The Guardian’s Open Journalism today and Sri Lanka’s Ravaya: A note from 2005

In 2012, when leading Sri Lankan Editors are still plagiarising content from web and social media, don’t even know about correct attribution of web sources and demonstrate an outrageous ignorance about social and web based media, the Guardian’s new ad shows how it’s done, and just how much potential there is in embracing readers as contributors, and shifting the ideas of a newspaper from a product to a place.

As noted on the Guardian website,

This advert for the Guardian’s open journalism, screened for the first time on 29 February 2012, imagines how we might cover the story of the Three Little Pigs in print and online. Follow the story from the paper’s front page headline, through a social media discussion and finally to an unexpected conclusion.

Watch the brilliant ad here.

Seven years ago, in a presentation made to the then Editor Victor Ivan and the entire Editorial team at Ravaya (which just celebrated 25 years in print), knowing what was to come, I asked them to follow in precisely the same steps as the Guardian today projects as a viable model of journalism. In a written submission to Ravaya that followed my presentation, I laid some key ideas in this regard. Coincidentally, I reminded Victor Ivan of these ideas when I met him a few weeks ago at an event in Colombo. They are worth re-telling, because even today, they hold great value for anyone interested in re-defining Sri Lanka’s incredibly conventional and conservative media landscape.


New Media for Ravaya?

New Media is understood in this paper to go beyond existing content uploaded to websites. Supported by related developments on the web – blogs, podcasts, really simple syndication (RSS) feeds for news – journalists can now avail themselves of tools and technologies that enable them to frame and report issues in a manner that constructively engage readers, viewers and listeners far more than what was possible with Old Media. This rich interactivity, coupled with the development of telecommunications infrastructure, creates media that is shaped by audience feedback and interaction as much as from the perspective of the reporter and news organizations.

The author highlights the sub-optimal nature of this one way use of web technologies. By their very design, many internet and web technologies are subversive, giving many the powers hitherto wielded by a few moguls and owners in the media industry. By enabling anyone to publish news stories, the mutation of who were traditionally thought of as readers, consumers or a target audience becomes producers and content generators themselves. By encouraging the creation of new producers, new media can empowers the general public to cover issues oftentimes neglected or ignored by mainstream media.

Several changes occur in the traditional media landscape with the introduction of web technologies. Used by media organizations, new media can create contexts wherein:

  • readers become journalists,
  • market becomes producers,
  • producers become respondents,
  • citizens become investigators

Reader vs. Community

While Ravaya has concentrated on the development of a reader base, much like any other traditional print based media organization, new media affords it the opportunity to not just increase its readership but also to transform the existing readership into a community that passionate debates the issues that are highlighted on a weekly basis in Ravaya newsprint. The increase in readership is a direct result of the increased footprint that is generated by publishing content to a website. The transformation of existing readership into a community supportive of the issues and analysis of Ravaya is dedicated to is only possible with the introduction of new media strategies into Ravaya’s reporting frameworks.

The advantage of a news organization with access to such a community lies in its ability to shape policy through the use of citizen’s voices. Capturing the voice of citizens in support of issues that it reports, Ravaya can create communities that are engaged with sustainable social reform processes in Sri Lanka using technology as an enabling tool for greater democratic participation in issues related to peace and justice.

Newspaper as place vs. Newspaper as Product

The transition from readership to a community will also result in the transformation of Ravaya as a product to Ravaya as a site or place for discussion. While the newspaper avatar of Ravaya can continue in its current form, the use of New Media creates the necessary impetus for communities to collectively explore issues that Ravaya confronts on a weekly basis. New Media enables Ravaya – as a blog, a website, or a podcast – to become a place for discussion, long after the print edition has ceased circulation.

Differences between Old Media and New Media

Whereas Old Media generally produced content from a single source (media organization), New Media enables the diffusion of producers amongst the general public. Anyone with access to a mobile phone, or has internet access, become a potential producer of content that can feed into discussion on issues flagged by mainstream media. New Media also allows for the creation of entirely different media in relation to mainstream media – podcasts with a community focus, that are available for download after airing on community radio stations, mobile phone blogs that capture the daily travails of a tsunami affected community, blogs that detail the life of individuals facing the trauma of war and websites that highlight the vision and initiatives in support of a just peace and democracy need to be seen as parts of a larger meta-framework of dialogues that are supported by web and communications technologies. Plugging into such dialogues allows an alternative newspaper such as Ravaya both insight into the viewpoints of the general public in near real time, but also affords it the unique opportunity to tailor its reporting to meet the issues that crop up from the grassroots. This responsiveness is not possible with traditional print media. Though caution is called for in the promotion of reporting without reflection, Ravaya’s established strengths as a media organization uniquely place it to take advantage of new media to augment its reporting.

Since New Media also facilitates the creation of an active civil society, Ravaya can plug into the networks engendered by New Media to support policy reform dialogues with its experience in reporting issues that feed into such debates.

Combining the best grassroots citizens’ journalism with the intimate knowledge of the political process and media industry, Ravaya stands to gain from an entry into New Media paradigms by qualitatively enhancing the virtual sites through which citizens are able to impress upon local, regional and national government to affect changes that are progressive and sustainable.

How Ravaya can combine New Media with its reporting

  • Staff capacities will have to be enhanced through workshops and training on basic PC skills
  • Ravaya will have to adopt a common PC architecture (preferably PC / Windows / Linux based) in order to accommodate the transition from an old media organization to one that uses New Media
  • New hardware with appropriate software (ICTA Unicode font technology, Sinhala Unicode programmes from MicroImage) will have to be purchased, installed and training provided for key staff
  • Digital voice recorders will have to take the place of cassette based systems in order to facilitate the digitization of content for the web
  • Staff writers will have to write for the web as well as for print – the two skills, while sharing a common foundation, are dissimilar. Training on web publishing and web journalism will need to be conducted for key staff writers.
  • Outside support to maintain IT systems for Ravaya, since in-house capacities will not be sufficient to support new media operations.
  • Visioning workshops for key staff writers, the Editor and other members on using New Media in order to build an ownership of the technology amongst staff.
  • Creation of a trilingual website with content from Ravaya published in Sinhala and select content translated into Tamil and English.
  • The Editors vision of creating a separate Tamil and Muslim sections for the newspaper with authentic voices from the Tamil and Muslim communities can be more easily realized in the web domain
  • The synthesis of key discussions that take place on the web domains can be filtered into the newspaper itself, strengthening its reporting and impact on traditional readership.

Final thoughts

New Media is not a panacea for creating a professional media culture in Sri Lanka. New Media cannot replace the print journalism of Ravaya or create alternative media voices that command the same level of respect that Ravaya does. However, the main thrust of this paper has been to support some key points made in the presentation to Ravaya by the author in October 2005 to create media frameworks that strengthen Ravaya’s position as a leading alternative media organization in Sri Lanka.

Combining the best of what New Media architectures can offer, the experience of Ravaya, the existing corpus of archived content and connections staff writers have cultivated with communities and their local issues can create powerful frameworks to take Ravaya into the 21st Century as a news organization that uses New Media tools in Sri Lanka to promote media freedoms and democracy.

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