Show off your front pages

David Weinberger describes the unbundling of media in clear terms:

“I’ve been saying for a while, and I think in Everything Is Miscellaneous, that the new front page is distributed across our day and our network. Much of it comes through our inbox. It consists of people we know and people we don’t know recommending items for our interest.”

If you still think ‘readers’ are dependent on ‘editors’ to filter the news for them… Actually, if you still think that, there’s not much that I can do. You should go explore Digg or the Huffington Post or Slashdot or whatever social media site you can find that interests you. Wire editors should check out Newsvine, for example. Actually seeing social media in action (extra points for participation) will make it seem a bit less nebulous, I promise.

My front page, in roughly the priority I cycle through it in the morning over breakfast:

  • Gmail
  • Google Reader
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Google News, including sections for specific places and topics
  • My local online newspaper (This was much higher on the list when I worked there.)
  • My delicious network (I rarely get this far these days, but that’s where I just pulled the Weinberger post from, via Kevin.)

So what does your front page look like? Digg? NYT? YouTube? Netvibes? None of the above?
‘Splain yourself below…

Oh, and if you really need to see some well-designed newspaper front pages, have at ’em.

The local follies: Finding the horizontal bonds in geographic communities

[Ed. note: Yeah, so that post title sounds like a clever research paper title, which it could certainly be, if I had the time and the inclination.]

The Knight Foundation is giving away $25 million over five years to people like you with hyperlocal community news site ideas.

Now that I have your attention…

Online newspaper execs might throw around “local search” like it’s the Holy Grail of turning a profit on the Web, but how many people intentionally use Citysearch or something of its ilk?

I always think the best approach to this would be to tie it into a local community site, whether we’re talking about something as pre-fabricated as YourHub or as do-it-yourself as SavannahNow.

So what works?

Should newspapers try to re-invent the social networking wheel?

Probably not a good idea.

The Knight Foundation is looking for projects with a more specific focus, I gather.

“If a digital community helps people get together in real life, that qualifies. We’re just saying, for example, a community of model railroaders around the world is not one that we’ve designed this news challenge for. But something that might bring together Detroit teachers, that would work.”

Find a niche and then localize it.

It’s not about creating topical connections, it’s about creating a virtual community space, a water cooler for your town, and if you can, a place for individuals with both common interests and a common location to get together.

Sounds like a plan. Got any bright ideas? Hmm, I wonder if they would include a project based at a University…

Bryan Murley at Reinventing College Media might have been wondering the same thing a couple hours ago:

“If I were sitting down right now to plan a campus news site, one of the things I’d do is make a list of “directories” we could create for the campus community.”

Whether it’s on a campus or off, your goal, online newspaper executive, is to create a branded site, which may or may not be attached to your online newspaper brand, where users come to search for what they want in your community.

That can’t be the only draw, or they’ll just go to Google Maps. That’s what I do.

Want to know where to get a slice of pizza in Santa Cruz? Google Maps. Vegetarian Asian restaurant in Oakland? Google Maps. The boys in Mountain View even went so far as to change the name to Google Local awhile back, didn’t they? Bright idea.

So why isn’t your newspaper site the place your readers go to search high and low?

Interesting question. It’s certainly not my first instinct. I think alt-weeklies have cornered some of this market.

In this part of California, if I want to know what’s going on at local bars and clubs this weekend, I head straight for Metroactive, the online version of Dan Pulcrano’s Metro Newspapers.

Why? Because their search and calendar stuff is easy and simple to use. The Django-based stuff Adrian Holovaty et al did out in Kansas is even better, with a local drink special index. I cannot begin to explain how much use that would get here in Santa Cruz.

The off-brand branded site idea has been around a long time, but Citysearch/Realcities/Boulevard, etc. look outdated and feel pushy about advertising to me.

So what’s the key? Build a site where users want to hang out, where the news is strictly local, and maybe even a bit lighter than usual.

Make me want to hang out with my neighbors on your site. Then maybe I’ll use that big ol’ local search box to find out where I can get my brakes fixed in town, and – oh, lookie here – reviews from people who actually live in my town will pop up with my search results.

Yeah, the off-brand search sites already include reviews, but I sure would be happier about taking that advice if I knew a little more about those folks, if I could click on their avatar and see all their community posts, their comments on news stories, their own little page with pictures from their kids’ soccer game… Wait a minute, their kid is on my kid’s team!

Funny how that works out.

Serendipity on the Web

Steven Johnson, author of Everything Bad is Good for You, makes an effort to do away with the vicious rumor that the Internet, Web, RSS, blogs, etc. have killed serendipity.

For the uninitiated, or those who merely like words such as “ephemeral” or “paradigm” but try not to get bogged down in definitions, serendipity is the stumbling-upon-of-things that we do in everyday life on a regular basis. It is the positive distraction, the unexpected information that fell from the sky while we were looking for something else. It is the fantastic taqueria on the corner of 294th Street and 23rd Avenue that you happened to walk by when you got off the subway at the wrong stop that one day you ever were in that part of town.

Johnson runs down some of the arguments in this op-ed in the St. Petersburg Times, and responds in turn:

“I find these arguments completely infuriating. Do these people actually use the web? I find vastly more weird, unplanned stuff online than I ever did browsing the stacks as a grad student. Browsing the stacks is one of the most overrated and abused examples in the canon of things-we-used-to-do-that-were-so-much-better. (I love the whole idea of pulling down a book because you like the “binding.”) Thanks to the connective nature of hypertext, and the blogosphere’s exploratory hunger for finding new stuff, the web is the greatest serendipity engine in the history of culture. It is far, far easier to sit down in front of your browser and stumble across something completely brilliant but surprising than it is walking through a library looking at the spines of books.’

Now just as I sat down to put down my thoughts on how this relates to the way newspaper editors and old school J-School profs always tell us they worry about losing the serendipity readers get from flipping through a dead-trees-edition newspaper, I happened to notice that the op-ed was written by … wait for it … William McKeen, the chair of the journalism department at the University of Florida.

Guys, get with it. Open up a browser, and start clicking on what interests you. If you can’t stumble upon something unexpected and interesting at or wikipedia or tailrank or any one of a million (er, closer to 30 million, actually) blogs that link to other blogs that link to other blogs, you’re probably doing it wrong. Make sure your mouse is plugged in, or something.

The strong feeling I get is that the there-is-no-serendipity crowd uses the Internet for e-mail and little else, and certainly doesn’t read news online. The other hunch I have is that they don’t understand that some people who write online, unlike many online newspapers, actually link to sites outside their corporate walls. That’s the only way I figure these folks can come to the conclusion that readers of hundreds of RSS feeds aren’t getting enough serendipity.

[Ed. note: I reserve the right to get a little punchy about this after finishing a 20 page literature review about 24 hours ago focusing on the influences on the adoption of interactive technology at online newspapers. Twenty is not a small number of pages.]

More notes on Prof. McKeen’s op-ed piece:

  • He notes: “An online ‘front page’ offers maybe a half-dozen stories and teasers for a few more – all in all, a poor substitute for the splendor of a good daily newspaper,” in reference to making freshman j-school students subscribe to the print edition of the NY Times. I count 97 headlines on the front page of the online NYT right now, not counting other points of entry to video and audio presentations, and not counting doing any clicking on other boxes or arrows to see more stories, and not counting all the listed sections in the left rail.
  • McKeen writes: “Technology undercuts serendipity. It makes it possible to direct our energies all in the name of saving time.” Saving time? David Weinberger takes care of this one:

    Even if you only go to carefully curated sites that you carefully choose, you are always one link away from the serendipitous. In fact, it takes super-human will power to get from A to B on the Web without first getting sidetracked to C,M,R, C again and then a site with photos of obscene carved pencils.”

Check out Steven Johnson’s post, and be sure to read the comments, where there’s a relatively sane debate on the subject. What do you think? Do you stumble upon more serendipitous content in print or online?