Blog - Unity Behind Diversity

Searching for beauty in the dissonance

Tagged: newspapers

Information Serendipity In Different Mediums

I’ve been meaning to comment on Mathew Ingram’s defence of newspapers and serendipity. Clay Shirky has been talking about the bundling that occurs in newspapers as a mere accident of print, something that was only necessary given the constraints of paper, but doesn’t make sense otherwise. Mathew disagrees:

Is there a purpose in aggregating the horoscope and the weather and the news about the coup in Tegucigalpa? I think there is, and I think newspapers do a pretty good job of it.

It’s not just because they have to — although that’s part of it. Maybe I’ve just been trained as a newspaper reader for my whole life, but I like the serendipity of tripping over fascinating articles about things I would never have known even existed were it not for a newspaper. To take the Saturday Globe and Mail as an example, I read about an up-and-coming Muslim hockey player, a profile of Paul Shaffer, a review of the punk band Gossip, an article about contentious city council politics in Aurora and a great feature on retirees and their vanishing pensions.

Just two days before Mathew’s post, my friend Emilie and I were having the same conversation. She reads the newspaper daily and made the same defence. I used to read the paper regularly when I was commuting to school in Grade 9, but more recently, I’ve come to get my “news” through Gwibber and Google Reader. It’s not that Mathew or Emilie don’t use the web, but they both have found something valuable in newspapers that the web hasn’t been able to offer — information serendipity (by that, I mean serendipity with respect to encountering ideas). Mathew continues,

Could links to those stories show up in my RSS reader? Possibly – but I doubt it. The mix is just too eclectic. And I would never have sought out the article about the Muslim hockey player, because I don’t particularly care about hockey and therefore I would likely never have come across it. Would the retirement piece ever make it to Techmeme or some similar aggregator? I doubt it. But it was still worth reading. And so were the half-dozen or so articles I can’t recall right now, which I tripped across as I read the paper. I would never have deliberately sought them out either.

I think Mathew’s missing one of the most serendipitous aspects of the web — the social aspect. I wouldn’t likely stumble upon those sorts of articles through my RSS subscriptions (though I’m subscribed to some pretty eclectic stuff), but through Google Reader shared items (e.g. Turadg Aleahmad shares some really interesting things, like this Wikipedia article on Mamihlapinatapai). I stumbled across Valaam chant through a friend’s Facebook posted items the other day, a genre of music that’s entirely new to me and will likely influence my own music. I find interesting links through Twitter/ every week that are outside my regular areas of interest (e.g. this video riding blog from Sunday). I may follow someone who shares some interests in common with me, but that doesn’t mean their other interests are my usual fare. Information serendipity here is social.

Then, beyond the social, Mike Masnick was writing about serendipity of search a few weeks before Mathew’s post:

There’s a separate side of having search so ingrained in our lives that isn’t often explored: the serendipity of search… I do a countless number of searches during the day — it’s ingrained to quickly and automatically jump to the search box all through the day — and usually two or three times per day, I end up going down a fascinating, if unexpected path to learning something new and interesting. Usually, it’s related to what I was originally searching for, but leads me on a trail of additional information, well beyond what I expected to learn. Other times, it may be a total tangent, but still one that ends up being useful and relevant in odd and unexpected ways.

A couple days after Mike’s post, I was watching Margaret Visser’s The Geometry of Love with the RCIA group at the Newman Centre. She makes a passing comment in the video about the serendipity of browsing through the stacks at Robarts Library — yet another type of information serendipity.

Beyond information serendipity, there’s a likelihood of social serendipity (in encountering people rather than ideas) that exists in a communications medium like the web that you wouldn’t find in a newspaper. On any medium, it’s not so much a question of whether there’s an element of serendipity as it’s a question of what that serendipity is like.

Information serendipity on the web is different than in newspapers. There’s information serendipity in bundling, in proximity, in linking, in social connections, and then there are other types of serendipity altogether, like social serendipity. I think it’d be really interesting to dig deeper and explore the differences…

Information Serendipity in Wikipedia

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New ways to get news

Newspapers are being hit hard by digital technology. Like record companies, who are still struggling, their business models have become increasingly obsolete and they’re forced to adapt to the changes that the Internet brings about.

There are lots of other ways to get news now. I don’t read newspapers anymore and I rarely watch television. I get news through my RSS reader, through Twitter, through Facebook, through friends. I’m subscribed to Google News Canada and the CBC’s Toronto and national feeds, but I also get a lot of news from blogs. Sometimes, these blogs focus on a niche, on providing expert analysis for a particular kind of news, like Techdirt. Sometimes I subscribe to aggregators, like Google News or LXer Linux News.

I love reading the Torontoist. I don’t always agree with everything they say, and there’s a lot of content that I’m not really interested in. But they provide a lot of local and timely news that’s unique, like their coverage on new Toronto street furniture designs today.

I love reading their headlines posts. They’ve got a unique style in the way they state the headlines through comedy, presenting the facts through the link. It’s almost Daily Show -ish in a way. It always makes me laugh, like this post from yesterday:

Tory MP Jason Kenney complained that Romeo Dallaire was overly harsh when Dallaire criticized the federal government’s handling of the Omar Khadr case. Kenney is a former general who is credited with using meagre resources to save the lives of over 20,000 people during the Rwandan genocide in the face of massive indifference from the west… no, wait, sorry, that was Dallaire. Jason Kenney is a lifetime party hack who didn’t finish his bachelor’s degree. See, they’re almost like twins!

I can just hear the newspaper tycoons lamenting at how journalism has been “devalued” and that this isn’t real journalism. Well, guess what? I like it and this is how I get my news.

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Prince’s Giveaway and the LA Times

Though I’ll admit to not being very familiar with his music, I have just gained quite a bit of respect for Prince. His latest album, Planet Earth, was given away as a free covermount a few weeks ago with the U.K.’s Mail on Sunday (a newspaper), causing music retailers to flip out. Sony BMG U.K. refused to distribute the album. Most record stores in the U.K. lashed out at him. Chief executive of HMV, Simon Fox, said (before the rumours were confirmed): “I think it would be absolutely nuts. I can’t believe the music industry would do it to itself. I simply can’t believe it would happen; it would be absolute madness.” (HMV eventually decided to sell the Mail on Sunday, much to the dismay of their competitors.) The Entertainment Retailers Association co-chairman, Paul Quirk, said that “it would be yet another example of the damaging covermount culture which is destroying any perception of value around recorded music.”

Clearly, music retailers only perceive the “value around recorded music” to be that of cold hard cash in exchange for their distribution of it, and understandably, I guess, since that’s their business model. But it’s a business model that’s dying and music retailers need to adapt. There’s more to making a career in music than distributing disks, and artists like Prince realize this.

What about the value of having fans? Genuine fans. People who love your music and will support your efforts, whether it’s through purchasing music, attending concerts, or sharing music with friends and growing your fan base. Bands like Dispatch, that thrived on music distribution through Napster, are a testament to the value of music beyond simple record sales.

Prince is in a different situation though compared to independent bands. He’s already made his millions, and his new music doesn’t really seem to be his most valuable asset. In other words, he hasn’t been making a ton of money from record sales anyways. He makes his money primarily from touring (he made $87.4 million USD from his last major tour in 2004!). By giving away his latest album with copies of the newspaper (and with concert tickets), he’s getting his music out to a wider audience and gaining more publicity for it (nevermind the £500,000 he got from the Mail).

And the recording industry is not the only troubled industry involved in the deal. With competition from online news sources (and online platforms for classified ads), most newspapers are struggling to survive nowadays. And they’re making the same stupid mistakes (all but some) that the record labels did with Napster by shunning the technology rather than embracing it (see: How Dare Google Send Belgian News Sites Traffic!). This was a great move for the Mail in terms of trying new ideas to stimulate business.

Patrick Goldstein, columnist for the L.A. Times, thought the same thing. In fact, he went so far as to write an article taking the idea even further and asked “why couldn’t my newspaper do that?” (you know, being in L.A. and all). It was scrapped and the L.A. Times never ran it, instead claiming that Goldstein was “on assignment”. However, the L.A. Observed ran his column in full (read it here). It’s a great read, and it’s really a shame that people in the newspaper and entertainment businesses are terrified of new ideas.

Here’s how it finishes:

Giving music away doesn’t mean it has lost its value, just that its value is no longer moored to the price of a CD. Like it or not, the CD is dying, as is the culture of newsprint. People want their music — and their news — in new ways. It’s time we embraced change instead of always worrying if some brash new idea — like giving away music — would tarnish our sober minded image. When businesses are faced with radical change, they are usually forced to ask — is it a threat or an opportunity? Guess which choice is the right answer.

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