Operation Delta

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
27 June, 2017
Editorial: 109
Fecha de publicación original: 3 marzo, 1998

He who puts his faith in another will end up crying

The quality of the content we find on the Internet is one of the aspects that most worries its users. “Infojunk” is a word frequently used by internauts when talking about the ethereal notion of information quality in the Net. But, before we go any further let’s not forget Robert Persig‘s lapidary phrase, “Quality is a direct experience, independent and prior to any intellectual abstraction” (Lila: an inquiry into morals). What for some might constitute an “infogem” for others is just “infonoise”, pollution destined for the digital dumping grounds. When we are talking about a universe, to which each of us arrives with our own personal idea of what information quality is, it is not too difficult to understand how hard it is to establish general rules in this regard. Complicated, if not practically impossible. Which doesn’t mean it isn’t worth trying. One of the big projects on the Internet — although it hasn’t been tackled thoroughly yet — is finding out how we are dealing with this concept of the quality of each information source and what the results will be. In other words, how we go about feeding in and looking for content on the Net. This exercise should help us find out a lot that we don’t know yet regarding what and how we do things on the Internet.

To begin with, it’s obvious that the world of information is a multi-faceted concept. If we step back into the pre-Internet era, existing information sources, especially the communications media, are a clear example of the constant dichotomy between quality and junk information. The Net has only magnified this process. So, how can we measure quality “objectively”? Is it enough to simply quantify it by the number of consumers? Do we choose a jury and give prizes to outstanding work? Should systems of awards, classification and surveys, with all their inherent defects and perversions, be used as barometers, as they have been up to now, to rate one type of information above another?

In the US interesting debates have arisen on this issue in a number of forums and discussion lists. Some organisations have taken it upon themselves to measure particular factors in an attempt to find out “what is going on”. There are some people who have even developed a matrix for content assessment on the Internet. This problem can, for a start, be viewed from two perspectives: that of the user and that of the information source. So far there is very little reference information to rely on when analysing these two perspectives and, what is even more surprising, is that there are so few projects trying to shed any light on this important question. Consequently, that which does exist deserves a mention:

MSBNC employed Market Facts to do a study on how users get their news. The survey — along with, I insist, all the typical defects accompanying these kinds of surveys– came up with some surprising results. 20 million internauts use the Internet as their first source of information for acquiring and following up news (53% of the total user population in the US according to the survey). The percentages of people who get their news from the TV, newspapers and radio, are still higher. However, in certain areas, the Internet comes up in first place, as is the case, for example, with financial information. The authors of the survey claim that recent events, such as the Lewinsky case, the Winter Olympics and the crisis in Iraq, have been followed more and more via the Internet. Diversity, alternative sources, different points of view, updating of information and interaction amongst huge numbers of news emitters, are the basic reasons for this incipient upsurge. As a result, they conclude– optimistically we suppose, since this was something they clearly wanted to prove– that the “continuous”digital newspaper has a great future ahead of it. Their survey does not make a clear distinction between searching for news and searching for information on specific subjects, an aspect that determines, to a large extent, how users behave. And, there is no doubt that this is a factor of growing importance because it is here that a great deal of the added value of the Net lies.

The other side of the equation is the communications media themselves who, when it comes to measuring how users get their news, are an obligatory point of reference. The “Media in Cyberspace” survey claims to base its results on interviews with editors and journalists from 6,000 newspapers and magazines. It drew two significant conclusions. On the one hand, 50% of the journalists interviewed say they look for the news for their stories on the Internet every day. On the other hand, 20% of the newspapers interviewed revealed that only 5% of the content on the Net is original. Although both figures have gone up with respect to previous years, this highlights the fact that the communications media have as yet not begun the process of publishing their own content in cyberspace. Simply transposing content published in its habitual format is still the order of the day. This crashes head on with the attitude of their own journalists and users who are looking more and more to cyberspace as their primary source of information.

These and other studies also show the growing divide between newsrooms following the habitual format and newsrooms devoted to supplying information to the online version. It seems that the media have not started the great “delta experience ” which the Net makes possible, in other words publishing stories online that there isn’t enough space for in the habitual format. In the few experiences of this kind that do exist, the work is done by online newsrooms, but it isn’t they who look for and develop the stories, it’s the journalists in the newsroom. Online newsrooms, on the whole, either improve the information coming from the habitual format or expand on some stories using press agencies. But, they don’t bring their own content to it, so they, in other words, don’t improve the quality of the product made by professionals in the newsrooms.

The “delta experience” which the Net proposes should follow a number of steps:

Opening up pages on the Net from the most powerful sections of the media based on the nature of their audience (local, national, international, economic, leisure, etc.), which could maintain the same structure with respect to decision-making on editorial policy.

Training journalists to publish on the Net.

Once the lay-out of the habitual format has been decided, “leftover” stories should be written for publication on the Net with the links they require.

Establishing contact with people directly concerned with particular stories. In other words, firmly anchoring the digital version in its natural environment in cyberspace.

Creating mechanisms for content assessment of online information and transferring it back to the habitual format when its impact so demands (impossible if it has simply been cast off for lack of space or other considerations in the habitual format).

Assessing the results of the experiment from the point of view of how the newsroom is learning new skills, the changes in the organisation needed for attaining certain fixed goals, the nature of relationships with new sources, the real scope of information emitted online and its importance within the habitual content of the media.

The experiment, therefore, should lead to the creation of areas of negotiation where the specific relationship between the habitual information of the medium and that which is only put onto the Net, can be decided. This zone, where habitual information intersects with the new, is what has not been tested out by the communications media and consequently their own professional journalists haven’t tried it out either. And, it is possibly in this delta region where the quality of digital content coming from the real world will be decided and, in the process, the kind of global information product (real world/virtual world) that will sustain the present communications media in a landscape altered by electronic publications spawned in the Net, as well as the internauts changing habits.

I would like to thank my friend Javier Creus for his criticism of en.red.ando editorial content. I owe the idea of encouraging readers of the magazine to send in their opinions and contribute to improving its quality (as long as I can and know how to) to him. I hope to deduce from your comments guidance about the content that you receive each week. Some of you already do this via private messages. In these, however, there are more words of comfort than of criticism. So, do not hesitate to tell me what you think. Let’s use the resources of the Net to improve what we do on it.

Translation: Bridget King