About Me

If you want to get a different perspective on my journey, try this blog from Zac. A friend I'm travelling with. zacstravelcolours.wordpress.com

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Are we slowly killing Asia?

Is Vang Vieng flourishing or sinking under the weight of tourist dollars?

One thing I’ve noticed in the Laos country side is the state of the villages. The people don’t look poor. They look happy. Content. Firstly, a big disclaimer, I spent exactly zero seconds talking to these people, I saw them through a bus window and I saw them with western eyes. Plus, I was hungover, feeling sorry for myself and the idea of a simpler life was suddenly pretty appealing.

In a nutshell, here’s my thinking. Judging by the rest of the country (and my wildly unresearched impressions), the people in Vang Vieng would’ve been pretty damn happy before all this tourist money started coming in. Sure they might not have had big TVs or Smartphones (although they did have rusty satellite dishes), but they had family and culture.

Now they have a little more of the commercialised crap we all crave, but they have to deal with westerners in bikinis (they’re not big fans of exposed skin above the waist) taking over their town. They might have a successful restaurant and be able to comfortably provide for their families, but that restaurant sells everything from marijuana to opium and blasts Family Guy 24/7. Once again far be it from me to judge whether this is a good deal or whether they’re even bothered by these tradeoffs. I’m just raising a thought.

The final big concern in a town this successful, this attractive to tourists who want to blow money on all sorts of indulgences, is it can’t be too long before outsiders move in. People are already flocking from other parts of Laos, how long before it’s people from Thailand, India, even Australia running the show? And how long after that before it’s ruined? Before this sleepy little river town becomes just another Phuket? Now this is decades away from any sort of reality, but the fact it’s even a possibility should be a huge concern.

In the end, the question which I’m not at all equipped to answer is this, is the extra money really worth the cultural erosion which comes with such an influx of tourists? The streets of this sleepy town are crowded with near naked westerners, often drunk or more out of their mind and The beautiful river at the heart of the city is undoubtedly less healthy than it was

On the other hand, these flocks of people would seem to indicate maybe life isn’t so great in the bush. The more I write about this the more I realise I’m completely unequipped to write about it. I know so little about these people and their beautiful country. Sorry for an unsatisfying ending but that’s it. Questions and more questions. I hope it at least made you think about tourist destinations (or anything else) a little bit more.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Vang Vieng: The place God would come to party (and possibly does)

Firstly, a note on the title. While in Asia we've seen a decent amount of people who look like they could actually be Backpacker Jesus. Maybe none more so than one particular backflipping, whiskey skulling man right here in Vang Vieng.
Blatantly stolen from AdventurousKate.com because I'm waiting for people to upload photos.

After a six hour hungover bus ride along some more of Laos’ atrocious roads (I mean bad, really fucking bad.  The windiest, steepest potholiest excuses for transport you could ever imagine), Vang Vieng needed to be pretty great. It was. It is. I just don’t want to leave.

I should explain. About a decade ago Vang Vieng was just a tiny river town in Laos which few westerners had even heard of and even less actually visited. I’m not sure exactly what happened, other than some enterprising backpackers had their way with the place and now it’s a hedonistic paradise.

There’s a river, giant rope swings, giant towers, giant buckets, giant inner tubes and what seems to be every beautiful mid 20s westerner in Asia. After what I said about Phuket, I know it seems hypocritical for me to love this place, but I can’t help it. It’s Phuket done right. It’s a place where even shy people can feel comfortable walking up to almost anyone there and having a chat. The bars actually employ people to go around and start up party games and just generally get everyone having a great time.

As a party destination, I couldn’t imagine anything better. But it’s just as great completely sober (even if it’s pretty hard to avoid the tiger whisky they shove down your throat as you go into the bars). Although there’s a good chance the river isn’t quite as healthy as it once was, the surrounding mountains are just as picturesque as ever. You're deep in conversation with an absolute stranger, tearing up the dancefloor or throwing yourself off ten metre plus platforms into the river and then all of a sudden you look up. You're surrounded by astounding natural beauty. And I mean astounding, those mountains which dominate every single part of the town never failed to make me double take. The feeling's almost impossible to explain. Try to picture the best night you've ever had, and right in the middle of it you realise you're right there in the most beautiful picture you've ever seen. 

In this place, it's impossible not to have a good time.

And rope swings. Seriously, rope swings. These things are insane. Coming from Australia where OH&S has ruined most things, they’re such a breath of fresh air. I’ll admit they’re a little dangerous (several tourists die every year) but that’s mostly stupidity (code for way too much alcohol/magic mushies/backflip attempts) rather than actual danger from my experience.

If you need a summary, or a TL;DR version here it is. Vang Vieng is the coolest damn place on earth and if you’re one of my close friends you can expect to be dragged there before you’re 30.

Next post: I'll talk about the darker side of the town. I'll try to explore it with a less selfish "This is the most fun ever!" mindset. 

Tuesday, 29 November 2011

Asian Adventure Day 8: More Buddhas than you could poke a prayer stick at

I’m just a little bit in love with Laos. I couldn’t exactly put my finger on it until today, but I think I’ve found the reason. It’s not the kind, happy people, it’s not the price of everything, it’s not even beerlao (not that all of those things aren’t great).

It’s beauty. The place is just stunning, out of this world beautiful. Everywhere I look, there’s a gigantic river, mountains reaching to the sky, a Buddhist temple drenched in gold, and green as far as the eye can see.

Today we went to Pa Kou cave, a place only discovered in the last few years. The Tuk Tuk ride out was horrible but what we saw made every pothole, every little almost vomit burp more than worthwhile.

Inside are thousands of little Buddha statues, placed there by I don’t know who, I don’t know when. It’s pretty spiritual, I think.

But for me it was the natural formations of the cave, the surrounding mountains, the seemingly never ending river which blew me away. You can be struck dumb by the green cliffs in front of you, before realising there’s another one behind it. Your eyes refocus one more time to find another and another towering mountain range just out of reach.

I think the pictures might do a better job of explaining it, but nothing will even come close to the real thing.

Thursday, 24 November 2011

Asian Adventures Day 7: Water water everywhere but not a thing to drink

Of all the days we’ve spent in Asia, today is undoubtedly the hardest to describe with mere words alone. Someone with far more writing talent than me would probably simply say something like: We went to some awesome waterfalls, jumped off them for a while, had lunch and then went to some more awesome waterfalls which we also jumped off. But I’m going to have to use a whole lot more words than that. Plus a bunch of incredible photos.

And I forgot to mention, we rode elephants. That’s right, riding elephants was the third or fourth most memorable thing we did today. Pretty incredible.

For those of you who haven’t had the pleasure of a five tonne beast between your legs, I shall elaborate. First of all, elephants are prickly as fuck. Wear long pants or live in regret. Secondly, be prepared for the vast majority of your weight to rest directly on the spot between your legs, whatever that may be. It was incredible to see just how much control the mahouts (elephant trainers) had over these gigantic beasts. Despite the animals’ ability to kill a man with a single swing of their trunk, they seemed more than willing to obey them.

Now let’s get to the waterfalls. Here is one of them.

And here is another.

They were incredible, even these photos don’t come close to conveying their majesty. But I think the most remarkable thing was just how lost you could get in the moment, chatting, eating lunch, whatever, and then all of a sudden you would look up. Every single time I took a fresh look at the falls I was absolutely blown away.

These falls are nature at its best. No question. Life at its best even.

In one day, I rode an elephant, walked amongst some of the most picturesque jungle in the world, whiled away hours jumping off two different waterfalls, both of which are among the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen and ate literally the best fish I could ever hope to consume. You think that’s good? The whole thing cost me about $30. Incredible. I know I’ve used the word a lot but there’s just not much else I can think of to say.

Asian Adventures Day 6: The wheels on the bus go 'round and 'round.... and 'round and 'round and fucking 'round.

Welcome to hell.
That’s what the sign should have said on the front of our bus. Instead it said รถกลางคืน, which I can only assume means night/death bus.

Thanks to a travel agent I have since grown to dislike very much, Zac and I bought bus tickets from Chiang Mai, Thailand to Luang Prabong, Laos. We initially tried to get there by boat but the lovely lady assured us this was impossible. Turns out, when she said impossible she meant easily the best way to get there. Put it down to the language barrier?

So instead of two days of cruising down the Mekong River (with two guest house stays included) we endured five hours on a minibus, followed by 13 hours in a freezing cold, erratically driven minibus averaging 30 km’s an hour (at best) through some of the windiest roads I’ve ever seen.

It was bad. And even slightly too many sleeping pills didn’t really help. At one stage we crossed to the other side of the road, to pass another bus. Our driver soon realised the truck hurtling in the opposite direction took quite a dim view of this sort of road arrogance. Brakes were slammed, heads were bruised and the stuff still sitting on Zac’s seat went flying down a stairwell. I’m fairly confident this would’ve been Zac’s fate too if he hadn’t moved. Also, a bit of the ceiling fell off at one stage.

Unfortunately in my sleep and comfort deprived state, I didn’t take a single photo of the death machine. So you’ll just have to use those imaginations.

We arrived in Luang Prabuang about 6 AM and were greeted by an extremely entrepreneurial guest house owner who knew we’d do anything for a bed.

Oh and I certainly recognize the irony in calling for a more adventurous, less comfortable destination and a couple of days later experiencing this. After a few hours sleep the journey doesn’t really seem so bad, and the destination is looking pretty amazing. More on that later.

Wednesday, 23 November 2011

Asian Adventures Day 5: Chiang Mai

Chiang Mai is a breath of fresh air. No. That’s not exactly correct. After the hustle, bustle and sleaze of Phuket Chiang Mai feels like a veritable gust of revitalising wind. It really does soothe the soul to be in a place as authentic feeling as this.

Sure it’s still filled with thousands of tourists. But the local people feel different. More genuine, less corrupted. Even the tourists seem to be a different breed. The old men with whores have given way to dreadlocked backpackers.* Interestingly, all the westerners seem to be overwhelmingly less fat. And in direct contrast to the Phuketians (is that a word? No.) hassling for Ping Pong shows, hookers and sunglasses, the people of Chiang Mai seem to shine with warmth and happiness.

For me, the most striking difference was simple. It didn’t feel like it had all been put on for us. There was no shortage of tacky souvenirs at the markets and most restaurants sold French Fried (sic) But there were almost as many Thais in the market as tourists and we actually saw them buying food from the same places as us.

The city itself is achingly beautiful, a perfect square encapsulated by a tree lined, free flowing river, about twenty metres wide. Amble around the inner city and you’re guaranteed to see countless Buddhist temples, Glistening with Gold from every angle.

Chiang Mai’s also the gateway to some of the best adventure tourism in Thailand, Mountain biking, rafting, trekking, inordinately huge flying foxes populated by monkeys, you’ll ind it all there. But most of all I guess it’s a vibe thing. Chiang Mai is a pleasant place to be.

*obviously not all of them were dreadlocked. That would be ridiculous. Some were dreadlocked though, and sweeping generalisations are kind of my thing.

Sunday, 20 November 2011

BONUS fauxlosophy post: Travel Theory

There's a good chance what I’m about to say is neither new nor true, but it’s a thought which has come to me recently and I need to try to express it. I’m also guessing it’s not something many of you would have spent any amount of time thinking about so it could be interesting.

Travel destinations are a balancing act. Each and every place in the world sits somewhere on a line between accessibility and unique experience. Between traveller comfort and genuine adventure. Risk and safety.

 I’ll try to explain. At one end of this line is Brisbane, my home. Almost everyone I know lives here (or the Sunshine Coast), I have almost infinite connections to a huge variety of familiar things and perhaps most of all, it’s where all my stuff is. The other side of this line is a random spot in the middle of the Amazon, the Sahara, Antarctica. Some of the last true wildernesses on earth. In a place like this the risks and rewards are exponentially greater. Will you discover ancient artifacts, be accepted by a previously undiscovered tribe and live off nothing but wild berries and animals you’ve caught with your bare hands? Or more likely, die starving, miserable and alone and have your carcass eaten by (/coyotes/penguins)? The vast majority of us will never know. and of course this isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

Travel is all about finding your own spot on the line. The destination with the perfect mix of comfort and excitement for you. Those last two words are absolutely integral because every single person is different. For some people the perfect destination might be home. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. For some it might be Melbourne or Sydney and I’m sure for a lot of people it’s Phuket.

Where you fit on the line doesn’t really matter. But the sad thing is many people don’t get the chance to find out, for whatever reason. The thought of travelling to other countries, mixing with other cultures might not appeal to you in the slightest. But if it does, you owe it to yourself to give it a go. I’m still searching for my spot on the line, and it might sound corny but this is one journey which is at least as rewarding as the destination.

Asian Adventures Day 3/4: Is it me or is it them?

Westerners have fucked Phuket. Quite literally in an astonishing number of cases. Phuket is behind me and the almost complete unknown of Laos is in front. So now seems to be a fitting time to reflect.

Unfortunately those first few words are the overriding thoughts I’ll  take from Phuket. Having said that, the place is still incredible, just in such different ways than it would have once been.

One of the quieter beaches in Phuket

I’ll start with the not so great and hopefully finish in an uplifting fashion by telling you all the things I love. My major complaint? It just feels like Australia. The people serving you are different, everything’s cheaper and there are a lot more women with questionable objects in their vaginas, but I just don’t feel like I’m in in another country. Thais and tourists don’t mix, It feels like an amusement park more than a town. I know there must be so much more going on beneath the surface but it’s as completely invisible and inscrutable here as it would be from my lounge room in Brisbane.

Zac (travel partner) summed it up pretty well on his blog:
"Patong beach is a hub for the western world to satisfy every possible indulgence a person could ever have."
Having said all this, Phuket is what it is. It doesn’t pretend to be a cultural metropolis. It’s a place where tourists go to get absolutely shit-faced. To go wild and have a great time. It also seems to be a place where it’s impossible for a man over a certain age (about 50) to go without buying himself a Thai girlfriend. But that’s irrelevant. Phuket is fun. In fact, it’s a hell of a lot of fun. It’s a place to over indulge in just about everything. And despite what I said earlier, it’s beautiful. Long white beaches, tree covered hills flowing right down to the water’s edge and a freedom that you couldn’t hope for anywhere in Oz. I’d recommend it to anyone, especially those who’ve never travelled, particularly because I think it’s a place which would be seen better through the rose coloured glasses of an entirely new experience. Like I said, it didn’t particularly feel like another country to me. But this is because I’ve seen it all before to some extent. To someone who’s never left Australia, or even never been to Asia, the differences would be astonishing. Indeed it would feel less like a different country than an entirely new world.

I guess what I’m trying to say is the minor complaints I have with Phuket (and I really must stress they are minor) are not the fault of the island. They’re mine. When I think of my first trip to Asia, the thing which stands out most is my sense of wonder, the feeling of discovering something absolutely new. This isn’t something I was ever going to find in Phuket. Laos however, is looking like a great place to find it.

Friday, 18 November 2011

Asian Adventures Day 2: The Baby Elephant Walk

Yes, I've got a satchel. Who cares. Look at the damn elephant.

So last night we bought some suits. A lot of suits. Four suits and eight pairs of pants between us to be precise (3 for me, 1 for Zac). That's a lot of suits by anyone's definition.

As a direct result of the evening's extravagance, we tried to be as stingy as possible today. Free entertainment was the name of the game and scooters were the obvious means of transport. $8/day isn't exactly free but I'm not complaining.

The original plan was to head to a massive statue of Buddha on top of a hill, about an hour away. Instead we decided to go to some waterfalls, about the same distance away but in the opposite direction. Finally, we made the wise decision to just wing it.

We ended up at a really nice beach which almost had waves. Looking up to the mountains, we saw the Buddha we'd earlier forsaken. We redoubled our efforts to see the large fat man up close but ended up a good 10 km's away at a ridiculously golden temple.

I apologise for how tediously written the last paragraph was, but I'm keen to stop writing and go out.

One last thing, on the way home we saw a baby elephant wandering along the side of the road with its keeper. We stopped, fed it, got some photos and rode off. No biggie. This is why I love Thailand.

FOOD UPDATE: Turns out cold Asian chicken is totally fine!

Thursday, 17 November 2011

Asian Adventures BONUS POST: Fauxlosophy

As the title suggests, this is my attempt at a bit of philosophising.

A fairly uncomfortable flight has left me with this thought. "Man that was a fairly uncomfortable flight."

But more interestingly, also these ones:

  1. I wish there was a more comfortable way to travel.
  2. Even if there was we'd still find a way to complain about it.
  3. This love of whingeing is probably what's made humanity what it is today.
This sounds like wanky bullshit but I think it makes sense. If someone hadn't first thought riding horses was a bit shit, we never would've invented the wheel. Unhappiness is synonymous with a desire to make things better. The day we stop is whingeing is the day humanity starts its decline.

Day 1: Welcome to Thailand.

So it looks like this has temporarily become a travel blog. For the next 20ish days I'll be in Asia, and writing. If you've never been to Asia, hopefully you'll learn something useful or read an unusual story. If you have then you should at least be able to laugh at our mistakes. Whichever it is. Enjoy! (or not, that's really up to you.)

Pictures are a bit thin on the ground at this stage. But i think this one's cute.

One minute in the streets of Phuket was all it took for a kind local to offer me a prostitute. Impressive, even by Thai standards.

With that essential information out of the way, let’s begin.

For once we'd thought ahead. Zac had booked us into a guest house in Phuket a full two days before we even arrived. Unheard of. Unfortunately, he booked us for four nights when we only needed three. Even more unfortunately, it was in completely the wrong part of Phuket. Kind've the equivalent of going to Brisbane and staying in Strathpine.

We decided to cut our losses and find a new place closer to the action. That's $18 (for the remaining three nights) I won't be seeing again in a hurry. God I love Thailand.

Today can be summed up pretty easily. Beach, massage (the legitimate sort), and suits (the potentially illegitimate sort). Everything I've seen online has told me to steer clear of Thai suits. Needless to say, I'll be buying three.

Well that's it for today. Stay tuned for more borderline interesting stories.

FOOD UPDATE: My first meal included cold chicken. It'll be interesting to see how that one pans out.

Tuesday, 11 October 2011

Dropbox: Why I couldn't live without it.

Do you own a computer? Then you need Dropbox. That's how good this thing is. If you haven't heard of it then you should stop reading right now and click the link above.

Dropbox is simple. You create a new folder (the dropbox) and everything which is saved their is automatically uploaded to the service.

This folder stays synced with the cloud, meaning you have complete access to all your most important files wherever you are, on whatever device you choose.There's a fantastic mobile app and you can even set your Dropbox up across multiple computers meaning you don't even have to think about making sure you've saved the right copy of something to your USB key. 

You can even allow other users to access parts of your Dropbox for collaboration.

But I think its most useful application is when you need to access a file you had no idea you'd need. Instead of driving all the way home or making sure you always have your USB key with you, simply download the file from the web.

I can't even count the amount of times I've needed a file at uni or work and Dropbox has come to the rescue. To say I couldn't live without it is obviously a bit ridiculous but, it's definitely made my life immeasurably easier. And for an everyday low price of $0 for 2GB you'd be silly not to take advantage.

Friday, 7 October 2011

Brisbane Festival 2011 draws to a close

The final curtain has fallen on Brisbane Festival for another year, as encore performances came to a close this weekend.

The cultural extravaganza saw total attendance figures in excess of 850,000, a significant increase over last year’s festivities.

The festival’s artistic director Noel Staunton is extremely happy with how it was received.

“Our box office is doing well and people are enjoying the performances,” he said.

“We have a lot of standing ovations.”

The event thrilled and entertained audiences in a huge variety of venues around the city throughout November.

The festival, which included acts from all around the country and the world, came to its official close two weeks ago with massive shows from the likes of Kimbra and Bell Shakespeare.

However, a few more special events couldn’t fit the busy schedule and were presented as a series of encore shows.

The high energy dance of The LandOf Yes And The Land Of No, and the haunting theatre of Die Winterreise (TheWinter Journey) comprised the encore event series’ finale.

The festival played host to an all star cast of performers taking in everything from the high energy dance of Mortal Engine to the unconventional comedy of Sam Simmons.

In addition to the obvious artistic benefits, Mr Staunton says the festival's 700 odd performances have been a major boost for the city economically.

“The reality is they might pay the festival 60 or 100 dollars to see a performance but a hotel and an airplane ticket is costing them more money,” Mr Staunton said.

“It also establishes Queensland as a destination for an arts festival.”

The economic effects are not just limited to the city; the individual venues also experienced a significant increase in attendances coinciding with the festival.

The Brisbane Powerhouse theatre was one of the event’s key venues, and director Andrew Ross says the festival made a big impression.

“It’s always nice to have people in the venue,” he said, tongue in cheek.

“The powerhouse has been full of people... things have been pumping down here.”

Expressions Dance Company’s artistic director Natalie Weir says performing their show, First Ritual, as part of the festival has been a completely new experience for them.

“For us it was actually quite simple because Brisbane Festival looked after all of it,” she said.

“They talked to all of the Chinese, and they organised all of the flights and the accommodation, they looked after the box office.”

Ms Weir and her colleagues collaborated with Chinese dance company BeijingDance to bring the show to stage.

She also says the festival has brought a new and wider audience to the show, which played to enthusiastic crowds at the Brisbane Powerhouse.

“What I’ve noticed with the audiences is that a lot of people have come who probably normally wouldn’t come to our shows,” she said.

“There’s a real cross section of people.”

The many free events also proved immensely popular, with 30,000 people immersing themselves in South Bank’s Interactive Light Tunnel in the first week alone.

Mr Staunton says preparations are already under way for next year's festival, which promises to be just as entertaining, but he couldn't reveal any secrets.

Click the placemarks below for detailed venue information.
View Brisbane Festival 2011 in a larger map.

Tuesday, 4 October 2011

When even porn is free. Who will pay for news?

How to make money from journalism Part 2
Paywall, the word seems to be everywhere in the online journalism world these days but what does it really mean? And can we ever convince people that they have to pay for news online?

I won't bore you with the details because I'm guessing you're mostly already familiar with paywalls. If not, there's always Wikipedia (not that I condone its use of course).

At first glance, a paywall seems like a no brainer for a news site looking to increase its revenue. Start charging people for something that was previously free. Profits go up. Simple.

The problem with this sort of thinking is it doesn't take into account the (admittedly small) revenue generated by ads.

Every user that hits the paywall has to make a choice: Do they lay down the cash and keep reading, or simply find what they want elsewhere?

Source: Alexa

The above graph shows readers of The Times, in England, left in droves once the paywall was implemented. The smaller line represents the users who subscribed to the paid version of the site. It's impossible to know how this has affected profits without extensive advertising data from The Times but that's a lot of advertising traffic to lose for a relatively small gain in paid customers.

Source: Alexa
And this graph shows what happened to traffic when the New York Times introduced a paywall at the end of March. A massive spike as people checked out the shiny new wall, then traffic settled down to normal. If anything, it's actually increased since the paywall was implemented.

Traffic to The Times was decimated whereas NYT continued on as if nothing happened. So why the difference?

There are obviously many factors involved here (size, relative prestige of the paper, even visitor nationality), but the biggest one of all is moderation. NYT allows users to read 20 articles a month before throwing up the paywall, plus a further 5 from search results and unlimited links from social media. This may sound like a lot of free news but it means casual readers can still visit the site and hardcore followers still pay for the service.

It seems no matter how much free news/porn is out there, there will always be people willing to pay for premium content. If it's done right.

Sunday, 25 September 2011

Ok. You win. Old Media is kind of great

I was wrong. Now read closely because like most people, that's not something I say a lot. Several weeks ago in this very same blog I went slightly on the attack against Old Media, especially TV and radio news. I argued they were too passive, not immediate enough and basically just weren't new and sexy enough for my liking.

Well something's changed, the last two weeks I've been working hard. I mean properly hard, not uni student hard. 12 hour a days hard. And I've come to appreciate the passivity of Old Media. TV and radio certainly still have their place in today's world and I for one, hope they're not going anywhere soon.

A good friend of mine (and I use the term in the most optimistic way possible) @SpencerHowson once said to me:

At the time (about 7 weeks ago) I was too young and proud to admit it but now, gosh darn he's got a point. When a properly busy person gets up in the morning they don't have an hour to spare browsing the interwebz for every little news tidbit. What they often do have is a long drive to work, in a car which, unless it's stupidly old or stupidly sporty, will have a radio.

I feel I was more than a little unfair to TV news as well. After a hard day of tree wrangling (that's actually what I'm doing for work this week), nothing feels quite so good as to sit back on the couch and have the news spoon fed to me by people who know much more about it than I do.

Old Media: It's great, just try some.

Friday, 16 September 2011

How to make money from journalism Part 1: Advertising

The future of traditional journalism looks sketchy at best. Newspapers are dying, TV and radio viewers are switching off, online is the answer blah blah by now you should all know the spiel.

It's getting to the stage - scratch that, it's already well past the stage were we can continue to refer to the internet as some vague guardian angel who'll swoop down and save our sweet, news-gathering souls. Most news organisations well and truly missed the boat when it comes to bringing their content online and it's going to be a long, hard swim to catch up.

As with any emerging industry (which is what we have to consider journalism as, so massive are the fundamental changes occuring), everyone's got their own ideas of how to succeed. Unfortunately, at this stage none of them are very good. Essentially there are two philosophies on how to make money from online journalism: Advertising and Paywalls.

Advertising can be broken down into two main categories, Pay Per Click (PPC) and Pay Per Impression, both of which have distinct advantages and disadvantages.

PPC advertising is easily the least beneficial because advertisers only pay when someone actually clicks on the ad. Rates are much higher but studies suggest click through rates on these ads are at 0.1% and falling meaning the revenue stream is tiny.

For this reason, PPI is more beneficial because the advertiser gets charged every time an ad is served someone browsing the website. Unfortunately, because their is so much choice for advertisers on the net, rates for this sort of advertising have to be many many times cheaper than comparable ads in newspapers. If you charge too much, it's not too hard for companies to find somewhere else to advertise.

Many sites use a combination of both tactics to make a base sum of money from impressions and then treat any clicks as a bonus.

Coming Soon: Paywalls

Sunday, 11 September 2011

TV News online: The current situation

This video gives a comprehensive rundown of the Australian online TV news landscape.

Apologies, I just figured no blog is complete without tumbleweed (#interwebrulez). Excuse me also for using extreme hyperbole (also known as Hyperbowling) but our options are definitely pretty thin on the ground.

What they offer:

Channel 7

Channel 7’s solution is probably the best as far as an actual bulletin goes, they upload a short (seven or eight minutes) afternoon bulletin and also add most individual stories to the site after the evening news airs. Here's an example of the short bulletin from 25/08/2011:


The ABC, much lauded for its iView service, simulcasts their bulletin online on the News 24 channel, meaning you have to be there at 7 PM to tune in. This is great for people who live with parents or housemates who might want to watch Home and Away or the 7PM Project (both of which are of course available for viewing at a later date) but not a lot of use for people like me who simply aren't at home. I'll admit, the News 24 is a pretty phenomenal service to have available online but it's no reason to not put the nightly bulletin up as well. For overall online news quality, this has to be the winner.

Channel Ten and SBS

Channel Ten and SBS both offer an online 'Catch Up' service on which they offer the majority of their programming. Once again, news bulletins are the obvious exception.

Channel Nine

Channel Nine essentially offers the same service as Ten and SBS but with one extra little addition.

In my desperate search for news bulletins online I understandably started my quest with the following search term: "watch australian news bulletins online"

Channel Nine's website was first on Google and when I clicked the link I saw this message.

"Now you can watch the nightly Nine News bulletin online, just as you would on television."

Perfect! I thought. How easy was that!

Only to be confronted with this nasty little disclaimer a little later on.

"Note: Bulletins will only screen at 6pm and are not viewable at other times."

The fact they have set up a special section of their website purely for this 'service' absolutely astounds me and shows that more than  any other channel they've failed to understand not only the potential of the internet but the basic way it operates. 

One of the major reasons the internet is so popular is because it's always there. You don't log onto Facebook only to find it's not open for another half hour. Google.com.au doesn't keep regular business hours. 

Channel Nine's version of news online

If these stations are going to offer all other their programming online, there is absolutely NO REASON for the nightly news not to be included.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

Why can't I just watch the news online?

Despite, what many people seem to think, I’m a pretty busy guy.  I study at uni full time, live away from home doing all my own cooking cleaning etc, hold down two jobs and play a whole lot of sport.

All this boring background info means I don’t get much spare time. And when I do, the chances of it being between six and 7:30PM on a weeknight (when the news is on) are remarkably slim.

Unfortunately, and surprisingly, given how far we’ve come recently with TV stations offering their content online*, this means I rarely get a chance to watch a nightly news bulletin.

I can come home at 10:30 and tune into any variety of shows from all the major free to air stations but I can’t watch the news.

When I asked Seven Brisbane’s Director of News, Rob Raschke why the station didn’t simply upload the whole bulletin to its PLUS7 service he admitted he was frustrated by the issue.

He said he had no idea why the bulletin wasn’t available online but suspected it might be due to a misguided belief it would erode viewership of the TV bulletin.

But as he readily admitted, no one is guying to watch the news on the computer when they can watch it on TV.

“We saw the same attitude when we tried to get the radio simulcast started,” he said.

He believes it’s only a matter of time before we see full news bulletins online and I certainly hope he’s right.

ABC, Seven, Nine, Ten and SBS all offer some sort of online 'Catch Up' service where users can watch the majority of their content weeks after it airs.

Next Week: A rundown of the current online TV news options

Monday, 22 August 2011

Gaddafi Dead. But which one?

Today twitter brought us a classic tale, full of drama conflict and hope. It had everything, drama, conflict, cliff hangers and one big ol’ red herring. I’m going to tell it as every good story should be told, with a series of screen captures from twitter. No need to thank me for the tip James Cameron.

For those of you reading this (i.e. no one) who don’t use twitter (even more likely to be no one) I’ll fill you in on the details. In the early hours of this morning Libya’s rebel forces stormed the capital, Tripoli, and seized control. Or as it was so eloquently put by author and activist Reza Aslan:

As you can imagine, news of the conflict, and indeed the build up to the conflict, spread across twitter like wildfire (feel free to substitute for any other metaphors you may feel are appropriate. Maybe something like set the twitterverse ablaze?) The graphs below from hashtags.org show the massive spike in tweets surrounding the terms 'Libya' and 'Gaddafi' as the action began to heat up.

The tension was palpable, you could almost feel the rival news agencies straining at the bit to be the first to break the news of Muammar Gaddafi’s capture or death. If it was followed shortly after by a news conference from President Obama (a la the death of Osama) then all the better.

Unfortunately the Libyan tyrant hadn’t read the script. At this stage the world still doesn’t know what happened to him or where, if anywhere he escaped to, but of course there are rumours.

One thing we do know for sure, Muammar Gaddafi was not detained in the early hours of this morning as was suggested by this tweet.

Reuters, supposedly one of the world’s premier and most respected news agencies was forced to tweet a retraction shortly after as it became clear the source was referring to Gaddafi’s son, Saif al-islam Gaddafi.

UPDATE: It turns out word of Saif Gaddafi's capture may have been a lie spread by the rebels in order to encourage more Regime supporters to defect. Awkward. Here's a tweet from @mchancecnn regarding this. Take it with a grain of salt as there's every possibility his account may have been hacked. Especially given the slightly perilous situation he and the other journos at the Rixos Hotel in Tripoli are in. 

Throughout the day, rumours have continued to fly, some very likely true but others based in what can only be described as fact in the same way Wikipedia can be. in the end I think Chas Licciardello summed up twitter's reaction to today's events better than anyone.

Oh and here's a little something to explain my (some would argue highly annoying) overuse of brackets.

Friday, 19 August 2011

The big problem with Google News

Last week I was pretty full on with my praise for Google News. I still think it’s great, but it’s a long, long way from perfect. So today I'm going to open up the door to the dark side and have a bit of a whinge.

The biggest problem with Google News is the way it ranks news results, giving priority to newer editions from larger organisations rather than the original.  For the average user, this isn’t a problem. They still get the same news, just from a different source, with a slightly different angle.

For publishers though, the consequences are huge. The way Google displays news is actually a disincentive to ‘break’ a story (MG Siegler from TechCrunch talks about this in more depth here. He's usually a bit of a jerk but he's spot on in this case.) Last Night’s top story on Google News was a perfect example of this. The picture below shows the 'Full Coverage' section for that story. Five articles, by my reckoning just about identical, (feel free to compare them for yourself with the links at the bottom of the article) yet the first article to be published sits at the bottom of the pile. 

The Original Story from the Northcote Leader (actually published 6 hours ago) sits at the bottom

This article was actually published about 6 hours earlier (not four like Google thought)

Of course a big reason for this is the relative obscurity of the Northcote Leader when compared with the ABC Online, causing Google's algorithm to place more weight on the 'trusted source'. But there lies the problem. One of the key values Google uses to determine how trusted the site may be is how often people click on it from the news page. A higher ranked site will obviously get more clicks. You don't have to be a genius to foresee the vicious circle that follows. 

The picture below is a perfect example of the culmination of this cycle. Four of the top five articles in the Australian section come form the Sydney Morning Herald, meaning for all the potential variety and choice Google News promises we may as well have just gone to smh.com.au.

Here are links to the screenshots, as promised.





Saturday, 13 August 2011

Why Google News is the best news site on the web.

Editorial bias. How often do we hear this accusation? Whether thrown about carelessly by rival news organisations (see this Media Watch example) or delivered with some merit, it's a nasty concept to deal with.

Recently we’ve seen this issue come to a head with some Labor politicians claiming certain publications are biased in their coverage of climate change. Now this is obviously motivated by more than just a desire for the public to be informed but it can definitely be argued they have a point.

The fact is, as I mentioned in my last post, when we read the newspaper, watch TV, or listen to the news, someone has decided what we should watch. Even on the websites of news giants like CNN and the BBC, one or many people, all with their own personal biases, is controlling what you can read.

Now obviously this will be the case with whatever you read. Every single word ever written is influenced in some way or another by the biases, whether explicit or subconscious, their writer. But what Google News does is give the reader more choice, whilst also providing the reader with an effective way to distil almost infinite amounts of new content into a manageable content package.

It does this with a modified version of its search algorithm, thus removing human bias from the news delivery process as much as possible. Google does a pretty good job of explaining the philosophy behind Google News here and a great explanation of the search algorithm can be found here.

What makes Google News stand out from news organisations' websites is variety and personalisation. The picture below shows just a couple of the great features the website offers.

The ability to view 'multiple sources' of a story at once is very useful when trying to find the whole story and even when searching for new angles. The service aggregates articles which it believes are similar and when they are displayed, you have the option to click on any of the top few article links. Alternatively, you can select "All __ News Articles" and browse to the version you want.

The personalisation box in the graphic points to three ways an individual user can customise the page to their needs. The arrow on the left points to the "Recommended" section where (provided the user is logged in with their Google account) they can see articles which Google thinks will appeal to them. It uses a variety of factors such as news history and web searches to calculate this.

The middle arrow points to an option to increase or decrease the amount of stories shown for each section (Top Stories, Australian, Technology etc.). Finally, the arrow on the right points to the News Search box. From here the user can enter any term they like in order to keep up with news relating to that subject. From there they can add it as a permanent section on their news page or even create an alert so they are emailed when new relevant articles are found. The potential for this in terms of news gathering and keeping across a breaking story is huge. In an article on the Walkley Foundation website, Claire Wardle talks about her experience with the New Zealand earthquakes, where she found this tool invaluable.

For everything from casual news browsing to intense research, Google News is a great tool for journalists.

As you can tell, I'm a bit of a fan. So just to keep things interesting....

Coming next week: The problem with Google News

Tuesday, 2 August 2011

New vs old media. Why it's an unfair fight.

Every day, more and more people use the internet as their major source of news. Newspaper circulation is dropping, TV viewing figures are falling and the iPod has all but killed the radio yet news websites continue to see their page views sky rocket. There are two major reasons for this: convenience and interactivity.

As smartphone ownership continues to grow, more and more people carry the internet with them in their pocket. This is hugely significant for online news consumption. All the people who are too busy to sit down and read the paper every morning or watch the evening news can now read the headlines while they’re on the bus (Pulse is a great examples of news on the go and many news organisations have their own apps). The same goes for radio. Those who prefer to listen to their own music instead of the same canned garbage over and over again on the radio can listen to any of the days stories with a mouse clickThe entire internet is available 24/7 with no program scheduling or ad breaks, most of the content is free. I'd like to say there's also much less Bieber and Taylor Swift, but that would be a lie.

The second reason people are flocking to the internet for their news is that it has an inherent advantage over the old news delivery mediums. The one thing TV, newspapers and radio have in common is an editor, or producer, program director etc. The name changes but the role is always the same. This person chooses what you view. If they don’t think it’s newsworthy, it won’t be published or broadcast. Spencer Howson informs me this is what's known as a Zero Sum Game, for one article to be included, another must miss out.

The problem with this model is not everyone considers the same things newsworthy.  Someone who’s interested in the latest round of Masterchef gossip may not be interested in the developments in the US debt ceiling crisis; but by the same token, they might be. It is impossible for an editor to gauge what each individual member of their audience would consider newsworthy, and even if they could, there’s not a lot they can do with the results. Because of this, TV and radio news bulletins often have at least as much irrelevant content as relevant. Newspapers give the reader a much wider choice of content but lose out when it comes to multimedia integration.

The internet is the place where all the best aspects of the old mediums come together. The reader has an almost infinite choice when it comes to what to read, exponentially greater than what is available in even the biggest of newspapers. Additionally, if an article could benefit from multimedia in any way, it can be included with the click of a button (it took me literally five seconds to add the above video, less time than it took to typ this sentence!). Essentially, the internet is an interactive news medium whereas the old delivery methods are passive. If someone sees something interesting on the evening news and they want more information, they have to hope for a follow up story the following night.  Alternatively, they can reach for their phone, tablet or computer and Google it to find out more. The internet enables people to control how, when, where and what news they absorb. It’s no wonder radio, TV and newspapers are struggling to keep up.