Archive | September, 2017

Cootamundra to the world

20 Sep

BONUS UPDATE: The very day after we were discussing Rebel Wilson and the Australian dollar exchange rate, this appears on the UK homepage of the Daily Mail! Man from Cootamundra (where?) discovers crashed ute (what?) on the Olympic Highway (where?) and, with great courage, pulls him to safety. Now he’s all over the web front page of Britain’s best-selling mid-market tabloid without a hint to international readers about where the drama took place (which is, of course, Australia).

If you need footnotes: Cootamundra is a town of about 5,500 in New South Wales; the Olympic Highway is a country road in the southern part of the state, so named because it formed part of the route of the torch for the 1956 Melbourne Olympics; and a ute, that most distinctively Australian of vehicles, is a light pickup truck based on a saloon car chassis (it’s short for “utility”). None of these explanations make it into the front-page standfirst for British readers, although on the article page itself, there is at least a description of Mr van Baast as an “Aussie hero” in the display type.

In fact, the story is written from such a defiantly local angle that one suspects even readers in other parts of Australia might be nonplussed: it’s not clear how familiar readers in Perth might be with the name of an inland rural highway through another state, even though viewers of Prime 7 News Wagga Wagga (which provided the dramatic pictures) would know at once.

But it also underlines the other emerging trend in the globalising digital news agenda: that, from celebrity photoshoots to fiery rescues, a story’s a story, wherever you are in the anglosphere.

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Dollar general

19 Sep

This is a lot of money, but perhaps not quite as much as it seems.

Both the Mail and the Guardian are big in Australia, and so both were all over the story of Rebel Wilson’s bumper defamation victory. But neither of them seems to have cleared up one area of potential confusion for their international readerships. Four and a half million dollars here, of course, means four and a half million Australian dollars: but that’s not mentioned anywhere in the headlines or the copy, and in neither story is any sterling or US equivalent offered for comparison.

It’s not a huge point (the conversion rate is only A$1 – US$0.80), but it does reveal something about life on the digital frontier. As we have discussed before, the objective of the expanding anglophone media groups – like the Guardian and the Mail – is not just to do reporting from new territories, but to provide news for those territories. The point is not just to have a foreign bureau perpetually on the phone to London, but to have a semi-autonomous operation that in effect thinks of Australasian news (or US news) as domestic news. This means that there will often be stories deliberately commissioned about local matters for entirely local consumption – but with the crucial difference that they will be launched, willy-nilly, onto websites with global reach and presence.

We came across one such story a couple of years ago, where a report on failed Australian unemployment policies found its way onto the most-read stories list on every Guardian national homepage. Because it was written for a domestic audience, it understandably failed to mention it was talking about Australia anywhere in the headline, causing temporary bafflement among readers who couldn’t understand why UK joblessness had taken such a sudden turn for the worse.

That, of course, was an accident: as regular reader Jeff has previously observed, it’s the kind of thing that can be controlled by making the content management system more geo-sensitive, filtering the most-read stories list by location, and so on. Even for international news groups, local stories can be kept quite local if you want them to be.

But that doesn’t quite cover the issue with this story, because Rebel Wilson is more than just a figure of local interest. This is not a story that’s leaked across a CMS by accident: it’s news that’s wanted on every homepage in the organisation. Of course, Wilson is an Australian woman suing an Australian magazine in an Australian court. But she is also a globally recognised comedian whose career is followed all across the world. She lives in America, works in Hollywood and gets paid in US dollars: as a trans-national figure herself, there is legitimate room for doubt about which currency her settlement might be denominated in.

The great advantage of having newsrooms on three continents is that you are ideally placed to report on stories like these: the California bureau can cover the Hollywood angle, and the Australian bureau can put a correspondent in the courtroom, while your rivals have to rely on agency copy. The concomitant problem is that if you then produce your story in an Australian voice for an Australian audience, you risk confusing two-thirds of your global readers, all of whom expect you to be reporting in local terms to them too.

The upshot is that, if you don’t watch out, the most determinedly global news organisations in the world can start sounding just like the most parochial ones. All politics may be local, but not all news is.

you.are.here

5 Sep

Well, it says This Blessed Plot, but it doesn’t look like England to me:

But that’s because this isn’t so much This Blessed Plot as this.blessed.plot – an address (or, really, grid reference) on a new map created by a tech startup and identified not by using numbers, but by using words. In fact, the programmers have divided up the entire world into 57 trillion three-metre squares, and been able to address every one individually with just three words separated with dots (in this case, this.blessed.plot, which, to Shakespeare’s undoubted surprise, is north of Yellowknife in Canada’s Northwest Territories).

The system, known as What3Words, is a sort of ultra-precise postcode map, but with much more user-friendly coordinates, and covering areas of the planet where the only other method of geolocation would be latitude and longitude. Its founder, former musician Chris Sheldrick, told the BBC: “Every day we would go somewhere new and people always got lost. I tried getting my band to use GPS co-ordinates but they were resistant or typed the co-ordinates wrong. I started chatting with a friend who was a mathematician about how we could come up with something that was simple.”

The BBC reports that they came up with a mathematical formula and a list of, remarkably, just 40,000 words to address all the squares. Now, in the manner of aspiring tech companies everywhere, they are appearing at TED, recruiting corporate clients, starting to get some media coverage, and hoping that the whole system takes off.

As an idea, it raises all sorts of fascinating points for debate, such as the use of vocabulary as numbers, and the opportunities for improving global development. But of course the immediate question that comes to mind is: where are the coolest addresses?

Not since the advent of the telegraphic address has there been a chance to have such an easily memorised location: not a zip code or a street name, but a short phrase that gets visitors right to your door while saying something apposite about you. Unlike telegraphic addresses, of course, the labels for the squares are fixed: it would be a question of you moving to the desired location, rather than choosing a code for where you are. Also, it would appear that while the system contains nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, it omits many proper nouns, prepositions, pronouns and articles (so you can’t have a.new.hope or return.of.jedi, but you could have empire.strikes.back).

Nonetheless, if this system catches on, there will be all sorts of opportunities for alert entrepreneurs. move.move.move, near Morristown, NJ, is ideal for a removals service (or a personal trainer), and handy for your wealthy Manhattan clientele. lemon.drizzle.cake would be a sure thing for a cafe, if one were confident that one’s cappuccinos wouldn’t go flat in a rugged Venezuelan national park. Wedding planners could head for lawful.wedded.husband or truly.madly.deeply. Bee Gees fans could set up a mailing address, at least, at spirits.having.flown (Bahia state, Brazil), and one can only imagine the architecture that might be designed at form.follows.function (or perhaps not, seeing as that square is in the middle of the Indian Ocean).

Politically, however, the picture is a little more unhelpful. strong.stable.leader is in Edinburgh rather than London, and education.education.education is nowhere near Islington (it’s on the Bay of Bengal). And what about the biggest and best address of all? Well, star.spangled.banners is actually south of the border in Mexico, and star.spangled.banner is – disconcertingly – in Russia.