Have you been 'digging' the news lately?

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I have been "digging" the news lately, and I don't know what to think about the world. It's hard to get my head around the odd photos I've seen, the random stories I've read, and the tech headlines that seem never to stop coming.

"Digging" the news means reading the news as defined by Digg.com. Digg is part of a relatively new phenomenon on the Web: social-networking news sites (others include reddit.com and newsvine.com). And Digg is a strangely engaging place.

Digg.com is part news source, part blog, and part "American Idol." Users find pages they think are interesting while surfing the Web. They then submit them to Digg. There, other users comment on the pages and vote for or against them, pushing some up to Digg's front page and others into Web oblivion.

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The results are a fascinating look at group anthropology. Take, for example, the top stories for the previous 24 hours on a recent Wednesday afternoon. The top item was photos from Hiroshima that the US government "didn't want us to see." The 10th most popular page was "Fifteen geek movies to see before you die." Sandwiched in between were stories about CNN coverage, baggage handlers, Microsoft's Vista operating system, and Google's Gmail service.

That is an eclectic and slightly tech-heavy group of stories – some good reads – that say something about the Digg community. Its wired members are generally looking for the offbeat and the overlooked. Big mainstream stories do appear on the front page, just not very often.

Do Digg and other social-networking news sites have implications for the larger news environment?

Those who dislike mainstream media (MSM) see hope in Digg's model. Jeff Jarvis of The Guardian has called Digg's founder Kevin Rose "the media industry of the future," and Michael Arrington of TechCrunch.com says Digg is "the most disruptive force to mainstream media since blogs were born." The site is, as it says on its homepage, "all about user powered content." And in theory, it's a wonderful way to aggregate news from around the Web that might be missed and break the stranglehold of big-media news outlets, that, even in the Internet age, have a decent measure of control over what users see.

After all there may be a lot of stories on the Web on any given day, but most won't make it to the front page of MSNBC.com or nytimes.com – or your [local paper].com, for that matter. And Internet or not, the stories on those sites are the ones chosen by editors operating under conventional standards of news judgment.

So as Digg grows, is it a possible model for a more user-centric news media future? Perhaps, but it will probably be one with limited appeal.

First is the sheer eccentricity of the stories that show up there. Sure, the "Fifteen geek movies" page, which came from the Houston Chronicle's tech blog, was interesting (though I'm still not sure how "Bladerunner" didn't make the list), but it's not exactly keeping you up with what's happening in the world.

Supporters of the Digg idea say that there are ways around that. Digg is young, and people are still finding it, they say. Once its community gets big enough, the stories on the front page will be more representative of the population at large.

And, even now, if you know how to use Digg you can find a more mainstream selection of stories if that is your goal. You just need to find someone who "diggs" the kind of stories you think are important. Then just go to that person's personal page and look at all the stories he or she has submitted. It's like having your own personal Virgil to walk you through news Hades.

Maybe, but both those ideas go to the larger problem of social-networking news sites. They rest on the assumption that more and more people will sign up to comb the Internet looking for stories they want to "digg," and/or that people interested in the news will spend time to find the right person on Digg to keep tabs on the news for them. In other words, these sites rest on the assumption that people have time to devote to news.

Surveys show that people are not really spending more time with news. Data from the Pew Project for the People and the Press in 2006 showed that the amount of time Americans spend with news is essentially flat – even online. That's not to say that some people won't go out of their way to put together a particular news diet, but the number of people who will do that will probably be few.

And maybe that's for the best. Social networking news sites such as Digg are fun to visit, but it is easy to imagine how they could quickly lead to a view of the world just as insular as that of the MSM, and maybe more so – either stuck within the preferences of the Digg crowd or the preferences of a select few Digg members whose list of "diggs" one regularly checks.

It's not that there's anything wrong with that, but if your concern is being trapped by the worldview of the MSM editors, how is the worldview of the crowd on one website really better?

Dante Chinni, a senior associate at the Project for Excellence in Journalism, writes a twice-monthly column on media issues. E-mail him at Dante Chinni.

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