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From the Lone Star State

Austin Peacock, © Fred Ritchin

Austin peacock, © Fred Ritchin

Just back from the tenth anniversary International Online Journalism Conference in Austin, Texas, where I saw the most amazing peacocks strutting about that I have ever seen! But in the conference hall itself the two major themes for the future of journalism were “mobile, mobile, mobile” and, of course, “twitter, twitter, twitter.” The first constitutes advice for the post-print platform of choice, and the latter is said to be the energizing communications device of choice for crowd-sourcing and user-friendliness. They can both be summed up as “smaller, smaller, shorter.”

Otherwise there was a very impressive demonstration of a ten-year-old online journal in Malaysia called Malaysiakini that is actually reader-supported, with five percent of readers who have decided to pay a few dollars a month to read its English version (the journal is in several languages). Why? Because they believe, oddly enough, that it is their civic duty to support a free press. Their young CEO, Premesh Chandran, is an enthusiastic and articulate spokesperson for a civic society where reporting is still viewed by many as serving a vital watchdog role; or, as the Malaysiakini’s motto puts it, “news and views that matter.” (A bit less arrogant than “all the news that’s fit to print”?) While Malaysia’s print press is not free, the virtual world is legally protected as a way to stimulate economic growth.

Another hit was Semana.com, presented by director Maria Teresa Ronderos. With a small staff this Colombian online journal is coming up with interesting displays tracing the country’s history of violence, people living on Bogotá streets, and a series of interactive portraits of ministers and a soccer coach where a reader can click on the person’s head to find out what he or she is thinking, on their Achilles’ heel to find out their weak points, and on their throat to find out what the person “cannot swallow.” It’s a much more inviting way to get to know the country’s leadership.

Meanwhile major media outlets, anguished over their economic futures, are still mainly putting the same kinds of news and feature stories online that they put in print, refusing to develop a new hypertextual language more suited to the Web both for text and visuals (and so far refusing to see the need to do so). If this is truly going to be a revolution in media, new forms have to be invented.

One of the most poignant moments of the conference was a replay of videos from its first meeting in 1999, where industry pundits were arguing, correctly, for coming up with eBay-style approaches so as to counter the eventual loss of classified ads, or for focused, boutique-style publications. It’s not that the ideas haven’t been there, it’s the will to reinvent that’s been so hard to find.

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