News 2.0: personalization + participation = brand

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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 editions — special papers that localize news and lower 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 sites eliminate printing and delivery costs. Most also eliminate the labor expenses involved in news-gathering. They simply link to original reporting done elsewhere. On many sites users rank the top headlines. This gives a sense of involvement, and an alternative form of news judgment. And of course there is discussion. New media need these brand-building tools because they can’t rely on habit or geography to muster an audience.

Newsvine is an online site that combines these voting and chat features with the additional ability for users to create their own “columns”  — and to share in any ad revenues if other people want to see their take on the news. (If you’re not familiar with Newsvine, it was launched in March 2006. An entry in Wikipedia gives a quick overview, though it does read like a brochure).  

In an interview with Online Journalism Review, Newsvine cofounder Calvin Tang talked about personalization, user-generated content and community.

Personalization allows users to create filters so they can see what they want and not be distracted with unwanted information. Some may decry the trend; people will tend even more than now to see and hear only what they want. But who can deny the power of personalization; we want what we want, when we want it. 

But there is work involved in filtering which Tang wants to minimize it. As he told OJR:

“the more that sites can do to accommodate users preferences without them explicitly having to set things up the better. . . .  (when) you . . . come to Newsvine . . . we (should) detect where you are based by looking at your IP address . . .  (and) 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 absorb your time after you’ve read it. The newspaper gives information and sends you on your way. The online pub wants you to linger 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 because online revenues are based on eyeballs and click-thrus and new sites needs to develop viewer loyalty and 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. Prominent on the list when I visited was the headline, “Did giants once live in North America.” That story, submitted by a veteran of Newsvine, led ultimately to an article posted on the English-language edition of Pravda Online.

When everyone is an editor who will set the news agenda? Today the agenda is 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? My day job makes me one of the professionals whose perogatives are threatened by these citizen editors. But one of the top-ranked headline voters on Digg, a fellow known to his online followers as Digidave, published an 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,