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article imageInside the mesh Conference: Webtrepreneurs Usher in Era of New Front Page

By David Silverberg     May 21, 2008 in Internet
How has reading the news changed in this digital era of Digg and other recommendation-oriented sites? Are traditional media obsolete? These were some of the questions posed to a panel of Web entrepreneurs at Toronto's new media conference, mesh.
Digital Journal -- "If the news is that important, it'll find me." It was a declaration from the host of a panel discussion titled The New Front Page, and Globe & Mail journalist Matthew Ingram may have been quoting a teenager, but he could've been citing the mantra for the connected generation of news junkies. At mesh, Canada's digital culture conference, a panel of Web experts explored how news is evolving with "recommendation engines" like Digg. They praised the Web as the more powerful bullhorn of news, throwing a few jabs at old media at the same time.
As if any of the 200 attendees needed a refresher, creative director Daniel Burka explained how Digg works and why it's become so popular. "Digg is a filter of today's zeitgeist," he said. "The stories that get promoted the front page deserve to be there, whether it's Obama primary stuff or a story about a Star Wars quilt."
Pema Hegan, co-founder of GigPark, a recommendation site for services, echoed Burka by pointing out how word of mouth can be more successful in getting the news across to a friend than simply emailing a link.
The self-promotions were in full effect, evident when Candice Faktor of told us about her website's MO: let users review and suggest services and venues in Toronto, "bringing those recommendations down to a niche level."
Ingram wasn't too keen on letting the presenters plug themselves shamelessly, so he posed a thought-provoking question: "Is there a challenge in making sure your sites simply don't become echo chambers where people are just pointing to articles that reinforce their, and their friends', interests?"
Burka, who also co-founded micro-blogging site Pownce, said it's always important for Digg to maintain its diversity. But the stories elevated to the front page of the site are chosen by the users, so it's truly up to them what they want to see promoted, he said. "And your friends can still personally recommend an article to you, despite it having only six diggs or so," he added.
Faktor noted "it's all about trusted sources. People want filters when it comes to service providers, they want to know if their friends like this or that restaurant."
Burka then diverted slightly from the topic, mentioning a tool soon coming to Digg: an app similar to Amazon's "if you liked this, you'll also like this" will be coming to the site, although he said he doesn't know when. "It takes a long time to pump out something like this," he said.
The panel was then asked an audience question relating to journalistic credibility and the danger of trusting a story on Digg compared to an article in a mainstream newspaper. Burka couldn't answer the question fast enough.
"There's trust built into sites like Digg," he said. "If a Digg user reads a story from the New York Times, he knows about the Times' reputation and credibility. But reading a blog post is different, and he might need to research the story further. Remember, we host content, we don't create it. And I have faith in our users. People aren't stupid."
The founder recognized the importance of being up front with Netizens. "Every site needs transparency," Faktor said, "giving the users tool to report abuse and maintain control of the community."
The discussion then turned to how old media can work with new media and, as expected, Burka was the first to respond. "Digg isn't trying to kill the media, we need them of course. The problem with magazines and newspapers, though, is that they are slow to the game. They're putting content online months after our users find it through a blog post. It's frustrating to see media stumbling over themselves."
Hegan noted how it's too simplistic to view this issue in black-and-white terms, as if old media would die out because news website will replace them. "People don't get their news from one place," he pointed out. "They get it from a variety of sites and portals."
Almost interrupting Hegan, Faktor said the name of the panel discussion may even be obsolete. "There shouldn't be such an emphasis on what's on the front page. Rather, it's all about what people find on their own."
She then stressed the OurFaves mandate to find users who post quality content over quantity, saying how her site needs fresh content visitors can find useful. It makes sense -- you'll want to understand why you should visit the Drake Hotel instead of reading an illiterate post filled with sentence fragments.
Finally, a bold question from the audience footnoted the panel discussion: "When will the final newsprint newspaper roll off the truck?"
Ingram, the longtime staffer at the Globe, replied with a resounding, "Newspapers will always be read by people. They won't be replaced."
Burka looked shocked at the answer, saying, "Once e-paper becomes feasible, newsprint will be gone. And the news in newspapers is a great thing to transfer to the Web, so that kind of journalism will never disappear."
Ingram shrugged and stood by his position. "There's nothing like opening up a newspaper, though."
It was an understandably defensive statement. Ingram's job rides on newspapers keeping up high circulation numbers and staying alive amidst the 24/7 online news cycle.
But to the waves of Web mavens and digital culture fans at mesh, his statement sounded archaic. It was obvious the three panel experts were part of the tidal change in the news reading process, which is pinning old-school media up against a firewall.
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