The Promise of the Daily Me (cont.)

From My News to digital butlers: An in-depth look at the different flavors of personalization

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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

News that you can take with you is built into the very fabric of the wireless space. The wireless service provider AvantGo touts the wireless lifestyle on its site this way:

“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 and even lets them order new CD releases from with Clint’s wireless modem.”

AvantGo has partnered with such content providers as the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post, Yahoo!,, 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., MSNBC and 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, 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

To date, innovation in personalized news presentation has come mostly from the portals and other Internet companies. On My Excite, for example, the user determines color schemes, the arrangement of page elements and other visual cues. The site keeps track of the user’s personal preferences through the use of cookies, small text files stored on the user’s hard drive.

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, 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.

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 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. 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.

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