Afew days ago I was approached by a colleague in the Mint office with an interesting problem. He wanted to convert one of the TV screens in our office into a breaking news alert system.
Now, I can imagine several questions popping up in your mind.
Aren’t newspapers already supposed to have some form of news alert system? Don’t we subscribe to wire services that constantly spew out headlines and copy round the clock? (Indeed we do.)
Don’t we have Bloomberg terminals? (Of course we do. Who doesn’t?)
And, failing all such services, shouldn’t a newsroom have subscriptions to Tata Sky, Dish TV or some such provider? Surely we could pick from any of the four million news channels available on satellite these days. Between them, these channels account for every possible language, perspective, tone, moral position and tendency for honesty.
So why should my colleague want another source of breaking news?
Well, first of all, he’d just spent some time in Sweden—you may have read about this country in the Stieg Larsson mystery novels—experiencing first-hand how a local radio station worked. There he noticed that there was a large monitor, connected to some service on the Web, that constantly beamed global headlines. And if the Swedes could have it, why shouldn’t we?
And second, I think his need is a reflection of a larger trend. People are beginning to realize that the Web is perhaps the fastest way to access breaking news headlines. Newspapers need to go to press. TV channels are much quicker, but they still often depend on intermediaries. And they need to care enough about the headline.
So if, per chance, you were watching a Hindi news channel, chances are low that you’d have heard about the earthquake in New Zealand. On the other hand, the BBC will tell you about the earthquake instantly, but they won’t be flashing anything about the grinding traffic jams in Gurgaon or the floods in Mumbai.
Faster still, people on the ground can tweet or post photos about an event well before bona fide news channels arrive on the scene. In many cases, these citizens break news first.
Therefore, my colleague actually has two problems. First of all, how do you create a stream of breaking headlines that are relevant to you?
And once you have the stream, how do you display these headlines in an easily accessible, reliable way?
The best way to solve the first problem is to combine sources. Combine, say, CNN and BBC breaking news RSS feeds, with a few local sources. This should help you achieve a balance of global and local perspectives. Better still, I recommend combining RSS news streams with selected Twitter handles.
Already, most major news outlets have Twitter handles that regularly send out alerts. Some of the larger ones, such as CNN, have exclusive breaking news handles.
In addition, you can pick and choose handles of individuals or organizations that can be reliable sources of breaking alerts. Twitter handles of blogs such as TechCrunch or Mashable, for instance, can often deliver technology headlines even before more mainstream media outlets do.
Choose carefully though. You want to avoid repetition and an excess of information. Make sure your stream isn’t clogged with pointless news.
Next, you need to display these feeds and handles in a visually appealing manner. There are several ways to do this, but I recommend using three. First, you could use one of several little apps that create scrolling bars on your computer screen. I highly recommend Snackr (www.snackr.net), and Adobe AIR app that runs on all operating systems. All you need to do is download and add RSS feeds (do remember that all Twitter handles give you RSS feeds. You can just type those in).
Second, and this should make my colleague happy, you can use an RSS feed reader as your screen saver. Most Mac computers come with this built in, and there are downloads available for Windows. This is ideal if you want a screen that is constantly updating headlines. Connect the monitor output to a TV and you have a nice Swedish-style display.
Finally, you could also try an exclusive app such as Seesmic Look. Look is a visually pleasing Twitter client. Just create a handle expressly for this purpose, follow good, newsy Twitter handles, and then leave Look scrolling away on a monitor in the corner.
Hope you enjoy overdosing on the news.
Play Things is the official tech and time-pass blog of Mint. Drop in for a dose of cool tech gossip and online merriment at http://blog.livemint.com/play-things
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