Redefining news

I was at a party earlier this week with some journalists from The Washington Post and some recent journalism graduates.

We started talking about Loudoun Extra, the Post’s new hyperlocal Web site focused on a wealthy suburban county. Among the things on today’s Loudoun Extra home page is the grocery store staying open late for the last Harry Potter book, preparations for the county fair, Web cams of the area, local restaurants and church services. In the fall, you will be able to get score-by-score updates of high school football games.

Someone said, “they only publish two or three news stories a week.” I argued that they need to change their definition of news.

Last fall, I was visiting some colleagues at AOL’s Dublin office with some of my coworkers from Dulles. At the end of a long day, we had a party at a pub. One of our vice presidents chugged a Guinness in 35 seconds. I made a video of this and put it online the next morning. Within a few hours, much of our team on both sides of the Atlantic had seen it. It wasn’t News with a capital “N”, but within that group of about 100 people it was one of the biggest news items of the day. If you hadn’t seen the video, you were out of the loop.

It’s the same with hyperlocal. I really couldn’t care less when a bar in Loudoun County opens up or changes their happy hour specials, but for people who live nearby, that is news. It won’t make the front page of the Post or ABC’s World News Tonight, but it’s still news.

Another part of our discussion was the decline in importance of national and international news in favor of gossip on the likes of Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. That’s true and it’s not true.

Technology today is shifting the role of editor from the producers of news to the consumers of news. Never before have there been so many choices in how, when and where we can consume news. There’s a huge river of information on all topics and consumers get to choose.

Although the mainstream media have a mix that I don’t like, I also have more access to high quality news than ever before. I can get international news from the New York Times, BBC, The Economist and Foreign Policy magazine. If I want news on India, I can go straight to the Times of India.

For those who want all Paris, all the time, they don’t have to settle for the limited coverage CNN offers. I’m sure there are countless blogs and celebrity sites that will fill their minds with the latest on the celebutante. Just don’t ask me what they are.

Technology is enabling us to return to old fashioned word-of-mouth distribution of news; my friends are serving as deputy editors. News stories get pass around by email and IM, with friends sharing stories that we might be interested in. It was rare for me to cut out articles from newspapers and send them to friends, but I’m constantly sending and receiving links.

As social networking takes off, those networks (and the algorithms behind them) become editors as well. This week, I found out about the troubles facing Business 2.0 magazine when I saw in my Facebook news feed that two of my friends joined the group I read Business 2.0 – and I want to keep reading!


About Rakesh Agrawal

Rakesh Agrawal is Senior Director of product at Amazon (Audible). Previously, he launched local and mobile products for Microsoft and AOL. He tweets at @rakeshlobster.
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