By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

Learning and listening

One of the exhilarating — and intimidating — things about teaching a course on Web journalism is that my students invariably know things that I don’t. There’s no way to keep up with everything. I’ve got an RSS aggregator, NewsFire, that dings every time one of them has posted something new. These days, it’s dinging a lot.

I’ve just spent the last half-hour reading updates, and though there were a lot of terrific posts, I was particularly taken by this, from Rajashree Joshi, on a new feature being offered by the Washington Times: Click on a story, and a female-voiced robot (or maybe it’s a robotic-sounding female) will read it to you.

I find audio innovations to be inherently interesting because it’s the ultimate medium for multitasking. You can’t read or watch video while you’re driving, raking leaves or doing the laundry, but you can certainly listen. That’s why, amid all of the technological advances of recent years, the greatest news success story is public radio. It’s not that it’s so wonderful (although it often is); it’s because it reaches people where they are: stuck in traffic, on their way to or from work.

But radio news stories — even serious radio news stories, such as NPR’s offerings — are a lot shorter than text-based news. The two media are not alike, and one doesn’t translate well to the other. Consider this story in today’s Washington Times on the House ethics committee’s investigation into who knew what about former congressman Mark Foley, the Capitol Hill king of instant messaging. It’s only 1,060 words long — about average for an important news story.

Click on it, though, and you’ll find that it takes seven minutes and 14 seconds to hear the whole thing. Assuming you could port this over to your iPod and play it over your car stereo (it looks doable but not easy), that would take up a significant portion of your commute.

By contrast, a similar story on NPR’s “Morning Edition” today checks in at just 3:51.

The Washington Times deserves credit for experimenting with different ways of delivering its content. But as media analyst Barry Parr is quoted as saying in the Times’ own article introducing the feature, “I don’t understand what they are trying to do here.”

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  1. mike from norwell

    One way to analyze the usefulness is to look at the time and effort involved in downloading the audio stream, transferring it to your portable device, and then taking time to listen; contrast that with the “neo-old school” approach of just reading the article in the first place.I know that I can read an article a heckuva alot faster than having someone read it to me. A worthwhile experiment, but not sure of the ultimate outcome. I guess you have to try it though to see if it is efficient or not.

  2. mike from norwell

    One other thing Dan: I surely wish that 7 minutes was a “meaningful” part of my commute (the curse of living on the South Shore!).

  3. Alan

    Hi, I heard that a very cool RSS aggregator is coming. Friends of mine have seen the beta. It’s name is : itsmynews. It should be released early december. I like reading your blog.

  4. Tish Grier

    Hi Dan,Well, Barry’s comment points out a big problem–what *are* newspapers trying to do with podcasts, videoblogs, etc.? What’s their purpose and their point? I’m not sure I buy all the arguments that it’s cheap, easy and *fun* and makes people *want* to listen/watch your newscast. But the thing is, everytime some paper and such tries something, everyone in every other media field gets their knickers in a bunch. sometimes it’s funny to watch actually…(I get to see a lot of it with all the reading I do for Corante)oh, and try some Google alerts on key topics like “media” and “journalism” and “technology”–you’ll get some seriously interesting stuff from all over the place!

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