Monday, October 17, 2005 Takes a Tech Approach to News Gathering

The New York Times notes the arrival of the beta version of, a news filtering and exploration tool that promises to provide sophisticated filtering and exploration of online news. is very much a beta, with numerous rough edges to iron out, but its general framework operates enough to evaluate its overall effectiveness. scans Web sites and key weblogs and categorizes content in articles found at these sites to allow for both monitoring and exploration of news based on various trees of the Inform taxonomy encountered in an article. Tools allow for easy tagging and exploration of individual articles, development of custom "channels" (queries) based on selected topic categories and selection of specific sources amongst other features.

And that's the gist of Inform - a collection of features, each with some usefulness, but which in total seem to add up to a package that is somewhat awkward to use, even for a news junkie like myself. There are also a number of aspects of the service that don't seem to add up to a "best practices" approach to news on the open Web: it's session-based and database sessions can log out as with Factiva or LexisNexis, it frames open Web content in its own content (which could be tricky when or if Inform starts to apply its own ads), its content categorizations cannot be refined easily and its selection of relevant articles somewhat questionable in cursory testing. Most annoying of all the search results for a "channel" are shoved in a narrow band to the left of the main display area, which requires lots of scrolling just to scan headlines.

Some of the design and navigation concepts in are useful, but many aspects of the design cry out for more refinement. It's not clear that the people willing to use a service like are not going to be better served by a LexisNexis or Factiva that have many of the tricky issues required to provide sophisticated monitoring down pat already. That said,'s debut points out that there is a gray area between general Web news search tools such as Topix and subscription database products such as Factiva and LexisNexis that largely shun the open Web. With large revenue bases to protect it's not likely that the subscription news database providers are likely to develop more tools for open Web content consumption any time soon, but their potential for future revenues and mindshare are being eroded constantly by news filtering and monitoring tools that provide increasingly strong levels of functionality and content.

Increasingly sophisticated tools such as LexisNexis' recently announced negative news monitoring service will help to drive up the value of commoditized news in subscription databases, to be sure. But major aggregators need to confront far more aggressively born-on-the-Web competitors that are going to be working their way up the value chain to their core value propositions with more diverse revenue bases. Without parallel strategies to build a brand from the Web on in rather than the database on out news aggregators continue to run the risk of becoming increasingly niche-oriented players in the content marketplace.
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