Tuesday, June 05, 2007

The Changing Nature Of The News

The way a technology like the Internet impacts on the tasks that are a central element of social organisation is an interesting one. Take, for example, the news.

News, in all its forms, has always had an important role in any form of human organisation. The medieval minstrels who sung songs of love and conquest belonged to the same family as the authors of the Victorian penny dreadfuls and the editors of the twentieth century tabloids. As society has become more complex and technological capabilities have advanced, both the demand for, and the supply of, news has increased exponentially. During the twentieth century we had news delivery via the printed page, via the cinema, via radio and via television. By the turn of the century, most of these media existed side-by-side, dedicated to meeting what was an almost unquenchable appetite for wall-to-wall news.

So what happens when you throw into this complex cauldron a new technology - the Internet. From past experience we would expect two distinct stages in the adaptation of news provision to technological change. The first is what we can call the "mimic stage", the second is the "adaptation stage". In the mimic stage, the new technological platform seeks to merely mimic existing provision without attempting to exploit the full potential of the new media form. Thus in the early 1950s, the early attempts at television news were based on nothing more than a newsreader reading the script of what had been on the radio news. With the Internet revolution, this stage can be seen in terms of the digital editions of existing newspapers. The new media is being used to deliver an old product. It's like having a motor car being used between the shafts of a horse-drawn carriage.

In the adaptation stage, the possibility boundaries of the new media are explored and the platform (how things are said) begins to have a direct impact on the message (what is said). Thus, cinema and television news coverage was able to exploit the powerful impact of the moving picture. News coverage changed. And society itself changed (think of the impact of television coverage of the Vietnam War). In terms of the Internet, we are in this adaptation stage at the moment. News presentation is beginning to exploit the four important technological possibilities that are inherent in the new media. These are :

1. The new media is effectively a multi-media. It beings together the all the main media platforms - the printed word, speech, pictures, moving images - and integrates them. Some of the best examples of modern news provision are where the multi-media abilities of new technology are presented in a seamless and complementary package.

2. It provides the possibility of linkages. Hyperlinks are perhaps the most unique elements of new technology : they take static bibliographies and turn them into living elements. One of the most interesting, instructive and enjoyable things you can do on the Internet is to follow a set of links without any set target in mind, letting the living web lead you in unexpected directions, along untrodden paths. The new news media has still not exploited the potential of linkages fully : there is still plenty of opportunity for innovation.

3. It allows self-tailoring. The use of feed-agents (such as NewsGator) allows you to design a stream of news coverage which matches your particular requirements. You can specify that you only want news about politics or no news about politics. You can request news about apples, acrobats or Andalusia (or all three). As the use of feeds and feed-agents increases, self-tailoring means that news provision structures change and the old monopolies begin to be challenges in new ways.

4. It enables participation. Blogging, cell-phone cameras, the widespread availability of digital photography and the development of sites such as YouTube all mean that almost anyone can now be involved in news gathering and news delivery. The potential involved in this development is enormous and we are only just beginning to scrape the surface in terms of its impact on society.

If you want to begin to put together your own muti-media news gathering machine, a good starting point is a feed-agent which will help you manage RSS (really simple syndication) feeds. NewsGator - and its more sophisticated cousin Feed Demon - is a good starting point. Give it a try.

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