“You may not be interested in Syria. We’ll tell you if this big thing happened and you need to know about it, but we’ll spare you from the incremental news,” Charney says. “The ability to skim across some stories and to dive into other stories, that may be the power of personalization.”
The skimming and diving Charney describes sounds almost exactly like how Apple and Google approach their distributed-content platforms. With Apple News, users can decide which outlets and topics they are most interested in seeing, with Siri offering suggestions as the algorithm gets better at understanding your preferences. Siri now has help from Safari. The personal assistant can now detect browser history and suggest news items based on what someone’s been looking at—for example, if someone is searching Safari for Reykjavík-related travel information, they will then see Iceland-related news on Apple News. But the For You view of Apple News isn’t 100 percent customizable, as it still spotlights top stories of the day, and trending stories that are popular with other users, alongside those curated just for you.
Similarly, with Google’s latest update to Google News, readers can scan fixed headlines, customize sidebars on the page to their core interests and location—and, of course, search. The latest redesign of Google News makes it look newsier than ever, and adds to many of the personalization features Google first introduced in 2010. There’s also a place where you can preprogram your own interests into the algorithm.
Google says this isn’t an attempt to supplant news organizations, nor is it inspired by them. The design is rather an embodiment of Google’s original ethos, the product manager for Google News Anand Paka says: “Just due to the deluge of information, users do want ways to control information overload. In other words, why should I read the news that I don’t care about?”
That is a question news organizations continue to grapple with. If reactions to The New York Times’ efforts to tailor news consumption to individual subscribers are any indication, some people do want all the news that’s fit to print—and aren’t sold on the idea of news personalization.
The Times has recently introduced, or plans to do so later this year, a number of customization features on its homepage involving the placement of various newsletters and editorial features—like California Today, the Morning Briefing, and The Daily podcast—that depend on whether a person has signed up for those services as well as readers being able to choose prioritized placement of preferred topics or writers. Soon, the biggest news headlines may still dominate the top of the homepage, but much of the surrounding content will be customized to cater to individuals’ interests and habits.
The Times’ algorithm, drawing from data like geolocation, will make many of these choices for people. A person reading the news from, say, India might see news relevant to the Indian subcontinent in a more prominent place online than a person reading from New York City. The site already features a “Recommended for You” box, listing articles that you haven’t yet read, also including those suggestions in emails to some subscribers.