29 May 2008

Switching to digital media for the news

“There are those of us who no longer read a newspaper’s print edition, and we’re not coming back. It’s now time to consider some options to keep Web readers on the hook – and to even turn them into profits.”
Steve Outing, journalist

I gave up reading newspapers in the early 1990s and switched to TV. My morning ritual was to switch on my TV and watch the news on BBC World and CNN. A mug of steaming coffee in hand, I would switch channels between BBC World and CNN, and compare the news and its treatment by the two news delivery agencies. Much later in the day would I look at the newspapers – mainly to catch up on national and local news.

Today, even this ritual has changed. I, now, rely on the Internet for most of my news: international, national and local. Not to mention gathering news from email alerts I receive every day. Of course, I understand that, in India, with her growing print publications and TV channels attracting more and more readers and viewers every year, I’m in an insignificant minority. But internationally, I seem to belong to a new segment of media consumers.

According to Steve Outing, in his article Serving Those Who Don't Read the Print Edition in Editor & Publisher, “the growing number of people like me – those who used to read print editions of newspapers but have switched to digital media for their news – as well as people who have never read newspapers but still have needs for local news and information” need to be served news differently – most certainly digitally – by news organisations.

“And it’s not only because new technology provides an excellent – many would say better – alternative to the old printed form,” says Outing in his article. “There are environmental concerns about supporting a product that consumes precious resources: trees for the product and oil for delivery. Continuing to receive printed newspapers delivered by pollution-spewing delivery vehicles when an environmentally friendly digital alternative is available is also a moral choice that a growing number of people will make in the years ahead, as the Green movement continues to gain momentum.”

Although important, still leaving environmental concerns aside, Outing points out that, “Those of us who’ve given up the newspaper print edition haven’t changed all that much. We still want news – just in a format that’s more relevant to our lives in the age of the broadband Internet and mobile connectivity. We haven’t given up on newspapers; we’ve given up on the traditional platform. Former print-edition readers still want the news delivered to them, so newspaper publishers need to put more effort into developing useful digital delivery services.”

Steve Outing has a great deal more to say on this topic, recommending possible solutions to today’s media companies. If you’re keen on reading Outing’s entire article in Editor & Publisher online, you can find it here.

[Citation: Serving Those Who Don't Read the Print Edition by Steve Outing, Editor & Publisher, Stop The Presses By Steve Outing, 28 May 2008.]

27 May 2008

Books aren’t going to be enough

“But most cultural practices stop at the scale of human collectives: cities, economies, networks. You need to understand how communities now share information online in order to understand the complexity of today’s video games.”

– Steven Johnson in his book Everything Bad Is Good For You

The fact that books aren’t going to be enough to keep today’s youngsters occupied, excited and honed on their skills is an argument Steven Johnson has been proposing for a while. In his 2005 book (with a bright pink cover - paperback issue), Everything Bad Is Good For You, Johnson questions the popular notion that video games, TV and the Internet are responsible for dumbing down our intelligence.

On the contrary, he proposes that popular culture – with video games, TV and the Internet in its forefront – has actually helped increase the IQ levels of Americans in recent years. Johnson’s contention is that today’s video games, TV serials, films and the Internet are so complex that they actually engage our problem-solving faculties. He says that the complexity of these media force us to apply our minds and develop critical thinking skills, which a book never does.

No, Johnson doesn’t throw books by the wayside (in fact, he has written several), but argues that though books have – and add – value, video games force players to make choices, solve problems, keep track of complex situations and, in some cases, cooperate with other players to achieve a personal win. To an extent, suggests Johnson, even TV and films encourage our participation and use of intelligence. But the leader, by far, in the category is the Internet as it also encourages social interaction.

I’m not sure if I can agree with Steven Johnson when he proposes that video games, TV, films and the Internet actually help increase IQ levels. As far as I know, there is no such supporting data available in India. But I do agree with him on the point that non-literary media like video games, TV, films and, definitely, the Internet are important in our lives today. Today’s youngsters, and on occasions we too, thrive on such media and are likely to build their/our futures on them, rather than on books.

[Citation: Everything Bad Is Good For You: How Today's Popular Culture Is Actually Making Us Smarter by Steven Johnson.]

26 May 2008

A telling story

The way youngsters consume media today may be a telling story. It may give us a few pointers on the way news, entertainment and even education ought to be designed, packaged and distributed in the future.

In an interview to The Editor’s Weblog recently, Kathleen Carroll, Executive Editor and Senior Vice President of the Associated Press, suggested that, “It no longer is an assumption that text is the default and only way to tell a story.”

Ms Carroll felt, “It’s the best way to get the fast word out.” “Only now,” quotes The Editor’s Weblog from that interview, “AP reporters also think about the most appropriate media to tell a story, which will be of most use to customers.” This thought certainly turns print journalism upside down, eroding its dominant role in the distribution of news.

The point made by the Economist.com article, From literacy to digiracy (see my previous post), on whether “our pedagogical tools are inconsistent with the skills needed” is also worth considering.

Youngsters today are not only consuming huge amounts of electronic/digital media outside their school/college curriculum, they are actually enjoying the experience far more than they do reading textbooks or attending lectures. In doing so, their skills in handling and experimenting with electronic/digital media are developing more rapidly than what our traditional means of education can impart.

And yet, and especially in India, there’s been very little improvement in the way education is designed, packaged and distributed for consumption by these youngsters. No wonder youngsters are moving away from textbooks and lectures, and getting hooked onto the Internet, video games, mobilephones and the TV. Can we blame them?

[Citation: Associated Press 2.0: 1-2-3 filing for all stories, The Editor’s Weblog, posted by Jean Yves Chainon, 21 May 2008.]

22 May 2008

Young media consumers redefine literacy

The Economist.com article I had quoted from in my previous post, From literacy to digiracy, ends with:

“So, no surprise that when we incarcerate teenagers of today in traditional classroom settings, they react with predictable disinterest and flunk their literacy tests. They are skilled in making sense not of a body of known content, but of contexts that are continually changing.

Teachers must recognise that our pedagogical tools are inconsistent with the skills needed to survive in a world where people are always connected to everyone and everything. In such a world, learning to think for oneself could well be more important than simply learning to read and write.”

These words are important to us not only as social commentary, but also because of their prophetic value.

When I look at the digital world around me and, particularly, the consumption of digital/electronic media by today’s youngsters, I am certain that the traditional definitions and associations of the term ‘literacy’ need to be reviewed. And, along with it, more appropriate learning/teaching methods – or, what the Economist.com article calls ‘pedagogical tools’ – need to be invented.

In the West, this need is already critically apparent in the world of news consumption. More and more youngsters in the 18-34 years age group are consuming their news digitally, and not from their morning papers. Newspaper readership is on a downward slide as youngsters are choosing Internet news channels and portals, e-newsletters and even emailed news from friends, to source their daily news from.

A recent study by Associated Press, aimed to better understand the behaviours of young readers in the 18-34 years age group, has found that not only is consumption of printed news by this group declining, youngsters today are actually sourcing and sharing news with each other through text messages, emails and social networks… which are popular and powerful media channels today, but discounted by traditional media.

According to a report in The Editor’s Weblog, Jim Kennedy, VP and Director of Strategic Planning at Associated Press, suggests: “These young consumers are looking up to news as a form of social currency.”

[Citation: AP study of young media consumers: “they want the back story”, The Editor’s Weblog, posted by Jean Yves Chainon, 21 May 2008.]

20 May 2008

Technology is changing our perception of literacy

“For anyone under the age of 20, the world being experienced is one where the internet has always existed, and where everyone who matters is only a click, speed dial or text message away. “Tomorrow’s adults,” says Mr [Mark] Federman [of the McLuhan Programme in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto], “live in a world of ubiquitous connectivity and pervasive proximity.” Their direct experience of the world is wholly different from yours or mine.”

– quote from a recent article From literacy to digiracy on Economist.com

When a friend proposed that, with the advent of computers and the Internet, reading has become a thing of the past, I argued back. I felt that, on the contrary, reading has become popular again – thanks to the Internet. The only difference is that, today, the reading page has become digital – and decidedly vertical. To put it in an old-fashioned way, today, people are sitting up and reading. (My school teachers would have been happy to see this.)

That’s because computers and the Internet bring with them their own charm. To start with, computers and the Internet provide access to volumes and volumes of reading material we never knew existed. And, we are delighted to read them now, as they open our minds and increase our knowledge manifold.

Second, computers and the Internet bring with them still images, audio, animation and video – which means photos, music, movies and video games on our fingertips. It means colour and action. It means participation and interactivity. It means a whole new world of entertainment.

And finally, computers and the Internet bring with them connectivity and openness, encouraging us to create and contribute to the larger communication and socio-cultural processes… and touch each other’s lives.

But, it hasn’t always been this easy. Perhaps, it still isn’t. When I see the detractors of technology come charging at me on their high horses, the best I can do is blog about my thoughts and feelings. Once again, thanks to computers and the Internet. So, I was delighted to read an article on Economist.com, titled From literacy to digiracy, which discusses these same issues.

Here are some excerpts:

“Literacy may be under attack from electronic media, but that’s actually nothing new. In fact, the assault on the written word began not with the Macintosh computer in 1984, but with Samuel Morse’s demonstration of the telegraph in 1844 — an innovation a colleague on The Economist insists, quite correctly, on calling the “Victorian internet”.

In an essay on why Johnny and Janey can’t read (and why Mr and Ms Smith can’t teach), Mark Federman of the McLuhan Programme in Culture and Technology at the University of Toronto, argued that the telegraph was the first to “undo” the effects of the written word.

Where the phonetic alphabet separated the sound of a word from its meaning; and encoded that sound in symbols we call letters; and combined those symbols into hierarchical groupings called words, sentences, paragraphs and, ultimately, books; the telegraph recombined those symbols with sound — enabling the instantaneous transmission of information from person to person across vast distances.

If the telegraph was the starting point, Mr Federman reckons we are probably half way through a 300-year transition out of the world of mass literacy. That world began when Johannes Gutenberg introduced the printing press in 1455, and gave birth along the way to the Reformation, the Age of Reason, the Enlightenment, the Scientific Method, and finally the Industrial Revolution — not to mention the modern era of newspapers, universal education and, yes, mass literacy.

Why 300 years? Because that’s how long it takes to reform social institutions. It’s the period needed for a generation to cease hearing about the way things used to be done from great-grandparents, who had heard about such things from their own great-grandparents.”

[Citation: From literacy to digiracy, Economist.com, 16 May 2008.]

17 May 2008

Technology today has its beginnings in our past

Several ‘generation now’ friends of mine responded with dismay to my previous posts. They said that their generation (typically 15-24 years) was indeed unique: more adventurous, passionate and technologically savvy than any others they knew of. They felt (a) my previous posts glorified older people unnecessarily, (b) using the ‘generation now’ tag for anybody over 25 years of age was incorrect, and (c) the Internet was truly theirs.

Well, I told them about Steve Jobs. Born in 1955 (that makes him 53 years of age –old enough to be a father-figure to the ‘generation now’), Steve Jobs is not only the co-founder of Apple, but also a man greatly admired for his contribution to today’s technology: computers, design, user interfaces, graphics, animation, the iPod and the iPhone.

Like Steve Jobs, there are others who would fail the 15-24 years age group test for ‘generation now’, but could still call the Internet truly theirs. Here’s a small list:

Sabeer Bhatia of Hotmail, born 1968. Jeff Bezos of Amazon.com, born 1964. Jerry Yang (born 1968) and David Filo (born 1966) of Yahoo!. Tom Anderson (born 1975) and Chris DeWolfe (born 1966) of MySpace. Sergey Brin (born 1973) and Larry Page (born 1973) of Google. Steve Chen (born 1978) and Chad Hurley (born 1977) of YouTube. The youngest person from this eminent list (and there are many others I haven’t included) is 30 years of age.

In my opinion, these gentlemen are just as adventurous, passionate and technologically savvy as today’s ‘generation now’.

Anyway, the idea is not to argue over who is the real ‘generation now’. After all, ‘generation now’ is a socio-cultural classification identifying the habits, behaviour and psychographic profile of today’s youngsters. The idea is to acknowledge the fact that everything evolves over time. Technology today, as much as our socio-cultural habits and behaviour, and our psychographic profile, all have their beginnings in our past.

12 May 2008

Nothing happens in a vacuum

Nothing happens in a vacuum; specifically when we speak of socio-cultural phenomena. Societies, traditions and culture evolve over time, carrying with them values, lifestyles and practices that people adopt and adapt to according to their needs.

In other words, things that are happening today have antecedents going back many years – some going way back to our days as cavemen, or even earlier.

For those of you who are jumping with joy, claiming the iPhone as a creation of your generation alone, here’s the real story: there would be no iPhone without a mobilephone, and no mobilephone without a telephone before that.

In fact, the need for a telephone is connected to our primal need to communicate with each other. This means, even in the field of technology, what we experience today has been around for several/many years, in some form or the other.

Socio-culturally, what is likely to change quickly is the adoption of a product or service or an idea in new and/or specific applications. For instance, keeping within the field of mobile technology, the use of ‘sms’ for instant polling by media channels or for contests by consumer brands is a clever application.

What I mean to say is that the things that transform our society or culture (or economy, for that matter) are not entirely brand new as we sometimes perceive them to be. They are ideas which have been lying dormant for years before achieving prominence.

08 May 2008

The real ‘generation now’

There is a great deal of talk of India’s ‘generation now’ – not just in blogs like mine, but also by the media at large. As young Indians, they are alluded to as much by media- and market-watchers as retired chief justices in random press/online articles. Even Shobhaa De mentions them prominently in her recently-launched book ‘Superstar India’, unveiled by Amitabh Bachchan.

This brings a smile to my lips. Although everyone believes that the new India belongs to the 21-year-old youth, oldies like Shobhaa De, Amitabh Bachchan and I, all seem to want a piece of their fame and energy. That is, as long as we can enjoy it. After all, oldies like us have helped bring in the ‘generation now’ to where they are at the moment. So, what’s wrong in taking a little credit for it?

This thought makes me wonder if we – the media, the marketing men, and the social scientists – have got the ‘generation now’ definition written down correctly. While we are on the lookout for the 21-year-old mobilephone- and iPod-wired urban youth glued to his/her music, it is really a much older group of people who are responsible for India’s massive social, cultural and economic change.

For instance, wouldn’t someone closer to 30 years of age be a better representative of the new face of India? Wouldn’t 30-year-old urban Indians be the real ‘generation now’ of India? The ones who are aware of their past, who live hand-in-hand with all the technological changes and economic reforms overwhelming the country at present, and who never lose focus of the future because that’s where India is going to be?

02 May 2008

India’s ‘generation now’

The Inma Martinez quote in my previous post is quite interesting. Interesting, at least, on two counts: (a) the ‘generation now’ description she applies to herself, and (b) her use of various media for her music: mobilephone (ringtone), music system (album), computer and online (iTunes), iPod (personal, and on demand). All for the same song! I guess she is watching the video of the song on TV or online as well. If anything, ‘generation now’ is (a) consumed with music, and (b) truly wired.

I wonder if this is true for India as well. Yes, it is, to an extent. In India, ‘generation now’ – as described here – is a very small segment of the country’s population: perhaps only 1% of the growing 1.2 billion (approx.) people. But, nevertheless, it’s a trend-setting segment and all marketing eyes are upon it. For, even this 1% is a huge consumer base for brand marketers of, say, mobilephones, mobile services and music.

Culturally, India’s ‘generation now’ is decidedly urban and somewhat spoilt, comprising of young adults who have been brought up to expect a great deal from life: material possessions, money, praise and even fame. Mind you, this description isn’t very different from the ‘generation now’ of the US or Europe. However, there is one big difference: India’s ‘generation now’ continues to live at home with parents, forfeiting an independent life and the struggles that come with it.