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The News Is There, but You Might Have to Search for It

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Thursday, March 6, 2008; Page D08

Whatever the traditional definition of "news" might be, it can seem far from what fills the headlines at some of the Web's more popular news sites. On a Tuesday in presidential primary season, here are some of their top stories:

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"Amazing 360¿ Images of Great Britain's Heathrow Terminal 5."

"10 Best Sports Press Conference Meltdowns."

"Venezuela Troops Head to Colombia Border."

"Bottled Water vs. Tap Water."

And there are photos of a home computer built inside a model of R2-D2.

Someone might ask: Who decided these are the most important things going on?

These sites-- Digg, Reddit, Newsvine and others -- don't employ roomfuls of reporters and editors to find the news. They invite all their readers to gather tidbits off the Web, vote on the most interesting ones, and chat about them in message boards. (As is the case with most free sites, ads pay the freight.)

They constitute one of the Web's most ambitious experiments in user-generated content, letting people mix links to different kinds of information and entertainment the same way they might cobble together a playlist of MP3s. And as the traditional news business continues to stumble, the sites have grabbed an increasing share of Web users' attention.

The best-known of these sites, Digg ( http://digg.com), has been around only since fall 2004, but drew a bit more than 5.8 million U.S. users in January, according to ComScore MediaMetrix. That was less than a sixth of the 38.4 million visitors to Yahoo News that month-- but it beat the audiences of the BBC, the Boston Globe and the Associated Press.

Some of the Web's name-brand news outlets have started noticing this popularity. In October of 2006, Conde Nast bought Reddit ( http://reddit.com), founded the previous year. MSNBC picked up NewsVine ( http://newsvine.com) last October, only a year and a half after that site's start. Last week, Yahoo launched its news aggregator, Buzz ( http://buzz.yahoo.com).

(Washingtonpost.com includes links to many of these sites next to news stories, inviting readers to publicize their favorite pieces.)

So how do these sites work as primary news sources? What's news like if you rely on readers' choice?

Their greatest contribution is publicizing the stories that run inside the newspaper, or don't make the paper at all. Where else could an AP report about the Department of Agriculture resisting an investigation by the Government Accountability Office constitute front-page news?

But that same collective fondness for spotlighting the little-known can lead them to tout poorly sourced or unsourced items. Rants and rumors can take the place of reporting. It can read like some of those chain-e-mail warnings about a scam, except with a picture attached.

These sites often take the most skeptical, cynical view of big government and big business. Some of their news alerts may remind you too much of those chain e-mail warnings you're supposed to "forward to everyone you know!!!"

Technology seems to be another popular category. And feats of individual creativity and effort also get highlighted: Two of Digg's most popular items in the past few days were pictures of a sculpture of a tank made out of colored balloons and a video of an iPhone's stopwatch hitting the 1,000-hour mark.

But good luck extracting much useful news about your town or city. If I'd relied solely on these sites to keep up with the world, I'd have had no idea that the Virginia Supreme Court had thrown out the funding mechanism for last year's transportation package.

It also takes time to learn the quirks of individual aggregator sites. Digg features more tech stories, for example, while Reddit has more of a political bent -- and its users are more willing to say just what they think about a story.

Like a lot of things on your computer, these sites require you to tinker with settings before you can get the most value out of them. You can pick favorite topics, hide items you're not interested in, and check out stories recommended by friends. It's not clear how many people will go to all that trouble. Without that, there's little distinction between enlightenment and entertainment on these sites.

It's also up in the air how these news hubs will fare as they become more popular. Many online communities start to break down as they expand past a certain stage. Internet old-timers can remember what happened to Usenet newsgroups starting about a decade ago. The discussion forums slowly drowned in a flood of irrelevant, fraudulent and malicious postings.

In the meantime, it would be a mistake to dismiss news-aggregator sites as mere distractions. Think about how you flip through a newspaper: If you inventoried all the stories, graphics and photos you read or looked at in sequence, would it differ too much from the grab-bag top-stories list of a Digg? These sites may tell us more about ourselves than the news around us.

Living with technology, or trying to? E-mail Rob Pegoraro atrobp@washpost.com. Read more athttp://blog.washingtonpost.com/fasterforward/


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