Tuesday, January 16, 2007

Netscape Represents the Future of News

The jury is certainly still out on whether or not the "new" Netscape.com – revamped into what some would herald as an innovative experiment in social news and others would deride as yet another Digg-clone wannabe – is a success or not.

But it doesn't matter in the long run. I like to think of the Netscape model as a hybrid approach to social news, as it builds upon the "Digg model" of user submitted stories + everyone votes for their favorite stories = a user controlled front page of your "online newspaper." Netscape has a strong social news base (in terms of how they feature and emphasize this form of people power) and also employs Netscape Navigators, human editors who submit their own stories, make some stories "sticky" by featuring them in an admin-controlled area on the front page, and commenting, friending, and generally taking an active social networking-style role on the site that is diametrically opposed to Digg's human-hands-off-way-off style.

Scott Karp at Publishing 2.0 asks if news is a fundamentally shared, social experience. I would argue that it is… to a certain extent. Scott is right in saying that people enjoy sites like Digg and Techmeme because they offer the prospect of interesting stories that you didn't even know you would be interested in (Reddit is my favorite site that falls into this category, by the way). This activity is akin to the traditional experience of browsing through part or the full of the newspaper over breakfast, isn't it? In both cases the consumer is browsing a trusted news source. Of course, one is selected by professional journalists while the other is selected by the audience, or some combination of editors and users.

I believe that there is a great potential audience for a hybrid social news approach that Netscape spearheaded, and much sooner rather than later many sites – mainstream media and "web 2.0" social news sites both – will adopt a model roughly along the following lines.

The future of news sites will comprise three kinds of content, which will be mixed and matched and meshed together in all kinds of dizzying ways:

* User submitted content – This is the backbone of any social news site, and I expect that its popularity will only increase. User-controlled sites are, in the end, all about the community that springs up around the news/voting platform so I suspect that niche social news sites – based upon specific subject areas, interests, geography, or beliefs – will thrive over the next few years.

* Admin submitted content – This is the area that Netscape has innovated in. Netscape Anchors take on a variety of roles on the site: they post stories they find interesting or compelling (stories not yet submitted to the Netscape system or stories they themselves find elsewhere on the Internet), they have the ability to feature stories in the above-the-fold "Netscape Anchors Recommend" area, and they can conspicuously insert themselves on story pages to add pertinent information, provide relevant links, or explain why they feel a given story may not be right for Netscape at all.

* "Original" content – This is the new frontier to create a true hybrid social news experience. Imagine what The New York Times online edition may look like a few years down the road: original NYT content merged with a user generated submission/voting system (which may include NYT content and anything else from around the Internet) and editor selections. So The New York Times would still be The New York Times (by featuring its own content prominently in a similar fashion to how it does this now online), but it would incorporate both user submitted and admin submitted content into its model.

It also should be taken as a given that the future of news online is a full-on multimedia experience, with photo imagery, audio clips, and particularly video all grappling to take away the spotlight from the written word.

Netscape's hybrid model takes on two of these three areas. And just recently it has delved into the third with Netscape Reports, an area of the site devoted to "original reporting by the Netscape Anchor Team."

Look for a major, mainstream media news site to experiment with a hybrid social news approach within the next year or two. And then we'll know that the future of news has truly arrived.

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