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Websites apply 'social networking' to the news, letting users prioritize what's important.

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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.

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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."

That sense that Digg visitors will get something different from the sober sameness of conventional media is the attraction, he says. "I think one of the most interesting things about Digg, and why people come back time and time again, is ... that raw feel and raw nature of the site. You never know what you're going to see on the front page.... You can see two stories back to back that no sane editor would have ever placed there."

"I think people will flock to sites like Digg to supplement their traditional news diets," writes JD Lasica, cofounder and head of Ourmedia.org, in an e-mail. Ourmedia lets visitors post and share their original videos, photos, artwork, and writing.

"Digg started on a shoestring a year and a half ago, and it's astonishing how popular it's become in such a short time," writes Mr. Lasica, a former editor at the Sacramento Bee who now writes about online media. "Like most big ideas, it starts with a 'duh' realization – that users want to be part of the editorial process, and that readers want to see news stories from a wide range of sources." It's all about bringing the audience into the conversation, he notes. "Like it or not, most people just want to read a story and don't really care which news organization first reported it."

Digg's 360,000 registered users recommend more than 4,000 stories a day from traditional news sources, bloggers, and basically anything else they find on the Net that interests them. Digg's tiny staff of 15 don't act as editors, fulfilling Rose's philosophy that the site be "100 percent user-driven." Digg is "constantly tweaking" its algorithm to make the rankings more accurate, Rose says, to prevent anyone from "gaming" the system and artificially pushing a story to the top of the rankings.

The question now is whether casual online news seekers will flock to a user-run model that so far has appealed only to a technology-literate crowd. A casual user who just checks e-mail and the headlines at a big news site like CNN.com "might not get [Digg or Newsvine] as quickly," Davidson says. "It's not immediately obvious that something like this can work. People have been used to getting their news through the lens of an editor for so long that when they see something like this they almost don't know what to make of it."

The New York Times gives a nod to interactivity

Last year, the Los Angeles Times briefly allowed online readers to write and edit editorials. The newspaper had to quickly curtail its experiment when obscene writing and photos flooded the website.

But that hasn't kept reader input from becoming the mantra of newspapers today. While they may not be ready to turn all editorial decisions over to visitors, they are making their websites more responsive.

Many "old media" sites display a list of the stories most e-mailed to others. Some ask readers to rate the stories or let them add comments. The New York Times home page, for example, shows visitors lists of the stories most e-mailed, the stories most linked to by blogs, and the most popular topics searched for.

"Our readers love to see what other New York Times readers are looking at" by checking the most e-mailed list, says Vivian Schiller, senior vice president and general manager of nytimes.com, the Times's website.

On July 11, the Times launched a limited beta test of MyTimes, which will let website visitors create their own home page. If they wish, their page can include material from other favorite online sources using RSS (Really Simple Syndication). A reader could put "arts" or "sports" stories at the top, for example, and send international news to the bottom – or drop it entirely.

MyTimes readers will also be able to create a home page based on what stories were most popular with other Times readers, Ms. Schiller says. That appears to send the paper veering toward Digg's model.

But Schiller sees more differences than similarities. The Times's familiar home page won't be edited by readers, she says. "That's sort of hard to imagine. That's not what people come to us for," she says. "They come because they want to know what The New York Times thinks are the most important stories."

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