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Tuesday, September 11, 2007
New tools to crack your media consumption
Guy Berger: CONVERSE
Last week was World Press Freedom Day on May 3 -- a good occasion to create and share some cool online research tools about South African media.
There are 10 listed below, ranging in complexity as you read. But spending 30 minutes on getting to grips with them now could save you days' worth of online search time in the future. True.
And here's the best tip of all -- switch to the free Firefox web browser if you haven't already. The foxy one lives up to its name. It lets you save key tools, like most of those below, to a bookmark toolbar that's always visible and instantly ready to use at the top of your page. Much better than Internet Explorer.
Everyone online has used Google to find info. Now you can use a version that is tailored to cover just particular websites. With this model I've built, you can search South African news websites only, and with just a single query. It covers all the key locations -- including of course, the Mail & Guardian Online, as well as other sources such as the New York Times and Reuters. Your research just got focus.
2. Customised search for media news of South African sites
This instrument has specialised "labels", and within them, specific keywords that relate to the media: Things such as "journalist" and "broadcast", and acronyms such as "SABC". This tool helps you find these terms on South Africa's news sites as well as those of media commentators and NGOs -- 30 in total. The search results you get can be refined via four labels. For example, clicking on "media organisations" brings up those media stories with words such as "Icasa".
Suppose you're concerned about the nefarious Film and Publications Amendment Bill. You will want to know when something new about the controversy goes online. Easy -- you just visit Google Alerts and enter your data. But be careful to put quote marks around phrases. Forget them, and you'll get a flood of emails pointing to stories that may mention "film" and "publications", but that's not the same thing as "film and publications". You can try it with names of people, organisations or companies on which you want to keep tabs.
The beauty of a Google alert is that it comes to you. The same happens when you subscribe to an RSS feed. It saves you from typing in scores of web addresses that you frequently visit, or going to them by clicking on interminable bookmarks. Instead, you get everything in one fell swoop.
Plus the info comes in a supremely convenient format -- just the headlines, if you like, and you can then decide if you want to click on them to go to the original.
To use this hugely time-saving tool and scan large volumes of information in a jiffy, you can build a list of your RSS feeds on a dedicated internet page. This is really easy to set up, and you can check, at a glance, at any time to see if any of your favourite sites have been updated. Besides Google's reader, there are lots of other newsreaders. Some like Newsgator.com give you the option of a filter for a keyword -- a bit like a Google Alert within your RSS feed.
Not all websites have RSS update capabilities yet, although it's an escalating trend. Yet a lot of sites can also be converted into RSS format for delivery to your RSS reader. You visit Feedity.com, pump in the address and with any luck you get an RSS-feed address you can use.
It's now become even easier to read RSS -- the latest Firefox and Internet Explorer can act directly as RSS readers. If you have them, all you need do is keep your eyes open for a site that invites you to subscribe to its RSS feed. Click on the RSS icon -- -- and it gets saved in your bookmarks (or favourites) on a single page alongside your other feeds.
The result: they are then all dead simple to access and scan (but easier with Firefox's bookmarks toolbar described above!). Some folk still prefer a separate reader, like those described in number four above, but the browsers are very convenient.
The tag line of this tool is that it lets you read RSS the way you already read your emails. Yes, it can be convenient to get your RSS feeds as a message in your mail box, but use this tool sparingly or you'll start experiencing it as spam.
This tool I built using Yahoo! "pipes" -- you join the "plumbing" together to create a single funnel. In this case, 12 South African media sites that can be received as RSS feeds were welded together into one -- and the latest headlines display at the top of the feed. It's like being spoon-fed.
Whereas the Google search tool described in number one above lets you dig into the past, this Yahoo! facility keeps you abreast of news as it happens. They are complementary. If you save this feed on a Firefox (live) bookmarks toolbar, you can mouse over the button any time to be kept up to date with online news updates.
9. Aggregating RSS feeds into one -- with a media filter
Here you have the same thing as number seven above -- except that you now get only those stories on RSS feeds that include keywords related to media. (Excuse those that are not about media, but have phrases like "a newspaper reported" -- the Yahoo! filter don't work too well at screening these out.)
10. A chance for you to help build another tool via Swicki
This instrument, still rather experimental, is a mix between a search engine and a wiki. It's based on a listing I did of websites with news and other content about South African media. The software involved invites you rank the results of a search, and to add new websites for particular findings. This tool could as easily fly as crash.
Life gets easier To sum up, the tools here give you options to search much more specifically and get alerts thanks to Google. And, instead of ad hoc schlep and searching on the web, you can have defined information coming to you through RSS feeds -- which you get in a reader, on your browser or by email. Lastly, you can streamline these feeds thanks to Yahoo! pipes, and you play around with Swicki.
There's also a whole bunch of other tools available as "Web 2.0" social-networking resources. Maybe that's your gift for South Africa's specific press freedom day -- coming up on October 19.
We're probably the only country to mark two media-freedom occasions each year, so let's push the technology that lets us be even smarter consumers of our content -- not least, that about the media itself.