Personalized services

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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.”

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JD Lasica
Written by JD Lasica
JD Lasica is an entrepreneur, author, journalist, photographer and blogger. | CONTACT