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 AJR  Columns

From AJR,   December 1998  issue

It's Time To Get Personal Online   

Web newspapers should let readers customize their offerings.


By J.D. Lasica
J.D. Lasica is a former AJR new-media columnist.     


SHOULD ONLINE NEWS publications personalize content to satisfy individual users' wants and needs? To date, they've shown a remarkable indifference to one of the hallmarks of new media.
Since1996, Webcustomized portal sites such as My Yahoo, My Excite and My Netscape have grown in popularity, now giving millions of users ``personalized pages,'' often as their starting point for Web surfing.
Users are fed their favorite news topics, stock and TV listings, sports team info, horoscopes and other interests, plus handy reminders of friends' birthdays or relatives' anniversaries. So why the resistance by online newspapers to micro-targeting the news? Old media traditions, in part.
``Publishers are used to thinking within the box,'' says Vin Crosbie, a new media consultant in Greenwich, Connecticut. ``Editors put up pages and force readers to drill down to find what they want. They feel threatened now that they're losing their gatekeeper role.''
There's also confusion about what personalization really entails. I see three major trends emerging:

Personalized content. Personalization lets readers tailor the news to their narrow interests. Critics of such ``Daily Me'' offerings fear that readers risk missing important news that doesn't fit their profiles. (See ``The Daily Me,'' April 1997.)
``If someone wants to personalize his settings to say, `I only want to see stories on Clinton and Monica,' that rubs me wrong as a journalist,'' says Christian Hendricks, president and publisher of Nando Media, a pioneering Internet publishing company.
True enough. But why frame the issue as a choice between polar opposites? Personalized news should serve as a supplement to readers' news diets, not as a replacement. Most readers would still want to know what's important to their community and society. But no editor can tell which additional stories each reader would find compelling, valuable or useful.
If I have cancer, I may want to read not only your medical writer's story on new research developments, but reports from other news services, too. If I'm a walnut farmer, I may want to read related agricultural news that doesn't make it into my hometown paper or onto its Web site.
A few news organizations have made nods in this direction. The Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition lets users customize news by company or industry (banking, health care or media, for example). CNN Interactive, with 538,000 subscribers to its Custom News, offers similar news categories. But these first-generation attempts, which broadly group readers' interests into categories, fall short of true individualized news.

  • Personalized news experience. The front page of the Seattle Times Web site gives three choices for home teams: Mariners, Seahawks and SuperSonics. Well, what if I'm a transplanted Chicagoan? Or what if I don't care for major league baseball, but I'm really interested in University of Washington sports because my nephew is a starting tackle for the Huskies? Why can't my sports page lead off with the teams I pick?
    Tell me the day's top stories on your front page, but let me add my personalized content and bookmarks. Let me compare your papers' movie reviews against other film critics' reviews.
    Let me configure your site's front page to include the columnists, reporters, features, puzzles and comics I like, instead of forcing me to scout them out in a dozen different places.
    Here's where online newspapers have a clear advantage over aggregation sites like Yahoo: Readers form relationships not with topics but with columnists, writers and features, whether the name brand is Howard Kurtz, Rush Limbaugh, Dear Abby or Doonesbury. Exploit those habits.

  • Personalized services. We're seeing the beginning glimmers of Web sites that facilitate commercial and personal transactions between merchants and consumers. Targeted advertising is part of that wave.
    ``Everyone hates ads--except for the ads you're interested in,'' Crosbie observes. ``What car you're going to drive and what house you're going to live in matters more to you than what's happening in Bosnia.''
    Absolutely true. Targeted advertising is still in its infancy, but look out when retailers take advantage of new tools to tell you about those golf clubs you've been hoping would go on sale or that new jazz CD that's getting rave reviews.
    Technology is putting the tools of personalization in our hands, but online publishers have yet to fully make the psychological leap. Personalization, though slow to take off, is new media's destiny. Far better to embrace it than to cling to an eroding mass-media mind-set.