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Vivid: Summly – What does it mean to Indian journalism?

10-December-2012
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Vivid: Summly – What does it mean to Indian journalism?

If you are one of those who continues to wonder at the age of discoveries steadily climbing down – even feel a little apprehensive about at times – you should close this page and go to another, or simply get into a more-happening corner of the internet.

For that’s precisely what I am going to, eulogise a teenager for what he has done to the world of fetching news. I am talking of 17-year-old Nick D’Aloisio, the South London boy who took time off school to work on Summly – his app that summarises existing news.

Rightly, he’s been voted the Zuckerberg-in-the-making whose Summly app uses algorithms to develop the news stories into summaries that users can scan through or swipe if they want to read the original story in full.

As English freelance techwriter Giles Turnbull says, “Summly is a news summarizer. There’s an algorithm working behind the scenes to reduce longer news stories to their most essential facts. We’ve seen algorithms like this in the past, and their performance has been spotty, but Summly actually does quite a good job. Its summaries are readable and make sense. Each is indeed a pretty good summary of the story it came from.”

For the moment, Summly has a selection for preset topics, including US news, technology, sport and world news. Critics say that though the topics are helpful, they only go so far, and you’d want more from D’Aloisio’s app like you always do every time you go online.

That Summly charts a near-future course is evident from the fact that it hit No. 9 in the US Apple App Store only two hours after its release and uber blokes such as Stephen Fry, Rupert Murdoch, Ashtonv Kutchner, Yoko Yono and Tech City CEO Joanna Shields have supported the creation of the, what BBC News said, ‘snack-sized information’.

At the same time, I am worried. In India, a technology succeeds another, and then the scramble begins – to streamline, to right-size, to down-size, to pile more on the already beleaguered journalists. I worry if the news floors will have lesser people if Summly succeeds. I am aware that like other sectors, Indian journalism is too people-centric and people-intensive. I am worried. For, by D’Aloisio’s own admission and unlike Circa and YouMag, which need human journalists to summarise the news, “We don’t have any humans doing this, it’s 100 per cent algorithmic”.

I take heart in the fact that there’s still a way to go. There’s still time for us. As Richard Martyn-Hemphill writes, “We are a generation of skimmers. Few of us have the time or the will to read whole articles, let alone whole books. Most of us just skim-read. I hope we don’t all start to skim-read everything. I fear the day, perhaps not too far in the future, when we do: our minds so overloaded and hurried that we start to read even short phrases as “The” instead of “Mind The Gap.” Then we will be in real trouble.

Luckily that grim fate is not upon us yet, so let us return to the present.
 
Take for example Twitter. We have had the social media doing what newspapers and TV channels could not do – be it mustering public opinion on Anna Hazare’s fight against corruption; the YouTube and Facebook campaign against the assault of the Guwahati girl; and the suspension of senior police officials over the two girls arrest in Maharashtra’s Thane district over a Facebook post questioning the shutdown of the Mumbai during Shiv Sena supremo Bal Thackeray’s funeral.

But that did not superimpose or transgress upon place that traditional media has.
Perhaps there is recognition of the social media with the who’s who in the entertainment world, and the savvy politicians, tweeting, and almost all journalists of some repute maintaining their own blogs. But that neither makes social media the ‘future of media’ nor does it make it take over where traditional media left or will have left.

My contention is that you cannot put the rest of social media – the likes of Twitter, Facebook and YouTube – in the same basket as Summly. At the same time, you can bring in Summly to summarise news but you will not take the readers who want their news – and opinions – in detail, from the market.

As Richard Martyn-Hemphill says, “A much more appropriate, reasonable, informative, and sensible form of packaging news to the ‘skimmer generation’ (than Twitter) would be a platform that presents a much more formalised series of news article summaries, all drawn from a variety of consistently reliable and well-written news sources, and all available for the user to access in full versions and on the go. But the trouble has always been that it takes too much effort for people to distil each individual article into a workable summary. The gains seemed limited. It has just been far less hassle simply to tweet a zingy snippet of your article than it has been to go through the cumbersome process of editing it down. But a new media platform has emerged that changes all this in quite an incredible way: it is called Summly.”

Although Summly can do things “without any human effort, and, remarkably, remaining coherent for the most part” one has to write the actual news in detail for Summly to provide a template for the ‘Future of media’. There has to be a news source to choose from for Summly to deliver summaries from.

Perhaps it is right to say that apps like Summly is what most publishers have been waiting for, rather than Twitter or Facebook. Because all these social sites do is pick the actual news in any media and re-present, with of course the twitteratti’s comments. For the first time, publishers find true ‘pay walls’ for subscriptions, premium services and instant on-the-go access to full versions of articles in highly readable, mobile formats.

As The Journal write, “This opportunity for media companies to reinvigorate their finances is one they will jump on, since profits for media companies have been far tougher to come by in the digital age. Publishers will almost certainly relish the prospect of an effortlessly wider and quicker dissemination of their articles on medium like Summly — as has been hinted at by Rupert Murdoch, the veteran media mogul and an advocate of ‘pay walls’, whose response to the emergence of Summly was one of eager excitement. Healthier finances would then have the added advantage of reviving the possibility of sustainable funding for professional reporters on the ground. This would enable a necessary escape from the road towards ever-more reliance on Twitter feeds as journalistic ‘evidence’ for news stories. Twitter sources can often make for highly dubious source material and they are already being greatly overused as replacements for more thorough, professional journalistic reports from on the scene. The replacement of Twitter sources (often more akin to rumour mills than founts of knowledge) by a resurgence of emphasis on investigative, professional, on-the-ground reporting can only be good news for the future quality, integrity, and credibility of tomorrow’s journalism.”

I stand corrected. My fears are allayed. 

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