Monday, March 14, 2016

News-as-a-Service


News-as-a-Service
IIFL | Mumbai | August 31, 2015 09:18 IST
While content aggregation is clearly the need of the hour, it’s only the quality of curation that would make the success of news aggregation and curation apps sustainable in the long run. News Republic shows immense promise on this front given the sterling conviction of its founder.



Way back in the ancient times, the spoken word was supposed to say it all. Any public cause or campaign thrived on the charisma of the orator leader. Rhetoric was the key to influence masses. With the advent of printing and publishing technology, oratory took a back seat. The whole of twentieth century was dominated by the print media. The written word became a potent, powerful tool at the hands of those who could read and write. This new tribe knowingly and unknowingly gained dominant positions. Our fourth estate, with notable exceptions, is largely a product of this feudal psyche and has virtually made the commoditization of news as a virtual monopoly for long – initially as the moral police and concomitantly as moral judiciary. Even the electronic and web media despite their ubiquity and 24/7 reach could never challenge this authority, thanks to the cocoon of native protection - a joint patronage of political and business powers-that-be and their sordid ethos.

It’s therefore heartening to note the growing import of content aggregation and curation tools – popularly offered as mobile apps – which are doing an admirable job of bringing aggregated relevant content which they claim to carefully curate in line with the given context. While the claim must be subjected to rigorous scrutiny, there’s a definitely a potent collaboration happening here – between the algorithms responsible for the breathtaking aggregation, filtering and ranking of humungous, all pervading content and the human intervention for its validation and repurposing. We can’t think of a better blend of man and machine to serve a large cause where the human curator – a specialist in organizing, illustrating, repurposing and repackaging content with unflinching focus on the big picture – holds the key. The semantic technologies, no matter how wonderful they are, are not the differentiating factor. It’s only the intelligent human intervention that can make the content truly actionable – with a host of value-adds including purposeful reordering, re-titling, summarization, bias-freeing, referencing and smart syndication ahead of mere crap or pattern detection. Compare this potent curation with the conventional curation in print – a mere compilation from news wire agencies, news bureaus and direct reportage – and we get a fair idea of the premium on offer, that comes mostly free for common internet users.

Of all innovative news aggregators, News Republic (http://www.news-republic.com/) stands out - not for its technology or the range of news topics or its user-friendly interface – but for the sterling conviction of its founder Gilles Raymond. One can question the granularity of News Republic’s topic-wise elaboration or the depth and width of its news sources, but not the founder’s credence. Thanks to his IN-FUSIO and Mobilescope successes, he’s quite an authority on the mobile space and appears to be in a great position to measure the immensity of India’s mobile-only potential. Even a cursory glance at his thoughts in the public domain will tell you he’s quite adept at sense-making – a MUST-HAVE attribute for a content aggregating news service.

For instance, in one thought piece on the trials and tribulations of immigrants, he aptly observes, “Being an immigrant gives you an external, objective view on the country welcoming you, and also, after few months, on the country you left behind….For an immigrant, almost overnight, everything that was acquired as absolute truth becomes irrelevant in the new country. It is a complete loss of reference that has to be rebuilt as fast as possible for your survival. For the newcomer, from now to the coming years it is a daily practice of his “Darwin Intelligence”. This insight, more than semantic technology, is the key to unfolding the dynamic, essence and credence of evolving countries which are often slotted under the common name of developing countries.

In an illuminating tete-a-tete with Business Standard, he hits bull’s eye when he says, “Our mission is to spark global conversations about issues that matter. And no global conversation is complete without India.”

For umpteen years, newspapers were the ultimate source of definitive news and a handful of them did an admirable job of asking tough questions, challenging the establishment and lending neutral support to rebels, crusaders and activists. But somewhere down the line, media itself became an establishment – a fortified estate with its own agenda – where the prejudice of advertorials became more precious than the pride of editorials. After the internet gained traction and momentum as a news broadcasting vehicle, different variants of the infamous cut-copy-paste technology made the hotchpotch of borrowed wisdom more respectable than the exclusivity of original thought. There was now a thin line of difference between the ownership of the media house and its management and of course there’s no SEBI here to probe the conflicts of interest. Safeguarding citizen interest, barring few exceptions, is more about closing the stable door after the horse has bolted for most media outfits –even as a matter of policy in some cases. Worse, the undivided attention is now to make the trivial sound like monumental.

No wonder, the quality and credibility of news suffers fatal wounds which won’t ever heal with the band-aid measures that some outfits adopt merely to prove they are different from the rest. Indian media, whether print or electronic, has lost much of its credence as news is now a mindless compilation of views with a glaringly lop-sided focus on Bollywood, Food, Astrology and Cricket, all fixations conveniently blamed on ‘market diktats’. Like how the hero and heroine of today’s Bollywood flicks have made the comedian and the vamp redundant – both specialist roles in yester year films - high-flying editors and celeb journalists of the mainstream tribe have now turned full-fledged film critics, cricket experts (none of the calibre of stalwarts like N Ram) and food and travel connoisseurs. But this is not what makes the tragedy truly Greek. That trigger emanates from Western shores.

It hurts to see how over the years the Western media has always looked at India with suitably tinted spectacles. Although the stories of Time, The Economist and Bloomberg Businessweek are a cut above the rest (read East) in terms of credence and comprehensiveness if not always conviction, the intractable focus is invariably on the emblematic third world issues of poverty, deprivation, exploitation, unemployment and corruption besides a host of rehashed success stories conveniently handpicked from the basket of native media coverage. As a rule, China gets more weightage than India when it comes to in-depth stories in each of these publications.

Agreed, India is a rich storehouse of staple issues under popular tags like Poverty, Deprivation, Unemployment, Bollywood, Cricket and Software, there's a new India across the length and breadth of the country with astonishing tales of trials and triumph that makes a better claim to put India in perspective. The real non-conformists provide the real stories, the kind that Discovery channel covers with amazing regularity.

There’s not even an iota of doubt that the web covers them best across spheres - sports or films, polity or social sphere, government or industry, healthcare or education. Countless blogs, webzines and news portals cover a mixed bag of little known news, happenings and people of universal reckoning, whether deserving reverence or defiance or both. Of course, some of it is trash but this is where a quality scavenger makes all the difference in separating the wheat from the chaff, an intelligent and dexterous job, which is often erroneously equated with cherry-picking. We have reason to believe News Republic can become such a scavenger provided it takes the effort to find and feed a fair share of nutritious and actionable content about India which can stem from the most unlikely of places - not necessarily rural or silver-screened, not necessarily about naked children or about meteoric executive-to-global-CEO elevations. Offer plenty of choice for the reader, only then go about improvising based on user response. Don’t hard code or restrict your categorized offerings based on your personal reading of the news appetite and preferences of the general public. Making strategic inroads into the wealth of regional media (steering clear of the garbage) is one way of facilitating this treasure hunt. Merely calling India news-hungry won’t suffice.

Raymond appears to be one of the very few democratic media barons who firmly believes news is much more than a commodity and hence calls for innovative ways to facilitate its holistic and seamless access. News Republic is clearly a player to watch out for, not just for its headline news, additional links or tagging system but for the promise it holds in India and for India.

Dear Pradyuman

We know you now keep vigil from up above. We know you have had to take matters in your own hands, going by the sorry state of affairs down ...