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Freshman Fishwrap Adds International News, Features

By Eric Richard
Contributing Editor

As the Freshman Fishwrap project enters into its second phase, international news and features such as comics and advice columns will be added to the current selection of national, state, and local news.

The Freshman Fishwrap, an experimental news service offered by the Media Laboratory, is beginning its move towards personalizing the news to individual users. The project originated as a freshman seminar last year, according to co-adviser Pascal R. Chesnais SM '88.

The service currently selects articles from a pool of approximately 3,500 articles daily from The Associated Press and Knight-Ridder News Services. Currently, the "Hometown News" is personalized according to the user's city, state, and nation.

"The next major structural change is the addition of `special topics' that people can subscribe to," Chesnais said. "We hope that within the next week or so, users will be able to start creating their own sections." For example, users may subscribe to news from different regions or add their topics of interest.

The system will use knowledge representation tools that were developed from past experiments to sort articles by the user's interests.

However, Chesnais added that many of these plans are tentative, and some of the more ambitious projects may not be implemented until January.

"There is so much that we want to do," Chesnais said. "But what we are interested in right now is building up the infrastructure to provide the newspaper in January. If we do that job really, really well, we may have the ability to add new features then."

News feeds, features being added

Chesnais also expects to add news feeds from The Associated Press, the British news agency Reuters, and The Boston Globe within the next week. AP and Reuters will greatly expand international coverage, including news in foreign languages.

The Globe intends to "supplement the efforts of AP, Reuters, and Knight-Ridder by providing a listing of local activities," according to Jack Driscoll, editor of The Globe.

The system will provide users with all the club and restaurant listings, as well as some reviews, published in The Globe. However, Chesnais hopes that, in time, the system will be able to start picking up a pattern of what activities users enjoy and eventually "match musical tastes to what is going on around town," he said.

Photos, comics, advice possible

In addition to news stories, the Freshman Fishwrap is also working to include photographs from AP, comics, and advice columns -- all personalized.

"The current plan is that AP tells us which stories have [related] photos and we should be able to retrieve [them]," Chesnais said.

The photographs can also help in the experimental side of the project, according to Chesnais. "We can learn something about what photographs people view and don't view," he said.

In addition to their entertainment value, comic strips may also provide the same kind of feedback. "We want to try some new interfaces [for viewing comics on-line], and see how people react," Chesnais said. "What are the new degrees of freedom that [the reader would have]? Would it still be exciting, and would it still be funny?"

Mark P. Hurst '93, creator of the comic strip Firehose Tavern, is working to include comics in the paper. "Right now [Fishwrap] has a lot of news feed coming in, but there are no features," he said.

Hurst hopes that the first personalized Firehose Tavern will be available on-line by the end of the term. He suggested that cartoons of the future may be constructed on the fly to incorporate news from a user's personalized topics.

Hurst is also talking with Scott Adams, the creator of Dilbert, and the creator of Dr. Fun, a full-color comic from the University of Chicago, to try to expand the comics section.

Chesnais is also exploring the possibility of adding an advice column in the near future, adding that many users have requested this feature. Travis R. Merritt, associate dean for Undergraduate Academic Affairs, and his staff have volunteered to research questions and write answers, Chesnais said.

Students will be able to solicit and receive advice addressing their problems on an individual basis, according to Merritt. "An advice column has its place in any paper, but in an individualized paper, it's even more valuable."

Most of the advice provided will focus on academic issues, but other topics could also be addressed, Merritt said.

"We are still working on the exact format of it, though," Chesnais said. "We'd like students to be as honest and straightforward as possible [in their questions], so we need to look into ways of ensuring each user's anonymity."

"There are many [services to help students] throughout the Institute which students just don't know about," Chesnais said. "Hopefully this will make students more aware of the wealth of services here."

Long-term effects

While the personalized system currently has about 70 users, both Chesnais and Driscoll emphasize the long-term implications, both for students and the development of the news media.

"Students who really dive into the project will get short and long-term benefits," Driscoll said. "They'll get hometown news without going home. They'll be briefed on entertainment opportunities in the area during the month. And in the long term, they'll contribute to a very important piece of research with their feedback."

"The readers of Fishwrap are better equipped to make immediate use of this service" than the general public, Driscoll said. "The industry isn't up to it. And there aren't Athenas on every corner."

"Some of the things that people will be asked is: What do they want to read in the news? What do they think they ought to be able to read in the news? And what do they not want to read in their news?" Chesnais said. "Just that alone is a wealth of information for the news industry."

Students can access the Freshman Fishwrap from most Athena stations by typing: `add fishwrap; fishwrap &'. The system is not currently accessible from VAX stations.