Most of us are used to getting news (of any kind) from mainstream media like newspapers and TV, but having been here at the National Arts Festival for five successive years, I’ve been fortunate to see ground-breaking technology being used to deliver content to Festinos (yes, that’s what festival goers are called here).
Of course there are loads of newspapers here, and many Festinos will continue getting their info from newspapers for years to come. But with the ongoing experimentation that happens every year, festival-goers will soon readily be getting reviews and festival news via their cellphones or wirelessly using their laptop computers.
For the past two years, the New Media Lab at my alma mater, Rhodes University’s School of Journalism and Media Studies, has run a multimedia festival news website linked to the festival newspaper, Cue (also produced by the school).
Last year, for example, students packaged at least one video report a day focused on big stories or issues at fest. There was also an interactive map where site visitors could mark points anywhere in town and make notes (which others could see). Festinos could also take pictures with their cellphones and then send them (via MMS) to a dedicated number which saw these pictures posted on the site.
Students used digital audio recorders, video cameras and a computer lab to turn (what was sometimes) boring news about drama productions into dynamic storytelling.
The site was also repacked into a WAP or “light version” which Festinos accessed on their mobile phones.
Because this style of coverage is happening in an academic environment, traditional boundaries can be pushed without the real cost problem that you’d find in the media business. The New Media Lab has focussed its teaching after consultation with media outlets like Naspers’ Media24 Digital, and all signs point to digital journalism (converging video, audio, text and internet technologies).
The New Media Lab’s head, Vincent Maher, has been instrumental in pioneering this kind of multimedia coverage. The first event covered in this way was a Creative Commons (worldwide movement offering a less restrictive form of copyrights) conference in Johannesburg last year.
Students posted video, audio and blogged the conference as it happened. The site, featured on top journalism resource Poynter,org, was continually accessed by delegates in real time via wi-fi as the presentations happened.
World-renowned cyberspace law guru and father of Creative Commons, Lawrence Lessig, who was at the conference, was gob-smacked by what he’d seen.
He blogged ( http://www.lessig.org/blog/archives/002913.shtml ): “The site has moblog, video links, blog, pictures and audio — basically one of the best examples of real time conference coverage that I’ve seen. What they’ve done would be amazing enough in the core of Silicon Valley. But in this network-thin space, it is really extraordinary.”
This year though, things are different.
The journalism school has moved into a R24m state-of-the-art building (opened last month by recently-suspended Johncom CEO Connie Molusi) and there is no festival multimedia news site.
The building is impressive, some things don’t work too well yet, but a tour through it makes it seem like you’re in the US, or even Europe/Scandinavia somewhere.
VoiP (voice over IP) phones have been rolled out everywhere. For the first time in Africa, Copper Ten cable is being used to carry all network, telephone, video/audio signals and access control data through the entire building. This cable can handle 10 gigabits per seconds, which the school says is 200 times faster than conventional dial-up internet (this cable with still be within capacity in a decade’s time).
There are plasma tv screens everywhere, some showing fest-related story packages produced by fourth year students. Projectors in the computer labs stream soccer matches live (no journalists working on any of this festival coverage is going to miss the World Cup!).
The core of the design of this building is the idea of convergence. Think TV on your cellphone. Think internet on your tv. Think radio on your iPod (podcasts). Workspaces lend themselves to multimedia production (where photojournalism students sit alongside deisgn students who put together the festival newspaper Cue).
Which makes it rather ironic to not have a multimedia festival news website this year.
Instead, Maher, along with Jonathan Ancer (editor of the local community newspaper Grocott’s Mail ; formerly at The Star), and friend Jarred Cinman have put together a raw blog called “ Fest Monkey ”.
They describe the site as “a blog, not a journalistic publication … It is probably going to contain some contnet unsuitable for people younger than 18 or older than 40, so if you’re offended and fall into that category we’re sorry but we did warn you.”
That gives you some idea of what type of coverage of fest they’re producing.
Maher’s says that this year he wants to actually go to the festival and be in it. “I want to do some work that doesn’t suffer from the same restrictions because of the serious nature of our past projects … We’re all good writers and photographers and we all need a little break from the mundanity of ‘proper’ journalism.”
As of day seven of fest, they’d posted six podcasts (comparable to short 10 minute radio shows), around 60 pictures taken with their cellphones and a dozen or so blog posts about anything, really (opinions on the festival beer tent, what its like editing the local paper while trying to experience fest, and lots of random posts about why they haven’t seen many shows).
It’s this kind of blend of technology and journalism (if you dare call it that) that has the potential to provide visitors with better insights into what actually happens in Grahamstown during fest. It follows that if young people worldwide are reading more and more blogs (and trusting them more than mainstream media), the hordes of young people at fest this year (rather different to the aging crowds of years gone by) are getting information and news the way they want it.
In the past year or two, I’ve heard (and overheard) some pretty powerful media people saying that someday soon we’ll be getting our news differently. It will be on demand. The word convergence is used a lot, and they’ve said that we’ll be able to get our news and information wherever we are. Apparently this content will cost a lot to produce, and the technology is still being developed…
Someday? That day is here.