Tag Archives: Baghdad

News: Demise by Increment?

Is the problem with journalism that it always focuses on the increment?

Was reading Jeff Jarvis’ piece on the revolutionary impact of the iPhone — not, I hasten to add, about the iPhone as an item (the fetishism surrounding it may mark a lowpoint in our materialistic age) but about the citizen journalism coverage of the absurd lines forming outside shops by those eager to be an early buyer (yes, this, too, may mark a low-point in our cravenly submissive consumer culture, but let’s not go there. At least for now.)

No, Jarvis was more interested in this real-time coverage and what it represents. He rightly suggests this is real-time coverage on a par with the Virginia shootings — something that Duncan Riley, who writes good stuff at the usually puffy or snarky TechCrunch, has already called eventstreaming.

Jarvis is right: the subject matter aside (Virginia Tech shootings vs absurd consumer lines outside stores that don’t sell out) this is a good dry run for something more serious. But it’s Jarvis’ other point (if you’ve read this far, sorry for the wiggly lines getting here) that caught my attention: the tendency of media to pick holes in the potential of this:

Problems? Of course, there are. I never sit in a meeting with journalists without hearing them obsess about all the things that could go wrong; that is, sadly and inevitably, their starting point in any discussion about new opportunities. I blew my gasket Friday when I sat with a bunch of TV people doing just that.

Very true. Journalists do this all the time. That’s because we’re trained to. Not a bad thing, actually, being able to spot problems. But it has a downside. And quite a big one. It’s this:

Journalists are taught to identify “news”. In some situations, it’s obvious: A bomb goes off in Baghdad; two guys drive a flaming SUV into Glasgow Airport; Apple launches a cute phone. All news, and no one would disagree.

But it’s the rest of the stuff that gets problematic. Most journalists don’t have these kinds of stories to work with so they’re forced to look for them, and that mostly involves prying apart things, people, organizations, situations, points of view and seeing some incremental change or difference that merits a news story, such as U.S. family terrorized by possible phone hoax (Cellphones Terror Weapon Horror!)

So Wikipedia, for example, gets coverage not for the millions of great articles in there and the millions of people who go to it first for information, but the few articles that are wrong, badly written, libelous, mischievous or biased. That, for a journalist, is the news story. (Wikipedia Unreliable Shock!)

Some companies and PR folk know this tendency and exploit it: Several security companies base their business model on the idea that there are enough journalists out there to write scare stories about mobile phone viruses for an industry to emerge (I wrote what I thought was a piece somewhat mocking this scaremongery only to get another company in the same business email me thanking me for my article and suggesting that I write about their product, which rests on all the same scaremongery that I was trying to pooh-pooh.)

I am not saying journalists only write negative stories and not positive ones. I’m saying that we journalists tend to focus on kinks in the same picture, magnify them and then call it news. This is nothing new, but we should be smart enough to realize that if it’s not just us journalists making the news anymore, we have to be ready to accept the notion of “news” is changing.

Just as we can see lots of things going wrong with citizen journalism, and fixate on those to the exclusion of the bigger picture, we may well be missing the bigger picture that technology is giving us.

News: Baghdad Blogger…. The Book

 Salam Pax, the Baghdad Blogger, is bringing out a book.
From the blurb: “Not a supporter of Saddam, Salam Pax recorded in his online journal the anticipation, resentment, amusement, and sheer terror he felt as he witnessed the demise of a long dictatorship and the chaos that followed its destruction. In doing so, the pseudonymous 29-year-old Iraqi engineer educated in Austria has become the voice of an Internet generation. This book collects the remarkably well-written entries of this Internet antihero who has come to be known as the “Baghdad Blogger.”

Column: No More Information Overload

Loose Wire — No More Information Overload
 
 Now, the news you choose to read can be delivered in a friendly format that won’t clog your inbox
By Jeremy Wagstaff
 
from the 3 July 2003 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

This is not another column about spam, but that’s where I have to start. Spam, or junk e-mail is, we’re all agreed, the bane of our lives. But what if the problem is not so much spam, as e-mail itself?

Look at it like this: E-mail is our default window on the Internet. It’s where pretty much everything ends up. I have received more than 1,000 e-mails in the past week. The vast bulk of that is automated — newsletters, newsgroup messages, despatches from databases, press releases and whatnot. The rest is personal e-mail [a pathetically small amount, I admit], readers’ mail [which I love, keep sending it] and junk. While it makes some sense to have all this stuff in one place, it’s hard to find what I need, and it makes my inbox a honey pot for spammers. And when I go on holiday, it all piles up. Now, what if all that automated stuff was somewhere else, delivered through a different mechanism you could tweak, search through easily, and which wasn’t laced with spam? Your inbox would just be what is e-mail, from your boss or Auntie Lola.

Enter the RSS feed. RSS stands for Really Simple Syndication, Rich Site Summary or variations of the two, depending on who you talk to. It’s a format that allows folk to feed globs of information — updates to a Web site, an on-line journal [a Weblog, or blog], news — to others. These feeds appear in programs called news readers, which look a bit like e-mail programs.

This also makes sense for those folk who may not subscribe to e-mail alerts, but who regularly visit any number of Web sites for news, weather, movies, village jamborees, books, garden furniture, or whatever. Instead of having to trawl through those Web sites each morning, or each week, or whenever you remember, you can add their RSS feeds to your list and monitor them all from one place.

RSS feeds aren’t just another way to deliver traditional information. RSS feeds have become popular in part because of blogs — on-line journals, usually run by an individual chronicling their experiences, thoughts and journeys around the Web. While many blogs are more like personal diaries, others are written by people who know what they’re talking about, and have become a credible source of information and opinion for industry insiders. Many of these bloggers now offer updates of their Web sites via RSS feed. “There’s an awful lot being created by individuals who are key figures in their markets,” says Bill Kearney, who runs a Web site, www.syndic8.com, that lists more than 20,000 such newsfeeds.

Blogs and RSS have, despite their unwieldy names, helped to level a playing field between traditional news suppliers — news agencies, newspapers, news Web sites like CNN — and those in or monitoring a particular industry. Some call it “nanomedia”: An often-cited example is New York’s Gawker (www.gawker.com) which collects gossip and news from the Big Apple, many times scooping the local dailies. Indeed, blogs themselves came of age this year, first during the Iraq War when a young Iraqi translator calling himself Salam Pax ran a massively popular blog (dearraed.blogspot.com) from Baghdad, offering a compelling perspective on the conflict. Later The New York Times felt the growing power of blogs when the plagiarism crisis prompted by reporter Jayson Blair was fuelled by blogs and other Internet sites, all in real time.

We don’t want to go too far. There’s a lot of dross in blogs, and therefore a lot of dross in RSS feeds. And while the software has improved in recent months — check out news readers such as Newzcrawler (www.newzcrawler.com) or Feedreader (www.feedreader.com) — it still feels slightly experimental. But as the format matures, I think our once-bright hopes for the Internet as a democratic, intelligent medium might be realized.

Part of it means throwing away what we traditionally think of as “news.” Corporations are beginning to sense that blogs make an excellent in-house forum for employees. Small companies have found that running a blog for their customers — say a real-estate agent sharing news and opinions about the neighbourhood property market — pays better than any newspaper ad. Individuals — consultants, columnists, one-man bands — have, through well-designed, well-maintained blogs, built a critical mass of readers, some of whom become paying customers or subscribers. Teachers are finding RSS feeds useful for channelling subject matter to classrooms and sharing material with other teachers.

Is there money in it? One Canadian company, Serence (www.serence.com), targets its form of RSS feed, called Klips, to companies automating specific tasks — monitoring competitors, prospects or industry news, accessing critical internal data. There is, of course, a danger that what ailed earlier formats ends up ailing RSS feeds: This month, one company started carrying ads in an RSS feed, with mixed results. In the end, I think, some of this data will be good enough to pay for, some will be supported by ads, and some will continue to be done out of love.

RSS’s strengths are simplicity and versatility: It can be added on to other programs — the browser, Outlook, or be delivered to your hand-phone, hand-held device, or even as audio on your MP3 player. It’s a lot more powerful than e-mail, and — we hope — will be guaranteed spam-free. Hurrah.