Challenges for the net generation

I commented in The Courier Mail about how Internet services such as Twitter impact journalism and peoples’ relationship to news.

Challenges for the net generation
Challenges for the net generation

The web has had a profound impact on how news is gathered and defined – ultimately how we see our world, writes Suzanne Dorfield.

ON SEPTEMBER 11, 2001, billions of people watched television coverage of
the New York World Trade Centre terror attack.

In May this year, internet users were reblogging the news of Osama bin
Laden’s death – news that broke in a tweet.

From the news tickers in Times Square to news radio listened to on
iPhones, there’s a sea of information never seen or heard before. The
business of breaking news, once reserved exclusively for dedicated media
organisations, has been fragmented in the wake of Web 2.0 heralding the
rise, in 2004, of user-generated internet content.

People in the midst of major events like Queensland’s January floods or
Britain’s riots can let the world know what they’re seeing, augmenting
the work of professional journalists.

Social media expert, the University of Queensland’s Dr Sean Rintel, says
the speed at which a person in the street can send images of a burning
building to others is what defines this new method of creating news.
“What we’re going through is a period of transformation,” he says.
“The internet has only appeared in the past 40 years. This is massively
new stuff. It’s a personal broadcasting medium and it’s quite special
because of that. There’ll still be a place for news organisations to
collect news and analyse data but I doubt news organisations will have
the lock on ‘We break the news’.”

As the web has expanded it has presented challenges for traditional
media.

At the turn of the century, the revenue newspapers received from
advertising started to dry up as corporations pursued internet
advertising.

And so the print media has embraced the internet, with most corporations
now publishing editions on a range of platforms, including online and
iPad and smartphone applications, or apps, as well as their printed
products.

More resources are being directed to their “rolling” 24-hour, online
editions, with newsroom production teams able to upload stories,
pictures and audio and video recordings filed by journalists on the road
equipped with iPads, smartphones and other hi-tech gadgetry.
Today the number of unique browsers, readers, on The Courier-Mail newspaper’s online edition – is greater than the population of Brisbane, with some two million readers a month.

Uploading the news

News sites such as Crikey! and America’s The Huffington Post have attracted readers despite existing only in the digital domain.

Online news sites are able to attract young readers through social
media, using fun multimedia content and their reporting of niche stories
like videogame and pop culture news.

Other web-only information sources are less mainstream, with the rise of
blogs and RSS feeds – the uploading of raw information to websites –
making it possible for anyone to write about anything from how their
morning cuppa tastes to rumours they’ve heard about high-profile
companies.

Celebrity reporter Perez Hilton became famous after creating his
self-titled blog which features famous people at their worst.
So now we have access to updated information 24 hours a day simply by
visiting websites, feeds and blogs, as well as dedicated news sites.

However, links to stories people post on their Facebook walls tend to focus on the quirky and gossipy rather than the educational.

“Does social media break all the news or the best news? Well those are
different questions,” Rintel says. “I think people have less general
knowledge skills than they did a generation ago, but they have a whole
bunch of new skills.

“There’s the potential to be drowned in entertainment and not get to
the educational stuff.”

Perhaps Rintel is right and people are more engaged by images of cats
doing funny things or videos of Charlie Sheen ranting, than by clicking
on stories about foreign policy.

And while gossip magazines have always thrived on such subjects, the
sheer variety of information people have to choose from means they can
end up knowing all about internet culture but nothing about what’s
happening in their own community.

Real-time news

But when both the real world and the internet work in
harmony great things can be achieved.

The famous YouTube video shot during the January floods showing cars in
Toowoomba being washed away like bath toys has been watched by more than
seven million people and conveyed the disaster’s severity in a way that
challenged the best of all words written about the event.

As well, during Queensland’s summer of weather mayhem, the Queensland
Police Service proved the benefit of using social media to communicate
events. The number of people following the QPS’s Facebook updates went
from 8000 “likes” in December 2010 to 180,000 after Cyclone Yasi in
February this year.

The QPS posted videos of press conferences, updates about road closures,
safety messages and information about places being evacuated.
They also used the hashtag #mythbusters to dispel rumours about what was
not happening.

“We had many tweets and Facebook comments from people who sat through
Cyclone Yasi in their bathroom, watching the livestream media
conferences with the Premier on their smartphones, and posting on our
page,” says Simon Kelly from the QPS media division.

“Many commented on how it was a lifeline for them, knowing they weren’t
alone, and that everyone was aware of what was happening to them.

“Social media proved to be particularly valuable in distributing public
safety updates to affected people and receiving information from them in
a disaster situation.”

The QPS’s Facebook followers have kept increasing and Kelly says the
informal tone of the medium means they are able to have two-way
conversations, even jokes here and there.

“Recent updates about cows on the Gateway Motorway have been
particularly popular, although we are running out of bad cow puns,” he
says.

Not the news

But the benefit of getting information straight from a
source also has a downside – anyone is able to post anything and not all
of it is accurate. While trusted sources such as the QPS are able to
spread useful accurate information, scammers and hackers have the same
ability to con people.

Sometimes there will be a link that pops up on a friend’s Facebook
account that alleges to lead to a funny story, only to exploit the
user’s account once they click to gather personal information and
propagate itself. Even news agencies have been duped, picking up and
running with something posted online that later turns out to be
incorrect.

Last May, a number of television broadcasters screened footage from
images originally posted on YouTube that had been reposted on blogs and
social networks in the midst of the Middle East’s Jasmine Revolution.
The images were alleged to have been of Syrian troops brutalising
protesters, holding guns to their heads. It has since been revealed by
the ABC’s Media Watch program the footage was filmed in Lebanon and was
uploaded to YouTube in 2008, long before Syrian revolutionaries took to
the streets.

What’s next?As the first generation born after the rise of the web ages,
the current landscape of social media will also continue to evolve.
Many people who have concerns about Facebook’s privacy policies are
trying out the new Google Plus social network, which developers say
“aims to make sharing on the web more like sharing in real life”.

And this is at a time when traditional news outlets brainstorm about how
to make their online editions pay for themselves, with many planning to
charge readers so they can earn revenue from the resources being
channelled into their 24-hour, rolling news coverage.

At the same time iPad editions are burgeoning and editions for other
platforms, including smartphones, are being launched.

No one knows quite what the future holds, but people such as Rintel do
know it will be vastly different from what we have now. “Look how much
television managed to evolve in just a few decades,” he says. “If you
get generations of people, all of whom have grown up with the net, then
it will be transformed again.”

The Courier Mail | The Sunday Mail

Dorfield, S. (2011, August 27-28). Challenges for the net generation. The Courier Mail, Headstart pp. 72-73.

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