USC Annenberg Online Journalism ReviewUSC





Privacy, Personal Data and Taking Users for Granted
What Cost Registration?
Getting to Know You
Belo:
Active and Shifting Audiences
Tribune:
Growth in Site Loyalty and Newsletter Subscriptions
Dispatch.com:
Geography Proves to be
Eye-Opening
The New York Times:
Targeting Readers the Old-Fashioned Way
Privacy, Personal Data and Taking Users for Granted

At this point, eight years or so into the era of online publishing, I'm inclined to give news sites the benefit of the doubt. You want us to register? If I'm a regular reader, fine, I'll do so gladly -- if the process isn't overly invasive. If I'm a casual surfer to your site, chances are I won't bother, and perhaps you may not miss me.

But online news sites would be mistaken to shrug off users' privacy concerns in the viper's pit known as the Internet. We've been spammed, cataloged, hoodwinked and duped far too often.

How about rewarding people for their registration effort: a free newsletter, or a chance to interact with the newspaper's editors or reporters online?

"Because we're a known name with a long track record in our communities, people know they can trust what we do with their information," says Belo's Christensen.
 
Not so fast. Few of the companies introducing mandatory registration have done a good job in explaining why they're taking the step and assuring us how our personal information will be used.

For instance, you may remember the horror stories about direct marketing companies trying to wed their offline dossiers -- including profiles of everything you've bought in the past decade -- to online registries. That's still a real possibility.

Would the LA Times or Belo share its registration information with such a marketing partner? After reading the privacy policies posted at Latimes.com and Dallasnews.com, I sure can't tell.

Few of the sites that have launched registration programs have updated their privacy policies to reflect the new reality -- they now have possession of your sensitive personal data. Belo is rolling out an updated privacy policy to all its sites, but it's written for the lawyers, not the users.

Tribune, Belo and others might do well to glance over at The New York Times' privacy policy, a refreshing  model of clarity and user-friendliness that holds the legalese to a minimum. 

The hassle factor vs. business imperatives

The news registration movement has not fared well in the weblog community. Weblog pioneer Rebecca Blood published a mini-rant Monday, complaining about the LA Times' invasive questions and warning that many people will simply enter nonsense into the fields.

Monday's The Bleat carried this screed: "The LA Times required my name, address, phone number, AND my income level. All required fields. Click on the privacy policy, and of course it?s the usual thicket of prickly conditions, concluding with the assertion that the policy may change at any time."

The popular Instapundit weblog also laid into the LA Times this week.

And then there's the movement afoot to trick the news sites' registration systems with bogus data. This Random NYTimes login form has been around for years (click the Randomize button and see what happens). Meanwhile, this is said to work as a log-in and password for the New York Times, LA Times and Chicago Tribune sites.

The Tribune's Silver says such deceptions make up "an incredibly small" percentage of registrations. He says that users and online publishers will both have to adjust to the  reality of changing times and a more realistic online landscape.

"People are certainly going to bump into more walls as they go from site to site," he says. "For a media company thinking about registration, you need to assess where you want to be a few years from now. If you want a tighter relationship, you'll have to think of ways to induce people to give you this information.

"In the past we've thought of carrots, but carrots have only limited appeal. So you need to start thinking more about sticks, and saying to people, 'You won't get this information unless you register.' "

Fine and well. But a stick -- even a small rap on the knuckles -- will send a message to the Net community. Better to add some incentive to sweeten the deal. How about rewarding people for their registration effort: a free newsletter, or a chance to interact with the newspaper's editors or reporters online?

News sites haven't done enough to salve the bumps and bruises that accompany an effort as ambitious as registration.

Recounts another friend: "A few days ago I went to nytimes.com on a newly downloaded Mozilla browser, which obviously didn't have my Times registration cookie installed. I signed up in 1999 -- that was two ISP accounts and two jobs ago. I have no idea what e-mail or password I plucked out of the air. And so I had to create a new account."

News sites would score a lot of points by easing the hassle factor, especially for avid news junkies who bounce from site to site. If they're serious about forging a closer relationship with online customers, media organizations would be smart to get to work on technology to make logging in at different news sites on different computers as painless as possible.

The answer may lie in hooking up with Microsoft's Passport, or devising a user-protected keychain system on a hard drive or network that remembers all your passwords, or launching an online news industry initiative to simplify registration and subsequent site visits.
 
Registration inevitably has consequences for weblogs, collaborative news sites and newsletters that point to news articles. Says my peeved friend: "If I have to register at every site just follow a stinking link, it slows down the exchange of information. Imagine a network where every news and information site has its own registration process."
 
Silver sees the day when weblogs become quasi-emissaries for favored news sites --  designated facilitators that would grant users safe passage by channeling them through a shortened registration process, or perhaps even getting them a free pass into the site.
 
Good idea. Who's ready to step up to the plate?