AJR  Features
From AJR,   April 1997

The Daily Me   

Customized online news services allow readers to receive news content tailored to their interests. But do readers risk missing important developments that don't fit their profiles?

By Christopher Harper
Christopher Harper teaches journalism at New York University. His book, And That's The Way It Will Be: News in the Digital Age, will be published by NYU Press next September.     

B RAD BARTLEY IS NOT THE ONLY student from Oklahoma at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, but he is the only one from Quapaw. His tiny hometown, population 985, lies in the northeastern corner of the state. When Bartley arrived in Cambridge, he wanted some news from back home but couldn't find much in the Boston-oriented media. Maybe you get an occasional score of a game involving the local football or basketball teams. Maybe you get a glimpse of the weather in Oklahoma when a local television station shows the national radar map. But Boston is Boston, and Oklahoma is not exactly on the radar screen of the media in Beantown.

Bartley is a clean-shaven, jut-jawed, no-nonsense kind of guy who might have been cast in the play or movie "Oklahoma," in which Gordon MacRae sang about the winds sweeping across the Plains. But Bartley was able to do something about his info-gap. He and seven other freshmen set out to solve the problem as part of a class at the MIT Media Lab. That's where Nicholas Negroponte, the author of "Being Digital," holds court in a futuristic building constructed from an odd array of ornamental cement, white tile and glass. The building is named for Jerome Wiesner, the eccentric late MIT president and science adviser to John F. Kennedy who helped Negroponte start the lab 11 years ago.

If Mohammed were to go to a mountain in the age of new media, it would be the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge. The lab is Mecca for those who want to know what the new millennium will bring, be it the newspaper of the future, virtual reality or any other current buzzword.

Fortunately, the Media Lab's ayatollahs also listen to good ideas, and Bartley and his fellow freshmen had a good one. Together with researcher Pascal Chesnais, the freshmen devised a customized, personal news service, named FishWrap, which is updated continuously via computer.

Today--three years after the creation of FishWrap--the mainstream media from the Wall Street Journal to Time Warner offer dozens of variations of what the MIT freshmen conceived. The San Francisco Examiner and Chronicle's Internet edition, The Gate, actually uses the personalized computer structure developed at MIT, as do newspapers in Italy and Brazil.

But there are questions about customized news services, sometimes called the "Daily Me." The services are egocentric; a user chooses what he or she wants to read and can filter out other information. The roles of the newspaper reporter and editor--the traditional gatekeepers of information--are limited, if not eliminated altogether, in deciding what news the user receives. The user may become isolated from his or her neighborhood, city, state and nation because he or she has filtered out any information about the global village. "It's more isolation and less real life," says media critic Edwin Diamond, a former MIT professor who writes about online issues.

But this problem is addressed, in part, by FishWrap's unusual front page. Readers decide what news they'd like to see at the top and what news they think is important for others to read.

"It's really about control, decision making," says Chesnais, a bearded ex-New Yorker who has been working on projects about news in the future since 1986. "We have no editors making decisions involving what people should read. The readers do that."

W HILE THERE ARE A NUMBER of variations of personal news services, here's how the original, FishWrap, works. More than 700 people subscribe. A computer program asks three questions. First, the computer needs to know the zip code of the user's hometown. Second, the computer asks about the subscriber's academic interests and then his or her personal interests. From that profile, computer programs seek out key words, such as "computers" or "Oklahoma," to construct a daily news and information site from news stories filed into the computer's database by the Associated Press, the Boston newspapers, Knight-Ridder, Zagat's Restaurant Guide and a host of other news providers.

The main page shows what news sources have provided the information. The reader can then focus on a news category and view summaries of stories. If a summary seems interesting, the reader can call up the full text with graphics or audio. As a navigation aid, FishWrap displays a bar at the top of each computer screen that indicates the reader's current location in the document.

Like its printed cousins, FishWrap has a front page called Page One. But unlike other personalized services, in the spirit of democracy--perhaps news editors would call it anarchy--each of the 700 FishWrap users can determine what goes on the front page. If someone thinks that the group should read a particular story, that individual can put it on the front page. There is no limit to the number of front page stories that FishWrap can handle. These selections allow the reader to enjoy the breadth of community interests and force the user to be exposed to ideas outside of his or her personal choices.

Today, the lead story is about a Turkish politician who was physically attacked in Hungary. "I'd read that," says Bartley, an electrical engineering student. "It's weird enough." But if there are not enough people who read the story, it falls down to the bottom of Page One and then off the front page after 36 hours. The addition of the Page One stories came after a survey found that students were indeed concerned about becoming isolated from events outside their own interests.

But democracy can create some distinctive news decisions. When the Oklahoma City bombing occurred, for example, the disaster story placed second on page one behind a story about the mugging of Big Bird on the same day. "The icon of your childhood getting pummeled was more important to the students," Chesnais says. "It struck a chord among [them]."

After the front page, the MIT subscriber can access a constant stream of up-to-the-minute stories from the Associated Press. When the bombing in Oklahoma City happened, for example, Bartley turned to his computer to monitor what was happening in his home state and watched television on CNN from the corner of his eye. "Generally, I like to read more than watch television because it's more complete," he says. "It's better here on the computer because it was more restrained. I get this when I want it on the computer, and it's up to date."

The next section provides local, national and international news from a variety of sources. Bartley's local news comes from Oklahoma. Most of the time, Bartley does not find much that interests him, but he's glad to know that the weather in his hometown this day is better than in frigid Cambridge.

For his personal page, "Stuff That I Like," the MIT student has chosen computer technology, book reviews, architecture and photo essays. Today he gets nothing that interests him in the book review section, which includes books about Fergie and Oprah Winfrey and a reading by singer Johnny Cash. Under the photo essays, he retrieves photographs of George Gershwin and from South Africa.

When Bartley finishes reading his FishWrap, the computer retrieves all the articles he has scanned and offers him an opportunity to save any stories. After he logs off, the computer will reorganize the personalized edition if Bartley has changed his reading choices or has added new topics to his personal choices.

The computer program also responds to changes in reading habits. For example, Chesnais' sister was in Rwanda when the genocide began in 1994. As he started reading more about Rwanda, stories about the country moved up in importance as the computer determined he wanted more news about what was happening there. When his sister left Rwanda, the computer program pushed the stories down in importance as he selected fewer of them.

The customized news service at MIT, which is available only to students and faculty, also offers travel information. If a user is going to Finland, for example, news about that country appears on his or her FishWrap 48 hours before he or she travels and ends after the user returns.

FishWrap also tries to provide more detail and context for readers about specific stories. PLUM, which stands for Peace Love and Understanding Machine, is a software program that augments news on natural disasters reported in FishWrap. By placing news events in the context of a reader's home community, PLUM helps the reader better understand distant disaster news.

Here, for example, is the Reuters dispatch from June 30, 1995, about floods in China:

"China fears its worst flooding disaster this century with rising waters already killing hundreds of people and devastating farms and fisheries in its eastern region. Spring rains which annually bring calamity to tens of millions have been compounded by the effects of global warming and some meteorologists predict the worst inundation in a hundred years."

After reading the lead, most users would say: "What a pity!" Then the reader would move on. But FishWrap makes the story more relevant to people in Cambridge by incorporating a variety of data easily accessible on the Internet, such as material from the CIA Fact Book. The MIT news service pulls out the details on the worst floods in the United States. FishWrap points out that more than 14,000 people in Boston speak Chinese. The service creates a graphic of the area in China affected by the floods and places it on a map of Boston, showing that nearly all of the Boston suburbs would be under water if a similar flood occurred in Massachusetts. The damage of $500 million would cost every person in Boston $2,200, or about 7.5 percent of the average yearly income in the city. The number of households affected by the Chinese flood--220,000--would mean roughly all the houses in Boston.

N ONE OF THE CUSTOMIZED NEWS services provides as many options as FishWrap. Some cost money. Others are free. You have to drop by a World Wide Web site to view some--known as "pull" technology, like pullling you to a local newsstand to buy the newspaper. Others send electronic mail messages to your computer--known as "push" technology, like pushing your newspaper onto your doorstep once you subscribe.

The Wall Street Journal's interactive edition costs $49 a year for those who don't subscribe to the printed version of the newspaper, or $29 for subscribers. Interactive Journal lets a user select stories from a number of categories of news and also flags stories that mention companies in the user's stock portfolio, providing a daily accounting of how investments performed. The Interactive Journal also offers briefing books about companies and a variety of stories related to business throughout the world. Articles that appeared during the past two weeks can be easily searched and retrieved.

Mercury Mail offers NEWSpot, a daily e-mail of headlines and brief customized story summaries on a wide variety of topics. Because the personal edition comes as e-mail, it's like getting your newspaper delivered at home rather than buying it around the corner or going each day to a World Wide Web site.

Personal News Page is the newest offering from Individual, Inc., a company that was one of the first to offer customized news. PNP offers news from more than 700 publications, emphasizing science and technology, with secondary focuses on medicine, media and general business.

Pathfinder, Time Warner's online service, is arguably the deepest and most intimidating site on the Web. For free, a reader can search Time, Fortune and People, or learn about problems with old houses and progressive farming. For a fee of $4.95 a month or $29.95 a year, Pathfinder sorts through the material and provides the user with information on specifically requested subjects.

PointCast offers news and information from CNN, Time, People and Money magazines, Reuters, AccuWeather and a host of local newspapers. The service allows the user to select topics of interest, delivering matching stories by displaying them as a screen saver.

While some customized services like FishWrap force users to read headlines about international, national and local events, other services offer only those subjects the reader selects. That troubles some editors, particularly because of their reduced role as gatekeeper and the isolation it creates for readers.

"Say you have a user who has set up a customization agent so that he or she gets favorite sports teams' news and selected stocks," says Leah Gentry, managing editor of Excite, a search engine and information service. "OK, the president is assassinated. That's a gimme. You override and give them that headline regardless of stated news preferences." But even Gentry is not certain if she would immediately flash a bulletin on a plane crash or a hijacking. "At what point do you stop respecting the wishes of the user and start feeding them what you think is important?" she asks.

If a company provides the option for an exclusive, personal news service, then the provider should stick to its commitment, maintains Melinda McAdams, a former content developer for the Washington Post's Digital Ink. "I am a user who absolutely does not want that allegedly important news flash. I will never have only one source of news on my desktop or in my life," she says, "and these news flashes would surely, certainly, undoubtedly be redundant and thus unwelcome for me."

Several editors suggest that the user should be asked to specify if he or she is absolutely certain that the news editors should not override the desire to be left alone when big news breaks. Steve Yelvington, editor/manager of the online edition of Minneapolis' Star Tribune, thinks the other customized services will eventually gravitate toward a shared community experience much like FishWrap. "There's a belief that computers are changing the ground rules, but those ground rules aren't what we thought they were, and when we look closely at the World Wide Web experience, we find that computers aren't very good at handing power over to individuals anyway," he says. "They're incredibly clumsy devices for navigating through information space. They're slow and unreliable. I think the market will demand that broad-but-shallow 'Daily We' element in any customizable environment."

What impact will these customized news products have on the future of the printed page? No one really knows. The Wall Street Journal says its online edition attracts a younger audience than the print edition. And many of the online edition's readers do not subscribe to the print version. Perhaps it's useful to go back to Bartley, the MIT student who helped create the "Daily Me," who will be one of the news users in the future. "I think it would probably be fine if personalized news replaced newspapers," he says. "You get it in a lot more convenient form. You get it where and when you want it. It's easier to keep it around rather than clipping it and watching it get yellow."

Bartley sees an upside for newspapers. "Costs can go down for a newspaper, like maintaining a warehouse full of paper and a fleet of truck drivers. You can get the quick response time of television with the completeness of text. It will get easy to compare things by reading news from different sources side by side. It just seems like a big win situation."

But with only nine percent of America's homes wired to the Internet, it's likely that many people will still find their daily newspaper at the drugstore, on the doorstep or in the rose bushes.