Get corporate media out of your head
"Technology is bringing more power to people," FCC Chairman Michael Powell told the National Press Club on January 14. "Power," as Powell used it in his speech, is the power of the consumer - to purchase flatter televisions and smaller cell phones. But we need to redefine power not as the ability to buy, but as the ability to think. In this sense, technology brings power to the people - and it's easy to learn how to use.
Most Americans view the Internet passively, cultured by long hours in front of the television. Accustomed to surfing through TV channels, the majority of Americans log-on and toggle through a series of websites advertised on their AOL homepage, sporadically visiting interesting sites - when they can remember how to find them.
But why not harness the information of the Internet, and bring it to you? If you are familiar with Google News, you already know the technology gathers articles from newspapers all over the world, and displays them in one format. Google News is a news aggregator, and the articles that appear on it are news feeds. The news feeds are created using a technology called RSS, or XML. (The acronym isn't important, but it helps to know what it's called so that you can recognize the logo that indicates a website creates the feeds.) Many websites offer the news feeds, which can then be added to the list of feeds that will appear in your news aggregator.
There are many news aggregators on the market, some of which use programs that run on your computer, and others that are web-based, and work like Google News. Many aggregators are free, including the web-based MyWireService.com. Unlike prototypes such as MyYahoo!, which allow you to only select content from a checklist, you can get feeds from any website that you visit - and create for yourself a great source of alternative news.
Your custom newspage
Gay and Troy Gilmore were tired of scrolling through their long list of favorites to find their preferred websites. Instead, they decided to build their own aggregator, which eventually evolved into MyWireService.com.
The service is ideal for beginners, Gay notes, because "we don't talk about RSS, and we don't require you to find the news sources themselves." The average person doesn't know about the technology, she continues, "because it's a geeky thing. Way on the cutting edge."
| Alternative Sources |
Here's a sampling of websites that offer a range of news from in-depth reporting on issues to editorial opinion pieces.
MyWireService.com is still free, since it's in its testing phase. It collects news sources from all over, and subdivides them into categories like technology, science, and health. To add a feed from BBC News, for example, just click "add." Once you have a large list of feeds, you can subdivide them by category - in effect creating your own "sections" within your online newspaper. MyWireService.com currently offers about 6,000 feeds - not many compared to the millions of websites out there.
This technology is so new that many news sources - including the Current - don't offer news feeds of the material available on their websites. But here is where the geeks take over: It's possible for anyone to create a news feed of any website they visit - including www.sacurrent.com - by using myRSS.com.
It takes a little bit of practice, but the process is automated, as the site explains: "Simply type in the address of the page you want the feed produced from and let myRSS do all the work automatically. Your feed will be instantly available and better still, you can use it for almost any purpose for free." `For a more detailed explanation, please see our web exclusive tutorial at the end of this article.`
Because aggregators like Google News and MyWireService.com display all their feeds in the same format, the information you get from CNN.com is formatted like the updates from your grandmother's LiveJournal.
So why not look to alternate sources of news as you create feeds? Web logs (blogs) are websites maintained by an individual or a group, that are updated frequently. Most blogs are text-heavy, with entries chronologically displayed at the top of the page. Blogs combine "commentary with links that would connect a reader to information that people think the reader should have," explains Dr. Douglas Kellner, a University of California, Los Angeles professor noted for his studies on media and politics, and one of the authors of the popular BlogLeft.com.
It helps to think of blogs as traceable paths that outline the various sites an individual visited that day - a peek inside the mind, habits, and opinions of the author(s). They are instantly addicting - an inside track to what some interesting and intelligent people are reading. And because they are weblinked, you can visit the source information yourself.
Although no one is sure exactly how many blogs exist, Phil Wolff of blogcount.com (a blog devoted to statistics about blogs) estimates that as of June 2003, there were about 2.5 million active blogs. Blogging "tends to correlate with social crises," explains Kellner. Although blogs exist on virtually every topic, the majority of popular ones are political. "So after 9-11, there was a magnum jump in blogs. They were mainly sort of patriotic blogs and war blogs. And then, when Iraq emerged, it sort of divided into pro- and anti-war. So you've actually had a proliferation of anti-Bush blogs," Wolff says.
Most blogs allow readers to post comments to the individual entries - an online gathering place for individuals to share information. The blog is vital to a democracy, and to the spread of ideas, argues Kellner. "One of the key conditions of having a democracy is having informed citizens. So if the mainstream media is not giving the information that people need to know, you know, about Bush or Cheney, the Iraq policy, economics, or any topic, globalization - then you have to inform people so they can become good citizens. That's one of the things that blogs do - they have an information function that helps promote democracy. But democracy is also a discussion, debate, dialogue. So the blog site has room for discussion and dissenting views; it's also promoting democracy."
While blogs in combination with aggregators create new ways for individuals to keep abreast of the news, they cannot hope to compete with the stranglehold that broadcast media has on our collective conscience. As Kellner explains, "The fulcrum of politics continues to be the mainstream media, and particularly the television networks ... this does not level the playing field. It creates new playing fields, or new terrains. But it is absolutely overwhelmed by the intensity and the importance of television."
As the FCC threatens to further homogenize the media, it becomes all the more important to approach the Internet and newsgathering actively. "People have a democratic responsibilty to gain accurate and better information, and a broader range of opinion," Kellner continues, "and you do that through the blog. And you just have to start blogging. And you have to go to a few blogs." •
Get Started with Your Own News Aggregator
There are many news aggregators out on the market. Many of them can be downloaded for free. Essentially, there are two types: web-based programs, like MyWireService.com, and desktop utilities, which are programs that you download onto your computer. Web-based programs have the advantage in that they are accessible from any computer. MyWireService is a great option for those who are new to aggregators.
Starting with MyWireService.com
1. Register for a free account by entering your email address and creating a password. The program will send an email to your account, giving you a link.
2. Follow the link back to MyWireService.com. You can now customize your account
3. To add news feeds to your aggregator, you will want to add "news sources" (a link will appear in the top right of your screen, listing all of the available feeds). You will see that the feeds are organized by category. Browse until you've found a feed that interests you, and click 'add.' Once you've added a ton of feeds, you'll probably want to customize the display of your information. (At any point, you can hit "home" to view the 'custom newspaper' you have set up.)
4. To organize your feeds, click on 'setup sections', which will appear on the right, underneath your general category "My News." Adding your custom sections - be they News, Sports, or Hometown Gossip, is fairly easy.
5. All of your feeds that you select will automatically show up in your general category, "My News." To move them to a category that you have created, click on 'setup sections' again. Next to each category, you will see a link entitled "subscriptions." By clicking on this, you can view all of the newsfeeds that are assigned to that particular category. Follow the instructions on the screen to move your feeds to your new categories. (Note: a bug of this program is that you cannot add feeds directly to your sections, e.g. Sports, but instead must first add them to the general category, and then move them. Hey, it's free.)
Creating a Newsfeed with myRSS.com
1. You'll eventually want to start adding feeds for websites that do not create their own RSS feeds, like Sacurrent.com. To do so, you'll need to create a RSS feed, which you will later plug into the "Add a news source" box on the right hand side of your MyWireService.com display.
2. Go to
3. So what if you want to add a feed for a website that doesn't already have one? Go to "add a channel" at the top of the page. Follow the information on the screen - you basically just enter in the address of the website - www.website.com - and click 'Create!' From here, you will follow the instructions outlined above - just cut and paste the code to the right of the 'RSS Version 1.0.' The RSS feed for the San Antonio Current looks like this: "http://myrss.com/f/s/a/sacurrentKh6o1s1.rss." From there, simply paste the RSS code into your 'Add a News Source field."
4. Why is this cool? Well, it seems cumbersome at first, but this technology enables you to create an RSS feed of any website you want. Everytime that website is updated, your RSS feed will send you the updated information - and aggregate it in your aggregator. Instead of wasting your time shuffling through your e-mail newsletters, you can get all that information to come to you.
Hebig.org has a great list of aggregators on the market, divided by platform type, with annotations
An Interview With Douglas Kellner
By Laura Fries
Following is a transcript of an interview conducted with UCLA professor and media guru Douglas Kellner, who is on the forefront of the blogging revolution.
After some preliminaries…
LF: How would you describe the culture of blogging to someone who is internet-savvy, but unfamilar with the trend?
DK: It's a combination of presenting links to stories that people think are important, with commentary. It grew out of listservs. People would construct a listserv, and then just send articles to friends, etc. So half of it would be the listerv. The other half would be websites and personal diaries, where people just starting putting their diaries on the web, and blogs combine the two. It combines a commentary - some people put a lot of personal stuff on their blogs - with links that would connect a reader to information that people think the reader should have. So it's basically aggregating a lot of information and commentary. Generally on specific themes. Different blogs have different focuses - politics, or ecology, or movies, or restaurants ... so whatever the topic that's being blogged is - it has now expanded to just about everything.
LF: I don't know know if you'd be able to answer this question, but would you be able to guesstimate how many blogs are out there?
DK: You know, I really don't know. I would say over a million. In the last two years, they've been doubling just about every few months. You know, going from tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands to probably over a million now. And there are so many, I just don't know. You might be able to get an answer from the Blogger Pro people.
LF: Yeah, I also found BlogCount... but it's hard to get an authentic...
DK: Right, right. I've read from time to time, and I'm just astounded, how they've grown.
LF: "They" meaning ...
DK: The number of blogs, the number of hits on blogs.
LF: I noticed from your blog, BlogLeft, that you've been blogging for about two years. So, you've been doing this for a while. When do you think that blogging is going to hit its stride, and become sort of a mainstream, respected source of news?
DK: It tends to correlate with social crises. So after 9/11, there was a magnum jump in blogs. They were mainly sort of patriotic blogs, and war blogs. And then, when Iraq emerged, it sort of divided into pro- and anti-war. So you've actually had a proliferation of anti-Bush blogs. So I think in the next election, there's going to be a major proliferation in the role of blogs. Now, most of the candidates are using blogs. But there's now thousands of anti-Bush blogs. I got, the other day, a list of anti-Bush blogs, and it took five minutes to download, there were so many. It was fairly astonishing how much energy `chuckling` people put in. Which is making me wonder ... Now when we started to do it, we were one of the few (BlogLeft) anti-Bush sources. So there was obviously a purpose, and now that there are thousands of them, it raises some questions ... just how many ... But we do get thousands of hits a day, and we get email all the time from people thanking us, and contributing. For myself, it helps me with my research. I've been writing books on media and politics, so it provides a research database, you know, with links and commentary.
LF: That's what I use mine for too.
DK: So yeah,
LF: I noticed that your "Post `a Comment link` says "Support Democracy! Comment!" So of course I have to ask, What is the function of blogging in a democracy?
DK: Well, it's to provide information, but also discussion and debate. One of the key conditions of having a democracy is having informed citizens. So if the mainstream media is not giving the information that people need to know, you know, about Bush or Cheney, the Iraq policy, economics, or any topic, globalization - then you have to inform people so they can become good citizens. That's one of the things that blogs do - they have an information function that helps promote democracy. But democracy is also a discussion, debate, dialogue. So the blog site has room for discussion and dissenting views, it's also promoting democracy. That would be another dimension of this.
LF: You've written in, and this is a paper with Richard Kahn, Internet Subcultures and Political Activism, that one was really on topic for what I'm writing, and you mention in there the demise of the online 'zine. And I was wondering, what makes blogging more likely to succeed.
DK: Well, I think it is the intensity of politics. Again, it's things like 9-11, like Iraq, like an election, that people have strong feelings about. That really gets people involved, that's issues politically. And some people, I guess, Richard Kahn is really into vegan. And he has a Vegan Blog. Others are into animal rights, or gay and lesbian, or whatever. So the things that people are into, you know, they just devote a lot of intention to building community, circulating information, you know, positioning themselves within a community.
LF: Going back to the intensity of politics, do you think that the blogging phenomenon wouldn't have happened if we didn't have things that were intense like 9-11 and Anti-Bush fever that's been going on?
DK: Well, I think it would happen, but it wouldn't have the political edge that it now does. One of the sources of blogging was personal diaries, people compiling movie commentaries, restaurant commentaries, so I think that would have happened without any politics, this kind of blog. But the amount and the intensity of the political blog is clearly related to the issues - Yeah, there's big issues out there: 9-11, and terrorism, and Iraq, and war and peace, and the election.
LF: Moving to news aggregators, if you could speak to the importance of this technology? How do I - cause I'm a huge fan, it's completely changed the way I think - how do I tell my readers that?
DK: It's also democratic in that it provides a tremendous variety and diversity of sources and opinions, that democracy involves many sides of the dialogue. And with the corporate media, at best you get the Democrats and the Republicans. You know, this and that side. So you usually get two sides that are within a pretty narrow range of views. And so blogs - and the Internet in general - give you everything. There's a tremendous variety and diversity. And also, a tremendous amount of information sources; like BlogLeft gives you the top British papers as well as U.S., news magazines, and commentary from all over the world. Things that you just wouldn't get from Time Magazine, or the New York Times.
LF: Well, that leads me into a bigger question then ... do you think that blogging in conjunction with RSS levels the playing field in terms of the media conglomerates?
DK: I would not say ... OK, I know exactly where you are coming from. One of the arguments that Michael Powell gives as to why you don't need to have any regulations, any restrictions on ownership, etc. is because of diversity, etc. BUT the fact of the matter is that the playing field has not been leveled. Actually, I'm surprised that the fulcrum of politics continues to be the mainstream media, and particularly the television networks. This is the case with the 2000 election, 9-11, Iraq: It's still the mainstream media that are the arbitrators. They are the big players. So it matters very much what goes on television. All the things we're talking about, you don't get on television. So this does not level the playing field. It creates new playing fields, or new terrains. But it is absolutely overwhelmed by the intensity and the importance of television. I mean some of us, including myself, thought about ten years ago, that people would just naturally tune out of the networks, and go to the Internet, because there is so much more and more interesting stuff. But this just hasn't happened.
LF: Why not?
DK: In part, the Internet continues to be a relatively elite technology that people in the higher education and income brackets use it most proficiently. It it may be just easier. Television has affected us: it's a vegetation medium as well as an information. Longevity; people are just used to it. It's a habit.
LF: You've been studying this for as many years as I've probably been alive. So I know you have a lot of perspective ... Where do you see the future going with these technologies?
DK: You're going to have a fusion between computers and television. This is something that some of us thought would have happened by now - it would have happened more than it has. But I think that it's inevitable that it's going to happen. I mean, you have TiVo, and these video recorders, that to some extent computerize and also expand. I mean, I have about a thousand meta cable channels here in LA. We have this Direct TV satellite, and it's unbelievable how many channels we have. But still the Internet is the best news source, just because of the print publications you can get. So there is still a division between print and video.
LF: Could you expand on that a little bit?
DK: Well, print being newspapers and blogs, and a lot of the Internet material, websites for instance. There's a declining number of people in this society that are really print literate. That the majority of people get their news and information lite, from TV. And unfortunately, the Internet has not reversed this. So that would be another explanation of why the playing field is not leveled, and why TV will continue to be big. But I think there will be ever more people, as more people become information- and Internet-literate, and they are just used to getting their information off the Internet from the time that they are little kids, that eventually there's going to be more people going to the Internet. And there's also a a production thing. Like blogging, you're active, as opposed to passive. Even choosing what Internet websites to go to ... it's more choice than choosing what TV channel ... there aren't that many U.S. ones.
LF: But that will change.
DK: Probably. Actually, for many years, I lived in Austin, and I had a public access TV show for 18 years, so I thought access would be very big, and it would go Internet-fast, Internet-television. And that just hasn't happened as fast and big as some of us thought.
LF: Why not?
DK: You know, I don't really know. I think it's just a question of resources and technolog, and people have to become literate in it. This is why, by the way, in terms of education, you see I'm a professor of education at UCLA, the key thing is teaching information, computer, media literacy. From an early age on.
LF: I guess this is a space-cadet question, but the way you see a lot of people in our country using the Internet; they use it through AOL. And they basically just go to the channels that pop up on their homescreen every day. And they really don't reach out, and go someplace else. And it seems to be, that's almost the passive way of using the Internet, just like the television thing.
DK: Yeah, I think that's correct. There's a mass media dimension of the Internet, and it is called AOL. You just described exactly what is very equivalent to television. Where you go up to a menu, and you click on this or that. And that is relatively passive.
LF: How do you make people view the Internet in a different way?
DK: Education. Once people are educated, trained ... it's a matter of practice. A lot of kids are much more creative and ambitious.
LF: What do you mean by that?
DK: You know, in terms of what they are doing on the Internet is more active and less passive. They're creating their own sites, and their own stuff.
LF: Well, the piece I'm writing is kind of an education piece in that I want the reader to walk away armed with the knowlege on how to use the technologies, and get their own sources of information. In terms of the questions I've asked you so far, is there anything you would like to add that I didn't talk about to get to my goal?
DK: You know, I think you hit the main bases. There's a lot of material out there, and its up to people to - I would say that people have a democratic responsibilty to gain accurate and better information, and a broader range of opinion, and you do that through the blog. And you just have to start blogging. And you have to go to a few blogs. Most blogs list kindred blogs. So my site lists hundreds of blogs. So you may be reading one blog, and you have links to others, and you just check them out.
LF: Speaking of links, you have hundreds ... If you could give a Top Five, or a primer, for people who are starting out ...
DK: There's one called American Samizdat, which is a compilation of different people, compiling commentary and links, etc ... There's one called Best of the Blogs, that's a good one; Danny Schechter `MediaChannel.org` has one of the best media commentaries; Eric Alterman `HipperCritical` also has a very good one. A good jumping off point. •