A newspaper is a manufacturing business. Each day it produces thousands of copies of what is today a printed product that must be distributed to subscribers. Papers can create zoned editionsÂ — special papers that localize news andÂ lowerÂ advertising costs for subsets of the total audience. But in the final analysis a newspaper is a brand that has been adopted by a community.
How does online change the news biz? To begin with online sitesÂ eliminate printing and delivery costs.Â Most also eliminate the labor expenses involved inÂ news-gathering. They simply link to original reporting done elsewhere.Â On many sitesÂ users rankÂ the top headlines. This gives a sense of involvement, andÂ an alternativeÂ form of news judgment. And of courseÂ there is discussion.Â New media need theseÂ brand-building toolsÂ because theyÂ can’t rely on habit or geography to muster an audience.
NewsvineÂ is an online site thatÂ combines these voting and chatÂ features with the additionalÂ ability for usersÂ to create their ownÂ “columns”Â — and to share in any ad revenuesÂ ifÂ other people want to see their take on the news.Â (If you’re not familiar with Newsvine, itÂ was launched in March 2006. An entry in Wikipedia gives a quickÂ overview, though it doesÂ read like a brochure).Â Â
PersonalizationÂ allows users to create filters so they can see what they want and not be distracted with unwanted information.Â Some mayÂ decry the trend; people will tend even more than now to see and hear only what they want. ButÂ who can deny the power of personalization; we want what we want, when we want it.Â
But there is work involved in filteringÂ whichÂ Tang wants to minimize it. AsÂ he told OJR:
“the more that sites can do to accommodate users preferences without them explicitly having to set things up the better. . . .Â (when) youÂ . . .Â come to NewsvineÂ . . . we (should)Â detect where you are based by looking at your IP addressÂ . . .Â (and)Â give you headlines from your local papers . . . And also based on a user’s behavior we should be presenting you with information or news similar to the stuff that you’ve liked other places.”
Tang told OJR “that the number one thing we strive for is to create rich discussions around content.”
It strikes me how fundamentally different that is than a newspaper. Obviously print cannot accept feedback. But neither does it absorbÂ your time after you’ve read it. The newspaper gives information and sends you on your way. The online pub wants you to lingerÂ and share your views. Is this out of a sense of public service, a form of societal catharsis? Or is it because it was never possible to build a feedback loop into news delivery and now that we can, we have? Or is it becauseÂ online revenues are basedÂ on eyeballs and click-thrus and new sitesÂ needs to develop viewer loyalty andÂ getting vocal is the first step toward getting involved?
Perhaps it’s all of the above but I think a business model built on “rich discussion” is going to suck a lot of time out of the conversants. In a world where time is money, as the saying goes, will participation prove too costly?
I took a look at the “Top of the Vine” feature to see what was being talked about.Â Prominent on the list when I visited was the headline, “Did giants once live in North America.”Â That story, submitted by a veteran ofÂ Newsvine,Â led ultimately to an articleÂ posted onÂ the English-language edition ofÂ Pravda Online.
When everyone is an editor who will set the news agenda? TodayÂ the agenda isÂ set, even if imperfectly or unfairly, by the actions and pronouncements of political, corporate and scientific leaders, and by the major news organizations that rank stories according to their own training and prejudices. Will the future agenda be set by those who invest the time in pursuing their own interests — and have the persistence or persuasiveness to invite others along? And will that be for better or worse?
I can’t say, and even if I did why trust me?Â My day job makes me one of theÂ professionals whose perogatives are threatened by these citizen editors.Â But one of the top-ranked headline voters on Digg, a fellow known to his online followers as Digidave,Â published anÂ essay in Columbia Journalism Review in which he shared his misgivings about the ability of those who are popular in such online communities to sway readers and ultimately the advertising dollars that follow the eyeballs. Digg editors, we are told,