Where do people go for news? In the good old days this was a simple answer. You had your local newspapers and a few news channels, and not much else. These days, it’s an entirely different ball game. Old media required a massive investment in time and money to reach an audience. The Internet changed everything. It lowered the bar for publishing by such an extent that everyone can maintain their own website on an equal footing with much larger corporations.
Online news can and does cover the whole spectrum of stories that tend to get marginalized by the “offline” media. For those interested in Kansas State’s minor league softball league, there is a news source out there which is covering this in more depth than CNN’s coverage of the Gulf War. The Internet has enabled a whole new ecosystem of websites which cater to every whim and taste.
With TV, there are a few major news sources, and most people know of all of them, despite their individual preferences. With the Internet, it’s a whole new ball game – there are so many sources of information that its quite likely that many of your favourite websites will be completely unknown to your friends – even those with the same interests as you.
Kaleem Omar, a prominent Pakistani journalist, has switched over the majority of his news gathering to the Internet – he says “TV and print just can’t compare”. He uses Google News to get an overview of what is ‘news worthy’, and from there on surfs onwards to whatever he find interesting. As to what particular news websites he uses, he said it doesn’t matter – there are thousands of them on the Internet, and you use whichever one is relevant to the issue at hand. Websites like the BBC provide extremely in depth coverage of issues, with links to background information and related items, so those are more useful for getting detailed information – but for analysis and breaking news it really doesn’t matter which particular website one uses.
This doesn’t mean that one goes to any website on the Internet and takes their word as gospel – obviously sources like the BBC, the New York Times and CNN are far more trustworthy than a random weblog. What has changed though is how one views the news – as mainstream media has become increasingly sensationalized and strayed from ‘news’ to pop culture, the Internet allows one to get facts from the sources themselves and form one’s own opinion. These days, almost every major outlet is putting their own ‘spin’ on the news, so one has to read multiple sources and assign them levels of credibility. For example, the transcript of any speech made by a major politician in the developed world is available on various news and government websites – so once seen on any new source that so and so said or did something, one can easily go straight to the source, interest permitting. If one were to rely on Fox News interpretation of George Bush’s latest you might just end up planning a trip to that most democratic of countries, Iraq – which is why its wise to read a number of sources first. It’s not just enough to read the news – one has to understand where the news is coming from and how it’s getting to you. As an example, the BBC website is a more trustworthy resource than CNN because it’s a far more transparent organization, and more objective.
Weblogs can also be reliable sources of information, especially for first hand accounts – but again one cannot just take them at face value, therefore leading to the necessity to validate facts mentioned there with other, more reliable sources. Over time, people will build up their own networks of news resources – weblogs of journalists and locals for on the ground news analysis of the newest flashpoint in global affairs, a customized version of a news aggregator like Google News Version 2.0 which finds the news you’re interested in from thousands upon thousands of sources, the BBC news for more objective analysis, WikiNews for collaborative news – there are far too many to list. The important thing is that the advent of the internet has enabled people to digest multiple sources without much effort – anyone with internet access has more access today to news resources than CNN had only 15 odd years back. New tools are being built today – Google News is a good example, and so are RSS aggregrators – which will do the dirty work of finding the stories one is interested in and presenting them in an easy to digest manner.
Traditional news sites like the Washington Post, the New York Times, Dawn etc. will all always be relevant – for people want fact-checked and edited news which they can rely on. Some tend to confuse websites as totally different from print – they are, but in the most important way they are the same – they are both content delivery systems. Traditional newspapers generate a massive amount of content, most of which never gets to their readers as their current method of distributing information – the printed paper – is extremely inefficient, expensive and hard to distribute. The Internet allows these organizations to easily and cheaply publish all the content they’ve generated over the years to the entire world, and these will remain the ‘trusted’ sources on the Internet. What has changed, and is further evolving, is that individuals now have their own soapbox to preach to the world, at the same level as the ‘big guys’.
So what news resources should one use? After all ,there is an infinite choice out there on the Internet. Some people will take the easy way out and just use the sources which support their world view – as an example see Fox News popularity in the bible belt in the US, and the large number of ‘warblogs’ which bash everything not American. Then there are the large number of websites spinning conspiracy theories on everything from NASA’s faked moon landing to George Bush being a puppet controlled by aliens. Sadly, it’s very much possible to navigate the vast sea of information on the Internet with blinders on, ignoring all that is contrary to ones views and finding tons of information to further shore up ones world view. (or lack of).
One of the most important development of the Internet era is the development of the “global digital newsstand” — the ability for news consumers to read media outlets around the world, and to discuss global afairs with a global audience, instead of one’s local drawing room. A truly gobal intake of news will slowly nudge one to adopt a more global viewpoint instead of a parochial outlook based on one’s birthplace.
A few decades from now, Google will have reached the Star Trek future: you talk into the air and the computer processes your question, figures out its context, figures out what response you’re looking for, searches a giant database in who-knows-how-many languages, translates/analyses/summarises all the results, and presents them back to you in a pleasant voice. For the present we have to make do with what we have, yet even now being able to use the Internet properly is like learning to read once more. Suddenly your horizons open up to a limitless world of knowledge, people, opinions, news, and most important of all, the ability to connect with people from all over the world.
* ‘Google News’:http://news.google.com
_A heavily edited version of this was published in the May 2005 issue of ‘Spider Magazine’:http://spider.tm as one of the cover stories on online news. Their headline for the story: “Media Makeover – Print may be on its way out, but is the news available on the Web any good? Depends on where you look_