From telex to Twitter

Its World Press Freedom day today. What better moment to take stock of the state of the news revolution and its impact on society? This is basically what is happening here at 2014 International Journalism Festival in Perugia – with a program that includes close to 200 sessions over five days. It’s too ambitious to bring all this together in a single post – I’m definitely not considering this. Only attendance in person can give you a good impression, and even that means that one has to make choices.

For me, this rainy Saturday was marked by Twitter and Google. When I started out as a newswire reporter a quarter of a century ago, the tools available today could not be imagined. From Google today, a clear message that the news revolution has only just begun, and from Twitter, an avalanche of practical tips for news users. My hair may be gray, but here in Perugia, I feel like a kid in a candystore.

My first fulltime job in journalism was that of stock market reporter in Amsterdam for Associated Press – Dow Jones News Services, a joint venture between the AP and the publisher of the Wall Street Journal. Back in 1991, the Apdow office on the Keizersgracht canal had a fair-sized, sound-proof room with a handful of very heavy telex machines. Yellow telex ticker tape on the ground showed that these machine were still being used, but only as a backup for the new system.

When I joined, simple printers had taken over the role of the telex machines. Each Dow Jones wire had its own printer: corporate wire, oil wire, bond wire, market wire, and one for share prices. But these noisy printers were just wasting paper. The first electronic wires (including the A-wire for American national news) were available on our bulky IBM desktop computers.

Embracing media innovation

Being a young Dutch reporter keen to embrace media innovation and look across borders, I was thrilled to be working in such a ‘modern’ international news environment. We filed stories from location with a large modem connected to a telephone landline. The one mobile phone in the office weighed about two kilos.

It’s 23 years later. Here at in Perugia I run into one of my old teachers from the Dutch Journalism Academy in Tilburg, the Netherlands, now known as Fontys Hogeschool Tilburg. As we walk quickly through the rain to the Sala dei Notari to listen to a keynote by Richard Gringras, director of News at Google, Tricia Bots, now lecturer online journalism, tells me she will be retiring in a few months. In journalism school in the late 1980s, we both could not have anticipated the change that has taken place in the global media landscape since I graduated.

Tricia pays me the greatest of compliments. “You invented the media startup. It’s really unfortunate that people did not recognize it at the time,” she said, referring to my 2006 European news venture that I discussed in a previous blog post from Perugia.

Even in the last ten years, the world of news had changed dramatically. More change is coming, says Google News chief Gringras in his speech.

Some Gringas quotes:

“Media now are exponentially more open than at any time in the history of civilisation.”

“Media are no longer just part of our lives. They are part of the very fabric of our lives.”

“Our new media ecosystem will change the nature of the role of individuals.”

“The future of journalism will be richer than its past.”

People who do not like change are going to have a serious problem. We already see this happen to archaic governments like in Egypt and Ukraine, and with traditional newspaper publishers who refuse to acknowledge the need for change.

Gringras likes to point out that the 30 largest digital media in recent decades have created some 3000 new jobs. Let’s put that quickly into context. According to Poynter, more than 10.000 newspaper jobs disappeared in the US between 2007 and 2012.

Mobile dominates Twitter

Over to Twitter. I’ve learned about the ‘firehose’, the full stream with every single tweet sent. This firehose includes a staggering 500 million tweets per day, according to Simon Rogers, data editor at Twitter (@twitterdata) in California. More than three out four Twitter users do so from their mobile. Two out of three world leaders now have Twitter accounts.

The head of Twitter news UK, Joanna Geary, explains a packed conference room how Twitter can be used for news. If you are running a newswire, you better start thinking about a new business model quickly, because there are far more effective ways to find news via Twitter. It’s possible but it is not easy.

Twitter’s main news purpose is not based on a search for keywords. No, it’s because Twitter can analyze the pattern of an individual tweet. A tweet sent by someone witnessing a major breaking news event is very quickly retweeted by many people. Configuring your Twitter setup does require a calibration effort. But once that is done, you have a serious news tool at your disposal.

Twitter recommends Tweetdeck

A free tool such as Tweetdeck makes it possible for anyone to monitor Twitter for specific events, such as crash, or explosion. Mix in some keywords and a filter and you can create a very news alert system that exponentially outperforms any traditional newswire.

It’s a great early detection tool, says Geary (@JoannaUK).

If you ask me, that is not only the case for ‘hard news’ but also for financial market news.

As a data tool, Twitter can enable innovative visualizations of what people are talking about. This can be something as simple as a sunrise, or complex health topics such as cancer.

Access to the full Twitter firehose is restricted to only a few. To manage Twitter data and create visualisations, its data editor Simon Rogers recommends using a data service that can help generate spreadsheets with Twitter info. These can then be turned into attractive graphics. To name just a few that he listed: recommends: tame.it, topsy.com. sysomos.com, datawrapper.de, cartodb.com, flowingdata.com, gnip.com.

Today was another one with worthwhile sessions here at IJF14.

One more day to go.

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