Citizen Journalists, Unite

NewsvineFor a while now, I’ve been playing with Newsvine, a news-driven community, Web 2.0 application that’s been generating considerable buzz since widening its beta program. Even though Newsvine, Inc. CEO Mike Davidson insists that, in its current state, the application is only a fraction of what it will be, it’s apparent to any beta tester that it’s an ambitious project.

Davidson and his team are trying to create a hybrid of citizen journalism and mainstream media news, allowing users to author their own ‘columns’ from the freely available Associated Press articles constantly flooding into the Newsvine system, or to ‘seed’ their own stories from virtually any outside source on the Web. While it may bear some superficial resemblance to community-driven news sites like Digg.com, Newsvine actually aims to be a news authority of its own, rivaling more established news sources. It’s an idea that has a certain amount of inevitability to it: an aggregated, community-authored news source that can stand as a peer to mainstream news outlets.


Designer in Charge

It helps, too, that Newsvine is gorgeously designed, and easily ranks among the most aesthetically pleasing Web 2.0 applications yet released. The fact that Davidson is a designer is no coincidence; you can tell that the Newsvine experience has a designer’s sensibility embedded throughout, from the lowest levels on up. Every detail is rendered with care and taste, but balanced with the pragmatism of a business mind. There’s a quiet meme in the design community that posits that one day, a designer or information architect will be CEO of a Fortune 500 company. Judging at least from his execution thus far, Davidson’s service at Newsvine is as good a start as any.

Still, it wouldn’t be completely candid of me to say that I’ve taken to Newsvine effortlessly. I’ve had my beta account for two months or so now, and I still struggle to use it, visiting the site only every few days to read stories here and there, but still remaining less engaged than I had expected. There are probably several reasons for this. two of which may be that I’m a notoriously late adopter when it comes to social software, and that Newsvine has yet to achieve the critical mass that would allow for truly robust network effects.

In My Backyard

Of more significance is the fact that the “column” that comes with my Newsvine account is not Subtraction.com; it resides entirely within Newsvine’s walled garden, so to speak, and there is, as yet, no easy way to integrate it with my weblog. At this point in my life, I’m not entirely sure if I can find the time to tend another parcel of land in cyberspace — it’s a bit too much out of the way for me to make it over to Newsvine during a normal workday. I wonder too, if we’re reaching a saturation point wherein the number of ‘spaces’ that some net citizens can watch over has effectively maxed out — between blogs, Flickr, MySpace, Del.icio.us etc., there are more outlets for content production than ever… but how many people can maintain more than one?

Where Do You Get Your News

Yet I’ll bet that, somewhere among the remaining 95 % of Newsvine’s unbuilt feature set, there are plans to allow the product to more tightly integrate with personal Web sites. I hope that’s the case, and I also hope that, among those plans, there’s a strategy for more diversified content.

As it is, Newsvine relies primarily on the stories turned out unceasingly by the Associated Press, and secondarily on content seeded by its user base. The problem that I’ve found is that, while authoritative, I personally lack an emotional connection with the AP wire. As a news consumer, I’ve become accustomed to regarding the AP as a source of temporary news stories, and I’ve reserved my passion for news brands that reside more in the spotlight. That’s an unfair prejudice that I’m not sure many other people would share, but I’d wager that, with content from a news organization that inspires some real passion — be it Fox News or The Washington Post — the Newsvine community would take on a different character altogether. In a sense, it would be a truer hybridization of net journalism and mainstream media, one that allows Newsvine’s grassroots columnists to effectively rub shoulders with top tier journalists. That’s something I could get worked up over.

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  1. I have to say, I’ve felt conflicted in the same way. I had the “seed to newsvine” bookmarklet in my toolbar for weeks and never used it. I check the site every now and then, but I never get sucked in the way I do with delicious.

    At the same time, I think the idea of hanging community interaction on existing news content is fascinating and has a lot of potential. And true to Mike’s style, it’s impeccably done. But from what I’ve seen so far, I just don’t see it catching on outside the hardcore geek set.

    Here’s hoping Mike’s got some secrets up his sleeve.

  2. Ditto Khoi, Wilson.

    In this day and age of information and how to interact with that information overload, I find that I’m shrinking away from having too many projects that aren’t MY projects.

    I suppose, what I’m trying to do instead is to spend my spare time creating rather than contributing via another’s creation to fuel that vision. Nothing wrong with Davidson’s or any other web apps goals, because they are theirs. But in a selfish way, I just rather would do my own stuff.

    Digression aside, I think creators of web apps should know off the bat that folks will want to integrate stuff on their websites. There have been numerous hacks for including del.icio.us links, coComment can go on your site and so on and so forth.

    Ideally I think people want their websites to be a personal portal of all the things they do and people will go to great lengths to do that, to “brand” their content.

  3. I agree in part with your review and think that integration will be vital to the future of Newsvine. My flickr account hasn’t been used much lately because I’ve been spending so much time on Newsvine.

    On the other hand, I -am- spending a ton of time there and writing a lot as well as seeding a lot. (And commenting more than both.) I didn’t have a blog before I joined newsvine, though.

    For what it’s worth, I seeded your review. ;)

  4. I think we’re still in the “onmygod, look at all of the incredible information I can access!” phase; like kids in a candy store, to cop a tired clichжé. My feeling is (similar to the whole HipsterPDA backlash), there will be a turning point where a critical mass of people will turn their backs on the overwhelming number of places they’ve invested in online, and simplify.

    I had a long talk with a friend recently about this, and plan to post about this soon. I think we’re at this weird point where a lot of us are expending a ton of energy getting stuff set up so that we can be more productive.

    Right now, the balance of the time we’re spending getting stuff working and the actual payoff at the end is still somewhat even (or offset by the interest in actually learning stuff in the first place), but I don’t believe this can last forever.

    At some point we’re going to realize that the amount of time we spend trying to integrate a new system in our lives in order to be more productive / informed is taking more time than actually just sitting down and getting shit done / becoming informed in the first place.

  5. Neil, I think that’s a great point. There’s definitely a prevailing fetish for the trappings of productivity right now that may in fact preclude actually being productive. Similarly we sometimes find that being away from all of our productivity constructions actually makes us more productive.

    It’s worth a blog post, I’m sure, and I look forward to yours. But I’m not sure that it applies directly to Newsvine, because I think the market that Newsvine is after may not be the blogger/Flickr/Del.icio.us market anyway. I have a feeling Davidson and company have their sights set much higher, on the demographic of people who have something to say about the news but don’t have their own blog yet. It could be a huge market; I’m not sure. If it is, though, he’s going to be one wealthy stinkin’ designer in a pinstripe suit.

  6. As you said, I think blog integration will be the Rosetta Stone for a project like this. It takes all I have to update my own blog on a semi-consistent basis. I couldn’t imagine how others could hold down two blogs with any amount of regularity in posting.

  7. It’ll be interesting to see where Newsvine ends up. I appreciate being able to read local news style stories from around the world, but at the same time there’s an abundance of Digg style posts that include a link with little commentary.

    The walled garden makes it difficult to create what amounts to another blog post that you can’t show to your regular readers. For the same reason, it’s also hard to give Newsvine any credit for the stories. I’m finding lots of interesting AP articles on the site but need to go elsewhere to find a story for reference.

  8. Once Newsvine is live they have a program to “give” the author a certain share of the advertising revenue generated on his or her column. Once that is in place I expect to see more interaction from the community.

    If Newvine can attract some substaintial traffic we might see people making a living (or at least subsidizing it) with posts on newsvine much like personal blogs with adsense ads.

  9. I’m not sure why you say that there’s no easy way to integrate Newsvine with Subtraction. Every author has several RSS feeds and JavaScript feeds for the articles they write and the links they seed. It shouldn’t be any more difficult than including your Flickr badge or your del.icio.us cloud to your blog. Or am I just totally misunderstanding the statement?

  10. I’m surprised no one has brought up the argument that this could actually be a slippery slope of TOO MANY options? I’m all for independent media, but I wonder if people will grow even more disenfranchised with keeping up on current events if we suddenly have to check 3 million different sources for information instead of the current “major” media players. I realize that a product like Newsvine is supposed to be the solution, but I just don’t see it being what people really want.

    What they really want is continuity. Right?

  11. I stop by on occassion, but still find the news content far too US centric and particularly US Sport centric.

    Hopefully this will be fixed by a growing user base.

    BBC is still my main source of news on the web, and I’m not even in the UK.

  12. Chalk another point up for the “I’ve had a private beta invite for months, but that doesn’t mean I’m using Newsvine” crew.

    Newsvine is awfully disconnected and I think your reasons for its apparent emptiness are probably the two most prominent flaws in the way the system works. I certainly haven’t written anything exclusive for my Newsvine column, and I don’t intend to. Between school and work, I have a hard enough time just posting things on my own blog. I tried really hard to get into Newsvine, but in the end I just went back to my trusty TimesSelect subscription.

    The one thing I’ve noticed about Newsvine’s “Vine” is that the majority of the content is still inherently nerdy, even with the expanded demographic reach of the system now (it isn’t just early adopter web geeks anymore.) I don’t mind my nerdy tech news, but the sheer quantity of it speaks volumes about who Newsvine’s current user base is and how its current readership will democratically vote the nerdy stuff up the vine by sheer strength in numbers.

    The problem I see in this is that the non-techie that may stumble across Newsvine, either now or in the future, will be intimidated by the content that is technology-oriented and, in their minority, will not be able to push their favourite links to the surface. Although beta testers should be tech savvy for bug-reporting purposes, a beta program that balanced the demographic would have helped Newsvine’s social environment from being so Digg-like in function. The sad thing is that I don’t see the comparisons to Digg stopping anytime soon, especially when the Vine is so crowded with tech-related things. Maybe an algorithm is necessary to resort some of these things (thus breaking democracy,) or maybe Mike should showcase minority opinion on Newsvine as well; as much as we’re for the social democracy of Web 2.0, neglecting minority opinion won’t help expand the site into something out of the realm of Web designers and new media nerds.

    That said, I agree wholeheartedly that Newsvine needs more passionate professional content. The AP is notoriously bland, but striking offers with other papers or media syndicates may actually be tougher than starting their own news service. I don’t see how a lot of publishing companies would be willing to offload their content to Newsvine when Newsvine is “in competition” with other outlets’ own websites.

    Either way, it’ll be interesting to see what happens to Newsvine. For now, I’ll keep my fingers crossed and be optimistic.