• NewsAlligator

last modified May 5, 2017 by strypey

Proposal by Strypey

Using a GNU Social server as part of the back-end of a news filtering website. Alligator is a pun on "aggregator", and creates some fun logo possibilities.

A GNU Social server is usually used to set up sites like Quitter, nodes in a federated status update network, where users can create and 'follow' feeds of non-editable posts by one user (eg strypey@quitter.se). But what if each feed was instead a news category, like 'politics', 'entertainment', or 'sport'? Or perhaps more specific categories like 'tech politics', 'music', 'software', or 'ice hockey'? Or perhaps geographical categories like 'NZ', 'US', or 'China'. Or descriptive categories like 'news', 'editorial', or 'humour'.

What if the server was run by a group of editors who could trawl through a database of news and comment sites and add links to any of the feeds as appropriate, on the basis of a pre-agreed and publicly-posted editorial guidelines? What if people could 'follow' news categories that interest them using their own GNU Social compatible account, or search news headlines by category on a user-friendly website?

For this concept to work, there are three technical stages that need to be addressed:

  • Sourcing: most news sites and blogs have RSS/ Atom/ Pubsubhubbub feeds that allow headlines and links to be aggregated by a feed reader or syndicated on another website. Sites which the editors consider to be reasonably consistent sources of good articles could be added to a syndication engine (a shared feed reader on the server), creating a set of newswires. An automated filter could be used to remove duplicates, or at least flag them, so the editors can link to the original publisher rather than a syndicated version.
  • Sorting: an account could be created on a GNU Social server instance for each category the editors want the site to provide news for. All accounts could be posted to by anyone with editor permissions on the server. Editors could regularly trawl through the newswires for items that pass the editorial guidelines, and add headlines and links to items as posts to the relevant feed(s). For maximum usefulness, this would be a daily task. Ideally, a diverse group of editors would do it fulltime. Hashtags could be used to group articles on the same topic, so that a reader could see a range of angles on one story from a variety of sources.
  • Showing: a standard GNU Social front-end might be ok for running an alpha site to test the concept, and this could allow people to 'follow' news categories using a GNU Social compatible account (maybe even their Twitter account using the bridge that allows me to syndicate my Quitter posts onto my Twitter account?). But for the concept to really work readers would need to be able to browse the database of headlines using a mobile-friendly HTML5 website.

This idea for this project came out of the fact that I often feel like I need a portal that gives me a broad overview of what's new online - particularly news and analysis that's relevant to Aotearoa where I live - without having to remember and check a plethora of different sites. In the days before the web, newspapers used to perform this role, along with radio and television news. Indeed, all the major news media organisations now have websites, but unfortunately, wading through these coporate-owned cesspits of sad, celebrity clickbait, hoping to find the occasional article of real substance, makes me yearn even more for a portal that filters them for me usefully.

One of the biggest issues with the news websites that serve Aotearoa is this lack of filtering. I might want news about kiwi music acts or films, but I want to be able to find them under subcategories of an 'entertainment' category, not blended in with politics news, sports news, war news, and so on. Browsing the front page of the website of the NZ Herald, one of this country's largest newspapers, gives me a dog's breakfast of crime news, local news, more crime, sport news, US celebrity "news", political news (which is also tech news), more crime, a politics column etc. The site does have a set of categories tabs along the top of the page, and a search bar, but these still don't allow any clear separation between news *about* Aotearoa and its people, international news *affecting* to Aotearoa and its people, and fluff pieces that are not important to anybody, although some people might find them entertaining. The pages are so visually busy its still hard to focus on finding exactly the kind of articles I'm looking for.

"Sponsored content" (ie advertising) is almost indistinguishable from the journalistic content. Herald-generated content is almost indistinguishable from syndicated content. The plethora of tracking software infecting the page makes my skin crawl. The NZ Herald site uses EffectiveMeasure, Cedexis, Chartbeat, Lotame (CwdCntrl), IMRWorldwide, NewRelic and ScoreCard Research (identified using the NoScript browser add-on). So many reasons that current news websites are just not up to the job of making news easily searchable. If only there was some kind of portal on the web, or GNU Social users I could 'follow' and trust to only post certain types of news...

The IndyWatch news portal is a demonstration of what the web front-end of News Alligator could be like. It's the closest thing I've seen so far to what's envisioned.