Online news gathering expands with greater access

The future of Internet news for the average user revolves around choice and control.

Aidan M. Anderson

For the casual user, Web surfing used to connote killing time, beefing up on bar trivia or pursuing “other” interests. But today, thanks to an explosion in digital news delivery, time spent logged on can be informative as well.

According to a Nov. 7 Audit Bureau of Circulations report, weekly newspaper circulation declined 2.6 percent in the second half of fiscal year 2005, the largest six-month drop since 1991.

But the numbers don’t represent true news readership as more readers, particularly those young and tech-savvy, move to the Internet to receive free national and local news.

While journalism junior Shelby Capacio first heads to check her blog when she logs on, her next stop is Yahoo! News to scan the day’s events.

Capacio hasn’t completely abandoned the physical paper though, and picks up a copy of the Star Tribune almost every day.

The online news is a convenience, she said.

“It just really depends on if I can get the paper before class,” she said. “Sometimes if it’s more convenient, I’ll just read it online.”

The reach of information is greater than it’s ever been. According to Nielsen//NetRatings, online newspapers reach one in four Internet users. Individual visits grew 39.3 million since October 2004, an 11 percent climb. A Pew Internet survey conducted last spring showed news gathering as the No. 2 online activity, behind only checking e-mail and tied with Internet searches.

The advent of technologies like Really Simple Syndication, allow users to check headlines from homepages and quickly decide which stories are of interest, instead of sifting through a stack of newsprint.

Web browsers such as Firefox and Safari include Really Simple Syndication readers built in so finding the news is as easy as selecting a bookmark link. Microsoft plans to launch an integrated news reader in its next version of Internet Explorer.

The Really Simple Syndication technology first came to light as a convenient means to track blogs, as opposed to hunting down only a handful in a sea of millions of options.

High-end news outlets like the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the British Broadcasting Corp., as well as some small-town papers, have embraced the technology and support subscription links on their sites.

Capacio was familiar with the RSS links, but had not used them in her Internet browsing, she said.

“I’ve never been really sure how they work,” she said.

Capacio is not alone. Installing Really Simple Syndication readers and subscribing to services are active processes, and adoption by the masses has been slow in coming.

A January 2005 Pew memo stated that only 5 percent of Internet users incorporate Really Simple Syndication into their browsing.

The popularity of online news gathering lies partly in interface customization, said Julian Steinberg, project manager for Inform.com, a free, customizable news aggregator.

“Users want to actively personalize their news reading experience,” he said. “(Inform.com) allows people to see different perspectives on stories; that means citizen media ” blogs, and traditional media,” he said.

The Inform Web site is capable of linking facts, terms and other stories to blogs, big-market U.S. newspapers and international news outlets like Al Jazeera as well. The linking offers users different viewpoints of the same story or topic from many different viewpoints.

The ability to glean news from multiple sources is what makes news aggregators great, said Nora Paul, director of the Institute for New Media Studies.

“It’s the whole ability to give you more; with a newspaper, what you got was all you were going to get, now you can continue to seek out other opinions, angles or approaches to covering news.

“To hear about a bombing in Iraq and read about it in Al Jazeera, the Jerusalem Post and the Washington Post all within three minutes is an amazing ability,” she said.

In the future, premium services ” available for a fee ” will link streaming video and audio and work to suggest a network of news to users. But the free access model is one that Steinberg doesn’t see changing soon, he said.

“(Charging for services) is not something that we’re even contemplating in the next couple of releases,” he said.

For students, the free features of news aggregates are the best, Capacio said, but said she would consider paying a fee for premium services.

The future of Internet news for the average user revolves around choice and control, Paul said.

“It’s the ability to access what they want, when they want,” she said.