Breaking News Services Gain Subscriptions

By: Anick Jesdanun, AP Internet Writer

(AP) My cell phone went off as I was walking to work. Ominously displayed on the phone’s tiny screen: “Plane crash in New York City borough of Queens.”

People around me were calmly going about their day, probably unaware of the disaster.

I’m one who constantly needs to know what’s going on. So a few weeks ago I signed up for various alert services that send you e-mail, instant messages, or other notices when news breaks.

Apparently I wasn’t alone. CNN says subscriptions to its breaking news service have grown almost eightfold since Sept. 11, while usage of MSNBC alerts doubled. Other sites reported smaller increases.

Several e-mails on the crash of American Airlines Flight 587 were already waiting in my inbox when I arrived in the office on Monday, and I got updates all day. That evening while watching television, my phone alerted me to the Taliban abandoning Kabul, the Afghan capital.

The services vary in reliability and usefulness, and have their share of annoyances. But overall, they’re a good way to follow big news as it occurs without traditional broadcast media.

I subscribed to breaking news alerts via e-mail from Yahoo!, CNN, MSNBC, ABC, The Washington Post, and The New York Times.

For this test, I signed up multiple times, using as many as four different e-mail accounts for each to factor out glitches on my end. Surprisingly, I don’t always get the same alerts on each account, suggesting delivery problems along the way.

Particularly with Yahoo!, the exact same message sometimes arrives an hour or more apart on different accounts — so much for being up-to-the-minute. Yahoo! says it is fixing glitches.

With the exception of a few major developments, like the Queens plane crash, each service has its own concept of “breaking news.”

Until Monday’s plane crash, the bulk of the alerts I received related to terrorism or the economy. The exception was at Yahoo!, where more than a third involved something else: the Concorde, Supreme Court rulings, baseball, O.J. Simpson, tensions in Ireland, among other topics.

I later learned from Yahoo! that its alerts are largely based on news alerts sent by The Associated Press to news media. Even so, I caught items I had missed when I wasn’t at work.

Yahoo! had the most alerts — as many as six a day since mid-October. By contrast, The New York Times sent none between Oct. 13 and Monday, reserving its alerts for the most urgent of the top stories. Other sites sent at least one or two each week.

With the exception of The Washington Post, the alerts offer links to the news sites’ home pages only. Editors say the alert often goes out before the story gets written and posted, so no direct link is possible.

The services are free and relatively easy to set up, though finding them on Web pages can be difficult. All but MSNBC require registration and ask for such information as ZIP code, age range, or income range. CNN and ABC also want your full name, though you can leave it blank at CNN.

When signing up for breaking news, you can also subscribe to e-mail newsletters containing top stories or items on specific topics. Some also let you personalize by stock symbols or keywords.

At Yahoo!, alerts are also available via instant messenger, though it doesn’t always work properly.

MSNBC and ABC also offer alerts through special software. ABC’s tool shrank the available space for Web pages. MSNBC’s was less intrusive, but the flashing red dot signaling breaking news was sometimes difficult to notice on my cluttered screen.

None work with Macintosh computers.

My advice: Use Yahoo! if you want lots of items, any of the others if you only want the top of the top stories.

Consider subscribing to two or three, as different news organizations will have different judgments on what’s important. And because of “junk mail” filters and misconfigurations at service providers, you may lose messages and miss developments relying on only one.

I also checked how well the services work on my cell phone, which accepts e-mail messages of about 100 characters.

I thought the service would be even more useful on the go, but reality fell short of expectations. Because of the character limit, some headlines were cut off mid-sentence. In one case, I never got past the ad.

And the alerts lost their novelty after my phone vibrated for the umpteenth time during dinner or a movie. I felt many could have waited until I got to a TV or the Net, so I considered dropping all of them.

But then came the alert for Monday’s plane crash, and I decided I’d actually keep a few.

News alert services:

Yahoo: http://news.yahoo.com. Click on “News Alerts” and then “Breaking News” on the upper right side.

CNN: http://www.cnn.com/EMAIL

MSNBC: http://newsalert.msnbc.com for software version; http://email.msnbc.com for e-mail version.

ABC News: http://abcnews.com. Click “News Alerts” for e-mail or “Downloads” for software on the left.

The Washington Post: http://www.washingtonpost.com. See “E-Mail Updates” on right side.

The New York Times: http://www.nytimes.com. Click “E-Mail Options” on left after registering.

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