Forty million people are regular consumers of online news, according to Patrick Spain, CEO and founder of HighBeam Research. That demographic—along with some enthusiastic strategizing by Michael Wolff, famed for chronicling his own former Web failure in his 1999 book, Burn Rate: How I Survived the Gold Rush Years on the Internet —has led Spain, Wolff, and Caroline Miller, former editor in chief of New York Magazine, to launch Newser (www.newser.com). At present, Newser is still in beta; it’s evolving rapidly and has a formal launch date aimed at sometime in October. Already, however, considerable buzz has built up around the service, which aims to do for Internet news what television news did for print.
Spain explained how Newser came to pass based on conversations with Wolff. "I’ve known Michael forever, since the early 1990s, and I’ve been looking for an area where we could expand the use of our current technology and knowledge base. I began talking to Michael and he said, ‘What the Internet needs is not more news, but less news.’" Their conclusion was that what people needed was a news service that had "the serendipity of an editor’s selection of stories you might not otherwise read plus what one would know to read."
Newser offers a graphic snapshot of the top news stories based on analysis of the top 100 English-language news sites on the Web. The home page displays an array of nine squares, each containing images and headlines for the top stories. Users can expand the grid to up to 21 squares. Roll your mouse over an image and you go to a headline and a brief 60-word summary. Click on More at the end of the summary and you go to a longer summary enhanced by links to original stories, background content, multimedia (audio, video, etc.), plus suggested alternate topics. Laterally, at any time, you can move across a range of section pages—World, US, Politics, Business, Science & Health, Technology, Sports, and Culture & Society. Within each section, the same drill-down procedure appears. The service also offers a "last 24 hours" rewind button; it also lets users specify any previous day or use a standard search feature at the top right corner of each page.
The service integrates computer scanning and aggregation with the judgment of a cadre of editors who scan for important stories and write the summaries, connecting the summaries to the best coverage from the top news sources. Computer algorithms measure the extent and prominence of a news item’s coverage in the top news sites and popularity with readers ("most e-mailed stories"). Candidate news items are then evaluated by editors looking at coverage for unique contributions, angles, new information, etc., before writing the summaries. For breaking stories, Newser creates topics that group related stories, stringing together summaries along with original links and reference and historical material. For a topic index, go to www.newser.com/topics.aspx.
Basically, according to Spain, the process breaks news into three categories. "First, after filtering the news into various bins, we use technology to look for the most popular, most emailed news sources, gathered in real-time, which the editors see to identify the hot stories. Second, we look at what the top 100 sites are covering and when it reaches a certain percentage, we cover it too. The problem with those two formulas, however, is that you’re always looking backward. It takes a while. So, third, our editors anticipate stories, some easy and obvious like coming events (the election, the Olympics) and others not so easy. Our editors know what people are interested in. Typically we start with a link to an AP [Associated Press] story and then a story from someone better and 2–3 others just as good. Often we then link to blogs discussing an issue. So far we’ve found that people are interested in good conversation on an issue others are covering."
By the way, Newser is free—unlike the HighBeam Library from its parent, HighBeam Research (www.highbeam.com), which relies on subscription payments for access to its 3,300 sources and 45 million articles. HighBeam offers another free service, HighBeam Encyclopedia (www.encyclopedia.com), which, in addition to its reference articles, carries more than 3 million free newspaper and magazine articles. Spain indicated that Encyclopedia.com would contribute content to Newser. It also currently promotes Newser with a link on its home page, unlike HighBeam Library, which does not—yet.
Background connections can reach rather deep, some tapping into the HighBeam Library content. Spain cited one example in the Obama 2008 topic. "We found the first mention of Obama in a 1982 [Chicago] Sun Times article as a community activist, then a piece that cited him as editor of the Harvard Law Review in the Washington Post in 1990. Next we found news on him being elected to the Illinois State Legislature. The editor filled in the topic with the back stories." Though Newser will remain a free service, Spain indicated that they might offer some access to the HighBeam archives for deep research.
Stories will remain permanently on Newser, according to Spain. "One of the things that galvanized my interest was the problem of seeing the back-story, seeing the arc."
Newser also offers special services to users who register with the service—again at no charge. Registered users can save customized settings, create their own Topics pages, and set up alerts and RSS feeds. As the service develops, more features may be designed for registered users. Newser Widgets allow Web site managers to tailor links to Newser from their own Web sites.
Clearly it is early days yet for the service still in beta, but already some bloggers have pointed out the lack of social networking features. However, the Newser FAQs indicate that users can recommend stories for addition to the service. Newser does have some Web 2.0 features and will have more in the future, according to Spain—some in time for the formal launch, in fact. "We want users to tell us what is interesting. We have a button in the upper right hand side for the most popular news. If you hit it more, then you see how often it is viewed. We don’t believe people want to completely customize their news, but we will allow for such tools for shading."
It’s a matter of demographics, according to Spain. "Younger users want highly personal and customized news. At the upper end of the age bracket, people don’t want to work hard to find serendipitous news. We’re trying to design something that appeals to the broad segment of heavy news consumers, regardless of whether they’re partially or almost exclusively digital. One thing we wanted to release was a tool that would let users aggregate our stories in ways they would like. Expect to see that by October or earlier. We’re also looking at mashups, but we want to make them simple and easy to use."
Selection of sources was another issue raised. Although blog news sites clearly do not share equal status with digital sources emerging from print or television parents, the charge that Newser carries no blog coverage is not true. Clicking on the "Newser 100" and scanning the list of 100 found at least three blogs among the 100—#68 Hole Card Blog (5 Stories); #82 Huffington Post (4 Stories), #100 The Smoking Gun (3 Stories). In addition, Spain pointed out that some blogs are embedded inside more traditional news sites, as reporters and columnists do double duty for their publishers. When Newser taps into the sites, all the news content becomes available, not just what made the print or on-air editions. Although Newser focuses on the top 100 news sites, Spain said that it actually taps closer to 500 in generating its stories.
Clearly a site intended to derive its support from advertising, at present Newser only uses Google-generated advertising, primarily because it is still very much a beta or preview service. Advertising plans will accelerate as it approaches full launch. Spain intends to use a variety of market and advertising opportunities. "We’ll have some partnerships with other sites when we launch. And we’ll have very focused search engine optimization and search engine marketing. SEO/SEM for news is different than for more static content."
Newser is clearly not the only horse in the Internet news race. Of the competitors in the field, Spain liked Daylife. "I like what they do. It’s not unlike Inform or Moreover, but more sophisticated, but they’re not a direct competitor. In fact, most of our stories are now picked up by Daylife."Time will tell who wins this race, but Newser does have the blood lines for a potential winner. Personally, I like it. In fact, it could become kind of addictive. One might need to register just in order to let the RSS feeds and alerts ease the compulsion to spend one’s day checking those nine windows for news (81 if you hit the home page and all the sections). Mr. Monk would love Newser.