The great thing about getting your news online is that you are the person in control of your experience. You can visit the news sites and blogs that you like, and follow a trail of hyperlinks to learn about events happening around the world. And if your niche interests include sumo wrestling or collectible Pez dispensers, then that’s what you can seek out.
And ever since the MIT Media Lab created its experimental personalized Fishwrap news service in 1994, various companies and students have tried to create The Daily Me, one website that offers personalized news for each visitor. On most of these sites, you choose the topics you like — or even the media sources you like — and then up pops the perfect news page with everything you want to know (and nothing that bores you).
Cass Sunstein, a law professor at the University of Chicago, has decried The Daily Me as helping to foster an echo chamber online where people only read news stories that align with their thinking, and never see opposing opinions. “If the public is fragmented and if members of different groups design their own preferred news packages, the consequence might well be greater fragmentation as group members move one another toward more extreme positions,” Sunstein wrote in a Time magazine essay, Boycott the Daily Me, in 2001.
Research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, however, shows that this hasn’t been the case so far online. In 2004, Pew found that 67% of Americans prefer getting their news from sources without a political point of view, with only 25% preferring news sources that share their political orientation.
In any case, people have shown an interest in personalized news sites, even if the sites themselves have yet to reach personalized nirvana. In the new Web 2.0 era, with so many ways for us to share photos and videos and bookmarks, perhaps now there’s an opening for someone to create the news portal of our dreams.
The perfect Daily Me would be the central place that has the news, blogs, discussions, podcasts — everything we want that’s tailored to our particular tastes — in one convenient place. While many sites have tried to reach this ideal, no one site has totally perfected it quite yet.
So I’ve created another guide, following on my previous guide to podcast directories. The following personalized news sites offer more than simple RSS news readers, so I’ve left out services such as NewsIsFree and Bloglines. And I’m not looking at sites that focus more on user-generated commentary on the news such as MetaFilter or Newsvine.
Again, I’ve highlighted the good and bad points of each site and graded them accordingly. I graded up for simple, easy-to-use designs that even a newbie could follow, as well as clever ways to create personalization on the fly (see Findory, below). I graded down for complex features that were hard to understand, or sites that didn’t work as advertised.
I invite you to submit your own thoughts on these sites and tell me which ones I’ve left out. I’ll try to update this guide over time to keep it fresh.
Yahoo runs the granddaddy of personalized portals, and has allowed its registered visitors to create pages with the news, weather, stock portfolios and other personal info they want since 1996. There was a point in the late ’90s when it seemed like every consumer website had a personalized version preceded by “My.” Somehow, My Yahoo has persevered, while others have petered out. And in 2004, the service took a quantum leap forward by allowing you to add any source — blog, news page, fan site — that has an RSS news feed.
Yahoo made the whole RSS world much easier for the newbie, by letting people customize their own My Yahoo page with feeds from any source. And unlike the competing services, My Yahoo has a simple design and suggests dozens of news sources and blogs by popularity or editorial picks. Plus, you can customize what sources go where on your personalized page, and put your cursor on top of headlines to see a little popup box with a blurb from the article or blog post. And you can also get easy access to Yahoo Mail, Yahoo Calendar and many other Yahoo services from My Yahoo. The only downside is that you can’t read blog posts from inside My Yahoo, as you can with Netvibes.
On the Good Foot: Easy-to-use RSS feeds, with suggestions.
On the Bad Foot: You can’t read blog posts from within My Yahoo (as you can do with Netvibes, below).
Overall Grade: A
This French upstart site provides a look into the future of The Daily Me, with an amazing array of features you can add to your personalized page. Along with the usual blogs and news sites you can add to your page, there are also features from other services, including social bookmarks from del.icio.us and photos from Flickr (a bit ironic that they would beat My Yahoo to sites that Yahoo now owns!). Plus, Netvibes lets you read the full blog posts for some sites within a popup window, and you can listen to podcasts or download them as well. As you read stories, they turn gray on your Netvibes page so you know what you’ve read and what you haven’t.
There’s even a neat feature called Price Watch that lets you track the prices of electronics, household appliances or other shopping favorites — though it’s only for European countries so far. Because Netvibes is still in beta testing, the page loads a bit slowly as you add more and more sources to your personalized page. And unlike My Yahoo, there aren’t very many suggested sources to help you get started. But the promise is there, and it’s not hard to imagine the future of personalized news after playing around with Netvibes.
On the Good Foot: Lets you read blog posts and listen to podcasts. Clean design.
On the Bad Foot: Slow to load; not a lot of suggested sites.
Overall Grade: A-
Google Homepage is so humble and unassuming that you might miss that it even exists (I sure did). But when you dig in to this personalized portal, you find a lot to like. For one, Google has opened up development of features to anyone who wants to write the code. These user-generated modules include a graphic of the current time and date, your local traffic on a color-coded map, mini-games or even real estate listings in your area. There are dozens upon dozens of user-created modules to choose from, and growing by the week. Google also lets you see a preview of your Gmail, and lists some popular news and entertainment sources to add to your page.
The Google Homepage folks even tweaked arch-rival Yahoo by letting you add the Ask Yahoo feature (something My Yahoo doesn’t list). Plus, you can add any RSS feed or search for blogs or sources by key word, similar to what you can do on My Yahoo. My knock on Google Homepage is that some of the modules appeared to have tech glitches on my page, and my InstaPundit feed showed nothing. And I’m not a big fan of the bland look of the page — which you can’t change. Otherwise, the simpicity of creating a page from scratch, and adding user-created modules makes this a real contender.
On the Good Foot: Funky user-generated modules and simple design.
On the Bad Foot: Some technical problems and no way to change colors and look.
Overall grade: A-
This popular news aggregator has made its name by collecting news on specific subjects or by ZIP codes — creating hundreds of thousands of little niche news sites. And Topix.net also lets you add, subtract and move around news categories on its front page, creating a personalized page. Perhaps its greatest strength is letting you put hyperlocal news — that is, news from your local neighborhood — right on your home page near the top, so you can see a link to a local TV report or community newspaper site. On other sites, you would have to hunt around to find the RSS feed for these local sites, but Topix.net has already done the dirty work of finding and indexing these sources.
As with the other services, you can drag and drop categories and move them around your personalized page. Topix.net also includes blogs in the mix, and has started community forums, so you can discuss the news and not just read it. However, when I checked the community forum for my neighborhood of San Francisco, Potrero Hill, the forum only had people discussing issues related to Hawaii, for some reason. Another problem is that you don’t sign in to use saved settings, so you have to personalize for each computer you use.
On the Good Foot: Nice local news and forums.
On the Bad Foot: “Local” forums not always local; no way to save settings.
Overall Grade: B+
The cool thing about Findory is that you don’t have to choose categories and move them around like the other personalized news pages. Instead, Findory personalizes three pages for you based on what you’ve clicked on: a home page with news and blogs; just news; and just blogs. And the more you use the site, the more it gets to know your likes and dislikes, pushing up similar stories to the top of your news pages. It also recommends stories you might like by putting an image of a little ray of sunshine next to those stories. I also like how it grays out stories that you’ve already read, and lets you alter your past history of clicks. However, I didn’t like the layout of the front page, with blogs and news running in long columns and not broken down by category. I don’t want to have click through to another page to get my ideal-looking Daily Me.
On the Good Foot: No setup work; figures out your taste by what you click.
On the Bad Foot: Not a great front page design; Google ads look like news items.
Overall Grade: B
This newish service mixes in some of the better features of other personalized news sites. It lets you arrange various news categories the way My Yahoo does. It recommends stories based on what you’ve clicked the way Findory does. And it shows you how popular each story is depending on how many news sources have picked up the story, similar to the way Google News works. I like how it also lets you customize some design elements on your page right from the top, adjusting font size, number of columns, and including images or not. Unfortunately, the overall look of the page — which you can’t change — is a bit clunky, and it’s hard to comprehend the red-and-blue icons that show you recommendations and popularity for each article. Strangest of all, the service seemed to think I had viewed 75 articles when I first visited, even though I had never seen the site before.
On the Good Foot: Combines features of Findory and Google News.
On the Bad Foot: Difficult to comprehend article icons.
Overall Grade: C
A more recent entry in the personalized news race is Google News’ recent personalization feature. You can edit each news category, and choose among an incredible variety of countries for more news sources that Google will index. Plus, you can create custom categories for news based on your favorite key words (so that all the news pops up about “knitting” or “Indian cricket,” for instance). The page tends to get overly long, and only a few blogs are included at this point. And unlike My Yahoo, you can’t choose any site with RSS feeds unless you switch over to the Google Reader, more of a basic news reader. So far, the Google News personalized page is just a work in progress.
On the Good Foot: You can customize based on key words; Google recommends news based on your previous searches.
On the Bad Foot: You can’t add any RSS feed or news source; design is clunky.
Overall Grade: C-
UPDATE: Thanks to Eli, in comments, who pointed out that Google Homepage is much more of a personalized news portal than personalization in Google News. So I’ve checked out Google Homepage, and have graded it and added it to the mix above.
Also, citizen journalism and blogging pioneer Dan Gillmor checked out the personalized news guide, and reacts: “I’m more interested, ultimately, in the Daily We, but these sites are great starts on where we’re going.”