All the news you can use – and more
The New York Times
16 October 2005
News enthusiasts, rejoice. A Web site is being introduced Monday that will not only let you find articles on the topic of your choice from hundreds of newspapers and magazines, it will also alert you to all the other news accounts floating around cyberspace that have any connection whatsoever to anything you read.
The site, Inform.com, developed by Inform Technologies, a New York start-up, will perform information-delivery feats that its founders claim no other Web site can match. The question is whether the average reader will want to follow the spectacle.
At first glance, Inform.com resembles so-called news-reader services like Yahoo News and Google News, which can be customized to hunt down stories related to, say, technology or entertainment.
But Inform goes further, scanning every news article from hundreds of well-known publications (and some blogs), then creating an index of important elements in the article. So as a user reads a WashingtonPost.com article about Sandra Day O’Connor, for example, Inform offers a short list of related stories about the justice and other people, places, organizations, topics, industries and products mentioned in the text.
The article appears as it would on the newspaper’s site –with The Post’s advertisements–while the Inform links appear in a border.
If readers choose not to dig into Supreme Court-related issues, they can search another topic, browse a directory of hundreds of news categories or read articles on a list of “hot” people and organizations, ranked according to how many times they are mentioned in Inform’s article database.
If that sounds like a trick the search engines could just as easily pull off, it’s not that simple. While Google News, for instance, will retrieve articles about IBM, it will miss other items referring to the company as I.B.M., or International Business Machines. Inform’s system has been programmed to look for those variations even as it searches for the specified term.
When users register with the site, Inform will also watch what they read and make suggestions on their home pages based on past sessions.
For all its user-friendly ambitions, however, some specialists wonder whether Inform.com will have broad appeal.
“I can see this being interesting for professionals who might be tracking stories about a company, for example,” said Barry Parr, an analyst with the Internet consulting firm Jupiter Research. “But I’m not sure the average news user is as directed as that.” Or, he added, as hungry for additional information.
“Still, I’m pretty positive about the site,” Parr said. “A lot of their stuff is interesting.”
Faint praise, as far as Neal Goldman, Inform’s chief executive, is concerned. To his mind, Inform.com is a media revolution in the making. “Work still needs to
be done,” he said. “But the direction we’re going in gives us all the tools to build the ultimate newspaper of the future.”
Goldman’s enthusiasm is perhaps understandable, given the success of his previous news technology venture, CapitalIQ. That company, which searched publications on behalf of subscribers in the financial industry and presented articles in ways similar to Inform.com, was bought by McGraw-Hill last year for $225 million.
Inform will sell advertising on areas not already covered by articles from other publications, Goldman said, and will charge for services like personalized news files and archives. It is also considering selling its technology to newspapers for use on their sites to alert readers to related articles, perhaps in
other publications as well as their own.
Three of the biggest newspaper chains in the country, Gannett, Knight Ridder and the Tribune Company, recognizing the potential of such a service for attracting more readers to their Web sites, bought a combined 75 percent stake earlier this year in Topix.net, Inform’s most entrenched competitor. Topix, founded in 2002, tracks more than 10,000 news sources online and categorizes their contents into 300,000 subject “channels.”
Of the 5.4 million people who read an article on the site last month, according to Topix, about 10 percent came from one of the newspaper sites owned by the company’s new investors. For instance, near a MiamiHerald.com article on the next James Bond star, readers last week saw a “More News From Topix.Net” box, with links to stories about Pierce Brosnan.Readers who clicked on the box were taken to Topix to choose articles from other sites.
Inform.com says it believes the services it offers, like customized news displays and searches of postings from prominent blogs, give it a competitive advantage over Topix.
Steve Outing, a senior editor at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, said that online news aggregators like Inform, Topix and Yahoo News were bringing many more people into newspaper sites through the side door, although they may leave just as quickly. And as the technology improves, he said, “more of us will use these sites as entry points.”
Newspaper executives are not so sure that will be the trend. Hilary Schneider, senior vice president of Knight Ridder, said she did not think the number of people who came to her company’s online stories from outside sites had grown significantly. “And it’s certainly not a majority of our traffic,” she added.
But, Schneider said, that is of no concern. “Our local content is a very valuable online asset. The more these aggregators help people find that, it’s a win for the consumer and a win for us.”
And if Topix helps people find articles on a competitor’s site? “Ultimately the consumer will decide what the most relevant story is,” Schneider said. “And there’s a lot of the world we don’t cover.”
Because of the addition of Topix, Schneider said Knight Ridder’s sites could better serve readers who wanted to push deeply into one topic, while also helping other readers who prefer to browse all of a city’s news on a given day. “And you’ll continue to see our sites evolve and adapt,” Schneider said. “This is still pretty early innings.”