Customization of News


History of Electronic media

Civic Journalism

Customization of News

Future of Newspaper

Links to other journalism sites

December 16, 1996

What is news?

Traditionally, news is defined by a list of values to determine the newsworthiness of an event. Something happened or happening in the society is judged by timeliness, prominence, unusualness, proximity, human interest and personalization in order to get it printed.

Moreover, news is a daily product. By definition, news is what's happened since yesterday. By definition, the news must change every day. However, the rise of electronic news not only changes the way information is obtained, but also the way information is presented.

Media critic Jon Katz, said newspapers need to focus on stories that offer synthesis and context, and less reliance on breaking news. Katz said newspapers also should hire younger and more diverse reporters and provide enhanced communication with their readers via personal e-mail.

New technology also transforms the mode of news presentation from one-to-many to many-to-many model. "A tremendous power shift is underway, and it's about our ability to connect with each other in new ways," Internet pioneer and author Howard Rheingold said. "The day the New York Times tells us all the news that's fit to print is over. Its era of dominance has passed because the world changed.

Norman Edwards, a semi-retired lawyer in Newton, Mass., writes the Internet enables individuals to combat the overpowering of the commercial media in shaping public opinion and attitudes and influence legislation, etc. It means that the audience are allowed to participate in the news production process.

Electronic publishing consultant Bart Preecs said the possibility that new ways to deliver news may require new ways to think about what "news" really is. Newshole or competition for space is no longer a concern for journalists. Deadline pressure is now redefined to have news updated every minute. Instead of breaking news, Preecs emphasized, the provision of retrievable "yesterday's news" becomes far more important to readers and users.

Civic Journalism in Electronic Publishing

Preecs integrated the notion of civic journalism with cyber news. He said the forms of news sought by civic journalists -- issue guides, candidate comparisons and in-depth analyses -- have a much stronger chance of surviving the passage of time and being relevant to reader / browsers seeking background information on a topic they've suddenly become interested in.

For example, the previously ignored issues suddenly may be the immediate concern of the day. People may ignore all news about health and science until the day they are told a group of suspicious cells develop around an organ. The ability to retrieve all sorts of related health information turns out to be of vital importance.

Preecs noted the ability of new media technology to sort out information by topic, to search and retrieve important information no matter where or when it was published becomes extremely valuable. Electronic newspapers are advantageous in their nature of search strategy.

Therefore, Preecs stressed that using the concepts of civic journalism will allow news organizations and journalists to produce "news" that has a chance of surviving more than one news cycle, perhaps a day in print. Journalists may have to attend to the needs of the communities they serve through a variety of interactive channels.

Customization of News Online

In "Net Gain," by J.D. Lasica, Rheingold agreed that the Internet changes the media equation: "If you want to publish the news, all you need is a computer and a telephone, and you can go online and provide an eyewitness account" of any event happening around the world. The Internet, he said, puts the masses back in mass media.

Rheingold further explained that the real phenomenon of the Net is micro-publishing, micro-audiences, micro-markets. Whatever kinds of stuff can be found on the Web. The Internet, he said, won't replace the old media, but it will add greatly to the diversity of viewpoints.

Regarding a new many-to-many model of news delivery, new technology can improve the research and news gathering processes (Lapham, p.7). Journalists now have a chance to really know and interact with the audience that goes beyond traditional letters to the editor. This closer interaction is more likely to foster a better knowledge of the audience, and writing and reporting that more closely reflects readers' values and interests.

The changing role of journalism in the online era drives some news organizations to consider customizing news online. In "Net Gain," Elizabeth Weise, national cyberspace writer for the Associated Press, said the Net offers an effective place for discussion, argument and interaction with the growing number of debating societies and usenet.

Besides its function of interactivity, Annenberg senior fellow Ellen Hume of Northwestern University noted that the new communications media can defy space and time as well as place. Journalists are now under arbitrary distribution deadlines and bottomless news hole. The new media also make news more local. Improved access to the rest of the world's news raises the value of local journalism sent directly from the original location where the news occurs. It can sell itself to new markets because it has a unique product that no one else can produce.

Customized news also becomes local in a different way -- rooted locally to a new geography of "virtual," rather than physical communities. New organizations can reach everyone in the world at once through the Internet, and at the same time respond to small virtual communities of specific interest. Above all, quality news is expected to be selected, as a special niche that local viewers visit for information they need.

Who are the audiences?

News organizations are reminded to provide interactive medium for an online news version of journalistic quality rather than merely posting the printed edition of the newspapers online, or called shovelware. According to "Net Gain," a more sizable number of Net users are browsers. They want journalists to work in the background, pointing to multiple sources and conflicting accounts, while providing little or no summary or interpretation. They often have an intense interest in a particular subject, and they like to seek the raw information for themselves.

Some may argue that customization of news may counteract editorial judgment in selecting what stories should be put on the top. Leah Gentry, assistant managing editor for Excite, which also provides customized personal news service, said in an on-line news mailing list that something may be really interesting, but not so earth-shattering. In the era of customized news, he doubted, editors will be relinquished the control that they have held so tightly over the content throughout the history.

In response through the mailing list, Howard Finberg, director of information technology for Phoenix Newspapers, Inc., said the concept of customized news service is more a reflect of the problem that customers may not think journalists doing a good job in selecting information that is relevant to their daily lives. He stated that the real problem facing new generation of journalism is to define the audience and who use customized services and why. Journalists have to do a better job to ensure the customized services that learn what the customer needs and provide the depth and understanding that seems to be missing from general "headline" services.

Dominique Paul Noth, a columnist for Internet Column, suggested that a truly customized service should include the user's choices and own attitudes and invite adjustments on the basis of the users' concerns.

Neil Postman of New York University also called for the definition of audiences. He acknowledged that the power of new technology forces journalists to think about the needs of their customers rather than the needs of journalists or the limits of current news manufacturing and distribution processes. People now may ask why they need journalists.

Postman said the problem in the late 20th century has become the information glut. The problem is not getting more diverse forms of information quicker, he argued. "The problem is how to decide what is significant, relevant information, how to get rid of unwanted information," Postman said.

Media professionals warned that audiences are not satisfied simply with what they choose. On the one hand, people don't want the top-down news force-led them by the media. On the other hand, they don't want unfiltered news, either, said Kevin Kelly, executive editor of the Wired magazine. These online users want their news tamed, filtered and summarized, quickly and cleanly.

Public issue researcher Richard Harwood also shared the same view that people not only don't want news professionals to make fewer judgments, but also better judgments. He said people look to journalists as their guides and truth-tellers to provide context, perspective and meaning. Thus, journalistic values of accuracy, credibility, judgment and balance are still the core in electronic publishing.


Some media professionals are still uncertain whether customization of news is the direction for future newspapers.

Christopher Harper, a communication professor at New York University, expressed in an e-mail that there is a trend toward customized news when an increasing number of customized news services are offered. He, however, doesn't sure whether it is good or bad for the newspaper industry.

Eric Meyer, senior editor of American Journalism Review, said through an e-mail interview that customization of news may be a trend among content providers and packagers, but it may not be a trend among general reading public in terms of consuming general news. He said AJR's research has found little interest for the customized services except among a small minority of information seekers who form the early adoptor pool for Internet technology and except in highly specialized informational niches.

Meyer explained that the biggest problem is that "the notion of typical readers having staked out specific informational agendas each day is greatly overstated. This is due in part to the unpredictable nature of general news, the lack of personal significance of most general news topics and the innate efficiency of the human mind to skim and browse. "What readers want is not customization of what news is provide but rather predictably efficient organization that facilitate their gaining control over the retrieval process. In other words, they don't want a menu that consists only of their favorite dishes but rather a menu, while tempting them with unfamiliar dishes, allows them to quickly find their favorites and combine entrees, side dishes, salads and desserts in any order they desire," Meyer said.

Back To Top

Customized News Services
Christopher Harper, professor at NYU, compiled a list of customized news services and commented on their good and bad features.
Check out his article "Daily Me" that introduces:

  • Los Angeles Times
  • The Times of London
  • Pathfinder
  • IBM Infosage
  • PointCast
  • NewsHound
  • FishWrap at MIT
  • Clipper (Knight-Ridder)
  • Farcast
  • In-Box Direct (Netscape)
  • World Flash News Ticker
  • After Dark Online
  • Crayon
  • The Angle
  • Newshare
  • FYI Online

    Personal Collection
    Links to other journalism-related sites

  • Notes

  • Katz, Jon. (Sept. 1994). "Online or not, newspapers still suck." Wired. p.50.

  • Fidler, Roger. (1992). "The newspaper of the future: What are we so afraid of?" Washington Journalism Review. p.14.

  • Cited in Lasica, J.D. (Nov. 5, 1996). American Journalism Review.

  • Preecs, Bart. (1996). Can civic journalists and cyber journalists learn from each other?

  • Lapham, Chris. (July 1, 1995). "The Evolution of the Newspaper of the Future" CMC Magazine.

  • Hume, Ellen. (1995). "How New Technologies Are Changing the News" in Tabloids, Talk Radio,and the Future of News: Technology's Impact on Journalism. Washington, D.C.: The Annenberg Washington Program in Communications Policy Studies of Northwestern University.

  • Cited in Katherine Fulton. (March-April, 1996) " Our Uncertain Future" Columbia Journalism Review.

  • Christopher Harper's Homepage

    Go to:

    History of Electronic Media
    The Notion of Civic Journalism
    Future of Newspaper
    Links to other journalism sites

    This paper is prepared by Shirley Yam.
    Yam is a graduate student in
    College of Journalism and Communications
    at University of Florida.