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Magazines > Online > Jan/Feb 2006
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Online Magazine

Vol. 30 No. 1 — Jan/Feb 2006

The Dollar Sign
The New Life Cycle of Business Information
By Marydee Ojala
Editor • ONLINE

Ten years ago, the life cycle of business information was more predictable and less chaotic than it is today. You could trace the development of a news item about a company, industry, or product with a fair amount of certainty as to where you were in the process. Information creation, and its subsequent retrievability, progressed in a relatively linear fashion. Understanding the life cycle of business information helped researchers gauge the validity and reliability of the information they found.

Times have changed. Information no longer appears linearly. Rather than a tempered sequence of events, business information flies at the researcher like asteroids bombarding a space ship in a science-fiction movie. It can come from anywhere—a blog entry, a professional discussion list, a company message board, a rumor mill—rather than the traditional press release. Even unlikely sources can be authoritative (for a nonbusiness example, see Greg Notess’s On the Net column on page 46). Worse, even non-authoritative sources can garner enough attention to alter the public’s view of a company or industry. In his Forbes’ cover story (“Attack of the Blogs,” Nov. 14, 2005), Daniel Lyons recounted some very scary stories about bloggers bent on destroying companies by publishing false and misleading information in their blogs.

The bottom line: Business researchers are now confronted with an out-of-control, random, nonlinear world.

Before you throw up your hands in horror, vowing never to touch a business research topic again, let me reassure you that there are methodologies you can use to capitalize on our new, nonlinear world. Not only that, some of the original life cycles are still in place.

My original take on the life cycle of business information was published as a column in the June/July 1996 issue of DATABASE. I devoted most of that column to the corporate news life cycle. It started with a news release, which evolved into a press mention either in a daily paper or television news show (parroting the news release), an analytical article in a newspaper, newsletter, or the trade press (what this news means to a particular constituency), financial examination of the news in investment analyst reports, “think pieces” in scholarly journals, and eventually into book form. Books can be years after the initial press release and are augmented by additional information gathered from interviews and analysis. It is still true that, if you’re starting with the book and working backward in time to discover what the author used for source material, some of the original news reports may no longer exist. As information professionals, we’d like to believe that every scrap of data is preserved, while knowing this won’t always be the case.

CYCLING THROUGH

News releases continue to be released via company-maintained press release mailing lists to outlets such as PR Newswire and BusinessWire. Although both have their own searchable Web sites, the daily volume of releases precludes efficient searching. Having to search each site separately does not speed up the process. Therefore, I find it much more cost-effective to search them via an aggregator such as Dialog, NewsEdge, Factiva, or LexisNexis. LexisNexis now boasts 695 wires, with 559 individual sources. Bloomberg, for example, is one source, but has 41 separate specialized wires available through LexisNexis. Hugin has feeds in English, Danish, Norwegian, and Spanish. Factiva claims 120 news sources continuously updated and 500 total news wires. Like LexisNexis, Factiva’s feeds are in many languages—PR Newswire itself appears in 18 languages. Factiva also benefits from its exclusive Dow Jones and Reuters wire services, which appear almost instantaneously online, and its Asian language capabilities.

Generally speaking, it’s the larger, more established companies that distribute their press releases through PR Newswire and Business Wire, due to the expense involved. Smaller companies and many outside North America rely on lower cost, Internet-only outlets such as PRWeb [www.prweb.com], I-Newswire
[http://i-newswire.com], WebWire [www.webwire.com], Market Wire [www.marketwire.com], and others. It’s worth a shot doing a quick search on some of those Web sites, since most are not aggregated in a fee-based service. The major exception is Market Wire. A few of the Internet wire services, particularly PRWeb, can be found by searching Google News, Yahoo! News, Topix.net, and NewsNow.co.uk. Some low-cost press release distributors, such as PR Leap [www.prleap.com], have no searching capability, which I find annoying. Browsing the latest press releases is not my idea of a good time.

Other news wire services, such as Dow Jones, Reuters, Associated Press, Agence France Press, Xinhua, and the like, cover much more than corporate press releases. Their reporters write about breaking news in many areas, including business. Thus, news of importance to business researchers is frequently broken by wire service reporters. As indicated above, these are aggregated by Dialog, NewsEdge, Factiva, and LexisNexis. News wires are also frequently included in Web news search engines. You’ll find AP, Bloom­berg, Market Watch, and even Reuters stories through Google and Yahoo! News sites, along with coverage from national television, local TV stations, and many local news outlets and the trade press. I’m always amused by mainstream media that tell me I have to go through an onerous registration process or pay for an article, when the same article is available for free via another newspaper’s Web site.

THE BLOGOSPHERE CYCLE

Another point to keep in mind: Not all companies still rely upon news releases to inform journalists, customers, or the general public about new developments. Some now blog their news instead. Google, Ask, and Yahoo! definitely prefer this means of communication. To keep up, it’s important to subscribe to the RSS feed for corporate blogs, assuming one exists. More and more corporations are seeing the value in blogging their news: Even Dialog has an RSS feed for its official news releases, although what it puts there is no different from what it releases through the more traditional channels. For a one-off research project, you should remember to look for blog mentions of the target company, industry, or product.

There are several search engines solely for blogs—Technorati, Feedster, Daypop, IceRocket, and Bloglines are among the most well-known. Google introduced a blog search engine [http://blogsearch.google.com] as well, which turns up some blogs powered by Google-owned Blogger that the others seem to miss. Most allow you to sort your results either by relevance or by date. Unlike fee-based aggregators, which date stamp depending upon the time zone in which the wire report was filed, blog results are labeled as “10 minutes ago,” “4 hours ago,” or “3 days ago.” This helps keep things in chronological perspective.

Keep in mind that the search mechanisms for these engines differ significantly. Some search the blogs themselves, while others search RSS feeds. As Web sites that don’t quality as blogs add RSS feeds, even searching for blogs on blog search engines becomes problematic. You are just as likely to find successive (and repetitive) items from a Web site with an RSS feed as you are to uncover the personal opinions of a blogger. Feedster’s tag line (“Search Today’s Internet for listings, news, and blogs”) explicitly acknowledges it doesn’t search blogs exclusively. Technorati gives you the number of blogs it searches, a number constantly increasing, but search results are not always from blogs, making that number somewhat suspect.

SPIN CYCLE

Making the blogosphere even more difficult to evaluate for truth, honesty, validity, and sincerity is the recent invention of “splogs,” spam blogs. Additionally, the PR community is waking up to the fact that blogs are a terrific, and very inexpensive, vehicle for companies to put a positive spin on their news. Some companies encourage independence in their corporate bloggers, but these will soon be outnumbered by corporate blogs existing for the sole purpose of hyping a company’s product or service. Perhaps these should be called “flogs.”

There is a raging debate in the mainstream media about whether bloggers are or are not “real” journalists. From a business research perspective, the issue isn’t whether the blogger is a journalist but whether the opinions expressed and the facts reported are credible. If I, as a blogger knowing nothing about the automotive industry, write that Ford is returning to basic black as a car color, my credentials as a “citizen journalist” are nil. Should an automotive industry analyst or a dedicated car hobbyist blog the same information, then the business researcher should take note.

Blurring further the line between news journalists and bloggers, some news search engines are now mixing blog posts in with the mainstream media news results. Both Topix.net and Yahoo! are doing this, but the results display quite differently. At Topix.net, blog and news results are interspersed. You get one list of results, with blog entries highlighted in tan. The tan shows up better on some screens than others. I have one laptop screen where the tan is almost indistinguishable from the other results. On Yahoo! News, blog results display in a separate list on the right-hand side of the screen, with a note that the blog search portion is in beta. On the one hand, Yahoo! makes it more obvious that two types of sources are being searched; on the other hand, the placement makes it easier to overlook the blog results.

RECYCLING BUSINESS RUMORS

Do some industries lend themselves more to chaotic information life cycles than others? From a common-sense perspective, the answer would probably be that high tech would be more likely to rate an enhanced presence in the blogosphere. Ditto for any industry that attracts hobbyists. Older, more stodgy manufacturing industries would probably have a lower profile. I did numerous searches using blog search engines and the results, while hardly scientific, seem to bear this out, but it’s not as clean-cut as I would like. What does seem true is the rumor mill runs rampant for high-tech and public companies. In the high-tech world, rumors are fueled by bloggers citing other bloggers. Often you can trace blog posts on numerous blogs back to one person’s offhand comment.

Speaking of offhand comments, the rise of podcasting has made even offhand comments newsworthy—or at least rumor worthy. Not that long ago, business researchers routinely searched the local business press for quotes for company officials. These individuals would say things to a local reporter that they would never reveal to, say, The Wall Street Journal, never realizing the local papers were just as accessible online through American Business Journals [www.bizjournals.com] or ProQuest’s Business Dateline. Company execs have learned that lesson. It’s harder now to find real secrets spelled out in the local business weekly.

That doesn’t mean executives are keeping their mouths shut. If they’re at a meeting and someone is recording them unobtrusively (not all that hard to do), it’s possible the comments will show up as a podcast. Suppose a company employee makes an offhand comment during a conference presentation. It could show up as a podcast or blog post from someone in the audience. The competitive intelligence implications are enormous.

CHAOTIC, COMPRESSED CYCLE

As the business information life cycle shape shifts, it affects where researchers begin their search, what sources they use, and how they interpret the validity of the information found. From the newsmakers’ perspective, it inhibits their ability to manage the news. From a competitive intelligence perspective, it alters the landscape, not just in discovering important information about a rival’s strategy, but in protecting your own competitive advantage.

The life cycle for breaking news has shortened considerably with the advent of blogging and podcasting technologies. To cope with these compressed and chaotic information life cycles, business researchers need to sharpen their peripheral vision, hone their evaluation skills, and watch out for incoming asteroids.


Marydee Ojala [marydee@xmission.com] is the editor of ONLINE. Comments? E-mail letters to the editor to marydee@xmission.com.







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