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Websites apply 'social networking' to the news, letting users prioritize what's important.
Michael Arrington, a popular blogger on new Internet businesses (www.techcrunch.com), caused a stir last month when he said Digg (www.digg.com) looked as though it was close to equaling The New York Times in one measure of online readership. "Digg is looking more and more like the newspaper of the Web," Mr. Arrington concluded in a post on his popular blog. According to Alexa.com, which tracks Web traffic, the news-aggregating site begun in late 2004 also has more online traffic than The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, The Wall Street Journal, or USA Today.Skip to next paragraph
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Alexa's numbers weren't backed up by other traffic counters. Online market researcher Hitwise (www.hitwise.com.au) and venerable audience-counter Nielsen showed The New York Times still ahead by sizable margins.
But whatever the exact readership figures, the comparison brought attention to a big difference between the two, one that those tracking the future of the news media are eyeing carefully: The Times stories were picked by human editors, journalists trained to decide what is "All the News That's Fit to Print," as the Times's slogan suggests. At Digg, visitors themselves recommend items they find of interest online. Other Digg visitors then vote for the story by clicking "digg it" or disapprove of it by clicking "bury story." Items that are "dug" the most become the top stories on the entry pages. Stories that receive too many "bury it" votes drop off the site.
Digg is among a growing handful of websites applying the principles of "social networking" made famous by MySpace and YouTube to news gathering and presentation. The site grabbed more attention last month when it expanded from tracking only technology news to such topics as world and business news, science, entertainment, videos, and gaming. That move came just as media giant AOL announced plans to give its longtime Internet portal www.netscape.com a drastic makeover, turning it into a similar visitor-powered news site (though Netscape says some human editors will monitor the site).
Rather than threatening to kill off the "old media," these sites have developed a kind of symbiotic relationship with it, those involved say. "Obviously, established media companies aren't going away, and their role is very much appreciated in the new media world," says Mike Davidson, CEO of Newsvine.com, a news-aggregating site that started up in March.
Professional news organizations spend considerable financial resources to gather and report news, which the "social news" sites then use as free raw material. Front page stories on Digg, for example, often come from recognizable "old media" sources such as CNN, the BBC, and Reuters, as well as major newspapers. Newsvine subscribes to the entire Associated Press newswire feed. But rather than hurting old media sites, Mr. Davidson says, Newsvine helps them by sending readers to the original sites to read the whole story. "I think one kind of plays off the other," he says.
But some people just read the headlines on these sites and never click through to read the full story at the Times or Post, meaning that the site that put the effort into producing the original piece won't get a traffic boost from being on Digg or Netscape, says Howard Finberg, director of interactive learning at the Poynter Institute, a school for journalists in St. Petersburg Fla. "I know some publishers would like to put up some kind of wall or fence" to protect their stories, he says.
Today, readers can choose between the unedited Digg and the edited Times models, Mr. Finberg says. "Isn't that the beauty of the Internet? I think both can live."
Digg is simply tapping the "wisdom of the crowd," says Kevin Rose, the founder and chief architect of Digg. That phrase is taken from a 2004 book by James Surowiecki, "The Wisdom of Crowds," which argues that, in the right circumstances, the collective knowledge and expertise of a large group of people lead to better decisions than those made by individuals alone.
What pops up on Digg's front pages always amazes Mr. Rose. "I'll look at the front page and the different sections of the site, and I'll just go, 'Wow, that's crazy,' " he says. "I wouldn't have 'dug' that story. But it's fun to see it up there."