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First Impressions of Trove, WaPo’s News Aggregation Tool

Tuesday evening, Trove — a news aggregation tool out of WaPo Labs — opened for public beta. Trove pulls in news from more than 10,000 different sources to give readers a diverse tasting of news based on social connections and personal topics of interest.

Personalization at a new level

What I like about Trove is that it gives me a taste of everything, in a way I’ve never quite seen on the web. Sign-in is currently only available through Facebook Connect (other modes of login will be available later), which allows the web application to pull your likes and interests from Facebook to establish news channels.

Generally, I would get my news from the following places:

  1. Google Reader
  2. Twitter feed
  3. Facebook newsfeed
  4. Reddit
  5. A few favorite sites

Although Google Reader, Twitter and Facebook are all personalized, there are a few drawbacks to those services. Google Reader only shows me posts from certain sources to which I subscribe and posts my friends share. The sheer volume of Google Reader posts also starts to feel like a burden once your “unread count” hits that infamous 1,000+. Twitter and Facebook show you news from the brands you like/follow and the links being shared from people in your social circle. But, the problem with subscribing to brands is that they are filtering the content they share with you, meaning you’re only going to see news that is positively spun in their favor (read: PR).

Trove, on the other hand, has the best of all worlds (mostly). The channels are set by pulling in your likes and interests, but the news about those brands and themes isn’t coming from the brand itself, but multiple news outlets across the web.

For example, I “like” Cal Poly San Luis Obispo on Facebook, but the only news I get about my alma mater on Facebook comes from the PR feed put out by the university, the student newspaper that I also “like” and the local San Luis Obispo newspaper. But with Trove, I get the top news about Cal Poly San Luis Obispo from other news outlets too, without having to actively seek it out (like this OC Register article). In a way, it’s like a curated Google Alerts, without the annoying emails sent to you every day or the over-cluttered RSS subscription.

Editorial curation still at play

In addition to your personalized news, you still get the “editors’ picks” section that contains the must-read hard news stories. A few of today’s picks, for example, are: Libyan Rebels Reclaim Misurata City CenterSyrian Protests Turn Deadly, Dry Ice on Mars Suggests a Once-Wet Planet, and $4 A Gallon Gas Prices: Who’s to Blame?.

The team of editors choosing these stories is a credible group of four, including:

  • Greg Barber, who has worked at PBS’s NewsHour and The Washington Post
  • David Price, who has worked at iCurrent and Yahoo!
  • Hannah Rubenstein, fresh out of NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute
  • Emily K. Schwartz, who has worked at Politico and NPR

So in addition to the fun, personalized news — you still get a little of what’s important, regardless of whether it’s in your channels.

Mobile access

You can access Trove from the web, iPhone, Blackberry, Android and iPad. My personal device of choice is the iPhone4, where I’ve downloaded and installed the app. It’s basically the same thing as the website, but in a more easy-to-digest format for the small iPhone screen. You have a view for the editors’ picks, a view for your channels, access to your saved articles and a search option.

Articles, which are all from external news sources, open within the in-app browser, with options to share on Facebook, Twitter and email. You can also save articles to read later or bookmark them.

Although the app asks to use your location upon login, there’s no location-based news. I assume they’re asking about location solely for internal data purposes and market research, but it would be great to see a future version of the app that also pulls in location-based news to the mobile apps.

Low barrier to entry

When Vadim Lavrusik (who just finished his last day at Mashable and has now started as the journalist program manager at Facebook) initially blogged about the application, his concern was that it’s too similar to Google News:

Trove doesn’t quite fulfill the promise of its name: a newfound treasure. It’s far too similar to other aggregation news sites out there, most notably Google News. The utility of Trove isn’t different enough from other aggregators, aside from its user interface and the ability to easily filter content.

And although you could likely mimic the utility of Trove through a heavily-customized Google News interface, I’ve found that Trove is more appealing simply because it’s all automated. After logging in, most of your channels are already set based on your information from Facebook. Your landing page is already populated without you having to manually configure any settings or preferred search terms.

With Trove’s “channel finder” tool, the application is always helping you find new topics of interest. The user is equipped to start consuming from the get-go. Had I tried to set up 44 topics of interest through Google News, it would have taken a big chunk of time, and I would have had to figure out which topics I care about. Trove does it for you. It may be a sad truth about laziness, but the less work you have to do to start getting utility out of an app immediately, the better.

Design/UI

Trove is prettier to look at than Google News. As Scott Klein, editor of news applications at ProPublica, noted on Twitter:

Trying @Trove – More like a better iGoogle than a Pandora for News. Site looks great (yay typekit), algo not bad so far.

Klein’s right — in addition to elegant typography, the site has some great UI features, such as the “channel finder” which uses a quiz-like display to help you discover new channels. One of the most useful and simultaneously easy-to-use features of Trove is the “fine tuning” feature, which lets you select which terms to include and avoid for each channel.

The homepage design could be improved — it’s currently cluttered with lists of headlines in an unaligned grid, but it’s still easier on the eyes (in my opinion) than something as overwhelming as Google News. I’d like to see a design that goes beyond the standard list of headlines and sub-links beneath, maybe something closer to Newser or GOOD Magazine, stylistically.

The message-board-like comments section for each channel is a little confusing. So far, I’ve seen people wanting to talk about specific issues and topics (usually article-related), rather than about the channel topic as a whole. Consequently, they have to create a topic within the discussion forum about the specific article. I just don’t see Trove ever taking off as a place for conversation to happen because those topic-specific discussions are better maintained at the external sites from whence the articles came, or at a place like Facebook.

From a nit-picky designer standpoint, I do have a gripe about the color schemes: The logo is dark and bold (orange. gray and black), but the rest of the app is bright and happy with fun typography. It’s clear that two different designers created the application and the logo because they totally clash. (A surface-level complaint, of course, but still something they should look into fixing).

What’s missing

So far, I am a fan of Trove, but only time will tell whether I continue using it as a destination for news consumption. One thing that’s definitely missing is the social element that I get from Facebook, Twitter and Google Reader. Yes, Trove uses Facebook Connect, but there’s nowhere within the application to see what my personal social circle of friends and family are reading. Ideally, I would like to also have a view that shows me top news based on what my Facebook and/or Twitter friends are sharing. For example, if my mom shares an article that my best friend and my former college professor also shared, I’d want to see it listed as a top story somewhere. But perhaps we’ll see that feature somewhere on Facebook before we see it somewhere like Trove.

According to the welcome post from The Washington Post’s chairman and CEO Don Graham, Trove will continue adding new features throughout the year and start tinkering with advertising options.

To follow what’s going on with Trove, follow the editors’ blog on Tumblr.

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