Mainstream Users Do Not Want The News Sites We Give Them

Over the holidays, I saw my parents. Typically, our conversations go towards computers and the internet because they know I know about those things and they really do not know many other people who do. This time was different, because the context of the conversation was regarding newspapers. Their main complaint was that if newspapers died or went purely online, where would they get their news? They did not want to read their news on a computer because they sat in front of a computer all day for work. To give you an idea of why this conversation was happening, my parents are in their late 60s and do not work in high tech jobs.

I started to ask what would get them to use a computer for news, but that conversation ended before it started. Once I mentioned the idea, the typical complaints arouse. “I like the feel of a newspaper”, “Where would I get coupons” and others of a similar nature. They were fighting change because it is too big of a change for them. For the longest time, computers were solely used within the domain of work. They did not grow up with computers, and their jobs did not use computers until the middle of the 1990s. I ended the conversation more abruptly than they wanted with a simple comment. “You are not the target audience of the future.” They did not like the idea, but they understood what I was saying. However, the conversation got me thinking about newspapers and online news again.

I talked about newspapers and RSS for the mainstream a little over two months ago, but that was in the context of newspapers doing the right things compared to some of the personalized homepages. Newspapers are doing a good job of getting their information on the internet and in a very readable format. However, most people want news from various sources. Yahoo may be one of the leading news sites, but if you are using the Yahoo News page, you are not getting any aggregation except for some wire sources. You could use a service like My Yahoo, but most people do not want to do that much work. I stopped using My Yahoo, mainly because an RSS reader is much more efficient for me. Most mainstream users will not take that approach, so recommending an RSS reader like Google Reader is just not a good idea.

Another option is something like Alltop. I have tried to get my wife to use Alltop, mainly to see if this would be a good starting point for mainstream users. She does like the way the topics are segmented, and she will use it if she is looking for information in a particular topic. However, the “online magazine rack” concept does not give her the ease of finding news like Yahoo News does.

Currently, there are a limited number of ways to get news from varied sources. The three main news aggregator services seem to be, and Each of these sites gets a good amount of unique visitors per month (Topix – 5M, Newsvine and Daylife – 1M) as you can see from the graph below:

As you can see, this is not mainstream adoption. Yahoo News is mainstream and currently has 31M unique visitors per month. One interesting thing to note is that Topix only grew 12% last year, while Yahoo News grew more than 36% in the same span. Newsvine and Daylife both grew well at 145% and 383% respectively. However, they have much smaller traffic at this point. The main problem with each of these sites is that they are generally ugly. Topix almost has more advertisements on their front page than content and the ads are interspersed within the content, so be careful where you click. Newsvine is definitely a site created by technologists. It is geared towards activity in the form of votes and comments. It almost has the same feel as a social news site, but in a newspaper themed layout. Daylife is nicer than the other two and it presents related articles, related topics and photos in a tabbed interface below the main article. The main problem with Daylife is that the front page is fairly dull. Contrast this criticism with the Yahoo News front page:

Yahoo News front page
Yahoo News front page

It is a little busy, but it is has a traditional newspaper or magazine layout. The most popular stories are on the far right side so that they do not overpower the content. There is also minimal advertising on the page. I would not say that Yahoo News is a clear winner, but they are definitely leading the other three news aggregators from the perspective of the user interface. The big problem with Yahoo is the limited content sources.

So, what is the mainstream going to use? My wife uses Yahoo News but has no desire to customize the content. She assumes that Yahoo is just taking information from leading sources, even though it is really only taking information from the leading wire services. The problem is that she does not care, and I suspect the typical mainstream user does not care either. The other thing I have noticed is that these people do not really care about blogs unless they are mentioned by Yahoo, CNN, MSNBC, etc.

The people who care about getting information from other sources like blogs are typically people who are writing them or other early adopters. We are all looking for the best and easiest way to read RSS feeds. RSS readers are very efficient, but definitely not as user friendly as something like Yahoo News. The flip side of this is that early adopters and bloggers want the content that Yahoo News does not offer. Maybe the mainstream is taken care of. Maybe we just need a better RSS reader.

13 thoughts on “Mainstream Users Do Not Want The News Sites We Give Them

  1. Same sort of parents, same sort of conversation. But I have different conclusions.

    I believe that the main issue is the form factor. Resistance to adoption will crumble once we have a foldable A3 sized tactile display that weights the same as a newspaper, has at least a week’s autonomy, costs as much as a year’s subscription, abstracts all technical issues such as updating and can be read anywhere. At that point, the portals that try to look like newspapers will find a new home and finish off the print issues by seducing their last readers.

    In Paris, France there are at least three dailies in half-Berliner format whose content is mostly straight from the wire – no better than the average portal. They are widely read by an audience who appreciates their convenience and does not care about editorial quality. They also run as portals, which proves that content is not the issue.

    A newspaper-like device is all that is missing to bridge the gap between the current generation of Web users and the late adopters.


  2. As for the diversity of source, in every set of domains there have always been individuals who are eager to ferret out data and others who are content with filtered information from whoever they attribute the most credibility to – or from default sources.

    A better feed readers may marginally alter the mix toward a slight increase of the advanced and power users segments, but I don’t see how it can change the fundamentals of collaborative filtering : ingesting a rich and diverse stream will remain limited by how fast it can be read, and not every user will find the time investment worthwhile.


  3. Jean-Marc,

    I agree that some sort of “hardware” to support better distribution is a much better answer, but that is still a minimum of a few years away. It could be even longer for real widespread adoption. The portal idea is OK, because most people do not care about the editorial quality. They want the basic information, and really do not care if the writer is capable of winning an award.

    If the hardware does appear soon, that would be a major game changing development.


  4. I did some work around this recently, expecting that most people don’t understand or care about news sources as much as me and my friends do. To my surprise, I found a big lack of trust in the media and the need to get news from a variety of sources (Yahoo news was used for this reason, despite it’s low number of sources). I think this lack of trust in one source is one of the big drivers for the behavior being seen.


  5. Ben

    That is really interesting. Given the behavior of people I would have assumed that they only trusted big mainstream media. I think Yahoo News gets the traffic because it is just part of Yahoo. People are familiar with Yahoo, so using the news service is a logical extension.


  6. I lack hard numbers to back my empirical experience, but I noticed that in mainstream perception, “the media” does not include “the web”. The large portals are considered part of “the web” and therefore perceived as an alternative to broadcast and print mass media although they are most often part of the same groups and feed on the same sources. I believe it is all about branding and perception, not actual content.


  7. I wouldn’t trust the numbers from compete – they’re just guesses. newsvine and topix both have their directly measured traffic numbers available on quantcast. Topix grew a lot more than you state and the homepage has only 2 ads that I see on it. Newsvine doesn’t have any growth at all over the timespan that quantcast has for them. The numbers for yahoo and alltop are just estimates and not worth discussing.

    Yahoo’s big flaw is the lack of anything other than AP news and the poor categorization – they rely on the AP to sort the news and then do keyword searches. They’re fine for the big stories, but i would think that ABC, CNN, WSJ, NYTimes would be better sources for that kind of thing.

    Alltop is really just a glorified prefilled rss reader. You could do the same thing with myyahoo, googlereader, bloglines, etc. It also takes too many clicks to get to what you want.

    Topix is great at categorizing the news into different topics, but the really interesting stuff comes out in the forums and comments on the news.

    I haven’t used newsvine enough to have much of an opinion.

    Overall, I agree that none of these sites are the perfect news solution. But it really depends on what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for information, news and conversation with a local angle, Topix is the place to go. If you’re looking for just the big stories, I’d skip these and go with the primary sources.


  8. cyberguy,

    RSS readers are typically way too much for the mainstream user. I had thought about MyYahoo for some people, but the feeling I get is that it is too many clicks. Regarding, I use it as a general trend indicator mostly. I keep forgetting about quantcast and need to use it more.


  9. @robdiana yeah, I was surprised myself. people seem to distrust large media companies, but they still use them overwhelmingly. I guess now there is less of an attachment to one brand.


  10. (Disclosure – I’m the CEO of Daylife).

    @robdiana, good thoughts.

    I believe there will be hundreds of different UIs and form factors for navigating news (and information more broadly) – for different content niches, modes/times of behaviour, devices, audiences. There won’t be just one UI to rule them all, nor should they be.. I suspect they’ll be even more fragmentation (from an experience perspective) than we see today. And people will continue to cobble together their own news reading habits, across the web, iphone, facebook, e-mail, using several services.

    Even looking at all they ways clients are using Daylife’s technology to power news applications, you see a lot of variance. This is one of my favorites:

    [Note – Daylife’s main business is licensing our underlying platform, so people can create their own applications and services using all the media and data we slice and dice. has managed to generate some interesting traffic, as you say – even though it runs on its own w/ zero staff or marketing (the only human portion is the selection of the cover stories every day). Though it’s not our main business.]


  11. Upendra,

    I understand that daylife is more of a platform provider, however it is one of the leading “news aggregators” as well. I agree that the path seems to be pointing to highly targeted or niche news sites because people are seeing that a source like a printed newspaper cannot contain enough information for everyone. Hopefully, we will see a breakthrough soon as it could be a very interesting space if done well.


  12. @robdiana – I hope so too. Part of the genesis of Daylife was that we felt there was a lot of room for innovation around news navigation. And while we had ideas for things we wanted to try, we knew there were more creative and clever people out there than us – and for us to try the things we wanted to, and for other clever people to try out new things, we needed to a build a platform like Daylife first. So our hope that the availability of our platform will make it easier for folks to experiment and help spur some innovation.


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