Saturday, November 17, 2007

Personalizing the newspaper

I do not agree with everything AP CEO Tom Curley said in his Nov. 1 speech, but I am going to shamelessly pick out the parts I agree with in my excerpts below.

First, some excerpts on personalized news:
The perfect paper or newscast is becoming possible -- at least in the reader's or viewer's eyes. What is it you really want to know? We can personalize content now.

We’re not stuck on those 15-ton behemoths that miraculously manufacture a one-size-fits-all package over several hours that gets delivered over even more hours at great cost or captive of a 22-minute time slot engineered to reach a vast range of content tastes.
The economies of scale with mass production of print newspapers or television broadcasts are much smaller on the Web. On the Web, we have the opportunity to print a different newspaper for each reader, giving each reader a personalized front page.

Next, some excerpts on personalized advertising:
The structure for advertising is changing from mass to targeted.

When you drop a cookie on someone in the digital space, the ads you serve that viewer become up to 200 times more valuable ... The future is about serving ads to people, not to pages or programs.
Offline, we have no opportunity to show different advertisements to different people. The newsprint page, the TV broadcast, the billboard, all are static. Online, we can identify each viewer of the ad space and show something that is likely to be relevant (and maybe even helpful) to that viewer.

Just like Amazon shows a different page to each user -- a store for every customer -- newspapers should build a different page for each reader. Newspapers have gone far too long trying to apply the old static offline model to the online world.

Please see also my Nov 2004 post, "It's the content itself", on a much older speech by Tom Curley calling for personalized news.

[Tom Curley speech found via TechDirt]


Jeffrey said...

Greg, I'm of 2 minds on the issue of personalizing the news. Before coming to work on personalizing shopping at Amazon , I was a journalist. Among the principles that journalism schools teach is that one of the press's essential functions in a democracy is to present a wide range of ideas and allow the marketplace to sort out fact from falsehood.

When you allow people to hear only what they care most about, what they already agree with, it's a double-edged sword. On the one hand, you revive the moribund news business through targeted content that is more entertaining and sticky, and consequently more profitable through targeted advertising. On the other hand, you stunt the public discourse essential to a functioning democracy by making it easy and preferrable to limit your intake of ideas to the things you already care about.

Though I'm very much the product and beneficiary of it, the electronic media and their negative effect on the marketplace of ideas probably has a great deal to do with our current political and social predicament in the US. Personalizing the news has the potential to intensify the fragmentation we suffer from. Our system of governance depends very much on collective wisdom and values, which were already difficult to come by; they're much harder to arrive at when everyone is insulating themselves in the ideas they're already comfortable and familiar with.

Greg Linden said...

Hi, Jeffrey. That is a common criticism of personalized news, that it has the potential to pigeonhole people and reduce the diversity of news they see.

I see it a different way. I think personalized news provides an opportunity to broaden reader's interests, exposing them to news sources, perspectives, and viewpoints they otherwise would never have seen.

A personalized news aggregator should be able to provide both breadth and focus, sorting through huge numbers of sources and articles and helping you find the information you need. Findory, for example, sorted through thousands of sources and presented readers with a wide variety of perspectives and opinions.

I think personalized news makes it more difficult to limit their reading to news from one particular source with one particular viewpoint. I think personalized news makes it easier to get the information people need to be well-informed about the events that impact their lives.

jfew said...

Greg, don't get me wrong. I subscribe to your vision for the potential of personalized news aggregation. But those building these technologies need to be vigilant of the implications of a too narrowly focused result set. It's possible that I underestimate the collective information appetite, but I imagine a world of people consuming even more of the celebrity news, "offbeat" stories, and YouTube fare that pollute and twiddling their thumbs while Rome burns. But maybe the utopian vision for personalized news is possible: putting the decision about what is important back in the hands of ordinary consumers. Perhaps the feedback loop of "I like this/not interested" votes will incent the news business into covering the hard news and op-ed content that it turns out people really want and need.

But applied improperly, people will inadvertently tune out the world of ideas around them. At worst, media conglomerates with hidden (or not-so-hidden) agendas will abuse technology to divide us and profit from the confusion. When News Corp. starts to pursue this approach to content delivery, be afraid. :-)

jeremy said...

I share both your views.. both Greg's idealism and Jeff's concerns.

But the thing that tips me more toward the "concern" side of the equation is the oft-observed fact that users are lazy and will not click past the first page of results, or sometimes will not even scroll down to the 9th result.

Given that users basically just take what is fed to them, not looking at anything but the top few items, how can we ensure that the diversity of information that users will be receiving through personalized news will actually be looked at?

What good are 30 different, broad perspective news sources, if the average lazy user never clicks past the first one or two sources? The user is always only going to see that FOX (for example) source, anyway.

Would personalization, then, require some sort of algorithmic diversity quotient, where every other day a different news source gets moved to the top of the list, or to the front page?

Greg Linden said...

Would personalization, then, require some sort of algorithmic diversity quotient, where every other day a different news source gets moved to the top of the list, or to the front page?

I think it does, absolutely. Diversity is important, not only for improving the usefulness of the recommendations, but also as a mechanism for exploring and gathering more data about user preferences.

Anonymous said...

The promise of personalization remains ellusive becuase it is a poorly defined concept. What does personailization really mean? Throwing Amazon around as an example is not helpful. The vast majority of the alleged personalozation Amazon offers is "junk" and not useful to readers. I will offer that using simple tools that are driven by "like" create too much noise for readers.

I think the concern offered by journalists that we run the risk of becoming more narrow as the result of targeted content is erroneous. Journalists have pushed their narrow agendas upon us for a long time. Consumers reacted by looking for more media sources. The internet is mereley the logical extention of people seeking many sources of information that refelct the many social networks that they interact with on a daily basis. One could argue that journalists where a transitional form that intermediated in envirnoments where transaction costs were high.

I would suggest that you can connect this thread with the searchthread to see that it is andtends always to be a small group that actively search out information.

Maria Grineva said...

Greg, have you seen TwitterTim,es - personalized newspaper generated from what your friends posted on Twitter?