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New Netscape.com focuses on news

Site will transform from a general purpose portal into a news site in which both readers and editors choose the content. Images: Netscape diggs into news

Netscape is expected to relaunch its Web site on Thursday, transforming from a general purpose portal into a news site in which both readers and editors choose the content.

In its latest incarnation, Netscape is a hybrid news site combining elements of social bookmarking, like Yahoo's Delicious, Digg and Slashdot, where users recommend and rank their top choices for news stories, and traditional news sites, where editors select their top picks.

Netscape.com beta Netscape also is borrowing from blogs by having paid editors--dubbed "anchors" in a nod to broadcast journalism--comment on stories. The site is even taking it a step further by having its editors fact check news stories and do some additional reporting to provide background or further context, said Jason Calacanis, who co-founded blog publisher Weblogs Inc., which AOL bought last year.

"This is a new type of journalism," Calacanis said in a recent interview with CNET News.com. "I think it's a risk-taking, bold step by AOL."

Calacanis knew he wanted to do a news site that featured reader participation, but said he got the idea to have some editorial oversight when he read complaints about lack of transparency at Digg. A reader suspected Digg editors of gaming the site by pushing stories up without merit, or allowing readers to. Digg denied the accusation.

"I had an 'aha' moment," Calacanis said. "I was watching the controversy about Digg and I thought I would just put an editor on top of it to check the facts."

It's a smart way to differentiate themselves from Yahoo News and Google News and the CNBCs and big portal sites.
--Bryan Keefer, assistant managing editor, CJR Daily

Readers will be able to track other reader activity, to see who submitted items and what they voted and commented on, he said.

Netscape is employing eight full-time anchors and 15 part-time specialists who will be giving "special treatments" to a couple of stories each day, he said.

For example, the anchor for the food and travel channel called a chef to get his response to a negative restaurant review. Another anchor called a New York Times columnist to ask about her motivation for writing a mean-spirited column about a celebrity.

"It will ruffle a few feathers" among journalists, Calacanis predicted.

Anchors will also appear on live video and have chats with readers about stories, he said. Users can also upload video.

"It's a smart way to differentiate themselves from Yahoo News and Google News and the CNBCs and big portal sites," said Bryan Keefer, assistant managing editor of CJR Daily of the Columbia Journalism Review. CJR Daily also has editors who scrutinize the media.

Before the relaunch, Netscape.com was a lackluster news repository, heavy with bullet points and headlines for items with titles like "Drunk Dictionary: Translate the Slurs" and "The Right Way to Touch Your Date."

The new Netscape features a group of main stories recommended by editors and a long list of reader picks listing the number of votes from readers, related images and links to comments, for 30 different topic channels. It also has profiles of anchors and frequent reader contributors, as well as lists of popular tags and channels.

Top anchor recommendations late Wednesday included an article from the BBC about poor working conditions in Chinese factories where Apple iPods are made, a story from TMZ.com about TV star Jenna Elfman getting mad at a man wearing a shirt mocking Scientology, and an item titled "Rumsfeld expells US media from Guantanamo" on Rawstory.com.

Since AOL acquired it in 1998, Netscape has undergone many facelifts. AOL turned the Netscape portal--dubbed NetCenter--into a hub for showcasing Web sites owned by AOL parent company Time Warner.

AOL tried different things with the Netscape brand and operations, including launching Netbusiness, a site aimed at small businesses, and later a Netbusiness online magazine. Netscape also launched an alliance with Sun Microsystems to merge Internet products and services under a brand called iPlanet and launched Netscape ISP, a discount Internet service.

AOL itself has been revamped numerous times following its merger with Time Warner in 2000, most recently last year with the launch of a new AOL.com.

Netscape helped make the Internet a household name with its Netscape Navigator browser software, launched in 1994. The company had a spectacular debut on the stock market in 1995, but it struggled to keep a dominant share of the browser market in the face of competition from Microsoft's Internet Explorer browser.

A 2003 settlement between Microsoft and AOL, under which AOL signed a seven-year contract to use Internet Explorer in its flagship service, further eroded the market share and profile of the Netscape browser.

Netscape needed to be "rejuvenated," said David Card, an analyst at JupiterResearch. But he wondered whether the strategy would appeal to Netscape's roughly 11 million monthly viewers who are more mainstream than hard-core news junkies.

"It's (becoming) a collection of news and information channels that tries to leverage the audience itself through commentary like a Slashdot, blog or message board, blended with a light dusting of editorial," Card said. "They're trying to make this into a media property that appeals to a mainstream audience. That's a mighty steep mountain."

Keefer of CJR Daily also expressed doubts as to whether Netscape readers would want deeper editorial content than mere aggregation.

"I don't know if the market for media criticism is totally saturated yet," Keefer said. "People are looking for that filter, not necessarily looking for something that expands on the news, but something that shrinks it and makes it shorter, like Google News."

Even Calacanis said he couldn't predict a surefire payoff.

"I would be lying if I told exactly what this meta-journalism means and where it is going," Calacanis said. "I just know it is necessary and interesting...How do we take the search for the truth to the next level? If you do both (reader and editor participation) you get the best result."

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