Here’s the problem. Every day on the internet millions of articles are published and some of them are ones I really want to read. Finding those articles that are perfect for my peculiar interests is like finding Malaysia Flight 370’s black boxes in the middle of the Indian ocean. Over the years various genius programmers have come up with systems for customized news reading. The big breakthrough was RSS feeds, and then Google Reader. But even then, you’d get hundreds or thousands of articles to sift through each day. What’s really needed is some kind of AI smarts to find less than 50 daily news stories that can be quickly perused. You want your news feed to only have stories that matter most to you. After the iPad came out I discovered Zite, and thought I had found news nirvana. Well, Zite is going, and I’m trying News360.
What the Internet gives, the internet also taketh away. Time and again I fall in love with technology only to have it taken away. Remember Lala? Now I’ll be losing Zite. To me, Zite is the one app that made tablets great. Zite was the best Internet newsreader I ever used. I liked it far better than Google Reader, another technology that was prematurely wrenched from my hands.
Zite has been bought out by Flipboard. Now I have nothing against Flipboard, except that I don’t enjoy using it. Flipboard uses a different metaphor for presenting the news, built around do-it-yourself magazines. Zite was more like a customized newswire feed. Zite learned what I was interested in reading, and queued up a bunch of great stories for me to check out. The more I used it, the smarter Zite got, finding just the right stuff to read. This is very efficient for reading from the fire hose of news stories available every day on the net.
Like the curated music site Pandora, what voracious news readers want is a reader robot to pre-read the news and decide what we’d like to read. Zite was my reading robot, but now it’s being killed off. One of the most popular reading robots is Flipboard, and it has bought Zite in hopes of using its technology to be a better reading robot.
I’ve used Flipboard from time to time but have never been comfortable with it. If they integrate Zite’s intelligence into Flipboard I might start to like it, but even then I don’t like the visual layout of Flipboard. For now I’m experimenting with News360 – which Paul N. Shapiro turned me on to – so I don’t need to worry about the Flipboard Zite merger. Check your app store and try it out – News360.
News360 does one thing that Zite didn’t and I always wanted, it has a website front end so I can use from my desktop. The controls are nicer on the iOS and Android versions, but the website version is quicker to use, and links me directly to the news story as it appears on the web. The tablet versions of News360 take a bit more clicking to get to the actual reading. Zite was the tops for reformatting web pages for easy reading. News360 is fancier in some ways, with more options, but it takes more clicks to get to the full reading copy. I haven’t decided if I like News360’s rolling cubes or not. On the iOS version, it appears the full text can be scrolled on a cube site.
Thumbs Up or Down
There are millions of blogs, magazines, newspaper, journals, websites that publish something new every day. Even if you find all your favorite publishers and check their site daily, you’d spend way too much time going through stuff you don’t want to read. And even with a good news reader that zeroes in on your interests, it will find stories you’ll want to look at but still waste your time. For example, News360 sent me “Einstein’s ‘spooky’ theory may lead to ultra-secure internet.” The topic interests me, but the piece was short, fluffy and lacking in any real content. So far, no news collector system I’ve found is perfect, or even close to perfect.
Reading Robots take training. And for that, you need ones you can thumbs up and thumbs down on what they give you to read. However, I can’t thumbs down the article above because it was skimpy, otherwise News360 might stop sending me other articles on quantum mechanics. You have to apply your intelligence to training your robot.
I’ve just started using News360 and I’m trying to train it not to send me stories I see on the nightly news. I already waste 30 minutes a day watching the TV news so I don’t want to see those stories again. I also subscribe to The New York Times – so I don’t want that kind of general news in my news feed. However, I still want special interest news from The New York Times because I don’t catch everything. By unchecking Top Stories I got rid of most of the general news.
News360 also found me this morning “The future is coming. 6 ways it will change everything.” This is still speculation, but it’s the kind I like. I’d like more substance, but News360 has quickly zeroed in on my interests.
Training a system to be perfect is hard. I told News360 I’m interested in steampunk, so it found “This $80K Steampunk Inspired Baron Safe-Box…” – that’s interesting, and has visually appealing photos, but ultimately fluff I don’t want to waste my time on. I’m going to thumbs down the article and hope News360 finds me something more substantial about steampunk – but ultimately I might have to kill that topic. I’ve already killed the topic Leonardo Da Vinci because News360 kept giving me stuff about a TV show. Like I said, no system is perfect.
Sometimes New360 makes a mistake that turns out to be wonderful. I told News360 I wasn’t interested in science fiction movies, but was interested in science fiction books. This morning it found me “The Glorious Incoherence of Divergent” at The Atlantic. Now most everything at The Atlantic is über-readable, but what made this piece a treasure trove is it tied in Philip K. Dick’s books to current movies and YA books. I’m very into Philip K. Dick, so I forgive News360 giving me a movie review. It was smart enough to know the article wasn’t just about the movie.
News360 does allow me to block sources when I use the tablet app after I’ve thumbs down something. This can be dangerous. Often a news story will come from many sites – it’s been syndicated – so be sure and don’t nix something you like. But if it’s a single site that you’re sure you don’t want to read from, this is a great feature. Last night I blocked MTV.com. I’m just not that young anymore.
I wished News360 had some way of asking about the quality of the content. A way to mark something that’s too fluffy, or even too verbose. I also wish it allowed me to diss certain kinds of formatting. I hate slideshow news – like seeing a headline for the twelve types of dogs that don’t like cats, and then having to click through twelve pages just to see the names of twelve breeds of cat hating dogs. I think these slideshow stories are a ways to generate ad clicks, which I find fucking annoying as hell. Just use a goddamn list, please.
Discovering Cool Publishers
One of the most brilliant side-effects of using a reader robot is discovering new publishers. If you go to a big bookstore and browse the magazine section you might see a couple thousand magazines. But on the web there are millions. Discovering new publishers is pretty much serendipity. If you pay attention to the sources of the articles you like, you’ll discover new sites to read in general.
Theoretically if your reading habits were very specific, you could just bookmark several sites that pertain to your topic and view them daily. But I’ve yet to find any site that every article they publish is always of interest to me. So even having my Reader Robot read my favorite magazines is a big help. I wished sites like News360 had a configuration page that allowed me to list my favorite publications. Some Reader Robots allow for adding RSS feeds, but News360 doesn’t seem to do that.
The best thing about News360 is it’s web site. Most other magazine styled news aggregators are designed as apps for tablets and smart phones only. I’m an old fashion sit in the desk chair kind of guy, so I appreciate being able to look at the news on a 27” monitor. Even though my Nexus 7 has more pixels than my 1080p monitor, I can scan content faster on the big screen.
I’m not used to News360 on my tablets yet, not like I am to Zite, but I’m adapting quickly. And now that I have a magazine style newsreader for my Chrome browser, I’ll probably be even more addicted to reading the news.
JWH – 3/25/14