SMS News Alerts in Sri Lanka – A short review of JNW’s new site and service


JNW was the first to introduce news and information through SMS in Sri Lanka. Writing about it around two years ago, I pointed out that their fundamental problem at the time was their subscription model, which they now seem to have overcome with deals with various mobile phone operators in the country.

JNW’s forays into media diversification also came at a cost – the news podcasts they experimented with through a micro-grants project (disclosure – I was part of the advisory board that approved the funding) turned out to be less than successful. On the other hands, most of the the points I raised in a detailed review of JNW with ideas for the expansion of their business a few months after it was launched seem to have taken root in JNW, and clearly to its benefit.

As the only comparative review of SMS news services to date, I was also pleased to note in a rough and ready study of reportage of an incident in Yala last year that JNW provided accurate and timely information before other SMS news services.

JNW’s revamped its site recently and I’m happy to note that it’s a significant improvement over the previous version, visually as well as in terms of content. JNW now offers updates through Mobitel, Tigo and Suntel and in English and Sinhala and I understand that Tamil alerts are coming soon. The website begins with the language options, of which today only English and Sinhala work. The Sinhala is UNICODE, which is great since it works on any browser on Windows XP, Vista or Linux. (Mac OS X is still incapable of displaying Sinhala UNICODE correctly). Running on WordPress, the website is generally appealing with sections clearly marked out.

However, there are a couple of points that need urgent improvement:

  • Visually, a couple of confusing points exist on the new site. One is the positioning of the section called Public Journalism. Clicking on “more” brings up a list of JNW content, that at first can be confusing to someone who wants to read the content submitted by mobile subscribers to JNW. I would argue that this section makes far more sense at the top of the third column (upper right) with more recent official JNW news updates displayed in the second / middle column.
  • Further, it’s still terribly confusing as to how the Public SMS blog, Public articles and Public Journalism sections / services on the website differ from each other and are in turn different to JNW’s own news. Confusingly, the Public SMS blog ultimately links to this page, which is JNW news.
  • If the idea is to provide two services on this website – one, by JNW with news that is verified and in line with the ethical guidelines of the site (commendably the only mobile news service in Sri Lanka to have such open and detailed guidelines) and the other a place to collect public opinion through SMS’s sent to JNW, it would be useful to simplify the access to these two broad sets of information. They are complementary, but as SMS Public Blog avers correctly, messages sent in my general subscribers can’t be verified for authenticity and accuracy by JNW, though some sensible moderation rules will still apply.
  • It’s not evident what a section such as Close Watch exists for – why is it different to the news stream by JNW on the home page? The Terms and Conditions for JNW notes:

13. Generally 50-90 text messages will be sent per month for Key Alerts and 60-110 messages for Close Watch, however, due to the nature of breaking news there may be more or less alerts sent in any given month.

The distinction between Key Alerts and Close Watch isn’t at all clear, on the mobile or on the website.

  • The section called Lanka Imagery has some banal photos of no real news value. It’s a collection of random images with no real purpose or fathomable logic in the selection of subject matter. When I brought this up with Chamath, who runs JNW, in the earlier avatar of the website, it was clear that there was some nostalgic value associated with the content herein, but I honestly can’t see what it is. I would also argue that pages with make no sense such as this, or can be done much better, vitiate the appeal of JNW on the web.
  • Likewise with the section called Updates. The last update in this section is from over a year ago. It seems to me that JNW’s website continues to feature stubs that are failed micro-experiments to categorise content.

I also have a problem with JNW’s Terms and Conditions of service, in which it is noted that:

Jasmine Newswires (Pvt) Ltd text news cannot be forwarded to third parties and is grounds for termination of your service without liability to Jasmine Newswires.

Technically, this is impossible to implement – JNW can’t stop anyone who receives an alert from JNW forwarding it to as many as they please. There is no way JNW can keep tabs on what they send out. It is unreasonable expect subscribers, who receive vital news, to not forward them to loved ones, colleagues and friends if for example the information is an alert of a bomb threat or an early warning of an impending natural disaster. And frankly, it is a bit silly of them from a marketing perspective. I’ve forwarded many JNW alerts to people who have subsequently shown great interest in registering for the service (since few of us would actually edit the SMS to take away the JNW branding at the end of the message).

I can to an extent understand why JNW would like to have someway to ensure that their content is locked to the phones of subscribers, but given the impossibility of doing so, this clause is just plain silly.

There’s a very interesting discussion that on-going over the subscription model of JNW, that’s well worth reading for insights into how JNW’s business model evolved over time. Chamath’s laudable diligence in keeping to his editorial guidelines can also be seen in the (admittedly hilarious) comments on Mervyn Silva’s actions here.

Kudos to Chamath for sticking to his guns and making JNW to what it is today.

That said, my impression is that JNW’s website is still a low priority, with design and content that is ill-thought of, badly laid out and serving no real purpose. Very early on, I pointed JNW to the likes of Rasasa, with features that I felt could vastly augment JNW’s present offerings (esp. to the diaspora). There are a range of services on the web that JNW can avail itself of to make its content more accessible to a wider range of people through its website, yet I suspect that exploration of these means is hostage to the difficult and untested business model and negotiations with mobile operators JNW has had to contend with.

This is why I think a simpler website works better – cutting down on redundant sections, making the content more easily accessible, providing users with automated email updates based on the RSS feeds of their choice (using RSSFwd for example as Groundviews does) and generally highlighting far more on their website JNW’s key selling point in Sri Lanka – a provider of trusted, timely and reliable news and information on issues and incidents of vital interest to citizens, residents and those with an interest in developments in Sri Lanka.

Also read:

News and information through SMS!
News and information through SMS – A second look at JasmineNewswires in Sri Lanka
News, analysis and information through MP3 – JasmineNews through podcasts

2 thoughts on “SMS News Alerts in Sri Lanka – A short review of JNW’s new site and service

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s