Thursday, August 9, 2007

Newser: Trying Virtual News Aggregation with an Editorial Angle

Newser is a new take on online news aggregation backed by HighBeam Research's Patrick Spain with a hand from media figure Michael Wolff. The concept behind Newser is relatively simple: use a central editorial staff with some automated support from HighBeam's search and aggregation infrastructure for premium and Web content to highlight news from mainstream media sources and from select social media channels. Newser presents a fresh face to news, with a tic-tac-toe matrix of nine lead story boxes for top news in each major category complemented by automatically generated related topics and headlines from AP news. The Newser editorial staff whips up a digest of each lead story that is complemented by a link to the underlying source, online video clips where available and links to Newser content on related topics and people in the story. News from the front page and major topic areas can be fed via RSS into a user's news reader of choice. For now Google's AdSense network provides a revenue stream.

Newser provides a lot of best practices for online news aggregation and is an attractive and well-conceived package for consuming general news content. Its editorial selections, while somewhat eccentric at times, are thoughtful and make for a nice feed of interesting reading. But strangely Newser doesn't seem to have much mojo going for it. Is it just a matter of not having the West Coast buzz that other news aggregation sites have? Lacking the right chatter is perhaps part of the story, as prominent articles in The New York Times, Gawker and other major media channels have focused at least as much on the personality of Michael Wolff as they have on the site itself. As a media figure who has had his fair share of unkind thoughts about the online world perhaps leading with Wolff's East Coast view of media is not such a keen idea.

But Newser's momentum issues are also locked in somewhat into the product itself. While the story-scanning interface is an improvement over some search engine news interfaces the tic-tac-toe look makes it very hard for the eye to focus on what's important in the news. There are things to be said for simple column layouts, even if they don't look have that catchy, Blinkx-like "wall of content" look to them. The new Netscape's tab structure for editorially-selected stories is one other option as well that could help eliminate visual clutter. This is especially important for audiences becoming increasingly used to the scrolling headlines of news feed reader services as well as for more traditional news reading audiences. My guess is that a lot of people will take a look at the product, say "huh?" and move on to the next click. It's just too hard to focus on something at first glance.

Another key factor in Newser's mix that's troubling is also one of its strengths: its editorial selections. Unfortunately the editors of Newser are anonymous, and there is no opportunity to establish a conversation of any sort in the Newser framework with editors or with other registrants. The uncertainty of who does what in the editorial process seems to leave Newser at a disadvantage to sites like Netscape, whose anchors are both known and attract supplementary news and comments from readers. Readers like to have a sense of whose hands are on the editorial process. This is accentuated somewhat by Newser's near-exclusive focus on the typical mainstream news sources, with only an occasional smattering of online news from blogs and topical portals. If Newser's primary mission is to filter mainstream news sources then they should have an editorial voice that can be held to account as MSM sources are.

But the largest factor that may be holding back Newser is that while it is a well conceived news delivery machine there are already a preponderance of ways in which people can get news delivered to them effectively in agnostic aggregations. Google News provides highly readable and relevant selections from mainstream news sources and news reading software available through Google Reader, MyYahoo!, NewsGator and other services enable people to tune in to the news sources that they select and trust most. The New Aggregation is driving news content more quickly into personalized contexts than ever before, including sites such as Netscape and Newsvine where news can be discussed and ranked through audience-driven editorial processes. In such an already crowded field for news aggregation Newser may have a hard time getting some momentum behind just competent editing, aggregation and delivery of the usual suspects.

Newser's thoughtful capabilities are likely to serve as a good platform for others who are trying to get an improved approach to news aggregation, so my best guess at this point is that Newser will wind up being acquired fairly rapidly by an online service with established audience share that's trying to improve its news aggregation capabilities. Alternatively Newser might do well by opening up its platform with APIs that will enable it to provide its aggregation services to portals and other services on a licensed basis. But without reasons to stick around at Newser itself it's capabilities are not likely to draw advertisers who are dwelling more on how long people are engaged in a given site - a factor that will favor more interactive news sites. With further product improvements and more hooks into the social media crowd Newser could develop its own following in time, but doing something that others already do pretty well a little better may not develop the fanatical following that will propel Newser to high-profile success.
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