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the media.com: Revolution in Cyberspace

Putting the Readers in Control of the News

Online services allow users to see only the information they want, when they want it, on only the topics that interest them.

June 15, 1997|DAVID SHAW | TIMES STAFF WRITER

David Weir has been a magazine editor, a television news executive, a newspaper editorial writer, an investigative reporter and a screenwriter. He is also a father, and seven years ago, he took his 8-year-old son Peter to a San Francisco Giants baseball game for the first time.

"Peter had never liked baseball the few times he'd seen it with me on TV," Weir recalled recently, "but early in that game at Candlestick Park, he suddenly told me he loved it. When I asked him what was so different about seeing a game in person, he said, 'On TV, I can only see what they want to show me. Here I can see whatever I want.' "

Weir has thought often about his son's comment. Indeed, he has come to see it as a foreshadowing of the primary distinction between the traditional news media where he long worked and the Internet company that now employs him--and where, as vice president for content management at HotWired, the online sibling of Wired magazine, he is part of a global computer network that has the potential to revolutionize human communication.

On the Internet, as Weir says, "you put everything up and let the user decide what appeals to him."

This approach is especially attractive to young people--like Weir's now-15-year-old, Internet-loving son--many of whom find traditional news media boring and irrelevant--devoid of information they want and filled with information they don't want.

On the Internet, they can look at only what interests them. And they can do so at a time they find convenient, in a form that is generally more engaging and exciting than that afforded by traditional media, and with the opportunity to interact with those who provide the information.

But people of all ages are increasingly finding these features compelling. Although most Internet users today are younger, wealthier and better educated than the population as a whole, usage is rapidly becoming more universal.

Two-thirds of Net users are 30 years or older, including 19% who are over 50, according to a Business Week / Harris Poll survey last month. Average household income, which was $58,100 for online users a year ago, is now $48,200, just 9% more than the national average, according to a survey by Yankelovich Partners.

The relatively high price of computers has been a barrier to low- and middle-income families, but desktop models are now available for less than $1,000, and over the next decade or two, as computers become cheaper (and simpler), as Internet access becomes faster and simpler, and as more and better uses for the Internet are developed, the Internet could well fulfill the expectations of its most fervent fans and replace television as the most powerful medium on the planet.

Because there are so many sites on the Internet--including those run by traditional media organizations--Internet users can actually create their own, tailor-made, amalgamated daily newspaper or newscast; not only can they select the subjects they want to know about but they can also choose the sources they want that information to come from--ignoring the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, Time magazine and ABC News, for example, and picking only information provided by, say, Rolling Stone, ESPN, an underground newspaper in Bosnia and a technological news service in the Silicon Valley.

There are more than a dozen online services that will aggregate and deliver this personalized daily newspaper to the computer desktop, based on topics and source preferences chosen by the user. Several of these services specialize in what's called "push" technology; they send constantly updated information to their users, and it flashes across their screen whenever they are connected to the Internet. Other services use e-mail to deliver news bulletins and other personalized information instantly and directly to users' computers.

These services deprive their readers of one of the newspaper's great charms, though--the charm of serendipity, the chance to stumble across, and be riveted by, a story on a subject the reader had no idea would interest him.

"The stories I love . . . are the ones I wouldn't know about in advance," says Larry Kramer, a former editor at the Washington Post and San Francisco Examiner and now vice president for news and sports at Data Broadcasting Corp., a San Mateo firm that specializes in online financial news.

"There is no profile on me that would say I like stories on wild coyotes in North Dakota," Kramer says, "but when I read a story like that . . . half the time, it's the best story in the paper."

David Weir, vice president for content management at HotWired, enjoys the primary distinction between the traditional news media and the Internet, where 'You put everything up and let the user decide what appeals to him.'

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