Follow this article: Home delivery for the Web

Here's a little change we're rolling out on our Morris newspaper websites this month:

The most difficult challenge faced by news sites on the Web is poor habituation. Many newspaper people are blind to this phenomenon. If you don't see it in your stats, quit looking at pageview numbers. Ask your traffic analyst to provide frequency of use numbers. Better yet, analyze your traffic on the basis of behavioral cohorts: People who visit occasionally (less than five times a month), people who visit 6-10 times, 11-15, et cetera. What you discover may leave you dismayed.

In the home-delivery U.S. newspaper model, print has an advantage: It piles up on your doorstep if you ignore it, so you have an incentive to pick it up and read. The Web doesn't work that way. You can ignore anything and everything. If you lose track of what's happening in local news, you may drift away and not come back.

What we're trying to do here is add one more way to prompt returns. It's not a magic bullet and it's limited to (a) power users who (b) have high civic engagement. But even those folks can drift away.

Here's how it works. When you click the "Follow this article" button, you're offered a choice. You can get updates to the article itself (typically during the day). You also can get notices of articles about people and institutions mentioned in the story.

Notices are sent via email. 

Making all of this possible is a Web service from ThompsonReuters, a bundle of open-source technology, some custom code, and an email delivery vendor that will give us some usage metrics.

The Web service is Calais, which "automatically creates rich semantic metadata ... using natural language processing (NLP), machine learning and other methods." In plain English, it reads the text and identifies entities such as people, places, things, key concepts, et cetera. We're only using a small subset of that data for a couple of reasons. One is that machine intelligence makes a lot of mistakes, and we're concentrating on the parts of the task that it does best (Calais is very good at identifying people). The other is that when it comes to a user interface, less is better than more.

The open-source code is Drupal's Calais module (which integrates Calais with Drupal), the Notifications framework (which supports subscriptions) and the Messaging framework (which handles delivery). These systems are pluggable, so theoretically it's possible to deliver your notices through Twitter, SMS, or many other methods. We wrote a plug-in for Contactology so that we can monitor opening rates, clickthrough, et cetera.

Keith Smiley, a University of Kentucky alum with degrees in both journalism and computer science, did a great job of integrating and -- most importantly -- simplifying it.  The Drupal way of doing things is to create general tools that make all things possible, and that can lead to a dizzying case of cognitive overload. Keith whittled it all down to something that real people can use.

This is not a new idea. Google lets you subscribe to search terms, of course, but they're latecomers to the party. Knight Ridder was doing this back in the 1990s -- in fact, KR's NewsHound, which began on AOL, was named Best Original Feature for an online newspaper (Mercury Center) in 1996 by Editor & Publisher Magazine. Like many early accomplishments of the newspaper industry, it's been abandoned; McClatchy owns the domain, but it's gathering dust as a Sedo parking lot.

What was difficult, daring and expensive in 1994 is now easy and cheap. The toughest part of this project isn't building it. It's communicating, explaining, selling the concept. Our users are visually fatigued from being bombarded with popup, scroll-down, slide-across and other intrusive advertising, from buttons and links to like/friend/tweet/buzz/email/print this, from click-heres and mouseover-theres. Our quiet, well-behaved little "follow this article" button faces difficult competition.




Nifty, but I suspect most power users will stick to Google Alerts.

Sounds like a wonderful feature to me. Please keep us updated on how adoption and usage come along.

Steve, you almost got the whole thing. Here's the rest of the picture: I want to see previous and followup stories about Mr. Blub's adventures in embezzlement, not just mentions of Mr. Blub. I want to be able to see this as a thread: Jul, 2008 - Mr. Blub was recently named CEO of Acme, Inc. Jan, 2010 - Mr. Blub was under investigation for corruption Feb, 2010 - Mr. Blub disappeared from his swanky NY Penthouse Aug, 2020 - Mr. Blub was indicted in Superior Court for embezzlement and flight Feb, 2011 - Mr. Blub was arrested in Barbados and extradited back to the US Apr, 2011 - Mr. Blub's trial details .... Jun, 2011 - Mr. Blub was convicted and sentenced to ___ Jun, 2011 - Mr. Blub's prison life photo gallery This paints the complete picture of the saga of Mr. Blub. For a single person to do this manually, the effort is not worth it, but it would be possible for news organizations to do this fairly easily.

Lee, You're exactly right, News4Jax is doing that exact thing - here is a link: Just scroll down to the bottom of the story. When our group here at Morris first started working on the Follow concept we all looked at this and wanted to include the back stories to paint a bigger picture, but we also wanted a simple version to start off with so we could get it out the door. We looked at trying to do just as you mentioned, but as you also pointed out - at this phase it would take a person doing the work. With newsrooms everywhere being swamped, we didn't want to put any extra burden on them. One of our hopes with this is that with the proper promotion this functionality gains enough of a "following" that the newsroom will find it beneficial to give it some extra attention.

So ... when might we see this roll out across the Morris news web sites?

Thursday, I think. We do our updates on a schedule that allows for testing.

It should show up on all of the Morris daily newspaper websites except for OnlineAthens, which has not yet been fully converted to Drupal.

I love this, and I've been toying with similar ideas for a while. Step two would be to give users different ways of receiving the updates (instant email blasts, daily digest, weekly digest, Facebook-like notifications on the site itself), and step three would be (as Lee mentions) the ability to not just get story updates, but also notifications about follow-ups. As you say, Myles, that'd require some manual work, but I think it's worth it — see The Guardian's story trackers for an idea of the potential, e.g. this one: Cheers, Stijn