News on the wires
© Copyright 1994-2002, Rishab Aiyer Ghosh. All rights reserved.
Electric Dreams #16

Amidst the information jungle out there, there are a number of emerging services and electronic publications that provide a coherent digest of what's going on, and not just in cyberspace. Just as newspapers and magazines have not lost the discerning consumer to television, equipped as they are with the advantage of better and more extensive analysis, conventional news media will not suffer from the ubiquitious availability of information to everyone hooked on to the Net. In fact, faced with a deluge of meaningless, unorganized data, consumers need an edited version of it all, one that is relevant and makes sense. The catch is that not everyone will agree with one particular viewpoint of what exactly makes sense -- choice is the essence of the information age. Many publications appearing electronically, such as Time, hope for readers paying them for their point of view. Other services, such as Clarinet, provide processed news on various subjects; readers select, and receive, only those that interest them.

Existing tools do allow a degree of personalization of news, and users can subscribe to 'news groups', connecting people sharing similar interests. The major problems with existing systems are the lack of professionalism, and the proliferation of disconnected strands of information. As the 'news' on news groups is produced by amateurs, however enthusiastic they often are, the spread of opinions and ideas is offset by the absence of any coherence whatsoever. Contributors to news groups are not paid, and their dedication is dependent on their changing moods. As there is no single entity responsible for the generation of information, readers have to perform the unwieldy task of collating and making sense of disconnected pieces of information with all the authenticity of rumours strewn upon the streets of cyberspace. The flip side -- it's all free.

There is a growing market for processed information in cyberspace, and mainstream businesses are getting wired. For instance, Time magazine has been available on the commercial America Online service for nearly a year. Apart from the text of articles, readers can use the network for correspondence and discussion with editors, writers and each other. Time also organizes on-line debates on topical issues related to their articles. A recent event had cryptologist Dorothy Denning and electronic freedom activist John Perry Barlow discussing the pros and cons of government surveillance and publicly available cryptography, in response to an article in Time on the Clipper initiative. Newsweek, which will be available on- line this autumn, has published multimedia CD-ROMs quarterly since March 1993. Reuters and AP wire services have long been available electronically through a range of paid on-line services.

Somewhere between the mainstream press and the anarchy of the Internet is Clarinet, a paid-for news group hierarchy on the Internet USENET. Charged according to the number of people receiving it, Clarinet offers specially written news and features n diverse topics, in the convenient hierarchical organization of Internet news groups. Clarinet allows readers to select the mix of articles and even provides electronic feeds from major wire services.

As information channels become increasingly widespread, and costs of information distribution tend toward zero, consumers will become less willing to pay for pure, unprocessed information and news. Information providers will have to concentrate more on value addition. They will have to move from generating mass-produced products to customization; from mainly providing information, more towards providing unique points of view. It is this choice and expertise that will mean money.

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