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Dec. 21, 2011, 6:30 p.m.

Gina Masullo Chen: Next year, personalization platforms will bring us more choices, not fewer

News has always been about making choices among lots of information; technology just helps us make those choices more smartly.
Editor’s Note: We’re wrapping up 2011 by asking some of the smartest people in journalism what the new year will bring.

Next up is Gina Masullo Chen, who spent 20 years as a newspaper reporter and editor and is currently pursuing a Ph.D. in communications at the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University. She blogs at savethemedia.com.

“Great entrepreneurs do not really see the future as much as the create the future they envision.”

That’s a quote from MIT professor Michael A. Cusumano from a piece he wrote on the late Steve Jobs, but I think it offers some insight for the future of journalism in 2012. I think we in the industry need to heed this advice and create a future for journalism — rather than just wait and see what happens.

If I were creating this future, a large component of it would include offering greater customization of news and information for readers. I have been quite impressed with the Zite app on the iPad, which allows me to pick from a list of topics and customize my own magazine of sorts. The device uses the topics the user selects to curate blogs and news sites across the web, creating a personalized news summary.

On my Zite, my topics include journalism (of course), social media, science, and psychology. I open my Zite, click on one of my topics, and I receive a series of summaries. I can access the whole articles with a touch. One might be from The New York Times; another from the technology blog GigaOm; another from Psychology Today. With just a touch of my finger, I can sort through a variety of topics and news venues. I can seamlessly share these on Twitter, Facebook, or Google Plus. I also can “vote” on whether I liked the article and would like to receive more like it. In essence, Zite learns what I like over time and creates a more accurately customized product for me the more I use it. In this way, it offers some of the intended benefits of the older program, StumbleUpon, but I find that it’s easier to use.

In the future of journalism that I would like to envision, a Zite-like application would exist for other types of news and information. Imagine a local Zite, where I can read my hometown paper, TV station websites, alternative weekly, and blogs from my community all with the swipe of a finger. Or consider a Zite for more national and international news, with the application curating across countries and topics. Or one that aggregates topics not traditionally considered news-y, such as scrapbooking, fishing, or gaming.

Sure, I can do all that now. I can Google newspaper sites from across the globe or access pretty much any blog I want. Plus, other applications let me sort through newspaper websites or blog directories or social media outlets. But what I envision is more than that. It enables me to better access all the web has to offer because it sorts and makes sense of the information for me, and it delivers that information right to me. It also introduces me to blogs or lesser-known sites that I might not happen upon on my own.

Now, some will worry that personalized news applications like I suggest would curtail the marketplace of ideas that is so important in a free society. I question this worry. I agree that in a perfect world, we’d all be exposed to high-quality information that offers a variety of viewpoints, including those very different from our own. However, in the real world, that’s not the case. People gravitate to media that supports their worldview, and then this information validates and reinforces this worldview. Liberals read liberal tomes; conservatives read conservative information.

Certainly, some people deviate from this, and certainly there are many shades of gray between polar ideological opposites where much cross-over of viewpoints occurs. But since the first person scanned a library shelf and picked one book over another, people have had the ability to pick which information they want. People choose what they like, what interests them, what gratifies their own needs, and what fits how they see the world.

In 2012, technology may help them make those choices more quickly and easily.

POSTED     Dec. 21, 2011, 6:30 p.m.
PART OF A SERIES     Predictions for Journalism 2012
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