with the trend toward mobile networking, where users gain access to data from almost any kind of device.
Is there money to be made here? Who knows? New York Times Digital thinks so, with CEO Martin Nisenholtz saying the company is exploring ways to leverage the company’s news content in a personalized-services format that users would find compelling. Stay tuned.
Where we go from here
What does all this mean to journalists about to enter the field? “Journalism students shouldn’t be scared off by all the technical talk about parsing data and setting up personalized news hierarchies,” said ZDNet’s Farber. “The content people don’t need to be involved in the technical back end. For a journalist, it’s all about understanding how readers use those tools and then going out to gather the information most relevant to your readers.”
Today, news gathering often involves more than heading out to cover an assignment with a pencil and notebook. It might involve bringing along a camcorder, digital camera, handheld tape recorder, laptop computer or palm-held personal digital assistant for instant transmission back to the newsroom or directly to users. It might involve tracking down source materials on floppy disks so that the editors and tech people back at the office can transform that raw data into news and information that’s relevant right down to the individual user level.
In a multimedia world, young journalists need to use their imaginations to grasp the possibilities for making the news more personally relevant to each reader.
In a multimedia world, young journalists need to use their imaginations to grasp the possibilities for making the news more personally relevant to each reader. Content does not need to be written for one reader, but that reader should be able to access and move through the information in a unique way.
In the rough-and-tumble world of the Web, it’s still uncertain who’ll win the battle for the hearts, minds and eyeballs of news consumers. Will news sites ultimately be the place where users go to get their daily dose of personalized local information? Will it be the portals? Weblogs? Who knows? Perhaps it will be a new source of news not yet invented.
Some analysts believe that users will eventually stop surfing to news sites and portals alike. Instead, a personal desktop application, trained to learn your likes and dislikes, will go out and fetch the news each morning from a dozen different sources, assemble it into an integrated package of interesting news stories, features, analyses, mailing list commentaries, humorous e-mails, shopping bargains and a live Webcast of your favorite sporting event.
Several projects are underway with the aim of producing a personalized daily newspaper spit out by a printing device in your home every morning — a full-page broadsheet with color, graphics and photos. We’re near the point (from a technology, not a business, standpoint) where we could program a personalized newspaper to contain major breaking news, favorite columnists, features and comics, along with a report from your child’s school, your neighborhood’s Little League results and news from your college or university.
Yet another scenario, a bit further out, suggests that the digital convergence of computers and television will result in a set-top box that can deliver news personalized to your individual tastes, based on the kinds of programs or segments you watch. The technology, however, has not yet caught up to the vision.
Regardless of which news models emerge, the barriers to personalization are rapidly coming down: Storage is becoming cheaper, software programming is becoming more reliable, and more users are using faster modems and better interfaces. If personalization has not yet become a mass phenomenon, it’s not the fault of users. The quality of service needs to reach a certain threshold before the majority of consumers will take advantage of it.
Personalization vs. privacy: A tradeoff?
Most likely, personalized news will enter our lives without our even being aware of it. Kevin Kelly, former executive editor of Wired magazine, thinks we’re entering a world in which news follows us wherever we go. “In addition to static Web sites, there will be an entirely new species of things following you around at your general invitation. Devices that chime on your wrist when there’s a traffic jam ahead. Pagers that broadcast the scores of your favorite teams as their games are being played. If the president is assassinated, the news will pop up in the middle of the spreadsheet on your home computer.”
For consumers, a world of personalized services may be an information nirvana — or a vision of privacy hell.
For consumers, such a world may be an information nirvana — or a vision of privacy hell. Companies will amass personal profiles listing your shopping habits, your surfing behavior, perhaps your personal traits and beliefs. Someone, somewhere, will have a record of the style and size of the underwear you’ve ordered online. Sometimes they will know your name and address; in other cases, you will be known only by the identifying number on your computer.
This, of course, is the flip side of personalization: The price of the Daily Me is the surrender of some measure of privacy. Every online transaction is not only an exchange of services or products for money but an exchange of information.
Is the price worth it? That’s a question every user must answer for himself or herself. But two things are clear: Companies must become much more forthright in disclosing exactly how they are using or sharing data about consumers. And users should be more aggressive in refusing to surrender personal information until they’re satisfied that their privacy rights are being properly safeguarded.
Personalization: Beyond the technology
Personalized news has one overarching goal: to provide you with your own personal news universe. Ultimately, each person’s news experience must be user-centric, not newspaper-centric or magazine-centric or even Web-centric. Control must reside locally, with each person.
Too much can be made of technology’s role in all this. When all is said and done, users want a news and information experience that puts a premium on saving time, money and effort. Personalized news is, at bottom, news you can use, news that lets you get in, get the information you need, and get out. It must be utilitarian and efficient, yes, but it also must have substance and meaning.
Journalists can bring that depth and dimension in a way that automated programs cannot. But we have to be open to a new approach that invites readers into the virtual newsroom. Ultimately, that requires not only advances in technology but changes within ourselves.
• See companion column, The second coming of personalized news.