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Magazines > Searcher > September 2005
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Vol. 13 No. 8 — Sep 2005
SEARCHER'S VOICE
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by Barbara Quint
Editor, Searcher Magazine

Mark Twain once had an idea for a publication called The Back Number, but it never got off the ground. He couldn’t convince any publisher that the idea would work. Twain’s notion was that one could take news stories published months or years before and re-publish them. He believed that people loved news or gossip because of the style of writing involved — that fresh, contemporaneous, “Psst! Have you heard?” approach, the “hot off the press” style in fact — and Twain thought readers would still find news appealing even if it weren’t new, if it were actually “cold off the press.” Basically, Twain deplored the way experts and historians could convert lively news into deadly dull prose.

One sympathizes. On the other hand, defining news-worthiness by its newness alone, or in fact by its writing style, ignores some larger issues. Is the story true? Is the story complete? Is the story relevant to the reader’s interests and needs? Sometimes that takes a little longer to determine. And in this age of information overload, sometimes prudent readers should save their eyeballs not for the latest information, but for the best information.

(And here comes the commercial.)

For example, my colleague, Paula Hane, and I — assisted by some wonderful writers — have been doing weekly NewsBreaks on the http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks Web site for just under 8 years now. Personally, I have found the experience educational, liberating, and comforting: educational because it has taught me the practical essentials of real journalism; liberating because it has opened up new areas of interests, new contacts, new relationships; and comforting because I have the security of a real learning experience to relieve my mind of the worry that the life of an editor pushes one further and further from the realities experienced by one’s readers.

But now I worry that not enough people read our NewsBreaks. And they’re good. Honest. They really are. 

The problem is that we derive our leads from many of the same sources that bloggers or daily news sources in the field use. We get press releases and inside tips from vendors, the same sort of news people may see posted on listservs or on blogs or in general news sources, such as wires and newspapers. However, out of all the news story opportunities that flow by, we try to pick out the ones that will have the most impact on our readers, both buyers and sellers of digital information, and that seem to need more research. We then check different sources: the vendors and their partners, competitor input, consumer reactions. We interview key players, search out more details, and ask the hard questions about strategic policies, long-term commitment, and quality of service. 

I worry that people see an announcement in a blog or on a list or in an RSS feed and eyeball it casually. Then, if they go to our NewsBreak Web site or get an announcement through the alert service e-zine Info Today releases [http://www.infotoday.com/newslink/], they ignore it, thinking they have already read the story. But I can tell you, if we decide to give a story NewsBreak coverage, there has got to be enough meat on the bone to deserve that effort. Something there needs more chewing or is proving hard to swallow.

I’ll give you one example. Yahoo! Search released a new service called Yahoo! Search Subscriptions that allows people to check off publications or aggregator services to which they subscribe. Then Yahoo! will search the subscriber service data and retrieve it along with a Web search (or all by itself, if the user prefers). This way a searcher can check fee or registered-users-only services along with the open Web and do so in one sweep that combines output from multiple services in one seamless Yahoo! Search delivery. From these results, displayed prominently on the first page of results, the user can then click through to articles in the controlled access services.

Sound great? It should. The very month Yahoo! Search announced the service, my Up Front with bq column in Information Today newsmagazine, entitled “The Invisible Vendor,” begged vendors to let Web search engines into their content, if only to ensure that the Web users of the world even knew it existed. I even recommended Yahoo! Search as a hungrier partner with whom to deal (“Number Two and trying harder”).

So I dived into the story of Yahoo! Search Subscriptions with gleeful abandon. It is a great idea — I know, I had it myself! I even decided it deserved two NewsBreaks — one to cover the general idea [“‘Fee’ Web Content Accessed by Yahoo! Search Subscriptions,” http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb050627-1.shtml] and one to examine specifics [“Varying Content Commitments from Vendors for Yahoo! Search Subscriptions,” http://www.infotoday.com/newsbreaks/nb050627-2.shtml]. 

Conclusion? In some cases, for example, specific publications delivered by direct deals with individual publishers, it should work well. But the contributions from aggregators such as Factiva, LexisNexis, and even Thomson Gale turned out to be so meager and/or unrepresentative and/or limited access, that it could cause more trouble than good. As the second NewsBreak concluded: 

While the great strength of database aggregators stems from the breadth of their coverage (which typically includes many thousands of journals) and the depth of their archives (which span decades), the amount of content scheduled for delivery through Yahoo! Search Subscriptions is so miniscule as to seem to serve no one’s purpose. With such restricted coverage, Yahoo! could hardly expect to succeed in wooing established subscribers to these database services to switch to Yahoo! Search as their primary access route. Nor can one see how vendors expect to woo Yahoo!’s hundreds of millions of users to their sign-up subscription pages with only such limited, and sometimes even atypical, content to lure them. Until the content is more complete and more representative of the vendors’ true offerings, it would even seem unwise for users to rely on Yahoo! Search Subscriptions as a substitute for direct access or even a cross-check on what exists on “fee” services. 

I’m still high on the idea behind the program however. My final lines were:

However, it’s early yet, and we can only hope all parties will be flexible and adapt to open up new opportunities. Yahoo! has clearly created an attractive framework for content providers that’s tied to fee-based business models to reach the broader open Web audience. 

But a larger question concerns me. How many information professionals will know enough to warn users not to follow the Yahoo! Search Subscriptions path in the case of aggregator services, but to go ahead and try it for specific publications? How many people will have read not the first coverage of the program, but — IMHO — the best? And how often does this happen in other fields, in other areas of interest? How often does someone use a blog to get the first report or even to get the first insider reaction to a report, but one that is minus the benefit of solid reporting and responsible editing? 

Hmm. Perhaps we should start a blog — or even an array of blogs — devoted entirely to evaluating the coverage of news stories in every field through application of a grading scheme that will identify the best coverage by standards beyond currency. Hmm.

bq


Barbara Quint's e-mail address is bquint@mindspring.com.
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