For news junkies, a new tool to sort through the clutter

For an increasing amount of Americans, this is one stack of fishwrap too many.

Much ink – digital and otherwise – has spilled over the last couple months on the subject of the pay wall. Should a newspaper make its customers fork over cash for site access? Or should it release its content onto the inter-webs, to be picked up, tossed over, and consumed by the crowd?

Rumor is that The New York Times is considering erecting a wall around a sizable swath of its stories. If it does, expect a lot of other outlets to follow suit. But in the meantime, what most regular web-readers have is an aggregator: one web site that filters all the rest. Google News is the most popular example, and it works well.

Over the past year, Newser has also attracted a solid fanbase. The site is bright, and flashy, and puts images front and center, which is – let's be honest here – the way a lot of us decide which story to follow. (Newser also has the irascible Michael Wolff, a man who knows his way around a chunk of link-bait.)

Next up

Now there's another aggregator to consider: a start-up called Serendeputy, which was founded by Jason Butler, a Boston-based developer. (Full disclosure time: Butler and I were, for a time, coworkers at The New York Times Company, although we worked in different departments.) Part RSS feed and part web 2.0 tool, Serendeputy tracks a user's online reading habits, and gradually builds a custom profile.

Like Google News, Serendeputy adjusts the referring news outlets and topics depending on your preferences – if you've been immersed in the Sotomayor hearings, for instance, stories on the Supreme Court are more likely to bubble to the surface. Unfortunately, unlike Newser, the aesthetic here is a little flat.

More color, please

Plenty of people love reading on an RSS feeder – and I do a lot of surfing on the Google Reader – because they believe it cuts down on the clutter, and lets them focus on the news. (And plenty of people love, one of the most spare sites of them all.) Still, there's something to be said for a little bit of pop and fizz and flair.

Suffice it to say, that there is some great stuff here: a wide array of sources, with the top stories from each source displayed prominently; a list of the topics I've clicked through recently (for posterity's sake); the ability to browse either by topic or source; and a rock solid search function. (Newser's search function, by comparison, is tepid, at best.)

Function is king

Serendeputy will even let the committed customizer upload a favorite photo to the site, which will display upon log-in. Cute, I guess, but I'm not sure how many folks will want a photograph of their wife or husband or dog next to their link pile. But again, that's an aesthetic issue, and not a functional one: Serendeputy, even in Beta, is a news site that works just like it should.

And in the age of shrinking attention spans, that's no small achievement.


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