Sunday, March 08, 2009 shows how national can capture local

One of the ironies of this age of 24 hour news sources and RSS feeds is that you may read about a US Airways plane ditching on the Hudson on the online site of a newspaper in Ireland. A human or a robot at the Irish newspaper picked up the story from a traditional wire service, perhaps. So I shouldn't have been surprised to receive this news alert in my mail this morning:

Chicago Tribune - United States
Michigan State University's American Studies program is preparing the material for online use. The oral histories will be posted alongside transcriptions ...

Nonetheless I was surprised to see the Chicago Tribune had picked up a story about Lansing, Michigan. There is a suburb of Chicago called Lansing; you'd expect a story in the Trib to be about that Lansing. Even though the Michigan Lansing is a state capital, it usually receives about as much national coverage as, say, that other famous capital, Pierre, South Dakota.

So I followed some links at the Tribune site and discovered something very interesting.  They're not just randomly picking up major stories off the wires and publishing them at; they also seem to be publishing stories from or about many burgs across the land.

To test this theory, I searched the Trib site for "Sacramento" and found this:

Section 1) contains ads relevant to Sacramento, California.  Section 2) offers links to related topics about Sacramento.  Section 3) presents news stories about Sacramento.

Could this really be true?  Could the Chicago Tribune really publish this much stuff about faraway Sacramento on a random Sunday in March?

The answer is no. The Chicago Tribune isn't publishing all things Sacramento -- not in its print edition. Instead, they are using robots and wire services to concoct  online "local" pseudo-sections for places all around the country.

Poking around a bit further, I found confirmation of this theory:

Item 1) makes it explicit:  

A collection of news and information related to Sacramento published by Tribune Company sources.
Item 2) shows an actual, relevant news story -- ironically about the financial struggles of the Sacramento Bee, in trouble just as the Tribune Company is.

Item 3) shows how a newsbot can fail; it's a completely irrelevant Chicago "Local News" column by Trib columnist Paul Carpenter, whose most recent column casually mentions Sacramento.

Despite that robotic failure, I think what the Tribune is doing is incredibly clever. They're leveraging the news sources they own and subscribe to in order to appear to have a presence in perhaps hundreds of local news markets.  People who use news alerts about their home town, or who search Yahoo News or Google News about their locality, may find Tribune-published stories -- perhaps before they find coverage in their own local news sources.  The Tribune "section" on their home town also serves ads for businesses local to that town.

Back in the early days of the Web, circa 1994,  the Raleigh News and Observer embarked upon a bold, even audacious, experiment -- to transform their local North Carolina paper into a national online newspaper, the NandO Times.  I interviewed them for the cable TV show my friend Chuck Severance and I hosted.  The NandO folks had a crew of about 5 or 6 people who sifted through wire services and created a national newspaper from their nook in Raleigh.

Within a couple of years, McClathy bought the News and Observer and shut down NandO.  Now, 15 years later, a much larger regional paper, itself part of a major news media company, uses robots to do a different trick: to appear to be a local news source for communities throughout the land.

I always want clever folks to succeed, but there is a huge risk: if the Tribune succeeds at this,  they could kill local news sources. The Lansing State Journal is a shell of its former self; it's shrunk so much it's almost a tabloid, and it relies on ... wire services for many local stories.  If the Chicago Tribune does a better job of packaging Lansing-related wire stories, it could speed the death of the only local daily.

Friday, March 06, 2009

Planets are using CCD cameras to spy on us?

Yup, I always suspected this.  Small planets are using CCD cameras to spy on us. NASA's Kepler mission will strive to find these planets.  We've got to locate these evil planets, and deal with this threat.

Wednesday, March 04, 2009

Today's Google News identifies a new celebrity: Mac Pro

Google News offers a section called "In the News" which tries to capture people who are prominently, well, in the news.  The Google newsbot obviously uses an algorithm to ferret out propoer nouns in recent news articles.  And it's obvious the algorithm thinks it's a person if it sees lots of references of two words with capital letters:  Rush Limbaugh, Barack Obama, Britney Spears -- and their pal, Mac Pro.

This morning Google News featured two new celebrities: Mac Pro and Mac Mini.  These two guys named Mac are of course two models of the Mac lineup; in the last couple days Apple announced new versions of these computers.  (Click for full-size image.)

At one point, Google News had these two guys -- Mac Pro and Mac Mini -- In the News.  Alas, poor Mr. Mini dropped off their radar, but his cousin Mac Pro remained.  As did his buddy, Late Night.