Tag Archives: Britney Spears

The Future of News

This is the latest despatch from Loose Wire Service, a sister service to this blog that provides newspapers and other print publications with a weekly column by yours truly. Rates are reasonable: Email me if you’re interested.

Jeremy Wagstaff discusses how the Internet has redefined journalism and the emergence of “hyperlocal” news

The Jakarta Post
Sunday, September 30, 2007

By Jeremy Wagstaff

I was asked the other day to address a room full of media types about changes in consumer behavior; where, they wanted to know, are people looking for news in this new digital world?

It’s always a bad idea to get me to talk in public, especially on this subject, since I think it’s the wrong one. Or at least, the wrong way of looking at the subject. I gave them two reasons:

First, there are no consumers of news anymore. In fact, you’ve probably heard this said a lot, here and elsewhere that, in the era of MySpace, Wikipedia, OhmyNews and citizen journalism, everyone is a journalist, and therefore a producer, of news. No one is just a consumer.

Second, there is no news. Or at least there is no longer a traditional, established and establishment definition of what is news. Instead we have information. Some of it moving very fast, so it looks like news. But still information.

A commuter taking a photo of a policeman extracting bribes from drivers and then posting the picture on his blog? It’s not news, but it’s not just information either. It could be news to the policeman, and if he’s busted because of it could be good news to drivers in that town.

We journalists have been schooled in a kind of journalism that goes back to the days when a German called Paul Julius Reuter was delivering it by pigeon. His problem was a simple one: getting new information quickly from A to B. It could be stock prices; it could be the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

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That definition of news has remained with us until today.

A lot of the time it remains a good one. When terrorists hit, we’d rather know sooner than later. If stocks in our portfolio are losing their value in a crash, we’d prefer to get that information now.

When Buddhist monks hit the streets of towns in Myanmar we look to AFP, Reuters and AP to get the news out.

But the Internet has changed a lot of this. First off, everyone is connected. By connected I mean they can look up anything they like so long as they’re near an Internet-connected computer. Which for a lot of people now means a 3G phone.

Even if you don’t have one, the chances are you’ll be in spitting range of a computer that is connected to the Internet. Or you could get you information by SMS — from news sites, from colleagues, from family members. It’s not that we’re not far from a gadget. We’re not far from information.

This has a critical impact on the idea of news.

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Because we’re informed, news doesn’t hit us in the same way it used to when we didn’t.

True, if someone hits a tall building with an airliner, that’s news to all of us. The U.S. invades or leaves Iraq; that’s news.

But the rest of the time, news is a slippery beast that means different things to different people.

That’s because there’s another kind of news we’re all interested in. It’s hyperlocal news. It’s what is around us. In our neighborhood. Since moving house I’m much less interested in gubernatorial elections and much more in anything that anybody says about en bloc sales and house prices.

That is hyperlocal news, and it’s where most people spend their day. No nuclear weapons being fired? No terrorist attacks? No meltdown in the financial markets? OK, so tell me more about en bloc sales. Actually, this is just part of hyperlocal news.

If you’ve used Facebook, you’ll know there’s another kind of addictive local news: your friends’ status updates. A status update, for those of you who haven’t tried Facebook, is basically a short message that accompanies your profile indicating what you’re up to at that point.

I think of it a wire feed by real people. Of course it’s not news as we’d think of it, but news as in an answer to the questions “What’s up?” “What’s new?””What’s happening?” “What’s new with you?”

In that sense it’s news. I call it hyper-hyperlocal news. Even though those people are spread all over the world, they’re all part of my friends network, and that means for me they’re local.

So news isn’t always what we think of as news. News has always meant something slightly different to the nonmedia person; our obsession with prioritizing stories in a summary, the most important item first (How many dead? What color was their skin? Any Americans involved?) has been exposed as something only we tend to obsess over.

Don’t believe me? Look at the BBC website. While the editors were putting up stories about Musharraf, North Korea and Japan, the users were swapping stories about Britney Spears splitting with her manager, the dangers of spotty face, and the admittedly important news that the Sex Pistols might be getting back together.

Of course, I’m not saying journalists are from Mars and readers are from Venus. It just looks that way.

What we’re really seeing is that now that people have access to information, they are showing us what they’re interested in. Unsurprisingly, they’re interested in different stuff. What we call audience fragmentation — niche audiences for specialized interests — is actually what things have always been about.

If we’re a geek we go for our news to Slashdot. We want gossip? We go to Gawker. We want to change the world? We go to WorldChangingOnline.org The Internet makes the Long Tail of all those niche audiences and interests possible, and possibly profitable.

What we’re seeing with the Internet is not a revolution against the values of old media; a revolution against the notion that it’s only us who can dictate what is news.

What we’re seeing is that people get their news from whoever can help them answer the question they’re asking. We want the headlines, we go to CNN. But the rest of the time, “news” is for us just part of a much bigger search for information, to stay informed.

AsiaMedia :: Oh my! The future of news

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Bald-headed Britney and the Lost Art of Linking

I think we’ve missed a big trick with links. You know, those underlined words on a web page that take us somewhere else. They’ve been around a while now, so you’d think we’d have explored them a bit, built a little etiquette around them, what to do, what not to do when you link to something else. After all, by turning a word, an image or a button into a link you’re building a door into another world, sort of.

Links are great, it’s just we don’t know how to use them. When we come across a link like this, we’re automatically thrown into confusion: Where does the link go? Do we click on the link and stop reading what we’re reading? Do we not click on the link and keep reading and make a mental note to come back and click on the link later and yet never do? Do we click on the link and open it in a new window? A new tab? A new computer? And then what happens?

Sure, something similar happens in newspapers. You come to the end of the page, and there’s a link to what we professional journalists call The Jump. As in DRUGS, continued on page 4. CARS, continued on page 5. TEDIUM, continued on page 7. UK satirical magazine Private Eye realised these links’ comic possibilities by adding Continued on page 94 at the bottom of its sillier pieces until the term entered the lexicon itself. Wikipedia explains the phenomenon with its usual literalness (“No issue of Private Eye has ever run to anywhere near 94 pages.”)

But this doesn’t induce the same confusion as online. What are we supposed to do when confronted with a link that doesn’t explain where it’s going? When I insert a link under the words “Wikipedia explains” above, you don’t have to be a genius to figure out I’m linking to the Wikipedia entry on Private Eye. But most of the time that doesn’t happen. Most of the time we have no idea what words are linking to what. Don’t bother clicking on any of those links; I was just trying to make a point. Which is this: Words or phrases with links on that aren’t clear where they’re going would be like marking doors with obscure labels like ’open’ or ‘Ffortescue was here’ or ‘door’. (And don’t get me started on those links that look as if they’re going one place and actually go to another internal page, like the company links in this page at Webware.)

Which is why I like MTV’s website and their coverage of Britney Spears going Rehab AWOL again. OK, so the links don’t go outside the site but to other MTV stories, but I both admire the fact that MTV explains what they’re linking to in the link, and the, er, clarity it throws on Britney’s recent lifestyle deviation.

This time, her family and manager intervened, and announced yesterday that Spears had voluntarily entered rehab (see “Britney Spears Checks Into Rehab”).

Now that’s a link that explains itself. Actually it explains itself so well you don’t really have to click on it. Plus it really bolsters the bald (sorry) assertion that precedes it. You’ve got to hand it to MTV . No silly, teasing but vague headlines for them. These guys probably moonlight at Wikipedia.  Like this one:

After returning from her first trip to rehab, Spears made a shocking public appearance Friday night, debuting her newly shaved head at a tattoo shop in Sherman Oaks, California (see “Britney Spears Shaves Head, Gets Tattoo”).

or my personal favorite (The combination of story and the title of the link would not look out of place in Private Eye itself):

“She is obviously in a lot of pain and needs help immediately,” agreed Doreen Seal, the mother of Jason Alexander, a longtime family friend to whom Spears was briefly married (see “Britney On Her Marriage: Vegas Made Me Do It”).

Maybe it’s just Britney’s story naturally lends itself to links that make sense. But I would wager that it’s more MTV’s excellent linking that leaves us in no doubt of what we’re clicking on. I’m going to take a leaf out of their book and practice safe Link Labeling from now on (see “Loose Wire on Linking: Britney Made Me Do It”)

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Twittering in the Forest

I was a bit rude about Twitter in my last WSJ column (subscription only, I’m afraid), about the Web 2.0 satire Useless Account:

I can’t have an online conversation these days, for example, without someone telling me to use Twitter, a fabulously popular way to broadcast your current activity (and I mean current, as in “ear cleansing while waiting for YouTube to load”) to anyone interested, via your blog or cellphone. (Yes, I have signed up. No, I don’t use it much. Frankly, I don’t know what I’m doing most of the time, so the idea I’d actually be in a position to tell anyone else is unlikely. But how long will I hold out from using it? Probably not long.)

Of course, I’m probably on the wrong side of history here. Scoble et al love it. He has 469 followers (in case you have better things to do with your time, Twitter allows you to ‘follow’ other people’s twitterings, to basically see everything they write in their twitter account.

In fact, the ‘follower’ moniker is somewhat apt — Web 2.0 has become very religious, what with all these A list bloggers and product evangelists. People follow Scoble in the way they might have followed some mystic. (Of course I’m jealous! I’m not being followed by anyone except that mangy cat from the warung and some weird person who thinks I’m writing this blog for him.)

Anyway, Twitter probably tells us more than we’d like to know about this particular slice of Internet history. Robert says:

Anyway, I find I keep coming back to Twitter. It’s an interesting way to keep in touch with the lives of your friends, or followers, as it were.

It’s not as if this is not a bad idea. I’m into the idea of presence — being able to broadcast your availability so that those trying to reach you can fit their schedules into yours — and vice versa. Set your Skype note to “in a meeting and about to rush for a plane” and friends will know that you probably don’t want to yack on the phone about Britney Spears’ new hairdo. But Twitter probably takes this a bit too far — instead of it being a tool to fight distraction, as presence tools are — it becomes a tool of distraction, where one obsessively updates, and monitors others’ updates, to the exclusion of all else.

I prefer the assessment of Shawn Oster who suggests that in fact Twitter is about people feeling

they’re being heard. Everyone wants to feel unique and to feel like they matter, that they’re being noticed. Blogs are a great way to do that but now that there is more pressure to make your blog actually mean something instead of just an online diary people are looking for an easier way to still be digitally heard.

Probably truer than we’d like to admit. We’re firing these little messages out into space, and by building around us a network of friends and followers we’re feeling connected and noticed. Nothing wrong with that, but it’s a reflection of what constant communication is doing to us: we don’t feel ‘validated’ unless what we’re doing is somehow observed and noted by others. The old tree falling in the forest thing, I guess: If no one heard it fall, did it make a sound? If no one knew we went out for milk and newspapers, did we?

I’m off to buy milk and newspapers and will report as much to my 1.5 followers on Twitter.

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The Death of DRM, the Rise of Patrons

Forget being a big old mass music consumer. Become a Patron of the Arts.

The IHT’s Victoria Shannon chronicles the last few gasps of life in Digital Rights Management (DRM) for music, saying that “With the falloff in CD sales persisting and even digital revenue growth now faltering in the face of rampant music sharing by consumers, the major record labels appear to be closer than ever to releasing music on the Internet with no copying restrictions.” This has the inevitability of death about it (this morning I tried again to rip my DRM-crippled Coldplay CD of X&Y, unsuccessfully) which makes me wonder: What will follow?

Most thoughts seem to be on the free music, supported by advertising, and largely distributed as promotion for expensive live concerts:

Jacques Attali, the French economist … who forecast in his newest book that all recorded music would be free in the next several decades — consumers will instead pay for live performances, he predicted — said the business model of digital music should reflect the old radio model: free online music supported by advertising.

“A lot of people will still make money out of it,” he said during an interview at Midem.

I think this shows a lack of imagination and understanding of how music has fractured. My sense is that while Britney Spears will continue to exist in the Celebrity for Celebrity’s Sake World, music has already spread via MySpace etc into much smaller, more diverse niches. I’m not saying anything sparkingly new here, but given that most articles about the majors and DRM and online file sharing focus on the big numbers, I would have thought a much more interesting model to look at is that on places like eMusic, of which I’ve been a subscriber since 2002.

What happens for me is this: I find an artist I like by searching through what neighbors are selecting for me, like this balloon on my login page:

And then I’ll follow my nose until I find something I like. Or I’ll listen to Last.fm until I hear something I really like and then see if it’s up on eMusic. This is all pretty obvious, and I’m sure lots of people do this, and probably more, already. But what I think this leads to is a kind of artistic patronage where we consumers see it in our interests to support those musicians we love.

In my case, for example, if I really like the stuff of one artist I’ll try to contact them and tell them so: No one so far has refused to write back and hasn’t sounded appreciative to hear from a fan. Examples of this are Thom Brennan and Tim Story, whose music I find a suitable accompaniment to anything, from jogging to taking night bus rides to Chiangmai in the rain. I’m summoning up the courage to contact my long time hero, David Sylvian, who doesn’t have a direct email address.

Of course, nowadays one can view their MySpace page, or join an email newletter, and build links up there. But my point is this: My relationship with these musicians is much more along traditional lines of someone who will support their artistic output through financial support — buying their music in their hope that it will help them produce more.

Surely the Internet has taught us one very useful lesson in the past year: That it’s well-suited to help us find what we want, even if can’t define well what it is. First step was Google, which helped us find what we wanted if we knew some keywords about it. Next step: a less specific wander, a browse in the old sense, that helps us stumble upon that which we know we’ll want when we find it.

Is Google Making Journalists Sloppy?

Interesting piece from MediaBistro about how journalists use Google searches as a fast and loose way to prove a point.

The article doesn’t pull its punches. “What’s a simpler, or faster, way of quantifying a trend,” writes Lionel Beehner, “than typing a key word or phrase into Google? Type in almost any person, place, or thing, and Google will bounce back to you a neat numerical value that calculates that person, place, or thing’s importance to this world.” Beehner’s conclusion: “ Sad to say, plugging Google in a story has become almost a telltale sign of sloppy reporting, a hack’s version of a Rolodex.”

I’d certainly agree that in most of the examples cited, there could be a better way of gauging the popularity of something, whether it’s Britney Spears haters or building backyard ice rinks. Just to say a phrase or name is popular, widespread or a major trend because of the number of Google hits may not only be sloppy, but also faulty logic. But Google searches do have a value. You’ve just got to understand that what you’re searching is the Internet: a lop-sided, top-heavy, chaotic library of information gathered in the past 10 years or so.

When Beehner ridicules an LA Times journalist for describing a sports writer as ‘distinguished’ just because his name brings back 21,000 hits, I think he’s probably right. (Depending on whether the search results were throwing up his writings, discussion about his writings, complaints about his writings or references to his collections of Lego wine bottles, I would have used ‘prolific’, ‘oft-cited’, ‘eccentrically hobbied’ or whatever.) But when he has a go at another LAT journalist who uses Google to show there are “793 websites devoted to” Audrey Hepburn a decade after her death, I would raise an objection. Does ‘devoted to’ just mean references, as in movie listings (her career, after all, did span five decades) or are these fan sites? If the latter, I would say that’s a fair statistic.

Bottom line: Journalism has changed a lot with the Internet. The values underpinning it haven’t. Google is a great resource, and what it tells us, both in specifics (sites to go to) and in aggregate (results), is useful stuff. But next time you read a Google search as a piece of reporting to back up a statement, take a closer look.

Loose Wire: Don’t Bite the

Loose Wire: Don’t Bite the Hand That Pays

By Jeremy Wagstaff
from the 18 April 2002 edition of the Far Eastern Economic Review, (c) 2003, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.

I get hot under the collar over a lot of things, especially being forced to write this column in the sweltering tropical heat of Bali, when I could be in a cool, air-conditioned office cubicle. But one thing riles me in particular: the efforts of music, movie and software majors to restrict usage of their products because of pirating. How much sillier can things get?

It’s now possible to download whole movies off the Internet, milliseconds after they’re released (and often before). The movie industry is feeling the heat that software manufacturers have been feeling for years — the same heat that the music industry felt, too, during the brief reign of Napster’s file-sharing software.

In nearly all cases, the industry reaction has been to punish the very people it should be trying to win over: the paying customer. This is usually done by building in limitations on use of their product. In the case of DVD movies, the world is divided into zones — a DVD bought in one zone cannot (theoretically) be played in another.

Some music CDs now often have special keys or codes built in which prevent easy or exact duplication. Microsoft has been trying out ways of forcing people to register their software; if they don’t, they find the software stops working after a few weeks. All these efforts are misguided and alienate users, who feel they’ve stumped up the cash and can do what they like with their purchase, short of using it as a lethal weapon.

To find a solution that works, we need to acknowledge a few basic principles. First, piracy is no longer a backstreet occupation, if it ever was. A few metres from where I’m writing this in Bali you can buy the latest version of Microsoft Office for a fraction of its original price. Want a DVD of a new movie like Angel Eyes or Ocean’s Eleven? Join the queue in Jakarta’s main expat supermarket and you can snap them up for about $6 each, or a quarter of the price of the imported original.

The lesson from this: It doesn’t pay to look at the problem too moralistically, or legalistically. If we do, we’ve got to get tough on half the world, which spends its time making fake Rolexes, imitation Gucci bags, sports shirts and the like, and the other half, many of whom I can see from my vantage point at the hotel bar, who spend their holidays in the tropics buying them up.

Thirdly, technology is not the answer. Industry boffins can dream up new ways of restricting copying but the copiers will always be one step ahead. I realized that MP3s were no longer the province of nerdy types when I spotted a small store in an Indonesian village selling MP3 collections of the likes of Sting and Britney Spears alongside single sachets of shampoo. The lesson: Technology finds a way round every obstacle placed in its way. For users blighted by DVD-zoning, many electronics shops will happily rejig the software in the DVD player to enable any DVD to play regardless of where it came from.

In my view the answers are simple. Manufacturers should reward the genuine user. Don’t just shove a disc in a plastic box and shrink-wrap it: spend some time and effort compiling interesting sleeve notes. Offer DVD buyers a once-only code to download the sound track in MP3 form free. Enable those who register to buy a boxed set of autographed DVDs by the same director. Some of this happens at the moment, but it’s not enough.

Adopt brave measures: Reduce prices, which have stayed too high (particularly CD prices), and stop annoying the rest of us with stupid restrictions on usage. Learn from companies that do things well, like Qualcomm, whose excellent e-mail program Eudora comes in a free version. This is funded by ads, which appear in a tasteful, but visible, format (and are accompanied by a polite but firm warning should you arrange your other programs to cover up the ads).

DVD-manufacturers or CD-makers could sell cheaper versions of their products interspersed with commercials: Pay more and you can get one without the ads. Let’s face it, some people are never going to pay top dollar for these products, so stop worrying about them and encouraging us law-abiding folk to buy more. Now I’m off to buy a real Rolex. No, really.