Taming the internet beast

Taming the internet beast

Pretty much everything is somewhere on the internet, the question is how to find it. Mohammed Yahia says customising the internet is key.
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Mohammed Yahia during the DCMF workshop

Pretty much everything is somewhere out there, the question is: how to find it before the article is due, without spending too much time and without getting lost in an ocean of information.

Mohammed Yahia is an Egyptian science journalist and regularly provides training for journalists for the Doha Centre for Media Freedom. He says the key to efficient internet use as a journalist is to customise it according to your needs and interests.

DCMF caught up with him during a workshop for journalists on how to search the internet from 12-14 September in Doha.

Q: Your workshop is a lot about customising the internet, but why customise in the first place? I just go to the websites that I'm interested in...

Well, you can make your life much easier if you make sure that the information you want comes to rather than you looking for it all over the internet. In the workshop, we focus on three tools that help journalists to adapt the internet to their needs: iGoogle, Google News and Google Reader.

The first thing I do in the morning is I open iGoogle and it gives me the gist of all the websites that I normally visit. So I don't need to go to all those places anymore. So if, like me, you're a science journalist, you may have a box of “Nature” on your iGoogle page and you can focus on science and health related issues. The more customised it is to your needs, the less time you'll spend looking for things.

Q: How many hours per day do you spend online?

A lot!

Q: How many? Guess.

12 hours... and up.

Q: I'm the contrary. I'm an old school journalist: I don't tweet, I don't use iGoogle and I have to force myself to use Facebook.

It's possible to be a journalist without all that, but I think you're missing a lot. I don't think it will be possible for much longer. I think there's a shift towards a more integrated approach to news. It's not going to be textual anymore. It's a mixture of text, video, audio. The internet makes it possible to bring all that together.

Q: But sometimes the internet is a curse. How do you make sure you do focused research and don't get lost in random surfing that's killing your time?

That's very true. I get that when I'm on twitter. My twitter app constantly feeds me stuff. It's very distracting. Yesterday I was supposed to write a story, instead I spend four hours reading stuff on Twitter. So, yes, it's a challenge.

Q: What's your solution?

When I research a story, I completely close Twitter and all alerts. Otherwise you jump from one bit to the next. And customisation actually helps in this case as well. If it's not customised, the internet is similar to an untamed beast. There's so much noise and you have to find you're way around it and filter it.

I also think it helps to break up different roles for yourself when online. I have two iGoogle pages, for example: One for me as a journalist. And another with fun gadgets and social media stuff. So it's a completely different me.

Q: You seem to use a lot of Google. It's an extremely controversial company... so how do you feel about Google knowing every little thing you're interested in?

Well, Google does produce really good tools, that's the truth that you have to admit. Does Google know everything about you? I think they do, and it bothers me, but I don't think of them as an evil corporation.

Some things made me wonder though: For example, if you write in your gmail that you're attaching a file and then you forget the attachment, you'll get a message telling you. The first time I saw this I thought wow, they're reading my e-mails.

Q: You recommend using Google News - what for? 

Google News is a completely automated tool to display news items that are relevant to certain key words that you choose. No human editor is involved. It's useful, but a bit tricky sometimes. For example, if you want to pick up news from the Middle East, it'll all be in Arabic. It covers each region in its own language and ignores all English language newspapers in the Middle East.

Q: What's the difference between iGoogle and Google News? Is there anything Google News can do that iGoogle can't?

It's basically a different way of customising the news. Instead of customising according to media outlets, it's customising according to categories or topics that you're interested in. And it'll pick up things from media outlets that do not yet have gadgets for iGoogle. If, for example, you want to follow The Peninsula in Doha, you'll find that they don't have a gadget for iGoogle.

Q: And how about Google Reader?

It's an RSS feed reader. You can subscribe to different RSS feeds...

Q: ...er, what's an RSS feed again?

An RSS feed is where a website is broadcasting if it has anything new. It's basically shouting out: See, there's a new piece! If you subscribe to their feed, you will automatically know when there has been an update. For example, if I'm subscribed to El-Masry El-Youm or Gulf Times, it shows me how many new stories they have. Instead of visiting six websites each day, you just have a look at your Google reader and you'll know what's new.

Q: If I customise all those things and focus only on the issues I'm working on – doesn't that mean that I disconnect myself from mainstream news agendas? I don't see anymore what others get to see and may end up with a completely distorted picture of what I think is in the media.

Yes, that can happen. That's why I mix my personal interests with more general news from BBC or Al Jazeera. You don't want to be isolated on your island, missing the bigger picture. But you also don't want to be in the middle of the noise. So the customizing shouldn't be too broad, but it shouldn't be too narrow either.

Customisation is an ongoing process. You can always get rid of iGoogle boxes and replace them by others. It evolves along with your interests and with what's happening. A few months ago, I wasn't really into politics. But now, post-revolution, I read as much politics as science.

Q: Is there anything you never found on the internet?

No, I always found the things I was looking for. But the things that are not on the internet, I don't look for them online. The internet will never replace being on the ground, talking to people and asking questions. An interview by e-mail cannot replace a face to face interview where you can capture body language and shift the subject in the middle of it.

The human interaction part is what makes the story. And that's not on the internet.

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