HCI and the challenges of mass communications

XI.2 March + April 2004
Page: 58
Digital Citation

Imagining tomorrow’s news

Dan Gillmor

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The Net has brought enormous changes to journalism. For the first time we have a global audience. There are no constraints on how much we offer; no limits to column inches or broadcast time, and what we offer can have far greater depth. We can measure what people want to read, listen to, and view. We can offer targeted advertising. But all of those advantages are available to anyone, for the Net is the first truly global platform for anyone who wants to say something, not just to the professional journalists who have become accustomed to being the arbiters of what is news and what isn't.

But we're in the early stages of turning those opportunities into something really useful for ourselves and our audiences (a dividing line that is increasingly difficult to discern). One reason is the lack of high-quality tools, for both reading (listening, viewing, interacting, etc.) and for production of news. When digital technology collided with journalism in the 1990s, it seemed all too often that technologists dictated the terms of engagement.

That's beginning to change, at least for the tools. Until fairly recently, creating a Web site meant learning HTML and/or a complex desktop application such as FrontPage or Dreamweaver. Weblogs, the first serious attempt at a read-write Web since Tim Berners-Lee's pathbreaking work more than a decade ago, are easier, but still not as easy as they should be.

The huge growth in handheld devices—an almost ideal medium for a specific kind of news, namely headlines and very short dispatches—has not led to useful tools other than one-to-one (and few-to-few) Short Messaging Services. Cameras, however, have improved dramatically, though the variety of UIs is almost mind-boggling, as with phones. But the many steps it typically takes to get a photo, much less a video, to the Web tells us that there's plenty of progress left to make.

Readers (listeners, etc.) have more choices than ever. Too many, some believe. I don't think there can ever be too many voices. Still, organizing the flood of information is increasingly difficult. One of the pleasant surprises of the past several years has been the rise of RSS, which stands for (among other things) Really Simple Syndication. Essentially, RSS parses Web content into XML files that can be read—and aggregated—by software designed for that purpose, thereby letting users create a hierarchy containing many more sources of information, all in one screen or window. RSS is actually easier for the creator, because it's baked into most Weblog software, but considerably more difficult for the end user.

So what can the HCI community do? Better collaboration with journalists (of all stripes, including amateurs) would be a good start. Don't worry about stepping on the toes of traditional news organizations; We tend to be somewhat conservative. Think instead of the needs of tomorrow's news providers and users—and I deliberately did not use the word "consumers" in that context.

In making tomorrow's news, we're in this together.

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Dan Gillmor's eJournal can be found at weblog.siliconvalley.com/column/dangillmor

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The Digital Library is published by the Association for Computing Machinery. Copyright © 2004 ACM, Inc.

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