Paris on a budget
Monday April 27th 2009, 9:09 pm
Filed under: travels
It is possible to enjoy Paris without taking out a second mortgage.
Some travellers are avoiding France because of the financial crisis and the low value of the Aussie dollar, also known as the Pacific peso. But with discipline and the information in this article we can appreciate one of the world’s most beautiful cities.
Let’s begin with the basics: accommodation, food and transport. Hotels in Paris are expensive. Instead, I rented an apartment by putting an advertisement on Craigslist.com, paying $70 a night for a double room about 100 metres from the Louvre. Hotels in the area cost triple that even for one star accommodation.
Craigslist is a web site that functions like a newspaper’s classified section. Placing an advert is free and takes five minutes. I received more than a dozen replies to my five-line query.
Beware of scams, though, especially people who require money in advance. I received photos of an alleged luxury apartment in central Paris from a man claiming to be a doctor working in Nigeria. “Dr Smith Mayers” said he would send me the keys after I wired money to his bank account. Victorian police confirmed he is a fraudster.
Parisians who rent rooms in family homes happily accept cash when you arrive. They also let you wash clothes in their laundry, and use their kitchen to make coffee and snacks, which saves money.
French coffee and hot chocolate are delicious, but expensive. I paid $16 for two cups of brown muck masquerading as “chocolat chaud” in a central Paris café. Best to avoid cafes despite the romantic notion, fuelled by the movies, of reading a book while sipping wine or coffee. It looks cool but will burn a hole in your wallet.
Instead, take a thermos of tea or coffee, which you can prepare in the kitchen.
Tap water is safe to drink in Paris, so carry a plastic bottle to re-fill from the many fountains in the city. And ask for “l’eau ordinaire” (tap water) if in a café. Most waiters will try to sting you $8 for a bottle of water available in a supermarket for less than a dollar.
The recession has forced restaurants to lower their prices. Paris has thousands of good restaurants and all display their menus on the street, so window shop to your heart’s content when selecting where to eat. Lunches tend to be large, especially in winter. I found I only needed a snack most evenings after a big lunch. Baguettes cost about $2 from most bakeries and make an ideal snack.
Most restaurants offer a prix fixee as part of their menu – that’s a set price for two or three courses. I had superb lunches in a Michelin-starred restaurant named Les Terrines de Gerard Vie at 97 rue Cherche-Midi in the sixth arrondissement. It cost $48 for three courses, and included a glass of wine. The food was so good I kept the menu as a souvenir and returned the next day.
My first lunch consisted of a sampling of terrines with crusty baguette and creamy butter, followed by a selection of jambon (a chewy dried ham) and cheese. The waiter carved the ham from a leg in the centre of the restaurant. I was full by the time the main course arrived: blanquette de veau (veal stew with carrots, onions and potatoes), washed down with a glass of red from the Corbieres region.
I needed to take a long walk to digest that wonderful meal. I waddled rather than walked.
Paris is a city for walking. Taxis are expensive and get trapped in traffic while the meter keeps ticking. Better to use the underground rail system, the Metro, because it is cheap and free maps are available at any station. Buy a “carnet de dix” – a book of 10 Metro tickets – for $24. Individual tickets are $3.20 so buying in bulk saves $8 each time. One Metro ticket will take you anywhere in Paris – no zoning system of varying prices as in other cities.
Take a sturdy pair of boots and see Paris by foot. Buy a copy of Paris Pratique ($10), a paperback book of maps available at any newspaper kiosk. Apart from the main boulevards with iconic names like St Michel and Haussmann, Paris is a maze of small streets that fan out like spokes from a wheel, often merging into lanes and squares. Streets are known to break, assume another name, and re-join under the original title.
You will need a map in Paris even if your French is good enough to ask directions. Generally I found my attempts to speak French rewarded by small acts of generosity. One old man took my arm and guided me to my destination, seemingly glad to help a lost foreigner.
Paris appears chaotic. It is divided into areas, or arrondissements. These are numbered from one to 21. Do not expect a grid pattern like in Adelaide or most American cities. Arrondissements are sequenced in a spiral shape, like the shell of a snail, with number one at the centre of the city.
And yes, you can eat snails, or escargot, in Paris. But expect to pay at least $2.50 each, or $30 a dozen. They are smothered in garlic and a bright green sauce made of parsley and butter. If you must eat escargot, try them in one of the regional cities serviced by France’s fast rail system. They will be cheaper and fresher.
I took the train to Epernay, the centre of the champagne region. The 100km journey flashed by in about 95 minutes, and cost $40 return. In Epernay I walked the Avenue de Champagne, where all of the main bubbly houses display their wares. It is said to be the most expensive piece of real estate in the world because of the billions of dollars worth of champagne in the cellars, or caves, under the houses.
Most of the prestige-name champagne houses offer tastings: With the basic option for $24 you get to taste two wines. A more expensive option, which costs $50, includes a taste of two vintage champagnes plus a tour of the caves below. Do not arrive at noon because everything will be closed until 2pm. Lunch is a ritual, even a religion. I worshipped with excellent escargot at $18 a dozen, washed down with bubbly.
If tasting at the prestige-name champagne houses seems expensive, visit the champagne bar in rue Gambetta, a 10-minute walk from the railway station. They stock champagne from 43 of the lesser-known houses, and charge $6 to $10 a taste. Plus you can buy from their cellar. I paid $34 for a bottle of 2000-vintage champagne that would cost at least treble that price in Australia.
Winter is the best time to visit Paris because airfares are lower, meals are larger and heartier, and fewer tourists crowd the streets of the popular spots like Notre Dame cathedral or the major museums.
Paris can be very crowded in spring and summer. If you do travel then, and want to enjoy several museums, consider a pass for two, three or five days. Details are available on the http://www.discoverfrance.net/ web site. The pass means you skip the frequently long queues and enter through a special door.
I planned to visit the Musee d’Orsay, a magnificent building that stretches along the Seine river opposite the Tuileries gardens. But the entrance queue snaked for at least a kilometre, meaning I faced a wait of at least an hour. Most museums are closed on Tuesdays, apart from the Musee d’Orsay and the Rodin Muesum. Best to plan something apart from museums on a Tuesday.
Notre Dame cathedral is a must see. All churches are free to enter. Notre Dame has vespers at 5.45pm, and you can usually hear the magnificent organ and choir perform at that time each evening.
One of my favourite places is the cemetery named after Pere Lachaise (1624-1709), confessor to King Louis XIV. Take the Metro to Gambetta and cross the road to the cemetery.
The great Irish poet and playwright, Oscar Wilde, is buried in Pere Lachaise. The sculptor Jacob Epstein designed the grave, and it has become a tourist attraction. Many visitors rouge their lips and kiss the grave. Oscar would have appreciated the attention: His grave is covered in kisses and flowers.
The nearby grave of the great French novelist, Marcel Proust, is more sedate: a black granite slab.
My favourite is the grave of journalist Victor Noir, a famed womaniser. His memorial consists of a full-size brass sculpture of the writer, with the buttons of his flies open. Women who want to conceive are said to rub this part of his anatomy. This area of the sculpture is well worn.
You will need a map to explore the cemetery. They are sold at the entrance for $4. The cemetery is like the rest of Paris, full of irregular streets and magnificent architecture. But unlike Paris, the cemetery is free.
Stephen Quinn teaches journalism at Deakin University. He paid $2,160 for an economy class flight to Paris with Malaysian Airlines, via Kuala Lumpur.
* Published in The Age and the SMH, 14 March 2009
Review of award-winng book Inside Spin
Friday April 24th 2009, 11:52 am
Filed under: politics
A “culture of secrecy” pervades the highest levels of the PR industry says Bob Burton is his powerful book Inside Spin, which won this year’s Iremonger award  for writing about public issues.
The industry’s peak body, the Public Relations Institute of Australia (PRIA), expects members to adhere to a “strict” code of conduct. But Burton maintains the industry maintains a “culture of secrecy” and estimates only about a quarter of the people employed in the industry are members of the PRIA. Its code of ethics obligates members to disclose sources of funding for campaigns, but another provision in the code requires members to “safeguard the confidence of clients”. In effect the latter provision trumps the first.
The contradictions implicit in this situation are damning, Burton says, especially given the drive from PR companies to promote the notion of corporate social responsibility among their clients. “For many companies, disclosing the names of clients is a balancing act between wanting to impress potential clients with their PR prowess while avoiding debate over some of their less savoury clients and controversial campaigns.”
The book is timely given the boom in the PR industry in the past half decade. In that time it has grown at a rate of 20 per cent, and it turns over more than $1 billion a year in Australia. Despite employing about 10,000 people it is difficult to get a full sense of the industry. “Exactly who falls within the PR profession is something of a moot point, as the boundary lines between PR, marketing and lobbying are often blurred,” says Burton.
The chapters on the relationship between PR and the pharmaceutical and tobacco industries are especially revealing. Globally the drug industry generated $US 608 billion in revenues last year. It is the world’s most profitable stock market sector. Australia’s share of the market is small but still worth $7.8 billion a year in sales. Dr Peter Mansfield from the industry watchdog Healthy Skepticism points out that the anti-inflammatory drug Vioxx killed hundreds of Australians in 2004. ”It killed more Australians than the Bali bombing and we are spending billions on anti-terrorism projects but we are not doing anything about drug advertising.” Ironically, the drug industry sponsors Australia’s most lucrative journalism awards.
Burton identifies the heart of health and pharmaceutical PR as third-party credibility – getting seemingly independent groups to say nice things about drug companies and their products. “Third-party messages are an essential means of communication for validating scientific credibility, for legitimising products, for building brand and disease awareness, and for building differences against crises,” Burton quotes Nancy Turett, president of Edelman’s health practice, as saying. Little wonder, Burton wryly notes, that the tobacco industry has a better reputation in Australia than the pharmaceutical companies.
Last year the global tobacco industry generated revenues of $US 348.57 billion. Smoking was also responsible for the death of 750,000 people, the World Health Organisation calculates. The industry has decided to opt for “reputation management” as part of its campaign strategy. Burton notes that in Australia many PR programs for multinational companies work from a global template. The policy in Australia appears to be based on a commitment to combating under-age smoking, promotion of sensible regulations governing the manufacture and marketing of tobacco products and the demonstration of “good corporate conduct”. Burton joins the dots in showing how in Australia both these industries appear to turn to PR companies staffed by people with links to former government ministers and lobby groups. Burton also shows the links between tobacco and major media companies. He cites a 1985 memo from Hamish Maxwell, CEO of Philip Morris, the world’s largest private tobacco company, saying that media proprietors such as Rupert Murdoch were “sympathetic to our position”. The media “like the money they make from our advertisements”. Murdoch was on the board of Philip Morris from 1989 to 2002.
Burton also illustrates the influence of think tanks. Last year articles from the Institute of Public Affairs, based in Melbourne, appeared an average of almost four times a week in the opinion columns of major newspapers. Most of that content is supplied free. Burton describes the IPA’s role as clearing the way for politicians and officials “to implement policies deemed too politically toxic to touch”. Think tanks are equally secretive about their funding sources, Burton says. He details the involvement of think tanks in major issues of the past few years, including the sale of Telstra, environmental concerns, Australia’s water policy, and free trade agreements. He describes their approach: obscure the funding source, court journalists with impressive-looking research and readily available talking heads, and “dovetail advocacy with allies in the media and politics to develop an ‘echo-chamber’ effect”.
This is a welcome book. It should be on the reading lists for all of the country’s journalism and public relations programs, especially the chapter “It takes two to tango” on the symbiotic relationship between journalism and PR. No hard data are available but the PR industry in Australia is growing – in July this year The Australian Financial Review highlighted the rising demand for graduates – while the ranks of journalists are thinning. The allocation of resources to online journalism, boosted by the growth of broadband, is putting more pressure on daily newspapers, traditionally the agenda setters.
Professor Steve Ross, recently retired from Columbia University, produces an annual survey of journalists’ use of the Internet. He concluded in his 2002 survey that journalists’ use of the Internet for research, especially for breaking news, had become “almost universal”. As journalists look to the web for information, PR companies are content to satisfy their needs behind the safety of online anonymity.
Burton believes the spread of the “invisible” and secretive forces that shape public debate in Australia is bad for society and incompatible with a healthy democracy. Australia’s democracy will be in trouble, he says, if the only voices citizens hear in public debate belong to people with enough wealth to fund PR campaigns, “especially clandestine PR campaigns”. By “shining a light” on the PR industry with this book, he hopes to help citizens, journalists and activists “understand how spin really works and help curtail its seemingly never-ending spread”. As United States Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis noted in 1914, sunlight continues to be the best disinfectant.
Inside Spin: The dark underbelly of the PR industry by Bob Burton, published by Allen & Unwin, 2007, has 313 pages and costs $29.95.
* Review written September 2007.
Media business models need urgent attention
Australia’s mass media need to overhaul their business models if they are to survive.
Managers have neglected business models appropriate for the digital economy, such as de-bundling and re-bundling of content to cater for digital natives. An example of de-bundling would be isolating a single song from a CD, or a single article from a newspaper. Re-bundling involves selling collected pieces of de-bundled content on different platforms.
Professor Arne Krokan of Norway’s University of Science and Innovation said technologies to re-bundle newspaper content and enable micro-payments online or via mobile phones were available “but they have not been embraced”.
Professor Krokan, who consults to media groups in Scandinavia, told the first Australian meeting of the Association of Internet Researchers that newspaper companies around the world had been slow to benefit from the digital revolution.
In Australia media companies move dated content from newspapers and broadcast outlets to web sites. This is shovelling, not re-bundling.
Newspapers also refuse to de-bundle in the physical world. Why not sell separate sections? As soon as I buy weekend newspapers I discard the sports, recruitment, cars and real estate sections without opening them. Why not sell only the business or sports section to interested readers? Just as Apple sells single songs via iTunes.
A song can be replayed and enjoyed several times. Would this happen with single pieces of journalism? Perhaps the answer is a reflection of the quality of some newspaper writing. Or perhaps people perceive newspaper content as ephemeral, the sort of mindset that sees newsprint as wrapping paper for tomorrow’s fish and chips.
Much of the success in the digital world relates to perception as much as reality.
Professor Krokan said convergent technologies permitted new media services. It was important here to understand the whole picture or context. “We need to take into consideration a range of factors including available technologies, changing markets and consumer behaviours, the influence of geography (local is becoming highly popular because of its ability to provide unique content), consumers’ knowledge and competence, variations of culture, and digital business models.”
The main driving forces in the digital economy were convergent technolgies, changing consumer behaviour and deterritorialisation. In the last case, this is where multi-national companies sell into domestic markets. “Amazon sells more books in my country than the combined sales of the three largest Norwegian bookstores. The market is worth about $US 20 million.”
An example of convergent technologies is IPTV, or television available over fast broadband, which undermined the business model of commercial free-to-air TV networks.
European newspapers had started to offer services beyond news to align with changing consumer desires. One of the most popular sections of some papers is a weightwatchers’ club, for example.
Professor Krokan said another feature of digital services was the blurring of the roles of consumers and producers. Consumers were fast becoming producers of content. “In Norway, people take videos with their mobile phones and post them to newspaper web sites.”
Dr Axel Bruns of Queensland University of Technology said citizen journalism provided an example of this blurring of roles, for which he had coined the term “produsage”.
A variety of citizen journalism models had emerged, but “produsage” had some key characteristics. These included content generated by average citizens, limited editorial oversight, continuous updating, more comment and debate than in mainstream media, and multiple perspectives for stories, Dr Bruns said.
Some of the best-known examples included OhMyNews in South Korea, Kuro5hin, Plastic.com, and the Al Gore-funded Current TV. “We see constant and collaborative evolving of content,” Dr Bruns said.
Progressive media such as the BBC were adapting their business models to accommodate changing audiences, and this provided an example of “harvesting the hive” – taking advantage of the vast content that citizen journalists produced. But the long-term economic sustainability of this model remained a “significant question,” he said.
Professor John Hartley of QUT said the business model for broadcasting needed “a makeover”. “Broadcasting as we know it is over.” TV was heading into a post-broadcast phase, driven by the Internet. “Mass media do not last forever. Some simply go away.”
Young people were becoming “produsers” via Internet sites such as MySpace, Flickr and YouTube.
Australia needed faster broadband services to accommodate this change. “We must revise our view of creativity, and revise the broadcast model of creativity, which leaves the general public sprawled brainlessly on the couch.”
* Published in the Bulletin of the Pacific Area Newspaper Publishers’ Association in January 2008.
One of Australia’s greatest journalists
Friday April 24th 2009, 11:36 am
Filed under: memoir
Over the next few weeks China’s main broadcaster will screen almost four hours of a documentary about the great Australian journalist George Ernest (“Chinese”) Morrison.
From 1897 to 1912 Morrison was China correspondent for The Times when the newspaper was effectively an arm of the British foreign office. Because of his position and a series of major political events Morrison became the most recognised Australian in the world.
China Central Television claims an audience of about 1,000 million souls, more than the combined audiences for the United States and Europe. Despite the high regard in China, Morrison is almost forgotten in his country of birth.
A small brass plaque marks his years at Geelong College, where his father was the founding headmaster. In 1932 Chinese people in Australia funded a series of lectures “to honour the great Australian who rendered valuable service to China”. The Australian National University took responsibility for the lectures in 1948 and the most recent Morrison memorial lecture was 6 September 2007.
But little else honours a truly remarkable life.
It would take thousands of words to detail his achievements so this article will only mention some of the highlights. In 1880, aged 18, Morrison walked almost 1,000 kilometres from Victoria to Adelaide.
Two years later Morrison exposed the practice of “blackbirding” in an eight-part series in The Age, after working on one of the ships that lured Pacific islanders aboard and then took them to Australia to work almost as slaves.
That same year Morrison traced the route Burke and Wills had pioneered 22 years earlier, walking 3,254 kilometres in 123 days from north Queensland to Melbourne. Travelling alone and living off the land, Morrison averaged 26.5 kilometres a day. In London, The Times described the journey as “one of the most remarkable of pedestrian achievements”.
At age 23 Morrison led an expedition to walk north across New Guinea, but returned early after being speared twice. No surgeon in Australia would operate and a finger-length spear tip remained in Morrison’s body for a year before an Edinburgh surgeon removed it. Morrison continued his medical studies in Scotland and worked as a doctor from 1888 to 1894 in Spain, Morocco, the West Indies and Australia.
But journalism was his passion. The year of the Adelaide walk, Morrison wrote to his mother that journalism was “the noblest of all the professions”.
In 1894 Morrison’s career moved to a larger canvas.
In February that year, dressed in Chinese garb, Morrison travelled overland from Shanghai to Rangoon in Burma. His diary reports he sometimes walked 48 kilometres a day. The next year his book An Australian in China (subtitled “Being the narrative of a quiet journey across China to Burma”) received critical acclaim in England and Moberly Bell, manager of The Times, offered him a trial as the paper’s China correspondent.
Dr Xuan Doe-Kun has translated Morrison’s book into Chinese and it was launched to coincide with the television program. Dr Xuan is an editor at the Beijing Academy of Social Sciences and wrote her PhD about Morrison. “He was a great man,” she told me in Beijing, “and the Chinese people still respect him highly.”
In his 1967 biography of Morrison, newspaper editor Cyril Pearl noted that one of Beijing’s major streets was named after Morrison. People continued to call it “Former Morrison Street” after it was renamed WangFuJing Street.
Dr Xuan and Li Yan showed me where Morrison owned a house on WangFuJing Street, now one of Beijing’s ritziest shopping malls. Li Yan wrote the script for the documentary and Dr Xuan acted as historical adviser.
Li Yan travelled extensively in Australia in 2007 filming for the program, and is astonished that Australians appear to have forgotten Morrison. “When he was alive he was the most famous Australian in the world, along with Dame Nellie Melba,” she said.
Opera singer Melba was born a year earlier than Morrison, in 1861. She continues to be remembered in her own country. Restaurants have named desserts after her. The first thing people see when they arrive at Avalon airport in Victoria is a sculpture of Melba. Where are the Morrison memorials?
Li Yan interviewed Sydney writer Linda Jaivin for the documentary. Jaivin, fluent in Mandarin, is working on a novel based around an affair Morrison had with an American traveller, “Maysie” Perkins, in 1903-04. Morrison called Perkins “the most immoral woman” he had ever met, and Jaivin has based the title for her book on the phrase. Jaivin described Morrison as “a very complex character”.
Jaivin said Times journalist Lionel James’s description of Morrison resonated with her – he was a man of “many-sided greatness”. James covered the 1904 war between Japan and Russia with Morrison.
A huge department store occupies the site where Morrison’s home stood in Beijing. Such is the pace of progress and the value of land in Beijing that new, large buildings soon replace smaller ones. Nearby is the area where thousands of Boxers besieged a few hundred troops and diplomats for 55 days during the Boxer Revolution of 1900.
Li Yan showed me the place where Morrison was shot in the right thigh while inspecting the defences on July 16 that year. Despite the wound he dragged a severely wounded British officer, Captain BM Strouts, to safety as snipers continued to shoot at them.
Morrison later wrote in his diary that Strouts’ body was soaked in blood but the captain remained conscious. Strouts, who died soon after, asked about Morrison’s wound. “I said mine was unimportant,” Morrison wrote. “Then I fainted.”
That same day Morrison’s paper reported that every foreign defender in the diplomatic area had been massacred. The Times report was based on a telegram from the Shanghai correspondent of the Daily Mail, sent the day before and also published in the Daily Mail. The story was a hoax, filed by an American conman named FW Sutterlee.
The Daily Mail had passed the telegram to The Times in good faith. On July 17 The Times published obituaries of Morrison and senior diplomats, noting that no newspaper had ever had “a more able servant than Morrison”. The obituary described Morrison’s judgment as “extraordinary, amounting almost to intuition”.
This event explains the title of the biography Peter Thompson and Robert Macklin published in 2004, The Man Who Died Twice: The life and adventures of Morrison of Peking. That book has been translated into Chinese and launched in China this year  under the title Morrison of China. Allen & Unwin, publishers of The Man Who Died Twice, will re-issue the English version of the book at the end of this year  under that title.
As a young journalist Macklin became intrigued by Morrison after reading the ground-breaking biography by Cyril Pearl. “Morrison was one of the great journalists, and he deserves to be better recognised. He used shoe leather to get a story, unlike too many current journalists who only use the telephone and email. And he defined what it was to be a great foreign correspondent.”
Morrison served as a cultural bridge between Australia and China, Macklin said. “As China moves more into the Australian consciousness, hopefully Morrison will become more appreciated. It’s sad he’s not appreciated in his own country.”
Macklin suggested the time was ripe for Australian journalism to devote an award to recognise Morrison’s achievements. “Many Australian journalists know little about the history of their profession.”
China’s main broadcaster and a major publisher consider Morrison worthy of major projects. It’s time the man was more appreciated in his own country.
* Published in the Walkley magazine edition on China in June 2008.
Feature about seniors and the Internet
Journalist Eric Shackle, 88, of Ettalong on the NSW Central Coast, proclaims on his website that “Life begins at 80.”
Mr Shackle has now been a journalist for seventy years and is the creator of the world’s first multi-national e-book.
He’s the oldest reporter for Ohmynews, the groundbreaking South Korean online newspaper at the forefront of citizen journalism – and he urges seniors to go online.
“You will be read by countless Internet users around the world. And it’s a great way of letting your friends and relatives know you’re still alive,” he chuckles.
Like Mr Shackle, a surprising number of Australian seniors are taking to the digital age, replacing traditional retirement pastimes like golf or bowls with online gaming, digital imaging, genealogy and blogging.
But for seniors who missed the computer revolution in the workplace, there is a digital divide that is making a computer-free existence increasingly difficult.
“Every time you read an article or watch an ad there’s a web address,” says Tony Lenn, the technical co-ordinator at the Australian Seniors Computer Clubs Association (ASCCA), a not-for-profit peak body for Seniors and Technology.
“People who come to our clubs feel that if they don’t use email and the web, they are missing out.”
The seniors who do use the internet are keen and interested users, says publisher Kaye Fallick, who owns the website ‘About Seniors’ (www.aboutseniors.com.au).
“Older people get very bad press when it comes to technology. They are a fabulous audience to serve on the web, though – they are the web’s stickiest users, so they are happy to spend some time on a site.”
Mrs Fallick says that there is just no comparison between older web surfers and teens like her own sons who are looking for “instant gratification and the quick click.”
But the 2.6 million Australians aged over 65 are still the least likely group to use the internet, according to the Australian Bureau of Statistics.
Usage among adults aged between 20 and 54 averages around 45%, but usage drops to 28.6% for those aged 55-64 and then drops to less than 20% of those aged 65-74. The usage rate for Australians over 75 is around 3%.
The Senior Digital Divide is closing, however, with ABS figures showing that older people were the strongest growth group in home internet access between 1998 and 2003.
The proportion of over-55s who owned a computer and had internet access from home more than doubled, from 11% in 1998 to 23% in 2003.
“We seniors may start by dogpaddling, but it is not long before we are surfing the net with the best of them,” says Nan Bosler, who is the President of ASCCA.
She estimates that there are more than sixty member computer clubs around Australia, which have helped over 30,000 seniors learn to use a computer since 1998, with a further 20,000 seniors currently in training.
“I think seniors feel that they have to catch up, it’s almost forced on them,” says Tony Lenn.
Australian seniors were children in last century’s Depression, survived World War Two, raised families with the threat of Cold War and nuclear apocalypse hanging over their heads and watched the moon landing on TV.
Many had limited schooling. “Many of our older seniors have never been in the workforce. In their day it was inappropriate for a wife to work,” Nan Boswell points out.
Australia’s colonial history is littered with tales of explorers and settlers braving wild frontiers – a rendition of national identity at odds with today’s tech-driven world.
But some Australian seniors have grasped the new technologies with enthusiasm, becoming boundary-riders at the frontiers of the digital divide.
At 107, Olive Riley is believed to be the world’s oldest blogger. She is 12 years older than Spain’s Maria Amelia, the previous titleholder who dethroned Sweden’s Allan Lööf, 94.
Olive’s blog, www.allaboutolive.com.au gets about 10,000 hits a day and is ranked 6,800th among the world’s 75 million blogs.
Olive was born in Broken Hill on 20 October 1899 when Queen Victoria was still alive, yet now she is embracing 21st-century technologies.
These days, she lives in a hostel at Woy Woy, 80km north of Sydney.
Film-maker Mike Rubbo, 69, helps Olive publish her blog. He made a documentary, “All about Olive,” that screened on the ABC in February last year. “The film had a great effect on her. It seemed to pump life into her.”
Mr Rubbo said Olive’s blog was having a major impact around the world.
“It’s inspiring others to take more interest in their own old folks, to go out and record their stories before it’s too late.”
It was journalist Eric Shackle who first had the idea for Olive’s blog, after reading about Spain’s Maria Amelia.
He proof-reads Mr Rubbo’s transcriptions of conversations with Olive and Mr Rubbo posts them.
Mr Rubbo said the blog had done a lot for him personally. “It has forced me to master the business of posting text and photos, something I thought was beyond me at almost 70.”
Mr Shackle also continues to embrace life. “My GP has just certified that I’m fit to drive my car for another year. All drivers 85 and over in NSW have to present a medical certificate before having their licences renewed.”
A grove of olive trees grows near the railway station at Broken Hill. The first crop is expected in 2010.
Olive Riley says she plans to return to her birthplace to pick the first fruit.
Ken Thomas is 79 and retired from banking about twenty years ago. After two hip replacements, he says that he’s not that keen on golf any more and fiddling around with computers is his main hobby.
These days, Mr Thomas co-ordinates over a hundred seniors in his “Ripper” group – the Retired and Interested Persons Special Interest Group, which is a sub-group of the Melbourne PC Users Group.
The Melbourne PC Users group is the world’s second-largest computer user group, with around 9,500 members, with an average age of around 60.
“A lot of the fellows are interested in the technical side of computers. You used to be able to mend your own car, these days we’re trying out Windows Vista,” Mr Thomas says.
“It’s a bit of effort to keep up with all the new technology but you do have more time for it when you’re retired.”
Despite his keen interest in computers, Mr Thomas scoffs at mobile phones. “I think they’re an expensive con,” he says, although he admits that many of his ‘Ripper’ colleagues use a mobile.
However, while older people value the security that a mobile brings, most shy away from SMS because tiny keys and little screens available are difficult to use.
In the US, retailers were taken by surprise when a simple children’s mobile, the Firefly phone (www.fireflymobile.com) with five large keys including an emergency call button became popular with the elderly.
US mobile company GreatCall quickly commissioned Samsung to create the Jitterbug mobile (www.jitterbug.com), with a big keys, a large screen and loud audio.
Meanwhile, Japanese mobile company DoCoMo has released a new Seniors mobile with audio features like ‘Slow Voice’ and ‘Clear Voice’ that adjust sound levels and speed.
Mobile phone companies in Australia have been slow on the uptake, although mobile retail giant Fone Zone now offers a Seniors Card discount.
“The whole mobile world is geared towards young people, which I think is a mistake,” says Lyn Goodall, who is the President of the Melbourne PC Users Group.
“A lot of our members use a PDA with built-in mobile and that gives them a bigger screen,” she says.
Ms Goodall says that the Group’s members, many approaching retirement age, use technology to keep in touch with society.
“As we get older, we tend to lose social connection. Our families move away, our friends die and it’s very easy to become lonely.”
Social connection came in spades for retiree Robyn Rogers, 64, who registered with ‘Friends Reunited’ (www.friendsreunited.com.au) to find an old college friend.
A former stenographer, Mrs Rogers is a switched-on senior, using the internet for online banking, shopping, trading on eBay and making travel bookings.
Technology usually holds no fear for her, she is in regular email contact with friends and family and carries a mobile phone wherever she goes.
But Mrs Rogers was astounded when she received an email last year via Friends Reunited, from a half-sister she had never met and discovered her long-estranged father and two other half-siblings.
“A lot of older people are afraid of technology, they are frightened to try new things,” she says. “But there’s nothing to fear. Through the internet, I’ve gained a whole new family.”
* Written with freelancer Fran Molloy. Published in The Age and SMH on 11 May 2007
Impact of Internet on federal election
Friday April 24th 2009, 11:22 am
Filed under: politics
The federal election is being fought online as well as in the streets and malls of the marginal electorates. What is happening with the online campaigns? Stephen Quinn takes a look.
That damn worm. As a former journalist I squirm when I read the hundreds of column centimetres about the worm, the device used to measure audience reaction to political speeches. The audience for the federal leaders’ debate was 90. The audience for the Costello-Swan debate was 50. The margin of error for such tiny audience samples would be in double figures. So the worm is a major concern to anyone who understands basic statistics.
What has the worm got to do with online coverage of the federal election? Any attempt to predict a result based on online coverage would involve as many brain cells as the average worm, and be as statistically valid.
Various opinion polls have been predicting a Labor win for months. But during the actual election campaign, in the past three weeks, the difference has come back to about 6 points. For the groups sampled by the main pollsters, the margin of error is plus or minus 3 percentage points. This means the reported gap of six points between the major parties could produce a close result.
This article would never dare suggest that many journalists covering the election are numerically challenged. But when did you last read an opinion poll that included the margin of error?
Having said that, let’s get a wriggle on and look at how the election is shaping online.
We’ll start with Facebook and MySpace, the most popular social network sites. MySpace’s main audience is aged between 14 and 30, and tending towards the teenage end of the continuum. Facebook is the MySpace for the over 30 brigade.
Kevin Rudd has both a dedicated election web site, at http://www.kevin07.com.au/, and a MySpace account. John Howard does not appear to have a MySpace account. He gets plenty of online space at the official Liberal Party site (http://www.liberal.org.au/). The site makes powerful use of video rather than text. It seems to know its audience. And I liked the easy access to information about candidates in individual electorates.
Kevin07 is a pretty cool site. It also focuses on video and gives easy access to key topics. But just as revealing are the hundreds of comments on the Whirlpool archive (http://whirlpool.net.au/forum-replies-archive.cfm/796765.html) about this site. They provide a totally unscientific sense of what the audience thinks about Kevin07. These comments cannot and should not be reported in any article because all come from people with pseudonyms so it’s impossible to verify their accuracy. But the do make for fun reading.
Most analysts expect the under 30 group to vote for Rudd. So the people who may decide this month’s election will be the 55+ group. In some respects it’s pointless writing about the impact of online on that group. Most recently available ABS data suggest that only 21 per cent of people aged 60 or older had used the Internet in the previous year.
Dr Norman Abjorensen, lecturer in politics at the ANU, described this as the first blog election, noting that never before had a campaign been so analysed and disected as this one is online. “I suspect from anecdotal evidence that this is drawing in people, especially the younger ones, who might not otherwise be interested in or taking much notice of an election campaign.
“It is the shape of things to come, just as television was a few years ago, and the politicians who can master the new medium now, as those that did then, will be the ones who dominate the coverage” Dr Abjorensen said.
Both leaders have a Facebook site. For the uninitiated, Facebook is an online place where people establish a free profile, which usually includes a photograph and a biography.
Two graduate students at Harvard University in the US invented it, but in the past year Facebook has moved beyond universities and spread around the world. Late last month Microsoft paid $US 240 million for a mere 1.6 per cent stake. This values Facebook at an astronomical $US 15 billion.
As of November 8 Rudd had three Facebook accounts, and a total of 5,838 friends. PM John Howard also had three Facebook accounts, but only 3,049 friends. Any attempt to base an election prediction on these numbers would be as valid as trusting the accuracy of the worm.
None of the six Facebook accounts provides any information about either candidate. You have to go to Wikipedia, the online user-provided encyclopaedia, for that. Blogs are providing some astute coverage. Hugh Martin, general manger for the online in Australian Provincial Newspapers, said some of the most interesting election commentary came from non-mainstream commentators such as academics. “People like economist John Quiggin offer some very astute opinions in their blogs.”
All of the mainstream media have an election site. The ABC site is, as usual, professional and formidable. The broadsheet newspapers tip most of their print content onto the web site, so we tend to get the same “commentariat” online and in print. During the first cricket test, the SMH did not have a link from its home page to the election. The cricket was obviously more important.
The Australian’s site, news.com.au, provides some fun material in the shape of Nicholson animations and Leak cartoons. These are a pungent delight and show how to mix spinach with sweets to get people to spend time on the election site.
Crikey offers an extensive election site, and a clever election tracker (http://www.electiontracker.com.au/). Its collection of commentators, the “Crikey Commentariat,” make for a good read.
And I like the Australian Electoral Commission’s clock that counts down the days and minutes before election day (http://www.aec.gov.au/).
But the most interesting site comes not from mainstream media, but Google (http://www.google.com.au/election2007/). It offers what the web does well: Videos of candidates via YouTube, and Google maps which allow people to find their electorate, see their seat in satellite view, and explore marginal seats.
Voters can monitor a specific House of Representatives seat and search Hansard and MPs’ homepages to see what MPs have said on specific issues. My favourite is the election trends site that allows me to see graphically and quickly what issues and politicians are hot in the news and on Google.
So much more useful than that damn worm.
* Published in The Age Just before the federal election in November 2007
Broadband disrupts business models
The spread of fast Internet is bad news for the business models of traditional phone and media companies around the world.
Even with slow ADSL I make Skype calls internationally for a fraction of what I would pay phone companies for the same talk time. Skype is free software, downloadable from the Internet, which lets people phone anyone else with Skype for free. In April last year (2007) Skype passed the 100 million user mark. On any given day in early 2007 about 8 to 10 million Skypers were online.
If the Internet connection is relatively fast Skype provides good voice quality. If the other person does not have Skype, it is still possible to phone them cheaply by depositing money into an account via credit card. Calls from Australia to non-Skype users in most developed countries cost about three cents a minute. The $16 I deposited last July has allowed me several hours of talk time all around the world.
The technology behind Skype is voice over internet protocol, or VOIP. US broadband management company Sandvine reports that Skype accounts for almost half of the VOIP calls in North America. Skype also has call forwarding. So when I’m travelling I can still receive calls on my mobile even in areas with no Internet access. Skype is currently working on video phone calls, voice-to-text and voicemail-to-email translation.
Around the world, private companies and groups are setting up free wireless networks in cities or parts of cities. Google has offered to provide a free wireless network over the 49 acres of San Francisco at download speeds of 300 kilobits a second. That’s faster than the 256 ADSL Telstra sells me for $60 a month. In reality for rural folk like me, the 256 kilobits a second is usually 120-140. My American and European friends always phone me via Skype because it is free. Imagine the telephony possibilities when you have wireless Internet.
Meanwhile, media companies are investigating television delivered via the Internet, known as internet protocol television, or IPTV. Last month (subs: Dec 05) Rupert Murdoch swapped his shares in DirecTV, John Malone’s satellite TV company, for more of his own News Corp shares. It was the clearest sign yet of how much Murdoch thinks high-speed Internet will change the television business. IPTV lets people view high-quality video online. Murdoch acquired his interest in DirecTV in 2003 after years of bitter wrangling. Satellite distribution helped fuel the popularity of News Corp’s television and cable content, such as the Fox News Channel. But satellites are expensive. It costs about $US 300 million to build and launch each new one. NDS, a News Corp subsidiary, is developing IPTV technology. It already produces technologies for securing transactions over wireless networks.
Technology also changes the business model for free-to-air commercial TV. Personal or digital video recorders (TiVO is the best-known PVR in the US; Foxtel’s iQ in Australia) allow people to record programs on a giant hard disk. PVRs let audiences skip advertisements as they play back programs. Given that commercial TV and radio get their revenue from ads, the arrival of IPTV or Internet radio makes the traditional business model look ill over time. Late last year channels 7 and 9 in Australia refused to air commercials for a model of LG plasma television screen with a built-in digital video recorder. The Multi Channel Network, which represents the major pay-TV providers, also tried to censor the commercials. When the advertisements were eventually aired, the offending line “And when you replay, you can skip the ads” was replaced with “And when you replay, you can skip straight back to the action.” Colin Segelov, executive director of the Australian Association of National Advertisers, told industry magazine B&T that the ban was “understandable”. But he said censorhsip was contrary to the long-term interests of the advertising community. The industry would learn to live with commercial-skipping technology the way it had learned to live with the remote control, Segelov said.
The business model for music-format commercial radio is also in trouble. Why would a teenager endure advertisements on their FM radio while waiting for a favorite song when they can download music to their iPod? Whither the companies that spent millions for licences a few years ago?
The key unknown is the time frame for the disintegration of these business models. In 1992 Paul Saffo, director of the Institute for the Future in Palo Alto, California, proposed his 30-year rule, suggesting it takes a generation for a new idea to fully permeate a society. It took the Internet, which started in 1964, about a generation to become a part of our lives. But we are living in an age where technology is shortening the time frame.
* Published in The Age January 2008
Wireless broadband in South Korea
In mid April 2007 a new wireless form of broadband known as WiBro will blanket South Korea. WiBro allows people to get multimedia content like movies wirelessly while travelling at 120kph, at download speeds most Australians could only dream of.
Korean transport engineers have trialled a train that travels at up to 300 kph. Jean Min, a senior executive with OhmyNews in Seoul, said trains and buses would be the best places to access WiBro because this form of wireless Internet was nomadic and everywhere. “You could sit in your seat and access the Net for three hours as you travel around the country. It will also be available in express buses.”
South Korea has been testing WiBro since the middle of last year. WiBro has upload speeds of at least 1 megabit a second. Download is even faster. “They have tested it for several months and are confident they can do it,” Min said.
South Korea has the world’s second-lowest broadband costs. Most people pay about $12 a month for speeds of at least 1 mbs. In many parts of Seoul, the capital, wireless broadband is free.
Meanwhile my home “broadband” service from Telstra costs five times that amount for download speeds about an eighth of what South Koreans get. Often my speeds are as low as 30 kps, about the same speed as dial-up at the turn of the century.
In terms of broadband, Australia runs the risk of being left behind, complacently “releaxed and comfortable” while our Asian neighbours race ahead.
South Korea’s broadband applies across the country, not just in the major cities. About 50.6 million people live in an area of 99,313 square kilometers, so the country is small enough to cover easily.
South Korea has achieved remarkable growth since the 1960s. The economy was impoverished and rural when the Japanese occupation ended in 1945. Much of the country’s infrastructure was destroyed during the Korean War from 1950-53. By 1960 South Korea’s per capita GDP lagged behind countries like Zambia, Nigeria and Bangladesh.
But since then, sustained high economic growth has transformed the country into a highly industrial and internationally competitive economy. Measured by GDP, South Korea was in the top 10 economies in the world in 2006. Earlier this year the Economist Intelligence Unit predicted Japan and South Korea would have identical GDP per head by 2050.
Suk Hoick, president of Korea’s Information Society Development Institute, said information and communication technologies contributed 16.1 per cent of GDP last year. By early 2007, 85 per cent of households had broadband, the highest number of broadband connections per capita in the world. The country was an early adopter of “triple play” models that provide cable television, broadband Internet and voice telephony as a package from a single provider.
The South Korean government is committed to transitioning the country to digital terrestrial, digital cable and digital satellite TV by 2010. Indeed, the government has promised a robot to every household by 2010. The robot would advise about expired food in the fridge, monitor electricity consumption and vacuum the floor.
South Korea is considered a world leader in third generation (3G) mobile technology. It has the world’s highest percentage of mobile users with 3G phones. WCDMA, the second 3G standard to enter the Korean market after CMDA2000, became commercially available in December 2003.
Because of the high penetration of mobile telephones and digital technology, South Korea has become a hothouse for infrastructure developments. It sits at the “bleeding edge” of the digital revolution, acting as a trailblazer for high-speed and wireless Internet services. The country has also pioneered the distribution of television via mobile devices. Online gaming is a national passion.
More than 95 per cent of people aged 6 to 29 regularly go online, compared with 86.4 per cent of people in their thirties, 58.3 per cent of people in their forties and 27.6 per cent of those in their fifties.
Many of the country’s newspapers are looking at providing multimedia through Internet protocol television (IPTV) via the web.
Jean Min said OhmyNews used live web-casting extensively. “We use wireless modems that allow us to video-cast from anywhere. That kind of content is very popular with our audiences. Whenever there is a big event we send a camera. When reporters walk around the streets of Seoul they can access high-speed Internet from anywhere. Uploading and downloading web video is easy for us. Live webcam TV is one of the killer applications for getting people glued to our screen.”
Dr Eugene Pak, vice-president in charge of the chief technology office at Samsung Electronics, has the enviable job of focusing on the future. He is fond of quoting his CEO, Lee Byung-Woo: “The future is not to be predicted; it is to be created.”
Samsung’s revenues last year were $US 55.3 billion, with profits of $US 7.5 billion. It invested $US 6.01billion last year in research and development, about 9 per cent of revenue.
The company employs more than 36,000 people in its 16 R&D centres around world, including 3,100 PhDs. To put the number of doctorates in perspective, that is more than the number at Korea University, and more than the total number of Victorian academics with doctorates.
The main research unit is the Samsung Advanced Institute of Technology, SAIT. Dr Pak said one of the latest developments to come out of SAIT was a bio-chip used to monitor people’s health. An individual puts a drop of their blood on this chip, which gives an analysis of their overall health.
Samsung has been experimenting with building smart apartment blocks that allow residents to turn on their stove via their mobile phone as they journey home. Technology known as Amoled could produce a new form of flexible display technology that is able to be rolled like paper.
Samsung has experimented with the use of radio frequency identification (rfid) tags placed on food in the fridge, which advises residents when food is past its use-by date. Tages have also been put in taxis. The tag reads an individual’s mobile phone number when they enter the taxi, recording the location. “Think of the applications for ensuring the safety of individuals at night,” Dr Pak said.
The IT megatrends for the second half of this decade would include digital convergence leading to network convergence (think a blending of telecoms with broadcasting and wireless devices), leading to high levels of personalisation. “We will see the emergence of all-in-one phone handsets,” Dr Pak said.
Samsung staff refer often to Hwang’s law, named after a vice-president for research and echoing the famous Moore’s law that says that memory capacity doubles every 18 to 24 months. “Hwang’s law at Samsung means we double the capacity of flash memory each year,” Dr Pak said.
But all is not perfect in this technology wonder-world. South Korea’s birth rates are low by world standards. The fertility rate in 2005 was 1.08 child per woman compared with 4.53 a generation earlier.
Dr Woo Cheonsik, senior counsellor to South Korea’s deputy prime minister for economic affairs, said slow population growth was the country’s major concern. “A dramatic fall in fertility rates and longer life expectancies will soon make South Korea one of the most aged societies in the world,” he said. As with Australia’s ageing population, this has major long-term consequences for the economy.
* Published in The Age of April 2007
Power of social media
Blogs are not a threat to journalism, but an opportunity. So says Kevin Anderson, head of blogging and interaction for Guardian Unlimited, the award-winning web site of The Guardian newspaper in London.
For almost a year Anderson has been responsible for strategy and “leading by doing” for the Guardian’s blogging network. He is helping Guardian journalists realise the power of engagement and the opportunities that social media make available.
“An increasing number of people not only want to consume content but also create and rate content,” he said. “They also want to communicate and interact with people, not only with journalists but also with each other.”
Most journalists saw these changes as a threat. “They have this vision of armies of citizen journalists wanting to do our jobs for free.” But few citizens wanted to be journalists. Most simply wrote about their experiences when news happened, such as the bridge collapse in Minnesota.
These people were committing “random acts” of journalism, Anderson said. “They have a camera phone and happen to witness an event.”
Blogs opened up new ways to partner with audiences, he said. Social networks gave journalists the chance to renew their relationship with readers and viewers because journalists had lost the public’s trust.
“The erosion has happened for a number of reasons around the world, including a general loss in trust in institutions as well as challenges from bloggers who fact check the mainstream media. Social media can allow us to rebuild that trust through transparency and direct connections with readers and viewers.
“At The Guardian we’re trying to help our casual online readers to become committed users of our communities as well as catalysts, recommending Guardian journalism through their social networks.”
Anderson pioneered online journalism at the BBC from 1998 to 2004 as well as reporting about technology for radio and television. In 2004 he wrote one of the first blogs at the BBC and in 2005 he developed blogging and interactive radio strategies for BBC news.
He is in Melbourne to speak at the conference “Digital worlds: Social, virtual, mobile” at the Australian Centre for the Moving Image tomorrow (Subs: August 10).
The conference is organised by XMediaLab (Subs: Organiser’s title has vertical slash between X and Media and between Media and Lab), and aims to showcase emerging forms of community building through digital media.
Anderson said few people apart from professional journalists wanted to be reporters, which was one of the problems underlying news organisations’ enthusiasm for “citizen journalism”.
“News organisations cannot and should not expect crowd-sourcing to replace the work of paid journalists. One of the greatest risks to news organisations is that, in developing channels for user-generated content, they alienate their audiences by leaving them with a feeling of being exploited, that they are doing for free what others are paid for.
“I don’t like the term user-generated content. It’s corporate speak and it creates a wall between contributors and the organisations using their content. Some people are beginning to use the term community-created content, which has a better ring to it.”
Anderson said media companies focused too much on technology. “They believe that all they have to do is make blogs and social networking tools available to their audience and an online community will form on its own.”
Newspapers and their readers needed couples’ counselling, Anderson said. They should ask: What ties your community together? “If you don’t know, that’s your first problem. Get out from behind the desk. Talk to people about what they are talking about.”
Successful Web 2.0 sites were designed so that the value of the site to users rose as the level of participation grew. “How can news organisations design websites and web services that encourage participation through increased value to their users? The future for news organisations lies in both tapping expertise and enhancing their content with community contributions.”
That is precisely what happens at STOMP in Singapore. About 85 per cent of content came from the audience, the bulk from the cameras in mobile telephones.
STOMP stands for Straits Times online mobile and print. The Straits Times is the 162-year-old broadsheet flagship of Singapore Press Holdings (SPH), the country’s major media company.
Editor Jennifer Lewis is another conference speaker tomorrow. She said STOMP was the only platform in Asia that focused on social networking and user-generated content.
SPH editorial managers decided the company’s future was via online and mobile because that was where young readers were. STOMP launched in June last year and within a year was attracting 7 million page impressions a month, more than the hits for the web sites of major American newspapers.
Lewis said Singaporeans lived in a 24/7 world so with breaking news it was inevitable that people would go online.
“Audience-generated content is going to be, if not already, key to how journalists remain relevant,” she said. “Expect to see more pro-am collaborations as professional journalists team up with the community at large.”
“The seasoned journalist would offer perspective and analysis, while audiences provided snapshots of individual experiences. With UGC, the flood of personal experiences will give the journalist an even better understanding of what is going on. UGC is going to make the journalist even smarter.”
Other international speakers at the conference include Dr David Liu, founder of Beijing’s Cyber Recreation District, China’s biggest government-supported digital media initiative, and Professor Lizbeth Goodman, director of the SMARTlab digital media institute at the University of East London.
Film director Shekhar Kapur, co-founder of Virgin Comics and Virgin Animation, will also speak. His first English-language film, Elizabeth, received eight Academy Award nominations, including best picture. Shekhar recently directed a sequel, The Golden Age, starring Cate Blanchett and Geoffrey Rush.
* Interview with Kevin Anderson, blogs editor of The Guardian. Published in The Age August 2007.
Camera phones tell major news stories
Most of the eyewitness images of the Virginia Tech shootings came from amateurs using camera phones. The power of the mobile phone to capture history has been highlighted at major news stories such as the London Tube and the Mumbai rail bombings.
Graduate student Jamal Albarghouti supplied CNN with video of the Blacksburg shootings, taken with his cell phone. The sound of multiple shots can be heard on the video.
Albarghouti was about 60 metres from Norris Hall when the second round of shootings began. “When I saw the policemen taking their guns out, I knew this was serious,” he told CNN.
CNN has assembled a slideshow of eyewitness photographs at http://www.cnn.com/ interactive/us/0704/gallery.ireport.vt.shooting/frameset.exclude.html
Coverage of the London bombings on 7 July 2005 was a watershed for journalism in terms of audience-generated content. Helen Boaden, the BBC’s director of news, said 50 photographs and video clips taken with mobile phones arrived in the first hour of the first blast.
About 3,000 people posted still and video images to a site called Moblog UK in the days after the bombings. Alfie Dennen, co-founder of the site, said it was the first time this form of content had played such a significant part in a breaking news story in the UK.
In South Korea, more than 50,000 citizen reporters with cameras on their mobile phones are able to send live video to the OhmyNews.com site.
Jean Min, director of OhmyNews International, said any of the citizen reporters could shoot video and send it to a server. “From our server we can broadcast live to anywhere in the country.”
Citizen reporting involving images will become increasingly common because of the boom in the number of camera-enabled mobile phones. Research company IDC said a billion new mobile phones were sold in 2006, and almost half (460 million) had a built-in camera. In countries like Korea it is almost impossible to buy a new phone without a camera.
More than 200 million of the billion new phones were sold in China and India. Earlier this year India was reporting 6 million new phone subscribers a month, and China 5.25 million.
Part of the reason for the boom is the fall in prices. Phones sell for an average of $120 each in the western world, and about half that in the developing world. Twenty years ago, the first mobile phone sold in the United States cost $US 4,000, or about a tenth of the average family income.
In situations where nearly everyone has a camera-equipped mobile phone, and where Internet connectivity abounds, people on the spot will be supplying more and more coverage of news events. The Virginia Tech shootings may become recognised as a landmark event for citizen journalism.
Those images will join blog entries, Twitter posts, podcasts, moblogs, Flickr photo collections and YouTube videos as a massive visual record of how society is communicating. Most images that teenagers display on MySpace come from a camera phone.
Elsewhere in the world, journalists are embracing the mobile phone as a newsgathering tool. In the Philippines, all 16 reporters at Inquirer.net, the online site of the Philippine Daily Inquirer, carry a Nokia N80 for taking videos. If the story is urgent they send video wirelessly to the website.
JV Rufino, the site’s editor-in-chief, said multimedia was the future for journalism. Inquirer.net has also set up a video channel on YouTube to display its reporters’ footage.
Multimedia reporter Erwin Oliva did a video interview with me in Manila. Oliva said he enjoyed having access to “cool tools” but believed the bottom line was the need for good journalism. “We get the news out in the fastest way possible in as good a way as possible. But nothing beats good writing.”
Joey Alarilla, Infotech columnist at Inquirer.net, said he was proud of the way his reporters filed scores of breaking news stories a day. “In the near future we have to train them to look beyond the printed word, and think of how they can tell their stories via multimedia.”
The balance between reporter-generated and audience-generated content will provide an interesting study in years to come, as the number of camera-enabled phones continues to rise.
* Published in The Age May 2007 after Virginia Tech shootings