Where we go from here
Continued | Back to Personalized services
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. 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, would go out and fetch the news each morning from a dozen different sources, assembling 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. Already, you don’t have to surf to the New York Times or ABC News Web sites to catch breaking news. You can download small programs that let you see scrolling headlines and stock quotes from those sites on little pop-up windows on your computer screen.
Several projects are underway with the aim of producing a personalized daily newspaper that cranks out of a printing device in your home every morning — a full-page broadsheet with color, graphics and photos. We’re near the point 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 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, 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 your spreadsheet on your home computer.”
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, surfing behavior, perhaps personal traits and beliefs. Someone, somewhere, will have a record of the style and size of the underwear you’ve ordered online. In some cases, 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 technology
Personalization has one simple goal: to provide you with your own Web, not the world’s. 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. No other medium permits that level of personalization.
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.
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