Why news is still good news on the Internet

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      Normally, I wouldn't pay much attention to a site that collates news stories–especially one that's still in beta form–but an article by Newser ( www.newser.com/ ) cofounder Michael Wolff in the October issue of Vanity Fair intrigued me. Wolff, who indicates he was involved in some kind of disastrous never-again venture during the first dot-com boom, spends much of the article talking about why one shouldn't get into the news business these days. There's the increasing irrelevancy of what's covered, the declining readership for print newspapers combined with the lack of sufficient revenue for on-line publishing to sustain itself alone, plus how younger generations–accustomed to being surrounded by information–don't seem to need news delivery in the traditional manner.

      Wolff even speculates that the whole concept of an official package of news stories (whether broadcast or in print) might be an outmoded leftover from the days of monolithic media entities, which people may find less appealing than multiple sources they can graze. He also notes that the people he knows who claim news media will survive in some form are all over 50, yet no bright young minds are trumpeting any news-based start-ups. Sure, to people who work in news and to those who have the news-consuming habit it seems valuable, but what if there's been a generational change that has made traditional news "out of it, square, dumb, hopeless", Wolff says.

      He may have a point there. Perhaps what some of us feel as the iconic nature of daily newspapers and the evening news is largely due to their past importance, while the experiences of those under 30 never really involved those mediums. Even I must admit I don't buy newspapers like I used to–perhaps only two or three a week.

      However, Wolff obviously didn't quite talk himself out of working on what he calls the new news. Here's what he says is the irresistible notion that drew him in. "Every advance in technology has seen the invention of a new form of news. Linotype got us mass circulation of newspapers 125 years ago; television, the network evening news 60 years ago; cable, 24-7 satellite news 25 years ago. So what's Internet news–what's the new news thing?" A little later he offers, "What if you could become the Amazon of news? The Google of news?"

      There are a couple of hints in the article as to the possibilities of an on-line news site, since all the necessary content is already floating out there in individual sites. How about a slider that lets you select the ratio of serious news to lightweight stuff, like blending some National Enquirer in with your New York Times? Or a way to filter the overnight news as it might be selected for an investment banker or politician?

      Unfortunately, there's not much of that cleverness on display yet at Newser. It looks a lot like any other news aggregator site, with a selection of stories (generally hard news) presented as headlines and pictures from various sources, linked to a summary article and from there on to the originating site. Mind you, fancy customization options require that somebody thinks of a way to codify that range of options into a form the computer understands. But it still needs human judgment at its centre, which is one of the strengths of Newser over other aggregators–a real person acts as editor to select the stories and which source each comes from. That puts it one up on the headline compilations generated by computers. I'd take the news judgment of a trained journalist over almost any blogger, so that's a plus. Also, I've never been crazy about the Digg model of users voting on content (which Wolff says relies on "the help of random passersby and passionate imbeciles"). Sounds like the Internet, all right.

      Newser promises, "Faster, Smarter News". The fast part is pretty much required, given the medium, and the smarter part could well be true. There is an intelligence behind the story selections, and just as in a print newspaper there are sections like Business, Culture & Society, and Sports. Each of those sections has a group of recent stories (up to 21). You can even choose to view the top stories from previous days. Below that is a collection of topics (up to 30). These topics have some potential, because they get away from simply offering breaking-news headlines by presenting multiple stories concerning an issue over time, such as Iran in Iraq, food and drug safety, or Vladimir Putin's Russia. There are also links to related topics and background material. As the archives of topics grow, I think that will be a very powerful feature. The site purports to scan the top 100 English-language news sites for its stories, which is better than any one of us can do every day, and the summaries are cleanly and concisely presented.

      For now, I'd have to describe Newser as useful and intelligent, but not yet special enough to be an essential daily stop. It's as good a source for global news as you're likely to find, but I'd hope to see fancier features come into play, or perhaps a way that I could give a lot more input into my customized reading experience, such as choosing the sources I wanted or keywording my interests. There's definitely potential here–and I'll wait until Newser's out of beta mode before making up my mind–but I'm a little underwhelmed so far.