Promising Personalized News

by Andy Oram

Suppose you woke up each morning and, instead of tuning in to Good Morning America, scanned a menu of 50 news clips picked out for you by an automated news searching system? On the Web, you can already sign up for services that go searching for news that matches your interest profile (I have employed a free service from HotBot to that end). But the February 2000 issue of the Communications of ACM -- in the feature "News on Demand" -- suggests that you will soon be able to get your all media customized. You'll be able to:

  • Find all TV appearances of a movie star you're obsessed with.
  • Extract a particular news bite spoken by a leading politician.
  • Ask for news stories about cultural and social events in your hometown to be forwarded to you, making it easy to keep in touch after you move away.
  • Keep tabs on what a particular commentator has to say about particular issues.

One can fantasize endlessly about uses for news on demand. Most systems are designed for busy executives who want to look like they know about a topic without really knowing about it. Some systems seem suspiciously well-suited to intelligence-gathering or censorship. But I won't focus on how news on demand might be twisted to repressive uses. Rather, I will try to consider what an appropriate use might do to us as thinking citizens and as well-rounded individuals.

News on the Internet (along with cable TV and satellites) has been credited with breaking the editorial strangleholds of the biggest media centers on public discussion. Media critics like Noam Chomsky (who started a newsletter called Lies of the Times) and Danny Schechter (author of The More You Watch, the Less You Know) have long complained about the way policy agendas are set by a few sources like The New York Times. But what publication do Chomsky and Schechter turn to first in the morning? I bet it's the The New York Times. When a publication is so influential, people have to follow it carefully to know what's on policy-makers' minds.

Will news on demand broaden or narrow the terms of debate? It depends on people's attitudes. The debate will broaden if people include controversial topics (like "Iraq sanctions") in their profiles, and hear views culled from alternative sources. But the debate could actually narrow if people cut down on the casual viewing of topics outside their interests. I can see people choosing to spend most of their limited news-viewing time on specific technical, business, and cultural interests like "SAP applications" or "David Bowie." Someone who decides that the sanctions on Iraq are interesting may use search filters to constrict the discussion to military issues or to exclude fringe news services. If you don't think about the social effects of the sanctions or listen to what people outside the U.S. say about them, you're missing half the point.

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