In business, success depends on knowledge, on news and information that keep you ahead of the competition. Too bad 99% of the information that comes your way each day — from TV, the Net, or the corporate research department — is utterly useless.
Fortunately, that fact has not gone unnoticed by some of the pioneers in electronic publishing. Walter Bender, who directs the News in the Future consortium at the MIT Media Lab, says modern telecommunications "is leading to the smallest news product imaginable: the personalized newspaper, whose content has been tailored to meet an individual's needs."
Personal news is technology's version of the paperboy delivering "The Daily You." Forget editors. Its contents are compiled by database technology that acts on your behalf, searching out articles from online news sources and sending them to your computer.
It's not new. Personal news services have been around since the 1980s. The earliest versions were essentially electronic clipping services for large corporations. In the past six months, though, a collection of flashy Net startups and established publishing companies have launched news services for individual users.
"It's a hot new segment of the business information market," says Julie Chapman, president of the Infoworks Group, a media consultancy based in Bethesda, Maryland. "You get high-quality information at a reasonable cost, delivered incredibly fast."
This first wave of personalized services features a wide range of visual formats, news sources, and delivery media (e-mail, dial-in, or the Web). They save time; they keep you up on events that matter to you; they help you become an active participant in news delivery. Of course, there are a few glitches. If you aren't specific enough about which subjects interest you, the personal-news service will bombard you with worthless information. If you're too specific, you'll miss out on must-see news in other areas.
But if you're swamped by news you can't use, read on. We've customized your search for customized news.
How do you choose the personal news service that's best for you? Look for the means of delivery that's most convenient: e-mail, dial-in, or the Web. Check each service's list of news sources to make sure that they match your interests. The price tag, of course, is also a factor. But don't obsess on cost. It's hard to predict the return on investment from signing up for personal news. Often, the practical applications of e-news are quite different from what you might expect, as the following businesspeople have learned.
Use: Early warning system to track competitors.
User Profile: Leslie Evans, 30, is a marketing communications specialist for Ridgefield, Connecticut-based Bristol Technology, which develops programming tools for software companies. It's her job to help position Bristol as a market leader in an intensely competitive niche business.
E-News Service: IBM infoSage. Following Evans's preselected preferences, infoSage e-mails her twice a day with 30 headlines from 2,000 sources. News alerts arrive several times a day.
Search Words: Operating system, porting, cross-platform
Favorite Reading: Evans arrives at work at 8:30 AM First thing, she logs on to her e-mail. Today, infoSage sends an alert — a Business Wire story on a software engineering firm's decision to move into the UNIX market. The company is a potential client. "We've been talking with them off and on, and we thought they might get into UNIX," she says. "This story confirms it."
Evans forwards the article to an account manager, who uses the alert to get in ahead of the competition and demonstrate Wind/U, Bristol's UNIX cross-platform development software. "They'll take about three to six months to evaluate," says Evans. "Being first in, we have a better chance of making the sale."
Again at 5:30 PM, Evans checks her e-mail to see if there's any news on Bristol's five direct competitors. She's relieved when they don't turn up. "Sometimes," she sighs, "the less news, the better."
Original Attraction: Evans signed up to beta-test infoSage when she saw that trade publications she reads regularly — Dr. Dobb's Journal, UNIX Review, Computerworld — are listed as sources. She finds infoSage a faster, more efficient way to get news from these and other publications.
Wish List: "More news sources. I'd like to use infoSage as a real clipping service that can track every mention of my company and competitors."
Coordinates: Leslie Evans, (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Use: Desktop investment adviser.
User Profile: Geoff Nicholls, 36, works out of his home office in Palo Alto. Nicholls works with companies that are developing commercial Windows applications. Past clients include Hewlett-Packard and Microsoft. He actively manages his portfolio of 15 stocks, trading through Charles Schwab & Co.
E-News Service: PointCast Network. Popping up as a screen saver during breaks in computer use, PointCast splashes Nicholls's computer screen with colorful displays of news in animated text and charts. Nicholls downloaded PointCast for free from its Web site.
(PointCast is advertiser-supported by the likes of Fidelity Investments and Saturn.) He set the service to get reports and updates from financial news sources, including Reuters New Media, Standard & Poor's Comstock, and Money magazine.
Search Words: Company names, including Adobe, Intel, Oracle, Netscape
Favorite Reading: Nicholls takes a break from a long stretch at his workstation writing code. After three minutes, PointCast bursts onto the monitor. He follows the green stock ticker streaming across the bottom of the screen, showing 20-minute delayed quotes. Oracle's stock price is up 7%. He clicks on a news headline, reads that the company is reporting 44% revenue growth for the fourth quarter, and clicks on the full-text story for the details.
"The fact that the news and the quotes are in the same place is key," says Nicholls. "Not only can I track stocks, but I can understand what the numbers mean. In the past two months alone, I've netted $3,000 from transactions that I wouldn't have made if I weren't using PointCast."
Original Attraction: It's free. And its combination of financial news and graphics is the best he's seen. "People were blown away when they came into my office and saw this," Nicholls recalls. "But now it's spreading through lots of software companies out here." His best profit to date: about 25%, by trading Oracle at interim lows and highs.
Wish List: Stock listings for smaller companies. "And an alert that would flash when a stock price goes outside a certain range."
Coordinates Geoff Nicholls, (email@example.com)
Use: A faster read of the Wall Street Journal.
User Profile: Carl Mischka, 57, is president of CEM Enterprises in Corona Del Mar, California, a $10-million-a-year advertising sales firm specializing in print media. CEM reps for United Airlines's in-flight magazine, Hemispheres, and for Family Handyman and the International Herald Tribune.
E-News Service: Dow Jones Personal Journal, published by the Wall Street Journal. It takes Mischka about three minutes to download his preselected news reports and columns from the Journal's paper edition, plus sports and weather. Each new edition of Personal Journal is available after 3 AM EST. (Personal Journal, a dial-in service, differs from the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition, which launched this past March on the Web.)
Search Words: Company names, including America Online, Microsoft, Iomega, United Airlines, Meredith Publishing
Favorite Reading: Mischka has his e-news automatically dialed up by modem at 7 a.m. Pacific time for delivery to his home office; his financial updates arrive after the East Coast stock markets close. He tracks general business news, focusing on the columns he enjoys most from the print Journal, including "Heard on the Street" and "Your Money Matters."
Mischka also leverages Personal Journal as a sales tool. On June 17, for example, he got a news alert that government regulators had grounded Valujet — just 20 minutes after the decision was announced. Some of Valujet's passengers will inevitably fly on United Airlines, he reasoned, creating more readers for United's in-flight magazine. "I called an advertiser who was on the fence," he recalls, "and explained the string of events that would lead to a passenger increase for United. I made the sale."
Mischka is so hooked on Personal Journal's user friendliness that when a paper copy of the Journal was delivered to his hotel room during a recent stay in New York, he still preferred downloading the electronic version to his laptop. "I could read it between appointments," he says, "without having to scan the entire paper for the stories that I need to see."
Original Attraction: "The cost ($156 per year) is comparable to the paper version
($164 per year)," Mischka says. "It saves at least 20 minutes a day of reading. And my office isn't stuffed with stacks of unread papers. I might even save a few trees."
Wish List: "It would be great if I could have my stock portfolio evaluated and updated, like I can on America Online 3.0."
Coordinates: Carl Mischka, (mischkaCEM@aol.com)
Steve Ditlea is a regular contributer to the cybertimes area of the "New York Times" website, and a contributing editor for "Upside" magazine. He lives in Riverdale, NY.
"Draw in the News with Crayon"
"Q & A - Walter Bender/MIT Media Lab"
"Extra! Extra! See How E-News Services Rate"
A version of this article appeared in the August/September 1996 issue of Fast Company magazine.