All the news that's fit to be digitized

This week, it's all about The Big Picture.

Using Yahoo's directory as a rough guide, there are more than 9000 newspapers around the world that also have a presence on the web. And while most newshounds will visit more than one of these online outlets in the course of a day (don't look so embarrassed, we knew it all along), anyone with an interest in getting a thorough cross-section of regional and global coverage is in for a challenge. (Unless, of course, you enjoy the thought of hours ticking by while you survey dozens of websites - trying to remember which one, from which region, gave how much importance to what.)

Fortunately, there are sites out there doing all the collecting, categorizing, and collating for us, with two of the most popular examples being Newsmap, and the Newseum's Today's Front Pages exhibit. And just as fortunately (at least for the purposes of this review), each one offers a very different method of gathering the world's reporting under a single virtual roof.

The more basic -and more visual- of the two sites, Today's Front Pages is a 'photographic' collection of almost 400 Page Ones from more than 40 countries. (The actual number varies from day to day.) Receiving electronic files from participating publications every morning, the Newseum presents them as grids of thumbnail images - a method which allows visitors to simultaneously compare dozens of editorial decisions about which stories and pictures merited the most important real estate for that day's edition.

Online, the collection is divided into a series of JavaScripted pages, with a grid of about 50 thumbnails on each page. As surfers rollover each thumbnail, a larger copy of the front page appears on the right of the screen, and if you want more detail, full-screen versions are available with a click of the mouse. Lifesize facsimiles can be downloaded in PDF format. (Each page also links to its paper's website in case you want to follow some piece of writing to its conclusion.)

In default mode, Front Pages displays its collection alphabetically by region (US papers first, arranged by state). For those pursuing similarities, this arrangement makes the most sense since, barring the relatively rare events that receive global front page coverage, neighboring publications are more likely to be covering the same stories with the same perspective. This can make things a bit tedious though, for visitors who might not want to wade though some 300+ icons before getting to the latest editions from Turkey or Venezuela, so Front Pages also offers Map View and List by Region pages - providing access to the papers by interactive maps or indexes of publication names and countries of origin.

Front Pages has no provisions for a continuous archive of past editions, but the site does keep exhibits from selected dates intact, so you can step back and compare coverage of such events as 9/11 and the London bombings, the 2004 US presidential campaign, and - for Red Sox fans - the 2004 World Series.

While Front Pages builds an overall image from hundreds of small ones, Newsmap reveals The Big Picture through a site devoid of photographic imagery - instead using a "Treemap visualization algorithm" to represent global news coverage as gathered by the Google News aggregator. (A Treemap is defined by the Human-Computer Interaction Lab of the University of Maryland as, "a space-constrained visualization of hierarchical structures." In undereducated terms, the Newsmap Treemap is, "a bunch of colored rectangles that can reveal patterns in news coverage.")

On loading the homepage, the visitor is presented with just that, a screen filled with rectangles - rendered in various sizes, colors, and locations, to denote the importance (or perhaps 'popularity' would be a more accurate term), category (world, sports, business, etc.) and vintage (brighter colors denote newer items) of the stories they represent. Each block contains the headline of the story behind the link, and on mouseover, reveals the article's opening line and the number of related items found by Google News. Clicking on a block opens a popup window with the originating website's version of the report.

While not allowing Front Pages' side-by-side visual comparison of national and international coverage, Newsmap's flexible interface does permit a much more direct appraisal of which stories are (or aren't) getting attention in various locations around the world. Along the top of the display, a series of tabs allows visitors to restrict results to just one or any combination of eleven countries, revealing such relationships as two countries' perspectives on an event that affects both. Below, surfers can also pick and choose among seven categories of coverage.

In terms of overall display, there is also a choice between the standard layout, which segregates the selected categories into a series of horizontal bars, or the "squareified" option, which squares the output to make the headlines easier to read, and arranges the categories in blocks. With so much flexibility in customizing Newsmap's output, you might soon find that you keep returning to a favorite set of options. If so, the site also offers a "Permalink" feature, which allows you to specifically bookmark -as an example- a page that loads a squareified arrangement of US and UK stories on world events, sports and entertainment.

Like Front Pages, Newsmap doesn't keep long-term archives, but you can go back as far as a week to track recent developments in the coverage of a particular event.

Clearly, neither of these sites would be an efficient first stop if you were looking for news of a specific incident or the work of a specific writer, and it's best to keep in mind that these sites aren't necessarily a reflection of the most important events happening around the world, but more accurately, of the decisions of each publication's editors. Still, in displaying these admittedly subjective results, Front Pages and Newsmap tell us as much about media and culture as they do about the news, and as such, they can provide some useful perspective for the next visit to one's favorite traditional news sources. (It's worth remembering that The Big Picture is often taken through a filter.)

The Newseum's Today's Front Pages can be found at http://www.newseum.org/todaysfrontpages/, with the Newsmap at http://www.marumushi.com/apps/newsmap/newsmap.cfm.

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