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

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.