All the News That's Fit for You

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Media sites are doubling down on the ways you can customize the news you read. Is that cause for concern?

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Reuters

Do you want to read more about privacy online? Or local politics? Or perhaps cats?Over the last five years finding just the news you want has gotten easier and easier, as big-time news organizations like The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal have invested heavily in expanding the array of tools available for customizing your daily stream.

A new study by two British journalism professors tracked the growth in personalized news at eleven media organzations since 2007. They found that the number of tools available for customization (from RSS to personal recommendations) grew by nearly 70 percent, from 70 to 118. Twitter, peronalizable mobile apps, and social filtering with Facebook grew the most. A few features declined a bit -- most dramatically personalized "my pages," which six outlets had in 2007 but only three offered at the time of the most recent survey in 2010.

The observed increase in customization was not evenly distributed across the outlets. The three sites with the most personalization arrows in their quivers were WSJ.com, NYTimes.com, and FT.com -- three of the survey's more elite publications, two of which focus on the financial industry. WSJ.com and NYTimes.com both offered 40 different personalization tools; FT.com had just under 30. At the lower end were the more tabloid-flavored Mirror.co.uk and TimesOnline.co.uk, each with fewer than 15 custom tools available. The authors speculate that personalization tools have less payoff for the more general interest sites, because their readers aren't as invested in the publication per se and are less likely to spend the time necessary to set up and use the tools.

In general, the customization tools offered were much more web-based than app-based, possibly because the mobile apps are in earlier stages of development but also the result of a more passive reading experience on tablets compared with on a browser.

The uptick in personalization is sure to raise concerns about the theorized pernicious effects of this customization. What if we customize our way out of exposing ourselves to new ideas and the serendipitous discovery of stories from outside of our little worlds? But an increased array of personalization tools does not necessarily mean a decrease in that kind of exposure. The authors point out that some of the news sites are going out of their way to expand the "opportunities for serendipitous discovery" on their pages -- meaning that once the viewer has arrived, the sites push links at them from every direction, in an effort to keep them on the site. (Of course, these links could be personalized further, but they aren't always so.) Moreover, they write, "If personalization helps build audiences and shift revenues from search providers, content aggregators, and other intermediaries to the 'content creators,' deliberative democracy may actually be better sustained."

The big question for those concerned about the effects all this customization is, compared to what? Sure, we all may not consume the most nutritious diet of hard-hitting reporting from around the globe but we have more agency in what we read than we did in the days of the standalone newspaper, customized for you by the editors. Yes, that news was customized too, we just weren't the ones doing it. So, is this worse? We now read what we care about, what speaks to us, and though some of it is junk, it's junk we care about.

In the end, sussing out the effects of these personalization tools on our civics is a massive challenge. How do you distill personalization from the shrinking foreign news bureau or the rise of traffic-driven web journalism? Best of luck to those trying. I'll be here waiting for that study to swim across my Twitter stream.


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Rebecca J. Rosen is a senior editor at The Atlantic, where she oversees the Business Channel. She was previously an associate editor at The Wilson Quarterly.

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