The question being posed by a new generation of news readers who now depend more upon online sources than any other, is whether the editorial process for deciding the precedence of articles in a publication - for deciding what you read, when you read the publication - matters. In a world full of thousands of "sources," some of them actually legitimate, most Web readers today have adopted a pick-and-choose mentality. In many cases, they end up making those choices based on headlines and not their sources. (Just a reminder to that end, you're currently reading ReadWriteWeb.)
The dream of online publishers is to be able to use logic to build news packages that cater to the specific interests of each individual member of their readerships. But how exactly should that logic work? The publishers of a Web service we've covered here, News360 - which launched an autosyncing phone app for iOS and Android on Tuesday - are exploring whether the order and presentation of news can be determined using a Pandora-like dynamic formula, learning what you like to read by what you tend to read.
On the surface, it doesn't seem like sifting one's news interests should be as difficult as detecting musical tastes. If some program were to examine the text of every news article you read daily, you'd think it would infer some patterns and draw some categorical conclusions. I'm a political junkie, especially when the politicians are human beings with minds. I love scientific discussions and debates about the order of the universe. I try to stay in tune with the world, which includes events that happen outside of, and with nothing to do with, America.
But to be fair to any program that tries to discern my taste, I can become interested in anything if given the right pitch. Having been an editor, I'm accustomed to the idea of opening my mind to input from contributing writers, but making them work to find the proverbial cheese at the end of the maze. I'll listen to any proposal, but I won't make it easy. The same goes for online news: I'll consider reading anything, but not for very long. If by the count of five, I feel I'm being underestimated or talked down to, I'll move on.
Is there a news taxonomy?
At the very onset of the World-Wide Web, I was a tester of CNN's first Web-based service. With the best of intentions, it started out by giving its reader a poll. What are you interested in? Check each box that applies. The topics of each box pointed to varying contexts: Wars, the State Dept., the Ivory Coast, Movies, Living.
In my assessment of the service to CNN.com's developers, I wrote something to this effect: Everyone's interested in living. No one is particularly thrilled by war (oh goodie, mass murder!). Folks interested in one will eschew the other. Few people are directly interested in the State Dept., but show me someone who would be disinterested in Israel signing a treaty of recognition with Palestine. I would be interested in the Ivory Coast if CNN produced reports from there. In the end, most people will fail to be interested in 80% of CNN's content. The exception would be Movies, in which case, I said, it should rename its site "Showbiz Tonight."
Asking people what they're interested in with respect to news may be futile. News is supposed to be what's important, and importance may have relevance beyond what you or I may personally "like." I don't "like" Syria, but I'm very personally interested in what goes on there. I "like" the iPhone, but I'm sick of reading about it.
News360's idea of personalizing news hasn't changed much from that 1994 business plan. Like the old CNN, News360 presumes the existence of a news taxonomy, of categorically identifiable interests. Here, however, you can imagine the topic names applying to "domains" of news topics in varying sizes, with the understanding that those domains can and will overlap.
So in this "square one" space of News360 topics you might be interested in, before you start drilling down, "Markets," "Stocks," "Finance," and "Investing" are all separate topics. If this were a top-down taxonomy, that would be not only repetitive but redundant. Who would be interested in "stocks" but not "markets?"
On the other hand, what single words would you choose to denote the things you're interested in? There's a 50/50 chance you might say "stocks" instead of "markets," in which case, having both items available makes sense. News360 could perhaps do a better job of laying out a broader palette for the initial choice, though.
How far can you drill down?
It isn't exactly obvious, but the way to find topics you're really looking for is to enter a term into the search box and see what comes up. In my tests of the News360 beta earlier this week, I took about five minutes to locate tiles that represent some topics I'm personally interested in. Here's the palette I came up with:
If a publication devoted itself to these topics, I'd probably find some good reason to hang around for five minutes without having to hear a sales pitch first.
So here are the top stories in the news of the world according to Scott Fulton. Former New Jersey Gov. Jon Corzine is stepping down from the bankrupt financial institution he headed, and yes, I'd find that interesting. Story #6, which isn't printed here, deals with the bankruptcy of Dippin' Dots, the company that makes those funky frozen multi-colored pellets you find in the food courts of museums. Story #13 is the possible collapse of the financial infrastructure of Greece, which may yet become a museum piece in itself. If I were the editor of this publication, I don't think I would have put Dippin' Dots between MF Global and Greece.
But for a world that only grew up with blogs, where order and placement aren't particularly relevant, none of that may matter. Dippin' Dots made the list, and I may never have known about it otherwise.
Do your breadcrumbs leave enough clues?
News360 does not have any way of reading the text of the articles one reads outside of News360, nor should it. Its way of refining interests is based on scanning, with permission, the Facebook, Google +, and Twitter feeds of the user, in search of interesting references and perhaps the identities of the sites linked to in hyperlinks.
I am a practicing technology journalist, so my Twitter feed is riddled with links to tech stories. I read about 1% of them. It's because I'm not one of these bloggers who reads a report online, rewrites it, publishes it, and calls that "reporting." That, and I don't really have time to re-read about too many things I already know.
So for me, scanning my Twitter feeds for stuff I'm interested in, is futile. It's stuff the people I'm linked to are interested in. More often these days, these links are to my own work. And if you think you're tired of reading my work, put yourself in my shoes.
After scanning my Twitter and Google + feeds, News360 created new categories on my behalf for technology and computers - stuff I hadn't really bothered to cover in my initial five-minute scan. Neither my initial scan nor News360's scan of my interests recorded the fact that I'm very interested in the news media business. Actually, there is a surprising dearth of topics on the subject of the media itself.
No news on "news?"
I tried to manually compile a "Media" category, based on whatever sub-subtopics appeared to be available. I cobbled a list that included "NBC News," "CNN.com," "American Broadcasting Company," "publishing," and things like that. "Newspapers" was described as a brand of software, as opposed to a part of the publishing industry, so I avoided choosing it.
And here are the top stories in Scott Fulton's world of media. It's amazing how that Groupon guy (whoever he is) gets around. Greece's impending collapse tops the list of top media stories, although it couldn't top the list of world-at-large stories. However, those cardboard cutout faces in the top story are of German Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Nicolas Sarkozy.
I may be a hopeless case, but then again, I should be the very model of the person every news publisher would want to target. I can read anything and everything up until the point I become insulted by it. But I'm exactly the type of reader that News360, at least with the current beta, cannot pin down.
As a music experimentation service, Pandora is a tremendous lot of fun. For kicks, I like to give Pandora a difficult song that I personally like - just one - and see if it can compose a channel around it. Sometimes I'm pleasantly surprised by what I discover, but other times, it can be amazingly off the mark. It has no idea why I like some of the music from the band Queensryche. And if you want to see sparks fly, try giving it Queensryche and Norah Jones on the same channel.
When Pandora gives me a swing and a miss, I can click the "thumb-down" button, laugh it off, and go on with the next song. It's fun. News for me is business. When something or someone makes too many pitches that don't hit home, the editor in me declares it a strikeout. And that may not be fair for News360, which after all, is only experimenting with very sensible logic to attempt to solve a very important problem.
The dream of a "semantic Web" speaks of the ability for articles to automatically become linked to other articles that share a common context, without the need for human intervention. The problem is, once you take human intervention out of the equation, the introduction of random error had better be limited to a context that's fun and forgivable. Maybe most folks don't attribute the same importance to the presentation of news as I do. But maybe that's the very reason why the semantic Web has failed to come into existence.