dying newspapers

Some Thoughts on Changing Media

On the weekend I met two former Australian lecturers of mine – Jason Nelson and Ben (whose last name neither Parker nor I can remember) – when the conversation turned to the demise of newspapers. Ben's argument was that they probably would stay around, after all we're still listening to the radio. Something about that argument felt wrong, even though at that moment I couldn't articulate it. Thinking about it more, I realised that this view is very ahistoric. When radio started, people would schedule their lives around it. They would wait for a certain programme to be broadcasted to gather the whole family around it and consciously absorb what the wireless had to say.

Then television arrived and took over exactly that role. Now people were staying at home to watch evening shows and sometimes were even attired to underline the specialness of the moment. It was like going to the theatre, only in one's own home.

Radio couldn't compete with that. Instead it started to serve a different purpose: It served as background noise, something that tootles along while you're in the office or driving to work. No one scheduled his life around the broadcast schedule anymore, instead the interchangeable format radio became the norm. "Five songs in a row with no ads or talking!" That function is certainly different to the one of the printed press whose products you'd have to consciously read in order to make meaning of them.

As Parker pointed out this doesn't mean that media is dying, it's just changing. This isn't necessarily a bad thing, even though traditional media certainly serves its purposes; e.g. it helps to bring important developments to the conscience of the public by helping to spread them. It's a catalyst. Without you never might have noticed that Facebook changed it terms of use – not everyone is reading tech blogs after all.

Then again this isn't a process that couldn't be democratised with the help of internet, the best examples being sites like digg or reddit. Here the users decide which information enters the front page which in turn acts like a catalyst again (just like sites iliketotallyloveit.com serve as means of democratisation of something as elitist as 'style')

These 'democratic catalysts' certainly aren't without problems. Power users might dominate which content gets voted for, fads become more important than news and a net-savvy, educated elite could dominate the political discourse and use these sites like an echo-chamber.

But the same could be said of newspapers: They certainly aren't free of interest but rely heavily on advertising; human interest matters more than serious reporting; again an educated elite perpetuates world views (otherwise there wouldn't be conservative and liberal papers) Which begs the question: Why not have 'democratic catalysts' of different political nature? The certainly is room for a conservative counterpart to reddit.


Get Outside and go Hyperlocal

I recently came across outside.in, a self-described "hyperlocal news and information service" that helps you "get news for the places and neighborhoods you really care about." The site tracks 35,312 towns and neighborhoods. You can either enter a post code or the name of the neighborhood you want to get stories about. Results are sorted by date and tags.

Neighborhoods can also be searched by categories such as 'Arts and Culture', 'Bars and Clubs' and 'Education.' This will result in an alphabetically sorted list of places with news and blog posts about them.

If you want to get even more local, you can use the radar function. It's customized to exactly where you are and what’s going on right around you. Enter a location and you'll see everything happening right around you: Blog posts, news stories, discussion posts, and Twitter updates.

The site can be a bit messy. You can't search local places by tags, just by categories. Why, for example, isn't there simple search for a 'news' tag? The category search also needs be refined, e.g. the robbery of a pharmacy was listed under services...

These little issues aside I think the basic premise of the site is great: Being informed about wherever you are.

Why rely on the local press when you can utilize a multitude of information? All the more, given that some local markets are completely dominated by one media conglomerate and its products. Breaking monopolies on information is certainly a good thing.

To utilize the site's potential even better I'd suggest the implementation of a democratic catalyst – aka a voting system a la Digg – as this would bring noteworthy local stories to the attention of more readers, a function the traditional press still excels in.

The site should also be optimized for mobile devices to exploit its potential best; another possibility would be an app for the iPhone which instantly let's you know what's happening in your hotel's/ business partner's/ friend's neighborhood. Wherever, whenever. GPS detection would even make make entering a post code redundant.

You could combine the service with a program like Calibre. Calibre has built-in ‘recipes’ to download articles from news outlets' RSS feeds to present them in a much more streamlined e-book type format, and can then transfer this information to mobile readers. By this, the articles can also be consumed offline.

Imagine customized RSS-feed turned into your own personalized local newspaper complete with all the sections you'd normally expect from a press outlet. From politics to sports, complete with illustrations, except with more updates.

The potential of sites like outside.in is tremendous. No wonder the future looks tough for the traditional press.