As a kid, I always wanted to be a reporter. Woodward and Bernstein were my heroes. I wanted to be the person you saw reporting live from some trouble spot in the world.
So when Eric Franzon asked me to report live from the Semantic Web MeetUp on RNEWS that was held in the New York Times building in Manhattan last week, I leaped at the chance. The New York Times is journalism at its best and their building resonates with the history of the 20th century. Outside the room where the SemWeb techies gathered, was a wall display of NYT front pages from the First World War to the present.
This makes you aware how incredibly important reporting the news is to our lives. The events in the Middle East have had me glued to my Twitter List, linking from there to reports from Al Jazeera and Nick Kristof's wonderfully impassioned reporting for the New York Times.
In other words, the news really matters. It matters in a way that a new semantic shopping service does not matter. Commerce pays the bills and that is a good means to an end, but revolutionizing shopping does not stir the soul in the same way as millions of people risking their lives to overthrow tyrants stirs the soul.
We have already covered RNEWS (links here and here). What I want to report on is the clash between the past of a glorious newspaper and the future of news and the part that RNEWS plays in that future.
That clash between the past and the future of news is something that Evan Sandhaus, our host for the RNEWS MeetUp, lives every day. He is equally at home discussing the finer points of the RDF standard with a roomful of techies as he is talking to reporters who can remember "filing stories" from the telex machine in a hotel before heading to the bar to listen to gunfire in the streets outside.
Most of the people at the MeetUp were passionately interested in the Semantic Web and only saw RNEWS as one more use case for that technological revolution.
But the real story of RNEWS is the battle raging for the future of the news business between the folks who report the news and the programmers who create the online aggregators that "mashup" those reports into a new service such as Google or Reddit or Flipboard.
The RNEWS specification is surprisingly mature given that this is version 0.1 and last week was the first public unveiling. For example, the folks who worked on the standard have spent time thinking about copyright, which is the central front in the war between news originators and news aggregators.
RNEWS is a neutral standard in that battle. You can use it with a paywall or without a paywall. You can use it to vigorously enforce copyright or to make all your content licensed by Creative Commons.
But RNEWS does represent a vision of the future of news that is different from the past. This is a phase transition that the music industry can recognize. It is the transition from a bundle (newspaper/album) dictated by physical form (print/vinyl/CD) to individual components (songs/articles).
The Geneva Conventions on this war are now fairly well established (fair use for example). But that civility should not disguise the fact that this is a war for control over the economic levers of the news business. Despite some kumbaya talk it is pretty much a zero sum game. The vast fortunes that the news aggregators want to make does not come from a vast new pool of subscribers or advertisers.
There are lots of ways to use RNEWS. But to get the attention of senior managers who are often fighting for the survival of the business, you cannot talk about nice-to-have features. The reason for implementing RNEWS has to be mission critical.
Moreover, as one audience question highlighted, you must have a simple way to measure progress.
Both may be possible with RNEWS. The simple benefit is traffic because RNEWS tagged content is easier to find. This is the simple reason why RDFa generally is the first Semantic Web standard to start crossing over to the mainstream.
Tracking traffic on content in a before and after RNEWS tagging state is a simple way to measure success on a pilot before the news organization commits funds to a major rollout.
RNEWS is new but if you are in the news business you should pay attention to it, contribute and start experimenting.