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Freshman publishing experiment offers made-to-order newspapers

Imagine turning on a computer, punching in a few commands, and accessing a newspaper filled with articles on the topics you're most interested in-say the space shuttle, MIT people in the news, and regional stories from the state where Grandma lives. How about an advice column that you can submit questions to with answers appearing in the next day's issue?

Come explore the Freshman Fishwrap, an experimental news service developed and run by MIT students and colleagues that uses reader profiles to personalize the news in these ways and more.

Available to all members of the MIT community at Athena workstations, Fishwrap is not only a novel way to access the news-"first and foremost, it's a new and exciting experiment," write the 11 members of the "Fishwrap Crew" in a project description. (For information on registering for an Athena account, which is free, call x3-1325 or .)

The Fishwrap Crew is using the paper-sponsored by the Media Lab's News in the Future research consortium-to explore the feasibility and effectiveness of a personalized newspaper. "If people are more likely to read a newspaper that is personalized, and a means to offset the cost of personalization is available, the future of the print media may be in personalization," the Fishwrap Crew explains.

Since it went on line last October, Fishwrap has grown from an interactive guide for IAP activities to a full-fledged electronic newspaper. There are other electronic news services at other universities, but none offer as much traditional news as Fishwrap.

"We receive more than 4,000 stories a day from the Associated Press, Knight-Ridder and Reuters wire services," said Pascal R. Chesnais, a research specialist at the Media Lab and advisor for the project. "And we're the only publication in the country to receive all of the Associated Press-stories from both its regional and national wires, sometimes with accompanying photos."

Fishwrap also includes a variety of special features like the Boston Globe's weekly Calendar, comics (a new addition), and advertisements (only two so far). In addition, an advice column called "Dean's Corner" allows students to ask questions about almost anything. Answers are prepared by deans in the Undergraduate Academic Affairs Office (confidential replies can be requested), and if the UAA staff can't answer a question they send it to someone who can. One recent query concerned snow removal on campus walks; the answer was supplied by Victoria V. Sirianni, director of Physical Plant.


To generate a personalized paper, users must first provide Fishwrap with information including hometown (city, state and country) and special interests. They can then refine the database each time they access Fishwrap.

Once a personal paper is produced users navigate through it with a mouse. Click on titles of sections (for example "Hometown News") to access a list of headlines; click on a headline and the story comes on screen complete with photograph (when available). You can print out individual stories, but a more exciting alternative is in the works: eventually Fishwrap "should be able to lay out a complete newspaper for you to print and take on the run," Mr. Chesnais said.

Slowly but surely, Fishwrap's popularity is growing. Since last October, 650 people have used the service, and 300 in January alone. About 200 people have accessed the service multiple times (some people read Fishwrap every day at the same hour).

But the service is not yet perfect. For example, it takes from one to five minutes to generate a paper on-screen, and there is no "clock face" to indicate that the program is actually underway (a particular frustration for this writer). Further, typing in the information necessary to personalize the paper can be tricky (a "user interface" problem).

Sometimes, too, photos don't match up with the right stories. Mr. Chesnais recalls one AP story in January about Nancy Kerrigan's first practice after her assault. "The caption for the photo said something like `Nancy Kerrigan leaves the ice rink with her lunch,' but the photo showed a farm woman with a live calf slung over her back."

The Fishwrap crew is currently working to solve these and other problems. Explained Mr. Chesnais, "During the fall and IAP we concentrated on providing new services. This semester we will be doing the fine tuning." In addition, Mr. Chesnais is currently organizing focus groups of Fishwrap users to get their feedback on the service and determine its impact.


Fishwrap can be lots of fun, but first and foremost it is a research tool. "Fishwrap is useful to us because it is a very good base from which we can build experiments that require many users to produce meaningful results," said Brad J. Bartley, a sophomore in electrical engineering and computer science. (Because Fishwrap is an experiment that involves human subjects, each phase of the project is reviewed by the MIT Committee on the Use of Humans as Experimental Subjects.)

One set of experiments, for example, will explore how advertising can fit into a personal newspaper. Ideas to this end include personalized coupons (such as a record-store coupon for a dollar off a CD by the user's favorite artist) and two-way communication between the advertiser and customer (perhaps an advertisement with an e-mail address for questions about merchandise availability).


The idea for Fishwrap originated in a freshman seminar called Newspapers of the Future. Led by Mr. Chesnais and Walter Bender, a principal research scientist at the Media Lab, the seminar explores research issues related to its title. "In the fall 1992 seminar we asked the freshmen to design a paper [of the future]," Mr. Chesnais said. "We didn't tell them what's impossible, or what the state of our software is-we just asked them what they would like to see in such a paper."

Their proposal: a personalized paper geared to incoming freshmen that would include news from home, maps of Cambridge and Boston, daily schedules of pertinent MIT events, and more. That idea grew into the Freshman Fishwrap, so named for its original target group and for a once-common secondary use of newspapers.

As the project began to form, it attracted the interest of several newspeople, starting with Frank Hawkins, vice president of Knight-Ridder, Inc. Mr. Hawkins gave a lecture for the seminar and wound up supplying the project with the Knight-Ridder wire service, which features stories from its papers including the San Jose Mercury News and the Chicago Tribune. "But he didn't stop there," Mr. Chesnais said. "He also convinced Wick Temple, vice president of the AP, that Fishwrap was such a clever idea that AP should really participate in it too."

From there, the Fishwrap group added news from the Reuters wire service, and asked Boston Globe Vice President John Driscoll if he would contribute the Globe's weekly Calendar. "We really needed local coverage of events going on around Boston," Mr. Chesnais said.


In addition to Mr. Chesnais and Mr. Bartley, the Fishwrap crew consists of Adam B. Cotner, a sophomore in mathematics and computer science; Jonathan A. Sheena and Douglas B. Koen, both seniors in electrical engineering and computer science; James S. Deverell, a sophomore in EECS; Brian P. Shea, a junior in EECS; Randall T. Whitman, a senior in mathematics and computer science; Mark P. Hurst, MIT '93; Klee Dienes, a graduate student at the Media Lab; Matthew K. Gray, a junior in physics, and Trip DuBard (no MIT affiliation). Of the eight freshmen in the original "Fishwrap" freshman seminar, three are still involved (Bartley, Cotner and Deverell).

Knight-Ridder Inc. and The Boston Globe are members of the Media Lab's News in the Future research consortium. The AP and Reuters are providing their services gratis; the AP recently agreed to extend its services for Fishwrap through this summer.

Members of the MIT community can access the Freshman Fishwrap from Athena stations by typing: add fishwrap; fishwrap&. Questions? Contact Fishwrap at .

A version of this article appeared in the March 9, 1994 issue of MIT Tech Talk (Volume 38, Number 25).

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