Untangling the Web: News polygamists

A new Jpost.com column on the ever-changing world of news online: Google Translate opens boundaries but reputation reigns supreme.

Selection of newspapers 311 (photo credit: The Jerusalem Post archives)
Selection of newspapers 311
(photo credit: The Jerusalem Post archives)
It’s a quiet Saturday afternoon, a perfect time to catch up on the week’s news. A couple sits at the kitchen table with the papers spread out around them, cups of tea and a stack of toast. They’ve got Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post, in their native English; Yediot Aharanot with an English-Hebrew dictionary. Also on the table is a copy of the previous day’s Al-Masry al-Youm from Cairo, along with an Egyptian Arabic-English dictionary, as well as The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Daily Mail, The Guardian, and the New York Jewish Week, all a day old due to shipping delays. They also have the shelf with the full set of Encyclopedia Britannica pulled over next to them, for just-in-case reference. On top of that, there’s four transistor radios on the table, picking up frequencies from both sides of the Jordan Valley, and a television with the local news playing in the background.
An unlikely scenario.
Far more likely: same couple, tea, toast, two laptops, one wireless router. Because online, the first scenario is not strange in the slightest; many users have all that and more open in single browser window when they’re catching up on the news.
And this isn’t about print versus digital. This is mono vs poly. The advent of the Internet has heralded the end of news source monogamy, and instead encourages playing the field. We’re no longer confined to reading papers written only in languages we can read, we needn’t give over money or loyalty to peruse the work of those with whom we disagree. And to top it all off, we can read, watch and listen to it all from the comfort of our own homes.
The Internet has turned us into news polygamists.
The Pew Research Center’s most recent State of the News Media report found that the Web was the only news medium which is gaining ground as a platform of choice; it’s not hard to understand why.
The range of news choices with which we are presented online today means that consumers don’t need to take any one's word for it anymore. If a story seems off, check another source; if you’re interested in a different angle, chances are it’s out there somewhere. All you need is decent search engine skills or your news aggregation site of choice, and a high-speed Internet connection.
At the end of last month, for example, pro-Palestinian activists were planning a flotilla to set sail for the Gaza Strip, to protest Israel’s naval blockade of the territory. The AFP headline, which ran in various international publications, was “Israel plots ways to repel new flotilla,” whereas The Jerusalem Post ran the headline “Navy readies to prevent flotilla from reaching Gaza,” and the Haaretz headline that same week was “Israel prepping to block next Gaza flotilla.”
The stories themselves were almost identical, and yet one headline conjures images of scheming naval commandos, and the other two simple military preparedness. If readers were to see the wire headline in an international paper and decide to check out a local source, regardless of their political leaning, they would have gained a fuller understanding of the situation.
All it takes is reading a few different headlines – there’s no need to subscribe to the range of print editions spread on our couple’s kitchen table. That’s expensive and impractical, and that’s even before we touch on language barriers – the fat dictionaries stacked on our couple’s table.
Enter Google Translate: Interested in local Syrian coverage of anti-government riots? How the Japanese are celebrating their recent World Cup victory? Just click and translate.
Of course, the system is not perfect, but the machine translation site, which was first introduced for Arabic, has opened up the media and broken down global barriers in a way which was previously not possible. While the statistical method that the site uses to translate text, which means that grammatical rules are not applied, can at times render text almost unintelligible, by and large it means we can read news in languages that we don’t know a word of, which changes the game in a significant way.
It should be noted at this stage there is no reliable Google Translate equivalent for audio and video, though that’s not far off either. In the meantime, we’re confined to getting our television and radio news in languages which we understand, or with captions where possible.
Which brings us to the transistor radios and the television set surrounding our newspaper couple at their table. The fact that a high percentage of radio and television stations are now webcasting live has also had a huge effect on this shift to news source polygamy. It’s no longer necessary to choose a favorite radio station, or to decide which channel’s 8 p.m. news we prefer. Now, we can listen to one broadcast in real time, and download the podcasts for any others that interest us. Brand loyalty is sliding as a persuasive factor in news consumption.
Of course, this isn’t to say that loyalty doesn’t exist. Friends, acquaintances, readers and total strangers tell me on an almost-daily basis of their preference for a certain news source, but rarely do they say anything about exclusivity.
On the contrary, those who are most interested in current affairs are reading op-eds and even hard news pieces from papers with editorial lines with which they decidedly disagree, just to see what the “other side” is saying. Sometimes they’re looking for the other side of the story, and at other times maybe they’re just looking to rile themselves up. Either way, the benefit is that for the most part, there’s no need to buy a paper on the other side of the political spectrum – it’s free online.
Well, it has been for the past two decades anyway. If the recent attempts to monetize the industry prove successful, we may well be pulled back towards monogamy in order to save a buck, but in the meantime, we can pick and choose largely for free.
Now, this is all happening along a scale, and within certain limits. There are extremes on both sides of the spectrum that are not interested in anything the other has to say, online or in print, and there are the rare Internet users who check one source only. But by and large, news consumers are branching out, and overall it seems to be a good thing for journalism. Why? Because they’re keeping the industry honest. And yes, I see the irony in using the words “honest” and “journalism” so close together amid the recent News of the World scandal.
The bottom line is that this shift in online news consumption means that people are demanding an even higher standard from news organizations. This is true specifically in the West, but also in third world and developing countries and where dictatorships and censorship policies are in place. The ease and speed of communication the world over are making it harder and harder to conceal information – for individuals, companies and governments, and, of course, for news organizations. Putting a shady spin on a story to fit a certain editorial line is far more difficult to do when, with the click of a button, the reader can pull up five different versions of the same story.
The speed factor is where it gets tricky, where it seems to be more about the technology and less about the content. If news providers want to keep themselves in the rotation, the first thing they need is news, and it has to be accurate and well-written. But that alone is not enough. A site can run a beautifully written piece, with a great headline, all the best quotes, and the perfect photo, but if no one is visiting the site or linking to it, the story is worthless.
Because it’s all about reputation. While the factors above might speak to individual readers who go straight to the site that they trust, it’s the news aggregation sites that really need to be won over. With the huge range of material online, more and more people rely on sites such as Yahoo and Google News to guide their choices, turning them into the pimps of 21st century news. Sites need to get their good stories up fast, or they won’t get linked and they won’t get read.
And so, under the watchful eyes of the world’s news-junkie-polygamists, there’s no where left to hide; news sites need to fight for readers’ affections or they’ll get left behind.
The writer is The Jerusalem Post’s Internet desk manager