The second coming

					The second coming
of personalized news

Online news media's new mantra: building user loyalty

This column appeared Aug. 2, 2001, in the Online Journalism Review. Here's the version on the
OJR site.

For an in-depth backgrounder on personalized news services and a look at the industry's rocky
track record, see the companion article, The Promise of the Daily Me.

By J.D. Lasica

Personalized news — a dream that has greatly exceeded online media's grasp over the past five
years — is getting a second look at major news organizations.

The Washington Post and Los Angeles Times unveiled ambitious new customized news features
during the past two months. CBS SportsLine has introduced a slick set of personalization tools.
The New York Times and Better Homes & Gardens are planning significant personalization
projects this fall. The Wall Street Journal Online plans to overhaul its Personal Journal with a
revamped personalized news site early next year. And an inventive new Web-based news site
called the FeedRoom is basing its business model on users' thirst for news they can choose.

Personalized news and information services have been around since the mid-1990s. Remember
PointCast's spectacular flameout? Following close on its heels, My Yahoo, My Excite and the
other portals launched handsome "My" services beginning in 1996. Today, Amazon sets the gold
standard for personalization services in the Web retailing sector with its collaborative-filtering
recommendation technology. But, with a few exceptions like the Christian Science Monitor or
CNN.com — which ditched its extensive personalization service last week (see below) — online
news sites have done little in the way of personalizing their content, other than a nod toward so-
called "pick-and-click" personalization: cookie-cutter local weather, stock prices, horoscopes and
local news from affiliates or partners.

Until now.

Today, we're glimpsing the next stage of Net news. Stage one consisted of building elaborate, if
unwieldy, news portals to attract a mass audience. This new stage involves forging deeper
customer relationships with users to build customer intimacy, spurring more frequent visits and,
eventually, enticing people to open their wallets. Interactivity, practical business services,
networked applications, streamlined navigation and personalized content are all part of the mix.

If, as some of us believe, the Web is not a one-to-many mass medium but a many-to-many
medium for the masses, personalization will play a key role in forging this new bond between
publisher and user. The nirvana of one-to-one communication and marketing has not yet arrived,
but by recognizing the importance of serving hundreds of different readerships simultaneously,
online publications are moving toward a higher order of individualized news. No longer can they
afford to treat readers as undifferentiated, generalized, lumpen masses.

Traditionalists fret that the trend will further fragment the news audience and create a society
where even neighbors are increasingly disconnected. CBS News anchor Dan Rather worries that
too much choice can shatter our common bonds, and once told Internet executives, "We risk
walking and talking past each other with virtual blinders on."
Nonsense. My take on this is that those who personalize their news experience tend to be among
the most voracious consumers of online news. We swim in data today, and those of us who want
a greater say over how we consume our news are hardly shielded from the bombardment of
news and information that assaults us from all directions.

Personalization is about funneling in, not screening out. It's about increasing the signal-to-noise
ratio. (For more on different kinds of personalization, see The Promise of the Daily Me.)

Here's a look at personalization efforts now underway at several major Web news operations:

The Washington Post
The Washington Post, which keeps piling up industry honors as the best news site on the Web,
launched its personalized service, MyWashingtonPost, on June 5. Given the site's multiple
readerships, personalization made eminent business sense.

"One of our challenges as a news site is that we have an audience that's local, with general-
interest needs, and another audience that's unbounded by geography with very deep and
specialized needs," says Tim Ruder, the vice president who heads the Post's personalization
efforts. A quarter of the site's traffic comes from local residents, the remainder from readers
absorbed by politics and national affairs.

Like other portals and information sites, the Post uses a gradual approach to capture information
about its users, both at registration and in subsequent interactions. When a user registers, a
process that's far less painstaking than at many other places, the Post captures your birthday
(presto! instant horoscope), geography (thus serving up local weather and, more important, letting
the system know whether to dish out national news or local content), and other news preferences
that you specify.

After registering, a user can fine-tune the settings on his personal news page to customize
further. Says Ruder: "Someone interested in live music can get live music recommendations
surfaced to the top, or have museum schedules appear on his page." In all, the Post offers an all-
you-can-eat news buffet of "considerably more than 500 choices," Ruder estimates.

                                       Online newspapers have found that users have a strong
  'We start with the                   appetite for news about their communities, and
                                       MyWashingtonPost offers an impressive suite of local news
  idea that if we can                  tools, giving users access to data about neighborhood
  better engage our                    home sales, school report cards, interviews with school
  audience — and that                  administrators and principals, crime reports and local traffic
  means more                           conditions — a priceless gem for locals tusseling with
                                       D.C.'s sometimes-nightmarish gridlock.
  frequent visits,
  more depth and                     The Post, which doubles as a news site and city guide,
  breadth of use —                   takes a broad view of its mission to serve its readers. "We
  then our business                  try to touch the local audience on a daily basis that extends
  gets to be stronger.'              into news but also into leisure activities and sports," Ruder
                                     says. So: Find a job based on criteria you set. Buy a movie
  Tim Ruder, VP,                     ticket online, courtesy of the Post's partnership with
  washingtonpost.com                 Movietickets.com. Find a weekend road trip with
                                     recommendations on lodging and cool little stops along the
                                     way. Drill into the site's entertainment listings (produced in
                                     partnership with Citysearch) with its scores of festivals and
events, honed to your stated preferences.
None of this is revolutionary — many of these bits and pieces have bounced about for years —
but taken as a whole, the scale and breadth of the Post's offerings are truly impressive.

So why all this effort, and why now?

"Several things have happened," Ruder says. "Yes, the technology has improved to the point
where we can make things easier, more useful and more intuitive for our users. But more
significant is the underlying business proposition that we need to focus heavily on the relationship
with our users. So we start with the idea that if we can better engage our audience — and that
means more frequent visits, more depth and breadth of use — then our business gets to be
stronger."

Washingtonpost.com has roughly 3 million users and 120 million page views a month; it recently
overtook USA Today as the No. 5 news site on the Web, and among online newspapers it now
trails only the New York Times in traffic. But like other Net-based businesses, it has seen that
audience reach doesn't necessarily translate into profits.

But increasing user loyalty — building deeper and more intimate relationships — just may. Meet
the new mantra of business on the Net: We wanna hold your hand.

Ruder says the reaction of readers has been exceptionally positive and that MyWashingtonPost
has been "almost dead on" in hitting its registration targets. "It's been gratifying to hear the
feedback we're getting from people who say it's helped them discover things they didn't know was
there," he says.

"There's a lot of stuff on the surface of washingtonpost.com, but there's even more when you get
deeper into the site," he says. "Before, if you wanted news about our national security community,
it took you six clicks to get there, and unless you know your way around you might not find it.
Now, you can personalize your settings so it's right there on your personal page to greet you
each morning."

Does Ruder think other online news publications should follow the path of personalization? "Yes.
The medium lends itself well to this," he says, but adds this warning: "The resources and time
and commitment required for this are not small. You need to do it in a way that it's not roped off
as a section of your site but tied into the underlying infrastructure in smart ways to improve the
overall experience for users."

What's ahead? Ruder says they plan to add live webcams and still photos to the traffic pages,
staff photos (now sorely lacking on the text-heavy page), and audio and video components down
the road.

Longer term, a personalized news page is only part of the equation. "This kind of functionality
starts to weave itself throughout the entire site," Ruder says. "The start page captures only one
part of this. It's all about deepening the relationship with the audience as they express needs to
you and you serve up trustworthy content and services that meet those needs. There's a lot of
theorizing about whether you can, in an economically smart way, leverage those relationships
right down to the one-to-one level. Nobody knows yet, but the markets will tell us that as we move
forward."

The New York Times
The big news here is that the New York Times plans to jump into the personalization game in a
big way. The bigger news may be that the Times plans to break with the so-called My News
approach, opting for an approach that centers on personalized services.

"Most of the ways to approach this have been in place for years," says Martin Nisenholtz, CEO of
New York Times Digital. "First out of the gate were the granddaddy My services, where you can
customize a set of incoming streams on a Web page. MyYahoo does it well, and it would be hard
for any small Web site to compete with that. But ultimately, that's not a very exciting idea. To
come in in the ninth inning of a game that's essentially over is
kind of stupid.

"The more recent thing happening in this area is the notion of           'The user needs
Web services — anything from My Calendar to My Documents to
                                                                         to be able to do
My Notifications to My Web Pages to My Content. Microsoft is
onto something pretty interesting with its .Net effort. I think that's   things with the
an important and exciting new form of personalization because it         content, not just
fills a real need in the marketplace. People have work machines,         read it.'
applications, calendars, docs and passwords all over the place
and nobody to help them bring it all together."
                                                                         Martin
                                                                         Nisenholtz,
Nisenholtz hinted that the Times may signal to both Microsoft            CEO,
and AOL Time Warner its interest in discussing ways to integrate         NY Times Digital
its staff-generated content into a personalized applications-
centered approach with a fee component. Beyond that he
wouldn't go into specifics, other than to say the Times hopes to
launch its new initiative sometime this fall. The personalization effort is being spearheaded by
Robert Larson, the company's information architect.

Nisenholtz says he sees little value in launching a Times version of customized Web pages as
the Post and Los Angeles Times have recently done. "Whatever we do has to be distinctive and
offer value to users that only we can offer," he says. "We don't think the me-too My product is
going to do that. Just increasing costs without any kind of return on investment is no longer an
acceptable mode of operating."

The Times may be targeting professionals and business users who could benefit from the Times'
daily news feeds as well as its rich archives. Such a robust content service could be wrapped into
a mobile information application and networked from desktop to desktop to facilitate collaboration
in the workplace.

"We've been doing a lot of work here to figure out what we can offer that we might trial in the fall
and that people would view as a valuable pay-for service," he says. "Whatever we offer will be the
news content at its heart, but we need to offer application value on top of that. The user needs to
be able to do things with the content, not just read it. I can't tell you more than that because it's
not baked enough. The thing is still very much in its product planning stages."

The FeedRoom
The idea behind the FeedRoom is pretty simple, really: You watch the news you want when you
want it.

Yes, I said watch. About a half million viewers a month watch 1.6 million streams of video on the
FeedRoom from its 30 television partners, including local NBC and Tribune Broadcasting
stations.
"People visit three times longer on our site than on text sites. I could never fathom why television
stations would hire people to write text for their Web sites. They're not going there for text!" says
founder and CEO Jonathan Klein.

Klein was an executive vice president at CBS News, overseeing "60 Minutes" and other prime-
time programming, when he left to found the FeedRoom in the fall of 1998. "I thought what the
Web really needed was showmanship and the packaging of information in a more inviting and
enticing way," he says.

                                   At its core, the FeedRoom is built on a premise of personalized
  'Five years from                 choice — something viewers of TV newscasts aren't used to.
                                   "It's personalized because you get to choose which video to
  now you'll take                  watch," Klein says. "It shouldn't be Dan Rather deciding that he
  for granted that                 doesn't want to report to you about Chandra Levy."
  you can watch
  the latest news                  Visitors to the site don't have to customize their preferences.
  video at any                     "Sites have learned that people don't really want to fill out a
                                   long questionnaire in advance to predict what kinds of news
  time from                        they'll want," he says. "Most news consumers want to know
  wherever you                     about news across a whole range of categories. You don't want
  happen to be,                    to miss out on something important."
  on a PC, set-top
                                   Klein says too many of the Web's personalized-news sites
  box or handheld
                                   were based on the medium's technology rather than on what
  portable device.'                consumers want. "A lot of these sites are run by people with
  Jonathan Klein,                  technology backgrounds who know next to nothing about
  FeedRoom CEO                     consumer preferences," he says. "Just because I haven't
                                   checked the little box next to politics or law doesn't mean I don't
                                   want to know that the Supreme Court is going to decide the
                                   presidential election."

So what do consumers want? "What they mostly want is some measure of control and choice,"
Klein says. "Five years from now you'll take for granted that you can watch the latest news video
at any time from wherever you happen to be, on a PC, set-top box or handheld portable device."

A news aggregator, the FeedRoom receives video clips from its 30 partner stations, digitizes and
encodes them, tags each clip with 75 identifying pieces of information, stores them in a database
video management system, and serves the video on demand.

"We define news to fit the public's need — anything that I want or need to know to get through my
day," Klein says. Because the format is freed from the typical newscast's strictures — local or
national news followed by weather, sports and a feel-good soft feature — users can essentially
build their own newscast based on their own interests. Viewers can choose from categories
including Entertainment, Tech, Health, Life and Home, World, Sports, Most Popular, and "Search
for Chandra."

Says Klein: "We want to change the way viewers experience and use information. There's been a
beta test going on for 50 years called television, and that tells us people want to watch, rather
than read, their information."

CBS SportsLine
Unlike media companies such as the Washington Post and New York Times, which must grapple
with converting their print content to the online medium, SportsLine is entirely a creature of the
Web.

"And if you're worth your salt on the Web, you've got to offer a customization capability and, in the
longer term, a personalization capability," says Steve Snyder, vice president of production.
"People are so used to the media telling them what to do that they're eventually going to demand
having a greater say over their content experience."

MySportsLine.com, revamped early this year from a more basic offering, made its hard launch
during college basketball's March Madness, giving users the freedom to customize almost every
aspect of their entry into the site. That's refreshing. With today's mobile society, you may live in
Phoenix and root for the Chicago Cubs, Dallas Cowboys and Oklahoma Sooners, not to mention
the players you drafted in your office's fantasy baseball league.

Sports lends itself readily to organizing content into discrete buckets of data — player stats,
league standings, team news and so on — and SportsLine has decided to position itself as the
dominant player in the field of personalized sports.

The old MySportsLine had just over 100,000 users, while the robust new version has seen "well
over a quarter million" users register since its public splash in March, Snyder says. Those who
customize return much more often. The site attracts 4 million to 7 million visitors a month, placing
it behind the behemoth of online sports, ESPN.com. "If ESPN tries to get in this game, we'll try to
stay one step ahead of them," he says.

"Personalization is really a killer app on the Web," he says. "On
any sports site you'd have to click around a half dozen times to     'Personalization
get to your different areas of interest. Here, we bring you a
                                                                     takes into
several different product offerings under one roof. Users tell us
they love being able to look at football scores and how their        account not only
fantasy-league teams are doing right on the same page. As we         explicit
get more mature with this, you'll see a lot of killer integration    preferences but
capabilities."
                                                                     also a user's
Like the Post's Ruder, Snyder sees customization as one stage        implicit
in a fully personalized user experience. "I tend to think of         behavior.'
customization as letting the users tell us explicitly what they      Steve Snyder,
want to do and see. But that's only the first step toward real       VP, SportsLine
personalization, which is all about embracing a customer
relationship. Personalization takes into account not only explicit
preferences but also a user's implicit behavior. It says, 'We
know you, we've seen what you like through your surfing patterns or the polls you've taken or the
content interactions we've had with you, and we'll offer you choices and personalize your
experience to serve you even better.' "

Toward that goal, the site is seeing users visiting the site more often during the month while the
number of pages they access is actually declining. "We like that," Snyder says. "It tell us they're
finding what they want and coming back more often. The ultimate goal isn't page views, it's
consumer loyalty, increased overall hang time, and customer satisfaction."

SportsLine will be approaching the next stage of personalization gingerly. "Right now we don't do
anything based on a person's implicit behavior," Snyder says. "We don't want people to think
we're Big Brothering them. We're not watching you, we're watching the overall patterns based on
people's choices. We've definitely seen the red flags raised about privacy, and we'll have to walk
that line when we come to it."

The Los Angeles Times
The LA Times has had personalization of a sort since the mid-1990s when it unleashed Hunter,
one of the earliest customization agents. The Times offered users a buffet of 60 pre-selected
categories along with an eager-to-please virtual golden retriever that sniffed out matches to
search terms chosen by the reader.

On July 9, accompanying its new redesign, the Times rolled out MyNews, an expanded set of
customization features that doubles the number of available news categories to 120, with more
coming soon.

"Before, we offered business headlines. Now we offer 11 business subcategories — personal
finance, taxes, career advice, coverage of the entertainment industry — and a dozen different
technology news subcategories," says product manager Matt Nakano. "We've found a way to
break out a lot of our content into smaller, more narrowly defined categories."

The Times' site lets readers slice and dice their news in dozens of different ways: Foodies can
choose from among 10 different subcategories, from wine to quick-fix meals to expert culinary
advice. Travelers can pick from 23 selections ranging from Mexico to cruises to hot deals of the
week. Follow health news? Users can winnow down their medical reading by choosing from a
dozen different topics. Local news is broken down by region and community. By year's end, the
paper plans to add its entertainment listings — movies, theater
and the arts — to the mix.

"We're learning more about our audience and starting to             'People are
realize that even when we do these high volumes of traffic,
                                                                    coming in for
people are coming in for relatively specific things," Nakano
says. "Certain users follow favorite columnists. Others want        relatively
California news. Some are into the Clippers, Lakers, or college     specific things.
sports at USC or UCLA and can't get that depth of coverage          Certain users
elsewhere."
                                                                    follow favorite
Personalization makes visiting a large site like latimes.com a      columnists.
friendlier experience. "Fundamentally, we wanted to make it         Others want
easier and more efficient for people to find what they're looking   California news.
for," Nakano says.                                                  Some are into
                                                                    the Clippers,
Then there are the user-defined topics: Pop in a specific term,
subject or company name and MyNews will return all the              Lakers, or
stories containing the search term. The user interface leaves a     college sports.'
bit to be desired: Right now, you can see your topics on the        Matt Nakano,
MyNews page but can't see whether the search bot found any
matches.
                                                                    product
                                                                    manager,
MyNews' Business section doesn't let you customize a stock          latimes.com
portfolio. Sports seems a weak link, too. Unlike the Washington
Post, at latimes.com you can select only Los Angeles teams,
golf and tennis. Even fans of neighboring San Diego's pro
sports teams are out of luck.
"Sports is a tough one, especially because we have a lot of transplants who've moved here,"
Nakano says. "But where do you draw the line?"

The biggest benefit of customization, Nakano suggests, is that it exposes a lot of the rich content
that's buried deep in the site. "Food and health take up only a tiny part of the real estate on the
front page of the site, and this product helps float those things out to people who hunger for that
information," he says. "Our goal was to create a product that reflected the breadth and depth of
the site."

Nakano says MyNews is still a work in progress. The site is considering partnering with a high-
profile, credible financial news site to offer stock quotes, for example. User reaction and
suggestions over the coming months will influence elements of the site. And customized
advertising or marketing may be coming down the pike.

"We're discussing that," Nakano says. "We're trying to strike a balance between creating new
revenue streams but at same time not crossing the line that invades people's privacy. We know
that it's a very fine line we have to walk and so we're going to err on the side of being
conservative."

Other developments
The Wall Street Journal has offered its subscribers a Personal Journal for some time, letting
users select keyword terms and customize portfolios, financial news, favorite columns and the
like. But its customization features were fairly limited, and it was shunted off to the side, as if the
editors didn't know what to do with this strange beast called personalization.

Early next year WSJ.com plans to roll out a more ambitious personalization effort that integrates
users' customized choices with the biggest news stories of the day on the site's front page, says
the site's publisher, Neil Budde. "You'll still get the benefit of editors selecting the top news, but
you'll also be able to track topics you're personally interested in and have them compiled in one
place along with the rest of the day's top stories," he says.

Better Homes & Gardens, flagship site of Meredith Interactive, plans an even grander foray into
personalization. By this fall, the site hopes to recognize each returning visitor by name and then
tailor both its editorial content and advertisements to the person's specific interests, according to
Entertainment & Media Direct.

Meredith seems to be following in Amazon's footsteps by wedding a consumer database of 65
million names, each containing up to 300 data fields, to each dynamically rendered page of the
site. Love al fresco dining, woodworking and puttering in your rose garden? Meredith will try to
turn its content into a personal journey by parsing your dataset right down to the level of the
individual and then serving up relevant content, links and products.

One company that seems to be playing the role of contrarian is AOL Time Warner. Last week
MyCNN.com shut down and its million-plus registered users were shuttled over to corporate sister
site My Netscape. Five phone messages and three e-mail requests to the Netscape public
relations department went unanswered.

I was fond of CNN's personalized news. CNN Custom News launched in June 1997 and changed
its name to MyCNN in 1999, when I interviewed Dave Rickett, the CNN senior editor who headed
up the site's personalization efforts. He told me the most popular feature on MyCNN was the
world section, where a user could follow the news originating from any country in the world.
"People like the ability to follow news from where they came from or where they're living now,"
Rickett said.

Not anymore. The 300 different news categories — fine-tuned to niche topics like wireless
communication and sorted by dozens of different countries — are gone. Instead, My Netscape
offers a grand total of six general-news categories (top news, health, politics, U.S. news, world,
technology) and four business-news categories.

"I imagine it'll be missed," Rickett said this week from Atlanta, where he's now an independent
journalist.

As many as a million CNN users probably agree.

				
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