Painting with the palette of the Web: a pointillistic approach to storytelling

Backpack journalist and multimedia storyteller Kevin Sites stopped by USC Annenberg this week to talk about his new book and documentary, In the Hot Zone: One Man, One Year, Twenty Wars and how solo journalists can innovate within new media.

One-man band

The increasingly popular one-man news bureau – a solo journalist who gathers news using multimedia tools – should leverage each medium to further engage the reader, said Sites.

In September 2005, Sites became Yahoo News’s first original content correspondent, pioneering the “one-man band.” Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone showcased an ambitious undertaking: a one-year trip to all the major conflicts zones around the world reported by Sites, with video, text, and still photography.

Carrying over 60 pounds of equipment, Sites leveraged each medium’s unique strengths to tell his stories. Video was for the “inherent drama,” the “motion” of the world – capturing verbs like dancing, singing, talking, exploding. Text was for “nuance,” the “details that bring a story to life.” Still photography was reserved for portraits to create a powerful “connection to someone’s face,” explained Sites.

Reporting simultaneously in three dimensions is “not a replacement for mainstream media… but an amplification of it,” said Sites. By putting a human face on the global conflicts and “stringing those stories together so that when you see them online, perhaps collectively, cumulatively, they provide a greater idea of what’s happening in that conflict zone.”

Sites views news in new media as not the “last word… but the first word” to pull the reader into the story. “The computer that delivers news is also a tool for you to respond to the information.” Under the intimate portraits and videos of ordinary people caught in war, Sites provided links to the chronology of the conflict (BBC country profiles) and to possible solutions (NGOs and political organizations).

The site drew two million viewers a week. Sites’ workload was heavy: Spending about ten days in each war zone, he transmitted a 600-1,200-word story, five to 15 photographs, and two to three videos every day.

“In some ways I felt that doing this project was a bit of penitence for my journalistic sins of past,” said Sites.

He was referring to November 2004. While covering the battle of Falluja as a pool correspondent, Sites shot a highly controversial video of a U.S. Marine shooting and killing a wounded, unarmed Iraqi insurgent stretched out on the ground of a mosque. Most international networks ran the full tape. All the American networks blacked out the shooting.

“It was absolutely the wrong decision,” recounted Sites, who supported censoring at the time. He explained, “That videotape to me had the potential of creating more bloodshed,” and that conflicted with the journalistic ethic of minimizing harm.

“We failed the public,” Sites admitted. “It wasn’t the government. It wasn’t the military… We censored ourselves.” Subsequently, Sites wrote a 2,500-word open letter to the Marines involved in the shooting on his blog, retelling the story of the shooting and putting it in context. That piece was picked up by newspapers and TV stations around the world.

“What that demonstrated to me was the power of online media in telling a more complete – and sometimes more accurate story than traditional media,” said Sites.

Focus on characters

After Sites’ return from the Hot Zone (and a year off scuba diving to decompress), he and Yahoo continued their foray into original reporting in May 2007, albeit with a dramatic change of subject. “People of the Web” is a series of articles and four to four-and-a-half-minute videos featuring people who use the Internet to “bypass the traditional world.”

He profiles people who circumvent traditional approaches to acting (lonelygirl15), music (bands on MySpace), and art (Phil Hansen).

“What I wanted to do was reach into the computer, and pull out that human being,” said Sites. He looks for stories that contain a strong Web component, a colorful central character, a compelling visual, and an element of social relevance.

For example, Hansen, an X-ray-technician-cum-artist became famous not through galleries, but by broadcasting his art-making process via YouTube. His art is interactive. One particularly impressive project – on a ten-foot, circular canvas-wheel canvas – was created with the words of his viewers. Hansen asked people to write him a moment that changed their lives. Each letter appears as a tiny dot on the canvas, but the blended result was that of a picture of the artist’s own face, cradled by four hands.

Sites said that he’s beaten the mainstream media on most of these stories. Fox News, for example, reported on an online dating service for farmers after Sites covered it.

Reporting in color

The media of video, print and photography contain finer shades that journalists could explore, Sites said.

Within solo journalist broadcast reporting, for example, are at least four techniques that “don’t compete with each other,” demonstrated Sites. Each technique offers a subtly varied angle ranging from micro-view to macro-view.

First, in a traditional first person stand up, the reporter holds the camera at arm’s length and films himself speaking over events in the background. A variation of this technique is one in which the reporter does not himself appear on camera. In both cases, the solo journalist can pan the scene using himself as the center, turning in place, and drawing a circle with his arm and camera.

A third technique uses POV plus nat sound. Sites showed an example of a video of a Sudanese woman singing a rebel fight song to lull her malaria-stricken baby to sleep.

Using a fourth technique that Sites calls “post-impressionistic narration,” the reporter provides a sort of director’s-cut commentary. He watches a video with the viewer, talking over the footage. The time lapse and informal narration offers a macro-view of the events on screen.

“Everyone talks about the Internet as the death knell for newspapers,” Sites said, “No, it’s TV that’s really bad online.” Whereas newspaper websites have become great sources of info, Sites said – they just need to learn how to monetize the Web – Sites criticized local TV websites for simply parking their aired stories on the Internet.

When asked if offering so many retellings of the same event would over-saturate the viewer, Sites replied, “It’s a matter of palette… It makes the journalist work harder.” And in the end, it benefits the viewers and the sources.

“The mediums are not displacing but enhancing each other, playing off each other in ways that are relevant,” Sites said. “TV didn’t kill radio. It transformed it.”

Is Yahoo public enemy No. 1 for Big Media?

Rare is the moment when a newspaper actually thinks out loud. Even more rare is a newspaper thinking aloud about its competitors and about the future of its own business. But that’s what happened on Sept. 13, when The Los Angeles Times ran an unsigned editorial under the bland headline “News to View from Yahoo.”

The editorial wondered about the impact of Yahoo’s first big foray into original content, “Kevin Sites in the Hot Zone,” where broadcast journalist/blogger Sites would be doing “solo journalism” from conflict zones around the world. The Times editorial figured this was a hybrid project that looked more like a blog and hence wouldn’t compete with ABC’s “World News Tonight.” But, the editorial stated, Yahoo was being “coy” about its plans — and about just how much the site actually would be competing with mainstream media.

“Yet the so-called mainstream media (aka the MSM) can’t take too much comfort from Yahoo’s strategy,” the editorial concluded darkly. “The MSM has established more than just a beachhead on the Web, of course, but few sites can match Yahoo’s ability to make a wide array of material available on demand, filter it to suit a person’s tastes, then allow for further refinement through user feedback. If programs such as Sites’ are compelling, they will hasten the public’s shift toward the interactivity of the Web and away from more passive traditional sources of information and entertainment, such as TV, magazines and (here we are again) this newspaper.”

The new Yahoo Media Center is in Santa Monica — right in The Times’ backyard — with former studio execs Terry Semel and Lloyd Braun calling the shots. If old-line media companies weren’t paying attention before, they are now, as coverage in Wired Magazine, The New York Times and BusinessWeek shows.

And the results are in: Yahoo is a media company; it has designs on doing original news and entertainment content tailored specifically for the Web; and it’s time for old-line media companies to think hard about how they’re going to compete. News Corp. and Barry Diller’s InterActiveCorp have already showed their hands, rolling up all the Internet content they can buy. But the MSM is caught between a rock and hard place, because dozens of news outlets have licensed content to Yahoo News and rely on Yahoo and Google to do their online search, paid-search advertisements, and contextual ads.

Of course Yahoo doesn’t want to lose those deals. The company thinks it can build out original content that complements the traditional-media material it licenses — rather than replacing the latter entirely. Scott Moore, vice president of content operations at Yahoo, stressed that the Net giant’s aims were peaceful.

“We have I think 70 different news publishers who have relationships with us,” Moore told me. “I don’t think any of them will be threatened by this. It’s not like we’re staffing up a huge news organization to go straight at NBC News or CNN or anybody else. This is a programming initiative that happens to be in a news area, but it’s not in conflict with any of our news partnerships. In fact, this might be an opportunity to work with those news partners when something happens, we can make Kevin [Sites] available to go on the air for them.”

Yahoo’s second move into original content was hiring nine columnists to write for its finance site. But Yahoo took pains to use book writers and not hire away established financial journalists — the better to keep its licensing deals alive with BusinessWeek, Reuters and Forbes.

Neil Budde, general manager of Yahoo News, told me that Yahoo is still a friend of news organizations, especially the ones who get traffic when Yahoo links to their stories.

“What we’re doing with Kevin Sites is to venture into an area that allows us to understand better the future of online journalism, building something from the ground up and have someone cover something in a multimedia way,” Budde said. “But we’re trying to stake out areas that are not getting a lot of coverage. We’re not going to go out and replicate what is already available from other media sources and news organizations. We’re looking at areas where we can cover stories in different areas or areas that aren’t getting any coverage.”

Advantage: Yahoo

Keep in mind that this current push is not even close to being Yahoo’s first into original content. Before broadband exploded, the site tried original video shows with Yahoo FinanceVision — and failed. And Yahoo ran original sports columns during the 2004 Summer Olympics, and has run an original finance column from Suze Orman since February 2004.

But the Kevin Sites initiative bears watching because it is much more than an online column or blog. Sites is offering up video, audio, and text dispatches — and he plans to interact with his readers in live chats along the way. Plus, Yahoo and Sites have posted an ambitious journalistic ethics code that goes beyond the Society of Professional Journalists’ code by adding four more criteria: transparency, vulnerability, empathy and solutions.

Sites told me he considered this project a “dream job,” but was realistic about the tough task of working with an organization that has never had a foreign correspondent.

“It’s true Yahoo isn’t a worldwide news organization that has bureaus around the world where I can get resupplied on the road,” Sites said. “But we have sales offices in different places so there could be infrastructure for me to get a fax, or get a supply of videotapes. So you build on that, you use creative problem-solving techniques, and I’ve seen that from everybody here.

“It’s tiring in the sense that you have to build it from the ground up. But I would much rather do that and be a part of something that is going to have a long-lasting impact than to just continue what I’ve been doing and wonder at the end of my career if I really served my career and the people who depend on me. I know with Yahoo I will probably do the best work of my life.”

Sites said he turned down other offers, including from network TV, because of the freedom and innovation Yahoo offered. Plus, he noted that Yahoo’s global audience numbers — in the hundreds of millions per month — dwarfed that of “NBC Nightly News.” Yahoo’s Moore said the portal would promote Sites heavily. In fact, I recently noticed a small graphical ad for the Hot Zone in Yahoo Mail in a space I had never seen advertising before.

Media consultant Vin Crosbie, president of Digital Deliverance, said it’s true that Yahoo doesn’t have a news culture now, but that doesn’t mean the company can’t build one. He’s bullish on Yahoo’s chances to innovate online, and says Big Media has only itself to blame for moving slowly on the Net.

“Yahoo has an advantage over the legacy companies here,” Crosbie said. “It doesn’t have a legacy, it can start from scratch by utilizing the new medium the way it should be, which has been a challenge for the legacy companies because most of what they do is shovelware. It’s interesting that Yahoo is doing original content when out of 1,400 newspaper sites, there are what, 15 that are doing original content? To say, ‘How can Yahoo do original content?’ begs the question of why 95% of the media companies out there haven’t done original content [online].”

Jay Rosen, PressThink blogger and associate professor of journalism at New York University, agrees that Yahoo has a better chance to succeed with original online content than the mainstream media does.

“I think we’re missing the story if we keeping asking: Is this new player or that new player (bloggers, citizen journalists, Yahoo) going to replace the big news providers?” Rosen told me via e-mail. “I’m convinced that journalists love that question — will we be replaced? — because it’s actually more comforting than the alternative: Who’s in a position to realize the potential advantages of the Web, and bring new them forcefully into news and editorial? To me the answer, right now, is clear: Yahoo is in a better position. That’s not solved by starting some blogs.”

Disadvantage: Yahoo

But that doesn’t mean Yahoo will become a journalistic powerhouse overnight. The company has very little experience with news reporting and has a fledgling infrastructure for doing vast amounts of original content.

And it’s an open question whether the company really wants to rival news organizations such as CNN or The New York Times. But even if Yahoo wants to play coy and prattle on about only complementing news from other sources, the fact is that Yahoo has a massive audience of people who depend on it for their news fix, and it has the army of programmers and product managers who could create technological innovations in the blink of an eye — compared with the slow-moving MSM.

Part of Yahoo’s push is into entertainment and broadband video. Author/blogger Brad Hill, who writes the Unofficial Yahoo Blog, told me the explosion of broadband usage has been a plus for Yahoo but that real living-room convergence was still some time away.

“Many observers are not looking far enough out,” Hill said via e-mail. “A certain convergence still has to occur in the home, whereby people pull Internet-delivered programming into the living room, not into the home office. The boundary between broadcast and IP packet, and therefore the boundary between pull and push, must be softened before Yahoo gains real traction with original TV-style programming. But in the long run, very few companies are as well positioned.”

Then there’s the issue of Yahoo balancing the promotion of its own content with that of its dozens of licensees in Yahoo News. How does an original news outlet run a neutral news aggregator with clean hands? That’s still to be determined.

“I don’t see any reason why Yahoo could not establish trust and reliability as a common carrier — that adjustable filter that Yahoo News is now — and, at the same time, become a credible producer of its own editorial content,” Rosen said. “There are problems to solve in the dual track approach, because its requires two different kinds of user trust. The day when Yahoo starts hesitating to point out to the rest of the Web (because it covets the traffic for locally produced goods) is the day decline sets in. My guess is they know that.”

Indeed, Yahoo’s Budde is well aware of the issue of balancing promotion for in-house content and that of licensees’ content. He said the issue is not unique to Yahoo and he previously dealt with a similar balancing act while at The Wall Street Journal.

“[At The Journal] we had to choose between online-only content and content from the print side,” Budde said. “So even at a smaller organization, you’re going to have a balancing act on what to promote, things created within your organization or from outside. I’ve talked to CNN about how they decide to promote things on CNNSI versus CNN/Money. It’s something we all have to do to balance what we think our audience is interested in versus something that helps us build an audience for something new.”

Leonard Witt, who holds an endowed chair in communication at Kennesaw State University, northwest of Atlanta, and blogs at, went over the advantages and disadvantages that Yahoo has as a newbie journalism outfit. He loved the code of ethics espoused by Yahoo and Sites, but said he wasn’t sure if he wanted Yahoo to win out because the company has had dealings with China that call into question its ability to promote freedom of expression and the press.

Most recently, Yahoo collaborated with Chinese authorities, turning over e-mails that helped put Chinese journalist Shi Tao in prison for 10 years for simply passing on a government edict to foreign press. Witt noted that Yahoo wasn’t being transparent to Chinese users about censoring search results — something that made him extra skeptical of the Kevin Sites code of ethics relating to transparency.

Budde said the Chinese issue was outside his purview at Yahoo, but that Yahoo as a company had to work within the laws of China.

“I think as a news person I regret that it happened the way it did [with Shi Tao], but any corporation has to operate within the laws of the countries in which it operates,” Budde said. “Yes, Yahoo has a lot of different parts to its business and one piece is the journalistic operation of Yahoo News, but there are other pieces as well. There are a lot of other news organizations that have large corporate ownerships with a wide range of businesses. It’s not unique to Yahoo that it is a news organization within a company with many other businesses.”

What to do, MSM?

Yahoo and even Google represent a clear danger to media companies and to their advertising income. Is there hope that mainstream media can learn from their past mistakes online and take bold action to fight off the Yahoogle threat?

Rosen, for one, is not holding his breath. After a big-wig meeting with media honchos and bloggers in New York, Rosen answered his own tough questions about Big Media’s chances online.

“Big Media does not know how to innovate,” Rosen wrote on PressThink. “What capacity for product development do news organizations show? Zip. How are they on nurturing innovation? Terrible. Is there an entrepreneurial spirit in newsrooms? No. Do smart young people ever come in and overturn everything? Never. Do these firms attract designers and geeks who are gifted with technology? They don’t, because they don’t do anything challenging enough. They don’t innovate, or pay well. So they can’t compete.”

But Kennesaw’s Witt feels that Big Media still has a chance to wake up to the threat and act. He says the problem is one of imagination and not of revenues. Witt asks why The New York Times couldn’t learn from Yahoo and let solo journalists loose in its own hot zones in Brooklyn, the South Bronx and Queens.

“[Big Media] has reams of content and at least a few million bushel-baskets of money they could wisely invest,” Witt said via e-mail. “Unfortunately, their reaction to change moves like molten lead, which probably is still in too many of their veins, vestiges of the good old days. Hence, they have become the aggregatees as the Yahoos and Googles of the world become the aggregators. The once high priests have become supplicants, bearing gifts to the masters of the Internet.

“It doesn’t have to be that way. They could learn to work with all the citizens who want to make media, start linking to each other, copy open source models, and find the best solo journalists in the world and set them free. Bring their audiences in from the cold, make them a part of what they do. In other words, don’t revert back to the journalism you have known, reinvent an even greater journalism that provides our republic what it needs to move forward as a strong democracy, while maybe figuring out how to get a piece of that $1.2 billion quarterly Yahoo pie.”

Correction: An earlier version of this story stated that Yahoo’s headquarters was in Santa Monica, Calif. The story has been corrected to state that the Yahoo Media Center is located in Santa Monica. Yahoo’s headquarters remains in Sunnyvale, Calif.

Inside Yahoo News: Aggregator brings RSS to the masses

There are two ways to view Yahoo News. One is to dismiss it as simply a collection of other people’s journalism, slapped together and considered just another feature of a big Internet portal. The other is to sit in awe of a site that includes some of the best journalism created, packages it in a simple way with links to outside sources and balances human judgment with technological innovation.

For the past year, I’ve wanted to peek inside the operation at Yahoo News and see for myself just how they made the sausage. The problem is that Yahoo is the quintessential Silicon Valley company, paranoid about losing its trade secrets or embarrassed that a reporter might be flummoxed that there’s no “there” there.

My plan to visit during the 2004 Summer Olympics was squelched. My plan to visit on U.S. Election Night was squashed. Finally, the opening came when Yahoo News was readying a redesign of the site, its first since 2002. I was invited to sit in on a production meeting related to the redesign — due to launch in public beta today, but now slated for later this month.

Yahoo News lives in Building F on the Yahoo campus, located at the end of a row of shiny modern office parks along Mathilda Avenue in Sunnyvale, Calif. There are security guards stationed at each parking lot, and you must sign a waiver when you check in at the building’s lobby saying you won’t steal trade secrets or photograph anything without written permission. I clumsily went to the wrong entrance of the building, and some employees let me in the locked door as they went out. So much for security.

The office is what you’d expect at a dot-com success story, with brightly painted walls and well-lit, airy spaces. The conference room was named “Gilligan,” and it had purple carpeting and purple seats with yellow piping — the official company colors. Product managers sat alongside engineers and designers and went over the various bugs in the Yahoo News redesign. As an outsider, I could barely follow the stream of technical jargon and nicknames for features.

Someone suggested they “tweak the mocks.” A problem arose over “bread crumbs” being shown. A discussion ensued over renaming the Op/Ed section Opinions or Commentary. On my first look at this redesign, it seemed cleaner and less cluttered — with tabbed navigation at the top instead of the side. (You can see similar tabbed navigation at Yahoo News Asia already.)

Later, Yahoo News product manager Jeff Birkeland gave me a tour of the redesign — forget the building. A new “toggle” feature lets you view the top headlines from each news source under each category (Business, Entertainment, Sports, etc.). But one tab was titled “My Sources,” and that was the magic tab, bringing up your selection of RSS feeds, automatically populated by your RSS feeds chosen from My Yahoo, if you kept a My Yahoo page.

Suddenly, Yahoo News was more than just a collection of licensed content from established news sources — it was every news source and Weblog that had an RSS feed. Personalization had landed at the front door of Yahoo News, after making such a huge splash at the front door of Yahoo itself.

And just as the RSS technology from My Yahoo was being injected into Yahoo News, a beta search technology called Y!Q was also coming to Yahoo News. As you can see in these more crude examples, a highlighted term within a news story brings up a little pop-up box with relevant links on the subject within Yahoo’s own pages and from Web pages outside Yahoo.

Mixing automation with the human touch

Yahoo sits at the intersection of technology and media, fueled by the Internet boom in advertising and paid content and led by a Hollywood studio executive in Terry Semel. Plans are afoot to move most of the editorial operations to the new Yahoo Media Center in Santa Monica, Calif. Though Yahoo spokesmen are relatively tight-lipped about who’s moving when, signs abound that new editorial hires will be heading south. Just today came word through that Yahoo had hired MSN general manager Scott Moore from Microsoft.

Another of the recent hires was Neil Budde, an online news veteran and the founding editor and publisher of the Wall Street Journal Online. Budde came on last November as the new director of news at Yahoo, taking on editorial and business oversight. Budde told me in a phone interview that he doesn’t find Yahoo News all that different from And he considered the best difference to be the huge number of engineering resources at Yahoo.

“I think it makes it a lot easier,” Budde said. “One of the reasons I came here is there are so many resources to draw on for all the technology. Plus, with a network like Yahoo, you have so many insights on how people consume news. What’s been great is you have the ability to tie into personalization that’s already been built in My Yahoo, and it allows you to bring in the search capabilities into news, like the Y!Q capabilities. … It’s different than at a traditional news organization where some of those things are harder to build or you’re building it from the ground up.”

While not getting into too many specifics on how the editorial process works — or how many people work at Yahoo News (likely in the dozens and not hundreds) — Budde told me that the team uses a combination of automation and direct human input. There’s a team running Full Coverage, which packages Yahoo content with links to outside news sources and resources on the Web. There’s a team for Sports, for Finance and for the content deal with SBC. There isn’t a 24-hour news team, though many editors have pagers that will go off in case of a breaking story.

“My [past] experience is with more people doing things and less automation, but the folks who have built Yahoo News up ’til this point have done a great job of being very smart about where they can automate and how much they can automate,” Budde said. “That frees up the human editors to do what human editors should do, which is make editorial judgments.”

Budde explained that Yahoo’s longtime partners such as the Associated Press and Reuters have helped streamline the automation process by working closely together with Yahoo News. “Going back many years, when online news was first developing, Yahoo News was one of the first to educate people like Reuters on what’s the best way to build their feeds for online products as automatically as possible,” he said. “So you can be smart about having the human editors do intelligent work on top of that.”

If you assume that the most trafficked Web pages are, and AOL’s proprietary home page, then you can deduce that news headlines on those home pages will generate the lion’s share of traffic to those sites’ news pages. Budde wouldn’t break down exact numbers on originating traffic for Yahoo News but said, Yahoo search, and My Yahoo are key drivers.

According to Nielsen/NetRatings, Yahoo News is the second most trafficked News & Information site on the Web — and top Current Events/Global News site — with 20.8 million unique visitors in February 2005. Over the past two years, the site’s traffic has hit peaks and valleys depending on news stories such as U.S. elections and the Southeast Asian tsunami. But generally, traffic has gone from 16-19 million uniques in 2003 to the low 20 millions in 2004, while time spent on the site has gone from the high 20 minutes to low 30s.

One way to build on the time spent on the site is to make the story pages more rich with links to relevant content on other pages, according to Budde. He noted there’s a shift under way for news sites to treat story pages as entry ways for so many people entering via searches.

“People don’t start from the front page, they often start at story pages,” Budde said. “So if this is the first point of entry into our site, what can we do to expose people there to more of what we have available? I think it’s important for any news site. [We want to make] that the central focus, as opposed to so many editors who want to focus on the front page because that’s what the traditional editorial role has been — the front page.”

Taking RSS to the masses

While Really Simple Syndication (RSS) technology hasn’t really caught fire in the public consciousness, Yahoo has integrated RSS feeds into its personalized offering, My Yahoo, without really having to explain it. You just add content to your page by topic or by Editor’s Picks — of course, heavily weighted with Yahoo-hosted content.

That integration, started in January 2004, was just one of many announcements by so many online media outlets that have launched RSS feeds or a branded RSS reader. But this move by Yahoo had huge implications, because more than anything else related to RSS, this really did bring RSS to the masses.

“[Yahoo’s] integration of RSS into My Yahoo and Yahoo generally is so profound in terms of what it means for Yahoo,” said John Battelle, author of the upcoming book, “The Search” and founder of the Industry Standard magazine. “Yahoo News, in the Web 1.0 way, was supposed to be your RSS aggregator. Now, they still do Yahoo News, but they’ve given the reins over to users to do feeds that aren’t necessarily blessed by Yahoo.”

So now those feeds have spread from My Yahoo to a mobile service, a desktop ticker and to Yahoo News — probably the most appropriate place for them. Birkeland, the product manager for news at Yahoo, said that they have to perform a balancing act on giving people the content they want without giving them too much to handle.

“You could give people a lot of content, but we want to avoid what we call ‘firehosing’ people,” Birkeland said. “We don’t want to point the firehose at people and let them figure out what’s going on.” But he’s excited about giving people RSS feeds at Yahoo News, which “literally will allow your own choices to exist right in the middle of our front page.”

Still, there are limits. While you can put your feeds into news sections, you still can’t pre-empt the top story of the day. Birkeland says it’s important that Yahoo News still has enough control to convey important breaking news and allow serendipity — so people might learn things from unfamiliar sources and not just from an echo chamber.

While Yahoo News does have its own smallish newsroom in Building F, the operation draws on technology and resources from around the company. Scott Gatz, senior director of personalization products at Yahoo, has become known as “The RSS Guy,” bringing feeds to various Yahoo initiatives, including a search engine for RSS feeds, and the Yahoo News redesign. He told me the key to success for winning over the masses was not bothering to even call them “RSS feeds.”

“If you look at how we’ve integrated RSS into Yahoo News, we’re not actually using those three letters very much,” Gatz said. “So you look at it, and it says what would you like to add to your political news, here are some political blogs. Would you like to add CNN or MSNBC onto your news page? The fact that it happens in XML or RSS isn’t the important thing. Most of the users don’t want to have to figure that out.”

Skirting legal issues

Gatz says that Yahoo has more people using RSS than any other service, a number of users that’s “in the low millions.” He estimates there are 6 million RSS feeds around the Web. Bloggers take note: When people go to choose RSS feeds at My Yahoo or within Yahoo News, the Yahoo editors suggest various sources, from mainstream news sites to niche content to blogs. Getting into those slots likely will draw more traffic than from any other feed source.

Battelle, who also manages the popular BoingBoing blog, says that he has a contractual deal with Yahoo — with no money changing hands — where Yahoo lists BoingBoing as a feed to add, and BoingBoing has an “Add to My Yahoo” button on its blog. Those buttons are sprouting up like wildflowers on popular blogs now. But Yahoo allows its users to add any feed they want easily, and puts the RSS search engine right on those pages.

While Google was recently sued by Agence France Presse for listing its content in Google News without licensing it, Yahoo News has a deal with AFP and isn’t worried about causing trouble by adding RSS feeds to the mix. Why? Because any source that includes RSS feeds would want to have as many people add them as possible. Just having RSS feeds alone implies an invitation to run headlines on a news reader, Birkeland said.

“There is a clarifying effect of money, that Yahoo is willing to employ [with AFP and others],” Battelle said. “We’re going to syndicate your stuff, and therefore we’re going to pay you for it. And if you have a free RSS feed, we’re going to allow anyone to add it to it.”

While the BoingBoing deal doesn’t include money for placement, that deal is only short term. In the long run, Yahoo might be able to monetize where it places RSS feeds for users to add, just as it eventually charged money for e-mail services, personal ads and personal home pages. Just the fact that Yahoo editors are making a directory of RSS feeds and picking out the best blogs could eventually make it the de facto place for finding and sorting Weblog and niche content.

While a million RSS readers and startup companies have elbowed each other for attention, Yahoo has quietly become the elephant in the room for news feeds.

“We’re the first portal to do anything with RSS, and we’ve now had a year and a half to refine and improve it,” Gatz said. “The ultimate goal was to bring it to the masses, and now that we’ve learned that and made it easy, how do we extend it across the Yahoo network? The concept is powerful, that anyone can subscribe to anything.”

While Yahoo News has a long history of filtering and aggregating content on the Web, the future holds even more promise, with Moore and Budde on board, the resources of a forward-thinking technology company behind them and the new synergized headquarters in Santa Monica. The key will be their balancing act of human editing and automation, of collating content and helping millions understand what’s important in the news today.

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The New Yahoo News
A rundown of some of the new features of the redesign, due for public beta later in April:

  • “Toggle” feature lets you see news headlines from a particular news source at a glance.
  • “My Sources” tab on each section lets you see your RSS headlines — and you can add feeds to the page.
  • Tabbed navigation on top of each page, with more weight and space given to the top story package.
  • Y!Q technology embedded into key words in stories brings pop-up box with links to relevant Yahoo and Web pages.
  • Story pages will have one square ad within story instead of a top and side banner.
  • “IM story” option lets you send a news story via Yahoo Messenger instant messaging service.