Personalized E-Mail Takes On News Industry

If you want to see the future of news - and scare your local editor in the process - look to the Internet.

Several Internet-related companies are beginning to offer news that is fresher and more personalized than your local paper. The process is simple, and so far it's free. The Internet is quickly becoming a reliable news provider and a serious competitor for traditional media.

The best-known of the new Internet news providers is PointCast Network. It packages its news as a screen saver. That way, every time your computer remains idle for more than a couple of minutes, the PointCast screen pops up with the latest headlines.

The software dials into the Internet automatically and downloads the news while you work on other tasks. You choose how often it updates itself. The free software is available on the World Wide Web at http://www.pointcast.com for users who have Windows. (Macintosh versions of this software and the freeloader program mentioned below are expected soon.)

Traditionalists protest: "I want to read something I can hold, not stare at a screen." That's a fair complaint: Paper is often more convenient. But that misses the point.

It's not the medium that distinguishes Internet news from the traditional media. PointCast stories can be printed out; newspapers are going on-line. What really distinguishes the two is personalization.

PointCast and its competitors let readers choose the news they get: which industries and companies they'll hear about and which stock prices they'll receive. The economics of personalized news are compelling to many people no matter what form it comes in. Why pay for a huge stock table, an entire newspaper - for that matter, why watch an entire news broadcast - if you really want only 10 percent of it?

Personalized news poses some disturbing questions, such as: What happens to a culture if it doesn't share the same record of events? And won't you miss the important news stories that fall outside of your filtering service? But the Internet is pushing the news business in that direction.

Infoseek, the Internet search company, introduced Infoseek Personal (http://personal.infoseek.com) in May. The personalized news service is more basic than PointCast. But it has an interesting addition called "The Buzz" that searches Internet discussion groups for the companies, products, and topics you choose.

Individual Inc., a Burlington, Mass., company that has delivered personalized news to companies for nearly a decade, is now offering its service to individuals (http://www.newspage.com).

Users pick the industry or company or topic that interests them, then Individual filters from more than 20,000 news stories a day to offer summaries of the most relevant articles. For $3.95 a month, subscribers get access to the full text of the articles; for $6.95, they can pick the topics in advance and get a personalized newspaper delivered daily to their electronic mailbox.

While PointCast updates the news from a single Web site, a new program from Individual allows users to automatically update the news from several Web sites. Using the program called FreeLoader (http://www.freeloader.com), I "subscribed" to 24 on-line publications, including this newspaper, The Washington Post, The Boston Globe, and PC Magazine. The program tends to deliver snippets of news rather than the full articles from PointCast, but it is far more flexible.

While these on-line publications may start charging a fee, an Internet-based personal newspaper will still likely be less expensive and more up-to-date than anything in print and more thorough than anything on television. It's likely to give the one-size-fits-all approach of traditional media a run for its money.

*Comment to lbelsie@ix.netcom.com or visit my discussion forum on the Monitor's Web site (http://www.csmonitor.com)

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