Peter Kafka

Recent Posts by Peter Kafka

Breaking News Takes a New Approach to the Personalized News Feed — A News Feed That’s Only Partly Personalized

newsies_posterIf you’re a news junkie, you’re almost certainly on Twitter. And if you’re a hard-core news junkie, then there’s a very good chance that you’re one of the 6.3 million people following the Breaking News account on Twitter, which churns out updates and links to Very Big News stories more than a dozen times a day.

Now NBC, which owns the Breaking News account, would like to migrate some of those users to its Breaking News apps and mobile site. It’s hoping a big redesign will do the trick.

The main pitch behind the new version of and its iOS apps is that they give you a whole lot more news than the Twitter account. But the more interesting selling point is the ways Breaking News is letting its users customize their feeds — and the ways in which it won’t.

Given that the topic of feed filtering and customization is of intense interest to lots of people right now — most notably Facebook and Twitter — it’s worth checking out.

In a nutshell, the Breaking News team — a small subset of NBC News’ digital group — assumes that its users want news and lots of it, so it plucks out stories from hundreds of sources and pushes them out in a familiar stream metaphor.

breaking news ios app

Then it lets users whittle away from the stream. If you see a story about the Boston Red Sox and their World Series win, you can tell Breaking News that you don’t want any more of those. Same for stories about Major League Baseball’s fight with Alex Rodriguez.

But if you want to tell Breaking News that you don’t want to read about sports, period, the service doesn’t make it easy — you’ll need to click through to one of those stories, and then again to an expanded view, and then select a tag to ban. And even if you do ban sports from your feed, Breaking News may show some sports stories, anyway — when they think there’s something really, really important to tell you.

And, while you can tell Breaking News to send you push alerts about particular topics, and you can dive deep into a single topic, you can’t create a personalized news “portfolio.” There’s no easy way to get Breaking News to just serve you up news about media, tech and sports, for instance.

All of which might make Breaking News unusable for lots of people if it were run by computers and algorithms. But the service has at least one or two human editors staffing its feed nearly 24 hours a day, hand-selecting each item it publishes. Cory Bergman, Breaking News’ general manager, figures that his staff, combined with the service’s opt-in nature — you’re not coming to Breaking News unless you really care about news — gives him the authority to serve up a broad swath of stories.

There are some other interesting tweaks to check out while you’re there. For instance, there is now a “whoa” button that gives users a chance to tell Breaking News that they think a story is a big deal, without “liking” it (useful, say, when reading a story about an NFL coach collapsing during halftime).

And there are now native ads, of course — GE has bought an initial slate of feed headlines, which appear in a different color than the rest of the stories, with a light-gray “advertisement” heading above them.

But I’m most interested in Breaking News’ main proposition — that it can give Twitter users who are already consuming a ton of news a reason to come and get even more stuff from the service.

So far, Breaking News is a fairly niche service. Its iOS and Android apps have generated a million downloads, but it won’t say how many active users it has; comScore pegs its U.S. traffic at a million users a month. Perhaps its combination of limited personalization and human curation will find a larger audience.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus