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IQ News: Analysis: The Best-Kept Secrets

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The value of headline aggregators isn't numbers. It's demos. By Steve Ditlea"Please don't write about NewsLinx and NewsHub," a fellow journalist implored when she learned I was planning to write about these advertising-supported Web sites. "You don't want to give away all our secrets, do you?" she said of the sites, which are incredibly useful to high-tech reporters and others seeking up-to-the-minute Net and computer coverage.
To be sure, these headline aggregators, listing and linking the latest headlines from major news sources online in near real-time for free to the visitor, have been among the better-kept secrets in Web news. They were scarcely mentioned at last week's first-ever Jupiter Digital News Forum in Atlanta. Their traffic is barely a blip beside the leading news outlets on the Web.
According to Media Metrix, top news sites ZDNet and MSNBC reached 10.8 percent and 7.9 percent, respectively, of the total Web audience during the month of October, while NewsLinx got a mere .2 percent and NewsHub didn't even register in the audience measurement firm's monthly sampling of online surfers.
Still, if such sites had been a secret, they were exposed in November when Alan Meckler, founder of Westport, Conn.-based Mecklermedia acquired NewsLinx, the pioneer among headline agglomerators. He quickly gave this business an added vote of confidence by selling off his company's conference division--which includes the massive Internet World conferences--to concentrate on his network of Web sites, Internet.com, now a portal to NewsLinx.
Staying on as managing editor of NewsLinx is founder Rich Ord, who began in April 1996 to target Internet professionals by aggregating headlines of interest to them. "There was some debate whether linking to stories on other sites was proper," he recalls. Linking has never been disputed by online publishers, with several a month actually calling to be included on the site.
As independents until recently, NewsLinx and NewsHub dared to do what conglomerate-owned sites seldom do: send visitors to the Web sites of others. In turn, they've cultivated an extremely savvy audience. At NewsLinx, one in six visitors is a Webmaster, half are in the desirable 30-50 year-old age demographic, and according to Ord, "We're read in all the major Internet firms."
Ord says the attractive audience helped make NewsLinx profitable within six months; its banner and button ads are soldout through the end of the year. Online and e-mail headline sponsors have included Intel, Hewlett-Packard and WebTrends.
The key to NewsLinx's usefulness is a science-fiction-style partnership of automatons and humans. Headlines are drawn from sources as disparate as ABC News and New Zealand's Infotech, Agence France Presse and the New York Post by autonomous software agents also known as bots. When the bots bring in headlines, Lexington, Ky.-based human editors go over them, rewriting some, discarding most because of duplication or because they aren't of interest to Net pros, ending up with about 100 headlines a day reported within minutes of their posting. "We get a lot of people in the media, as well as Web professionals coming to us because we are selective, because we don't waste their time," says Ord.
If my own experience is any guide, high-tech journalists everywhere are being totally re-oriented by the availability of NewsLinx and NewsHub. Where not long ago the InfoWorlds and Upsides and other technology trade journals would pile up and dominate my recycling bundles, lately I've been letting my subscriptions lapse. Logging in a few times day to www.newslinx.com and www.newshub.com/tech/bytime.html helps one cover the overgrown online news turf.
The results can be surprising, often turning up stories, in addition to those on the tech beat, not reported in any major newspaper or trade publications. For instance, did you know that files on the CIA's Web site recently exonerated the former San Jose Mercury News reporter who was sacked for his investigative series implicating the CIA-backed contras in the introduction of crack cocaine to West Coast minority communities?
At NewsHub, there are separate pages for many categories, ranging from financial to health to entertainment headlines, but technical news is the site's biggest draw, admits Tom McDonald, president and chief executive officer of VPOP Technologies, NewsHub's parent company. NewsHub was launched a few months after NewsLinx, when McDonald asked his brother, chief technology officer and programmer for the firm, to find some way to cut his Web surfing time. "He wrote a program to grab headlines from high-tech and financial sources I went to everyday and report them in one place," McDonald says. Starting with 15 sources, NewsHub has grown to some 220 sources reported every 15 minutes.
The service has expanded from McDonald's personal automated news service, to an offering to the customers of the Internet service provider he and his brother have been operating, to a well-respected Web site drawing 30,000 page views a day. As the first 100 percent bot-driven headline aggregator, it typically runs more different publications' takes on a story than NewsLinx--offering a greater range of coverage (with some inevitable overlap).
NewsHub's business model is also different, relying on a mix of revenue streams, with half from licensing of its special-interest headline feeds and half from advertising, including such recent clients as Intel and Microsoft. Ad sales are handled by San Francisco-based Flycast, allowing NewsHub to maintain a lean operation in Redondo Beach, Calif.
In the wake of Meckler's NewsLinx acquisition, McDonald hints at some competitive moves from NewsHub. "I would want to develop some industry-specific headline feeds," he muses. "Given the quality of the audience, major advertisers would find it very attractive to be sponsors."
Already more customizable than its rival, NewsHub is expected to offer extensive personal filtering options. "NewsHub is the place to launch other news product--it's just a question of programming," he explains.
What NewsLinx and NewsHub do would have been impossible before the Net and the Web. Imagine trying to gather the same headlines via teletype or telephone and trying to publish them in a timely fashion. Nor are they examples of that much-hyped but ultimately unworkable idea: "push technology." Instead of a pre-selected range of stories sent out on the Net, these services allow viewers to choose their own topics of interest from among many, often leading to serendipitous discoveries.
As two of the most novel, engaging, and ever-surprising Web sites there are, both venues are an increasingly difficult secret to keep.