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Here is another way of thinking about personalized news: Personalization puts the news into context for me as an individual.
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. As any good city editor will tell you, that’s good journalism: bringing 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, the Lab’s associate director.
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 tools might let you tap into a database to find out what school districts are right for your child, or what the crime rate is in your neighborhood. Or Web tools might work on a simpler level, parsing the personal information you supply to bring a story into sharper relief. As Web journalism matures and personalized tools become ubiquitous, students who can help devise useful, contextual tools will be highly sought after by online companies.
At U.S. News Online, “our interactive tools have become enormously popular with our users,” said Susannah Fox, assistant managing editor for new media. U.S. News’ site 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 hospitals 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.
BabyCenter, the content and commerce site where I head up a team of a dozen Web journalists, offers such personalized tools 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 our community area so that they can 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.
The Media Lab’s News in the Future program holds up a community-centric approach to news coverage as another potential model for extending personalization in new directions. The Lab has tapped into the talent pool of high school students in Brazil and Georgia, senior citizens in Massachusetts and Finland, and villagers in Thailand to generate grassroots journalism. In Melrose, Massachusetts, the Lab helped train and equip retirees in their sixties, seventies and eighties to become reporters, photographers, editors and illustrators for a monthly online publication.
Said Bender: “A form of personalization that’s less often talked about is the phenomenon of the news consumer actually becoming a news provider. The publishing projects we’ve set up among regular citizens has produced extraordinary results — some of the best things you’ll ever see on the Web. We don’t expect them to compete with the New York Times, but allowing these good storytellers to become part of the process of journalism enriches the public discourse. The news is at its more personal when you’re creating it and writing about your own lives.”
The Internet has long held out the ideal of Everyman as publisher — ordinary citizens who take back journalism from the professional class. By giving readers the tools to become journalists, we’re heading toward a model of news not as a commodity dispensed by a professional class, but as a service in which the consumer is engaged as an active participant. In the future, journalism will become a catalyst for creating communities of interest and for building linkages and relationships between news providers and news consumers.
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