Personalized news and why the iPad is no savior

By Steve Outing

If any traditional news publishers are still thinking that the Apple tablet — finally, it has a (strange) name, iPad — points to their salvation by bringing a new business model, they’ll likely be proven wrong.

No doubt, the iPad is an incredible, slick piece of technology. It’s not the “Jesus Tablet” that many of us hoped for (no camera?! no multi-tasking?! no Flash support?! it won’t answer my prayers?!), but maybe by version 2 or 3, it’ll get there. But even if the iPad fairly quickly evolves to be the kind of market pleaser that Apple’s iPhone became, I don’t think that it really changes things profoundly for news companies.

If you watch Apple’s slick video introducing the iPad, much is made that this is “the best experience ever created” for surfing the web. Fair enough. I’d love to have an iPad for when I want to read news on the web (and a lot of other things); my laptop would get much less use.

But does this mean that I’m suddenly going to pay for news viewed on the iPad? Umm, not likely. Because my behavior as a news consumer has changed over the years. Like many Internet users, I view many news sources every day. I’m always surprised when I open my browser history and see how many sites and media brands I’ve hit on any given day.

So if Rupert Murdoch or any other publisher puts up a mandatory paywall to keep me away from their news content on the iPad, I will move on to a similar site that’s free. If NYTimes.com decides to strengthen its proposed porous paywall by the 2011 implementation, then there’s WashingtonPost.com, which will receive my loyalty.

Am I a cheapskate? Why wouldn’t I want to pay to support journalism? … Simple: Because there’s too much to pay for! News brands cannot expect me, or most online news consumers who are not loyal to only one or two or three brands, to pay monthly or annual fees to each. There’s too much free choice, and I’d prefer to support the news and media brands that I like best.

So, if NYTimes.com had a premium membership that gave me special privileges, but all its web (and thus iPad-viewable) content remained free to those who chose not to pay, then I’d probably pony up in order to show my support for the New York Times, since I admire its quality journalism, read its content regularly, and want it to continue. The key for me is that what brands I will pay to support, when it comes to commodity news, will be a voluntary decision on my part.

There are so many pointers to the diminishment of news brands, though the owners of those brands don’t want to see it. We’ve seen the “atomization of content” as the news story gets tossed around, linked to, and sometimes goes viral via Twitter, social networks, search engines, and news aggregators. Just as iTunes killed the music CD and reintroduced buying single songs, our new digital ecosystem is doing the same for news stories as it emasculates old news brands.

I used Personalization in the headline, and now I’ll finally get to it. For me, news personalization offerings to date have been unsatisfactory. Sure, I can spend some time setting up, say, an iGoogle personalized page and fill it with news (and other stuff) that I want. But it and the other solutions I’ve seen just haven’t grabbed me. I get plenty of serendipity in my news consumption, but it’s not because of any personalized news service, it’s because of pointers to good news content from the people I follow on Twitter and my Facebook friends, and the blogs I read regularly (or stumble upon). Article continues below photo…

My iCurrent personalized news: Many news brands, not just one

My personalized news on iCurrent

However, I recently tried out a private beta of iCurrent, a personalized web news service that I think is pretty darn close to having what could become my home base for news. Just this week the California company opened up a public beta, so you can try it out. iCurrent also has an e-mail component (which I find to be weak in its current state), and an iPhone app is coming soon.

I’ll write another blog item another day about iCurrent with more detail, but here’s the thing that makes it stand out: iCurrent is to news as Pandora is to music. (In fact, they share investors.)

With Pandora, you pick a musician, song, or genre that you like, then the application selects similar music that it thinks you might like. Pandora learns what you like as you click thumbs-up or thumbs-down on a song that’s playing; it lets you tell it to stop playing a particular song or artist. It’s dead-simple to create new channels of music. Most importantly, it makes complicated personalization technology super-easy to use.

ICurrent applies Pandora’s model to news. Initially you choose a few topics of personal interest, but then as you use iCurrent over time, it learns what you want to see. Like Pandora, stories that it selects for you have an up and down arrow to click, if you want; click the up arrow and you get a few choices about what you’d like to see more of — simply “more like this,” or more about specific components of the story that it’s filtered out.

iCurrent’s homepage also devotes 2/3 of the space to your personalized news, and the other 1/3 to important news that everyone should know about (Haiti, Afghanistan, top political stories, etc.).

We’ve been talking about personalized news for a long time; you may remember “The Daily Me” project from MIT in the early 1990s. It’s taken a long time, but I think technologists are close to getting personalized news right.

So, back to the iPad. Assuming I get one (oh, I’ll probably succumb), I doubt that my behavior toward news using it will be much different than it is on my laptop. I’ll bounce around from story to story, not always aware of the news brand that’s hosting a specific story.

From what I’ve seen of iCurrent, it could be a great news home base for my iPad usage.

The iPad, it seems to me, leaves news publishers in much the same predicament as the PC web. Their content will become more and more atomized, especially if — as is my prediction — personalized news advances to the point of real value and Pandora-like simplicity.

The trick to survival for many news organizations in the digital world, then, will be in figuring out how to monetize their content as it flies the coop and first shows up in a consumer’s news stream outside of the news company’s property line. This issue will be as critical to solve on the iPad and like devices as on the PC web.

One last point: The iPad does represent an opportunity for news companies to develop apps that iPad users can buy. Just as selling apps for the iPhone has become a massive business, this will probably repeat for the iPad. I would suggest to (non-niche) news providers that they’ll have an easier time selling specialized applications than selling content. I’ve written this before, but consumer psychology favors spending money on things you can keep (an app, a song) than commodity content that is viewed but once then forgotten.

If I had an iPad, an app I’d pay for: iCurrent. I wouldn’t be paying for the news content, but rather for the convenience and value that a really good personalization app would provide.

Yeah, I know, that’s not what journalists want to hear.

Author: Steve Outing Steve Outing is a Boulder, Colorado-based media futurist, digital-news innovator, consultant, journalist, and educator. ... Need assistance with media-company future strategy? Get in touch with Steve!