A new kind of news

Feb 7, 2001 at 12:00 am


Throw away your magazines and newsprint. There’s a new editor in town, and they’re asking, “What’s your preference — paper or plastic?”

That’s right. The folks at Plastic (plastic.com) are betting on the latter. This experimental Web-only news publication is just a month old, but the site has already attracted readers from across the Net with its uniquely collaborative approach to reporting.

“Plastic is a new model for news,” announces Plastic’s home page. Brought to you by the same folks behind such superb Web-only publications as Feed (feedmag.com) and the hilarious suck.com, Plastic is a true new media experiment.

No stories actually originate from the site. Billed as a “live collaboration between the Web’s smartest readers and the Web’s smartest editors,” Plastic invites users to suggest their favorite stories from around the Net. Plastic’s editors review the suggestions, and post links to the juiciest ones.

Plastic isn’t exactly revolutionary. The site is merely refining an approach that geek news daily Slashdot (slashdot.org) pioneered years ago. But does that really matter?

On the Web, it’s execution that counts … and Plastic’s implementation is killer. First of all, the site’s list of editors reads like a who’s who of Internet journalism: Writers for Wired News (wired.com), nerve.com and even last year’s industry darling, Inside (inside.com), are all represented here.

Plus, readers can post responses to any story. Discussion threads often stretch to dozens of in-depth replies. But the most clever part of Plastic is the way it encourages such passionate reader involvement.

Only registered users can suggest stories, so readers are motivated to sign up and create a distinct online persona. When a reader’s story suggestion is published online, the reader is given credit (“suggested by sockpuppet,” for example).

Even better, Plastic keeps careful track of who suggests the most stories. Like a cerebral version of sports statistics, it’s great fun to see which readers are most involved or have contributed the most interesting tidbits.

And best of all, particularly loyal readers eventually earn a limited “editor” status, empowering them to rate other reader responses on a truly useful scale that ranges from “Informative” to “Overrated.”

While not every reader gets to rate content, Plastic ingeniously allows anyone to use these ratings as filters. Don’t want to read the crap? Filter out anything the über-readers have rated as “Bullshit.”

Plastic enters the Web news wars at a particularly precarious time in the Net’s ongoing development. Content is still king, but it’s also expensive. Even perennial content favorite salon.com may be in danger of some serious downsizing due to cash flow problems (industry watchdog downside.com recently placed the daily news site on its deathwatch list).

Meanwhile, Microsoft’s slate.com — the other big Web-only daily — still survives, if only as a pricey, less-than-profitable showpiece for Bill Gates & Co. In today’s leaner, meaner Web news environment (read: not as well-funded), Plastic is clearly keeping an eye on the bottom line. Truth is, it’s cheaper to let the readers do most of the work. But is that such a bad thing?

The promise of interactive journalism has always been to give readers a bigger voice. Plastic goes a long way toward accomplishing that goal, finally graduating the lowly reader from spectator to participant.

But the big question remains: How does Plastic read? In my short experience with this site, I’d say it’s a terrific daily skim. It attracts a decidedly witty and intellectual crowd, and I often find morsels here that I simply wouldn’t have uncovered anywhere else (one nifty example: This is where I first learned that outgoing Clinton staffers were caught prying the “W” keys from White House PCs).

Plastic has already earned a permanent bookmark in my browser, and I come back every day just to see what’s being discussed. Best of all, Plastic feels like a preview of journalism’s future. On the Web, the distinction between writers and readers is starting to blur. And I hear a collective “hallelujah” sound from readers everywhere.


Speaking of great White House minutiae … Plastic also tipped me off to the Monica Lewinsky font, available for free from linesandsplines.com’s typography Web log.

“I don’t know why you’d want it,” notes Webmaster Andy Crewdson about the font, “But here it is.”

Perhaps it’s passé to even mention this in the new Bush era, but something about Dubya makes me long for some Clinton-style intrigue. Perfect for dashing out a memo to your favorite valentine, the Lewinsky font was created by carefully scanning individual letters from Monica’s love notes to Bill.

But will it work for you on February 14? It might, according to www.writeanalysis.com, a site devoted to the study of graphology (otherwise known as handwriting analysis). There you’ll find an in-depth look at Monica’s Clinton-era scrawl. According to the experts, Monica’s “strong analytical ability and exploratory mind are behind great ‘moving and shaking’ in her environment.”

To think what we would have missed if she had chosen to type.

Adam Druckman writes about technology and the Internet for the MT. E-mail [email protected]