Newswire Serendipity

Ever since news first hit the wires some 100 years ago, it really hasn't changed. Sure, we've come a ways from the days of paper delivered by carrier pigeons and delivery bikes, but not that far. A newswire is basically a big fat fire hose of text spewing into your office or dealing room. You either need to watch the water closely enough to discern individual droplets or hold up a pretty sturdy umbrella to avoid getting drenched. Financial markets professionals need to sit glued to their screens watching headlines scroll past as they enter arcane codes or symbols to access particular slices of the feed. That's OK if you know what you're interested in (say the latest news on Cisco's stock) but terrible for serendipity. With the traditional financial newswire, if you don't think to ask, you won't likely stumble across something uniquely useful unless you stare at all 50,000 stories passing by in a typical day.

However, some trading-floor systems and vendor-built terminals have given serendipity a shot. On Bloomberg or Reuters terminals, as well as on some aggregated systems, a financial professional can look at broad categories of news, say "Top Market News at 9:00 a.m." or "Asia Commodities Review." These news-roundup stories, which organize headlines from recently posted articles, suffice if you want to see what's happening in your specific field. But roundups don't quite cut it for true serendipity—the pleasure of finding a nugget that you can use but that you didn't think to ask for.

Because traders must rely on knowing news codes, they operate 99% of the time in search mode—only looking for the news they already know they need. Unlike the editorial function of a good newspaper, magazine, or Web site—which organize, filter, and prioritize—newswires just spit out content in reverse chronological order: The most recent news is on top of the screen and it scrolls down as the next item arrives.

I recently sat in a dealing room and watched a financial professional (who has thousands of dollars a month worth of the most sophisticated real-time content at his disposal) hit a free newspaper Web site. Why? Because in an instant he could see the world from an editor's perspective. He quickly scanned the headlines then flipped back to his high-end screens. Serendipity at work, to be sure, but it wasn't found in his highly priced screens, it was on the public Internet.

There's hope. I find it fascinating that Dow Jones recently launched Dow Jones NewsPlus, a free Web companion exclusively for Dow Jones News Service subscribers. Dow Jones NewsPlus displays the same content that financial professionals receive in newswire feeds, but organized by an editor with feature areas focused on top stories, columns, analysis, and industry topics. The marketing material says, "Now you can forget all those news codes you never learned." But I think the benefit is more fundamental than that: The financial professional is finally freed from the tyranny of staring at the damn screen all day waiting for a gem of a story to scroll by. Someone at Dow Jones cares about providing her with serendipity at work. Now she can sit back and let the editors help organize her life, just like mere mortals have been able to do with general news Web sites for years. Or as L. Gordon Crovitz, SVP of Dow Jones & Company and president of Electronic Publishing, told me, "With Dow Jones NewsPlus, you won't be afraid to go to lunch."

So will traders and other financial types use a companion Web site? Certainly the ones who already look at news Web sites will, because they've already built it into their routine. I'd imagine these people will flip from their high-end news, quotes, and charting systems for a peek at, dare I say it, Google News, then a quick perusal of Dow Jones NewsPlus and maybe a few other sites. In a minute, a financial pro could gain more actual knowledge than from an hour of staring at scrolling news.