From paper to pixels: News today

Yet something of the old media world is deeply missed. The serendipitous discovery of news and information, for example. We all now live in so-called ‘filter bubbles’, consuming information either curated by us, or for us. Some of this curation is human, which offers agency and choice to the few who wish to really engage with difference and divergent opinion. Some of this curation is technical, based on invisibly cultivated metrics of our online behaviour and web browsing habits. This is potentially more dangerous, because there’s no off switch – we believe we are freely exposed to information, but in fact, the search results, suggestions, featured feeds, syndicated content and web highlights are all crafted carefully to match, inter alia, our socio-economic, political, religious bias and geo-location. Where it was previously the role of the journalist to craft the salient points of a story and the sole prerogative of the Editor to curate the day’s news and its presentation, sophisticated algorithms snaking their way through the low monotone of server farms are the new, pervasive determinant in what we read.

That’s an excerpt from my regular column published today that looks at how in my own life, the consumption of news has changed dramatically from when I was a child.

Read the full article here. I go on to note that,

Consuming and generating media almost purely in digital form has some advantages. You can’t burn down a website. You can’t kill a pseudonym, or abduct an idea that goes viral online. Our children are already part of one billion people on Facebook alone – nearly the population of India on a single online social network with a news economy beyond any one government to regulate or censor. Christopher Hitchens famously noted that he became a journalist because he did not want to rely on newspapers for information. Digital media platforms make this increasingly possible for lesser mortals.

But for those who grew up with it, the newspaper is missed, and always picked up.

State of the News Media and Citizen Journalism 2008

State of the News Media 2008

At over 700 pages and with more than 180,000 words, the State of the News Media 2008 report by the Project for Excellent in Journalism in the US brings new meaning to the word comprehensive. There’s no printed version to be found, but the entire report is online here. The content is largely US centric, yet the section on Citizen Media makes for some extremely interesting reading.

A few points from the chapter are worth highlighting.

Consumers of CJ and User Generated Content

  • As of spring 2006, according to a study from the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 37% of all Americans who go online were engaged with user-generated content.
  • The percentage is even higher for teenagers. According to survey data collected by Pew Internet in the fall of 2006, 64% of 12- to 17-year-olds say they have created content for the Internet, up from 57% in 2004

What is news and who defines news? Is user governed and user generated content inherently more insightful than traditional media coverage?

  • A snapshot study by the Project in the summer of 2007 found the top stories on popular user-driven news sites – Digg, Reddit and – were very different than those of the mainstream media.
  • In the week studied (June 24 to June 29, 2007), the release of Apple’s new iPhone was the most popular story on Digg, while the mainstream press focused on the immigration debate in Washington. Coverage of the war in Iraq accounted for 10% of all articles in the traditional press that week, but across the three user-news sites that PEJ studied, it made up just 1% of all stories.
  • PEJ’s one-week study also found the sources for stories on these sites tended to differ from the mainstream press. Blogs by non-journalists proved to be the most popular source, making up 40% of the stories. Nearly 31% of stories originated on sites such as YouTube and Technorati that also offer citizen-generated content.
  • Mainstream media, by contrast, made up just 25% of articles on these sites. Wire services, such as the Associated Press Reuters, accounted for 5% of them.
  • Newsmakers themselves, from the Pentagon to the presidential candidates to humanitarian and activist groups, began placing content directly on YouTube and MySpace as a way of countering what might be in the mainstream press or even beating the press to the punch.

Growth and influence of Blogs and blogging

  • Data from Technorati, a blogging search engine, found in the spring of 2007 that the number of blogs was doubling every 320 days. According to the research, there were 70 million blogs produced worldwide at that time.
  • Despite the proliferation of blogs, survey data suggest most Americans have yet to accept them as significant news sources. According to a winter 2007 Zogby Poll, blogs were the lowest on the list of “important” sources of news, coming in at 30%, well after Web sites (81%), television (78%), radio (73%), newspapers (69%) and magazines (38%). More Americans, 39%, chose friends and neighbors over blogs as an important informational source.
  • The Pew Internet & American Life Project found in 2006 that most bloggers wrote about issues other than news. Nearly four in ten (37%) said they blogged mainly about their “life and experiences,” with issues of public life (11%) cited as the second most popular topic area. Just 5% said they concentrated primarily on news and current events.

Wikipedia for news?

  • Survey research from the Pew Internet & American Life Project found that 36% of Americans who go online have consulted the site, with nearly one in ten (8%) doing so on typical day in the winter of 2007. The same survey also found that Wikipedia’s highest use came from those with at least a college degree.

Citizen Journalism sites

  • In the absence of revenue, most appear to be running on the owners’ blood, sweat and tears. (I can personally attest to this!)
  • In the midst of the uncertainty that surrounds the business model for citizen journalism sites, nonprofits have become a more visible presence in online journalism. This is especially true at the hyperlocal level, where nonprofits have contributed money to encourage and support citizen reporting.

How open are Citizen Journalism sites?

  • The other discovery was that, for all that citizen journalism might imply openness and interactivity, the majority of sites analyzed tended to demonstrate the instincts of “strong gatekeepers” who control the content and are somewhat more difficult to interact with than the ideals of citizen journalism suggest. Now, instead of professionals, those gatekeepers were the bloggers or citizens who ran the sites.
  • The one form of openness was that the majority, indeed almost all, did allow users to post comments about the material on the site, but the staff reserved the right to edit or otherwise screen the comments to meet its standards of civility.
  • The 2007 PEJ Report included a content study of 38 news Web sites and found the participatory nature of the Web was more theoretical than tangible.

The problem with mobiles in emergencies…

Is that they often don’t work.

This photo of my mobile phone’s screen was taken around two and a half hours after a powerful bomb rocked Nugegoda, a suburb in Colombo, killing around 17 and injured over 30. It was Sri Lanka’s second bomb for the day. I live around 3 minutes away from the place where the bomb went off in Nugegoda and had just returned home when I heard the sound of the explosion.

Notice the icon between battery power level indicator and the Bluetooth icon? It’s been like that for the past two hours.

I received three SMS news alerts on the Nugegoda incident between 6pm – 7pm. One from JNW, two from Ada Derana. At 9.08pm I received 7 SMS’s in quick succession (possibly after network congestion eased up) from both JNW and Ada Derana, with updates on casualties and news that all schools in the Western Province were to be closed on the 29th and 30th.

However, for around two hours after the bomb went off in Nugegoda, not a single SMS went out from my phone. Also from 6pm to 8pm, not a single call (to mobile as well as land lines) I tried was patched through. While I was able to sporadically get messages, incoming and outgoing voice and outgoing SMS communications were completely off the air.

Thought there’s been more than a little emphasis on the potential of mobiles to help emergency response and facilitate the dissemination of vital news and information during emergencies in Sri Lanka, my own experience suggests that there is still some way to go before we can rely on them completely as devices resilient to sudden surges in network traffic. However, as the first images from the incident demonstrate, mobiles increasingly used by eye witnesses and even victims to record the incident through camera phone photos.

As some countries have priority to emergency response SMSs, I wonder if the same be done with news alerts, given that their use / subscriber base seems to be expanding with new Sinhala and Tamil based SMS news services entering the market?

What did you experience when you tried to send an SMS or call today or an emergency in the past?

P.S. Interestingly, my usually glacial paced ADSL connection from SLT (the Nugegoda exchange can’t be more than 50m from where the bomb went off) worked perfectly throughout the incident. Bizarrely, I got a data rate of around 215Kb/s at around 7pm, which is about the rate I get on Sundays and Public Holidays. Can’t figure that one out – maybe everybody in Nugegoda offices just logged off and scrambled home?

Reuters breaking news alerts no more on Dialog

Dialog Reuters

Seems that Reuters has pulled out of offering SMS news alerts and information bulletins through Dialog.

Dialog is now advertising Ada Derana, from the TV station Derana, as a replacement though to date, I’ve received many SMS’s from Ada Derana asking me to await breaking news alerts, none have been forthcoming.

The last I reviewed Reuters and Sri Lanka’s first SMS based news alerts service, JasmineNewswires, was when they both reported an incident in  Yala National Park.

Rumour has it that there was a question of censorship involved in Reuters decision to pull out of offering breaking news alerts through Dialog.

If true, and given that telcos in Sri Lanka covertly support the censorship of news and information, the implications are quite disturbing for mobiles as a vehicle of dialogues (no pun intended) that critique propaganda and offer alternative perspectives on war and conflict.