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When newspaper archives meet Twitter

We've already got an algorithm picking the current day's top news. Why not one for stories we might have missed?

By Andrew Heining / May 4, 2009

NPRBackstory's Twitter profile automatically sends followers links to archived NPR stories that pertain to hot news topics.

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What happens to today's news tomorrow?

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In the days of print journalism, yesterday's front page was today's bird-cage liner – not a very noble end for work slaved over by devoted writers, editors, and circulation staff.

These days, even with much of the world's news broken online, things aren't much better. Today's stories are victim to that same culture of "what's next?," pushed in a few hours from highly trafficked homepages to muddled section pages and convoluted archival systems.

(No, I'm not talking specifically about the Monitor, but we're going to get better .)

The Nieman Journalism Lab's Joshua Benton has posted a fascinating look at how NPR is marrying its extensive story archive and Twitter to provide background on current stories and combat this culture of throw-away news. And, bonus: It includes robots.

Through a little Web magic, the system monitors popular news topics, searches the archive for related stories, and sends links to users through an automated Twitter account – follow NPRBackstory to get in on the action.

In a nutshell, here's how it works:

NPRbackstory uses Google’s Hot Trends data to determine what topics people have suddenly started searching for in large numbers. It uses NPR’s API to search the archives, then uses Yahoo Pipes to create an RSS feed that then gets cycled into the NPRbackstory Twitter account.

Genius – sort of.

The system isn't infallible – its designer, Keith Hopper, admits that almost half of the links turned up are to current stories, and that another 15 percent are just completely off-topic (you try explaining homonyms to a computer system – well, a system other than Wolfram Alpha).

And not everyone is sold on the idea of a bot shooting off tweets at every celebrity arrest or vice-presidential gaffe, adding to the cacophony of mindless chatter. Wrote Nieman Labs commenter Terry Steichen:

While this is indeed clever, I’m not sure about its utility, especially when more players decide to get on the act. What’s the value of a bunch of bots serving up tweets about articles about what everyone’s already tweeting about? It seems likely to make twitter less and less useful, not more.

Whether you subscribe to Steichen's concerns or not (you could always just not follow), the system is an innovative way to make use of the vast amount of information so often relegated to the dusty corners of the Web. And if more sites awaken to the treasures lurking in their archives – through automatic distribution or not, readers and news sites will both reap the benefits.

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