Caitlin Petre / May 14th, 2011 / Tweet
Personalized news is all the rage these days: the Washington Post and the New York Times are launching customized news sites; the Times now offers a list of personalized article recommendations on its home page; and the LA Times uses a personality quiz to sort its readers into horoscope-like types (apparently, I’m a “dynamo”) and matches them to stories accordingly.
But a new study (free download available here) suggests that newspapers might be wise to step on the brakes. Neil Thurman, a senior lecturer in the journalism department at the City University London, interviewed editors at top US and UK papers and found that explicit personalization features, which allow users to indicate their interests and receive a custom-tailored selection of articles, have so far been pretty unpopular. An editor at the Guardian reported “single-digit take up,” and a New York Times editor said that only “a relatively small number of users” had jumped at the opportunity to personalize their news.
How do editors explain this reluctance? Many of Thurman’s interviewees suspected that uptake was low because readers lacked the time, motivation and self-knowledge to customize their news. Given this perception, it’s not surprising that a lot of the newspaper sites are ramping up automatic personalization, which guesses readers’ preferences based on their browsing behavior. Guardian blogger Roy Greenslade points out that automatic personalization features on the sites in Thurman’s study grew by 60% between 2007 and 2009, while explicit personalization only grew by 20%.
The working assumption seems to be that while most readers prefer to be in a personalization bubble, they’re too overextended or lazy or self-doubting to create it themselves. But isn’t it possible that readers are ignoring these features because they don’t want them?
This raises another question: if reader demand isn’t a primary driver of the news personalization trend, what is? Money, for one thing. After all, as Eli points out, algorithms are cheaper than human staff members, and personalization allows for more targeted advertising.