The problem with online media

… is that there is no ending. There is no sense of having “finished the newspaper”.

And there is no context. You see the homepage of a major newspaper, and you see a bunch of headlines leading to links. Occasionally there are section headers that tell you which broad section of the newspaper they come from (news/opinion), but that context is usually far inferior to what you see in print.

So addressing the issues one by one, the first “issue” with online media which no website (AFAIK) can solve is that online news is an online process (apologies for the pun) – as news comes in it needs to be displayed on the website, without really waiting for “editions”. This means there is a conflict between “importance” and “recency” – what kind of news do you show near the top and in bold? Stuff that came in latest or stuff that you think is important?

This means that you need a “live editor” (might be replaced by a bot very soon) all the time who takes a call on what comes on top. Yet, if I’m checking the news after a day, what might be “important” for me is very different from what might be important for you who is checking the news after half an hour. You most definitely want the latest stuff, while I possibly want to know everything that’s happened in the day. And a simple news website cannot cater to both.

The other problem is the lack of context and information before clicking through. In an offline newspaper, there is a large amount of information you have before you “click through” to an article. There is the page it appears on – if you are a regular reader of the paper, you know the kind of articles that appear on each page.

There is the author – you have most definitely built a model over time on which authors to not miss and whom to avoid. There is the length of the article. And there are articles that appear around it. And all these put together provide you enough information on whether it might be worth reading the content on an article.

Most of this is missing in online media, where you need to make your decision to read on headlines. Which can sometimes be click-baity and not all that informative. And so the chances of regret having clicked through to an article is high. Which means that you need some sort of external cues to make you want to click through and read an article.

And so you start consuming news through social media – articles that your friends recommend, with possibly some more information and context on what it’s about. This information and context would have in an offline world been given to you by the newspaper itself.

And so as you consume more and more news from social media, you have the usual problems of echo chambers, and not even glancing through the headlines of news you don’t like (notice how a traditional offline newspaper makes you go through most headlines, whether you like it or not!).

Finally, in an online newspaper there is no concept of having “finished” the paper, of having consumed all the news. As you keep consuming news, you find new pieces of information being thrown at you. Not knowing when to stop, you simply give up!

Context sensitive and context free journalism

My wife thinks that most of my writing for Mint is incredibly boring, and of a significantly inferior quality to what I publish on this blog. Initially I thought it was because I was taking myself too seriously for Mint (a national newspaper and all that), but despite my attempts to “loosen up”, and write my Mint articles “in flow”, the criticism continues.

Now thinking about it, one reason why my writing for Mint might be boring is that in the beginning of each piece I try hard to provide context. I write without assuming that my readers know exactly what I’m writing about, and so I spend some time giving sufficient background so that my readers appreciate my articles (and most of my pieces appear with minimal edits).

This, I realise now, is not how Indian journalism usually works, for in a large majority of pieces it is assumed that the reader has context. Many a time I find myself reading a piece and not being able to make the head or tail of it, and then going back and trying to figure out the context. The point of several articles I’ve read has become clear only in retrospect, when I’ve found something else that this article was referencing (but didn’t link to).

On the other hand, a “newspaper” like The Economist mostly does context-free journalism. Every piece comes with sufficient background for the reader to know what is happening. There may not be links to find out more, but the limited context provided is enough to understand the point of the piece. Maybe that they are a weekly, and cover news from all over the world makes them want to provide context?

In any case, I find context-sensitive journalism (like what most daily newspapers practice) irritating. Or maybe it is that they haven’t really made the transition from print to digital? Print is a medium where the publisher controls what articles are seen together by a reader, and so one article can provide the required context to an adjacent article.

There is no such “togetherness” in digital. This strengthens my belief that journalism is still yet to “get” digital.

Name mutilation

Like Bangalore supposedly became Bengaluru a few years back (when HDK was cheap minister), West Bengal is going to change its name to “Poschim Bongo” or some such thing. Now, unlike Bombay-Mumbai or Madras-Chennai, the thing with these name changes is that they are merely globalization of local names. Let me explain.

Bombay (bom bahia or good port in Portuguese) and Mumbai (of Mumba Devi) are fundamentally different. Madras (mad race? ) and Chennai (beautiful) are again fundamentally different. While I disagree with those name changes and still prefer to call those cities by their former names, I see that the change in those names at least has some merit. They wanted to get rid of their colonial British-given names (and i’m sure Tams wanted to prove they aren’t a mad race, though they might have achieved the opposite through this action) and chose local names in the local language.

When Bangalore’s name was supposedly changed to “Bengaluru” a few years back, Kannada newspapers (I used to subscribe to Vijaya Karnataka back then) had a tough time explaining the name change. Because Bangalore has forever been known as “Bengaluru” in Kannada. Even now, when I speak in Kannada I say “Bengaluru” but I say “Bangalore” when speaking in any other language. While it might have been a noble intention by HDK and UR Ananthamurthy and others behind the name change to get the non-Kannadigas to use the Kannada name, the effect has been completely counterproductive.

Till date, I’m yet to meet someone who is not conversant in Kannada to pronounce “BengaLuru” correctly. First of all, most people can’t say the “L” sound and instead pronounce it as “l” (in Kannada that can make a profound difference. for example “hELu” is “tell” while “hElu” is “shit” ). Next (this is the problem with most North Indians), people have trouble pronouncing the short ‘e’ sound. Finally, it’s hard for people to figure out that the first U in Bengaluru is to be pronounced long and the terminal u should be pronounced short. The combination of all these means horribly messed up pronunciation, which makes one wonder why they bothered to “change” the name at all.

West Bengal doesn’t seem to have learnt from this experience of Bangalore. They want to call themselves “Poschim Bongo” it seems. Not being a bong, I’m going to have major difficulty in pronouncing that name, and I might end up pronouncing it in a way that makes most bongs cringe. I really hope they see sense before they make this name change official and opt for a saner name, if they want to change their name at all that is.

One thing they could try would be to knock that “west” off their name (I believe the Times of India has been campaigning for this). West Bengal was the primary reason that I got my directions and geography horribly wrong till I was some eight years old. I used to assume that “West Bengal” was at the western edge of India! Especially since Bangladesh is no more called “East Bengal”.

Given that they are mostly commie, one thing they could try is probably to go the East Germany or North Korea way, and name themselves “Democratic State of Bengal” or some such thing.