IPS story on New Media in Sri Lanka – A first attempt to grasp new media agenda setting in Sri Lanka

Amantha Perera, with whom I spoke to on the phone around a fortnight ago on Groundviews, ran with a story on new media and its impact on shaping the news agenda in Sri Lanka on IPS today. Titled MEDIA-SRI LANKA: New Media – First With Reports On Intensifying War the story is a explores the growth and impact of JasmineNewswires (JNW), Lanka E News and Groundviews in particular.

It’s not a particularly well written or researched article, typical of so many other traditional media journalists attempting to grasp the pitfalls and potential of new media and and the gamut of technologies supporting it, but it’s a valuable first take on the nascent new media news and information services in Sri Lanka by a respected wire news agency.

JNW

I’ve reviewed and written on JNW more than once on this site and was involved in some discussions with its founder, Chamath Ariyadasa, on expanding and strengthening its services further into areas that I felt it had potential to make far more of an impact than what it has to date through just SMS based news and information dissemination. Chamath seems to have settled on SMS news services through various mobile operators, with sadly no real interest in pursuing ways through which the service, that I am a subscriber of and love, can be made more meaningful, interactive and pervasive. As I noted here:

JNW, in trying to be all things to everyone (which may have worked as a new startup) will soon begin to frustrate its subscribers with an overload of information that is mass produced and sent to everyone, with no real emphasis on the sectors they each work in.

Lanka E News

Lanka E News, that was recently raided by the Police, is a daily staple for me. I found what it’s founder had to say interesting:

Lankaenews has carved a niche among the upstart websites due to its quick news gathering and dissemination in Sinhala (Sri Lanka’s main language together with Tamil). “I think the fact the we operate in Sinhala opened up a huge untapped audience, the Sinhala-speaking internet users who don’t have a high proficiency in English,” Lankaenews founder, Sadaruwan Seenadira, told IPS.

He told IPS that his site gets about 100,000 visits every day, a third of these are regulars. “What made the news website workable was that we developed an HTML based Sinhala font,” Seenadira said.

From the response to Vikalpa and Vikalpa Video, I can confirm that the thirst for critical analysis and commentary that questions the status quo is growing apace on the web. Lanka E News and Vikalpa however diverge in their use of fonts on the web.

Vikalpa (and Groundviews before it) took a conscious decision to go with UNICODE fonts for Sinhala and Tamil. Lanka E News took another route and developed fonts of its own. The difference is that content on Vikalpa even in Sinhala and Tamil is searchable through Google, whereas content on Lanka E News (such as its archives) is simply not indexed on Google or any other search engine. UNICODE is tough – the keyboard is irascibly different, some of the characters don’t display accurately and it doesn’t work on Macs. Our decision was based on the fact that a couple of years down the line, UNICODE’s flaws would have been sorted out. It was important to us that the content we published on our sites today would be immediately and easily accessible even a few years down the line.

Sadaruwan’s statistics for the site clearly demonstrate the interest in vernacular content that mirrors the growing figures for Vikalpa as well. However, Amantha could have explained more clearly as to what “100,000 visits” a day really means.

100,000 hits is meaningless. 100,000 page views is incredible.

Vikalpa gets around 300 page views a day, a far more useful and honest metric of a site’s real readership. Groundviews stats, as of December 2007, are available here.

Email to IPS and Amantha

In an email to Amantha and IPS penned earlier today, I noted inter alia that,

… the point about stories on IDPs I made explicitly over the phone was not just that they appear more frequently on the site when compared to traditional (newsprint) media, but that they are WRITTEN and/or PRODUCED by IDPs themselves and published on the site after being translated to English. Such stories are the raison d’etre of citizen journalism and what differentiates it from occasional stories by journalists on the same issues / peoples in traditional media. The site is replete with such stories. For example:

‘I want a decent Education’ – A twelve year old’s plea

The divide between Muslims and Tamils: Perspective of an IDP

It is also the case that Groundviews, more than any other newspaper I know (web + print) has published first-hand investigative reports on the situation the embattled East and North of the country. For example, two recent and complementary narratives on the situation in the East are:

“Liberated”- A Personal Account Of Batticaloa And Ampara

WHAT LIBERATION?

I ended by saying that “… Groundviews in particular, which along with Vikalpa and Vikalpa Video are sui generis in Sri Lanka in the manner they introduced, promoted and raised the awareness of citizen journalism and a news agenda markedly more compelling and free than what traditional media offers today.”

One comment on “IPS story on New Media in Sri Lanka – A first attempt to grasp new media agenda setting in Sri Lanka

  1. chamath
    February 6, 2008 at 10:08 pm #

    Hi Sanjana,

    I value your opinion greatly as always, and on your comment that we haven’t shown any interest in diversifying and making content interactive, my only comment is that it has been quite a struggle to get the basic service operational and not be a loss-making entity.

    However, I am happy to say that SMS news services have now become established on a basis that is both fair to news providers as well as telecom operators.

    JNW is now available on Mobitel, Tigo and Suntel, and soon on a couple more operators, and we may show a positive income position next month for the first time since commencing in April 2006.

    Diversifying services for thousands of subscribers has to be done jointly with telecom firms, and now that the basic service has been tested by all concerned, new services that have been discussed can hopefully be rolled out very soon.

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