Looking for ways to get home to London from Cairo during the volcano-ash shutdown, I was naturally often googling on the go as I tried to weigh up various routes.
At one point I thought that I might only be able to get an air ticket from Cairo to Istanbul. So I thought briefly about Istanbul to London by train. Doesn’t the Orient Express do that? The Express does go Paris-Istanbul but this much-marketed train does that route just once a year. Not much use. The mainstream sites (Raileurope, Turkish railways) were frustrating and unilluminating. Step forward the man in seat 61.
I knew about this site because the Travel section of The Times used to mention it. Seat 61′s fame must have grown because it floats to the top of Google searches. And no wonder: it is train-spotting put to good use on a multinational scale. Drill down and down and the detail just gets better,
Supposing I had wanted to know how to take that 3-day journey from Istanbul to London. Seat 61 told me exactly where to go at exactly which station and what to ask for. It was informal, very specific, had useful links and is plainly kept up to date. The practical detail is what sets it apart. Whether seat 61 makes any money or not, I don’t know but it certainly doesn’t feel like a site that wants to sell you anything at all or serve you any ads.
The nerdy superiority of seat 61 got me thinking about journalism on the web. There is now so much information in circulation that our whole way of thinking about the information we use is changing.
You don’t just search more information faster, you skim the material you turn up more quickly for useful, granular information. You navigate your own route to what you want to know. Using the web has completely spoilt me for watching mainstream television news. I sit in front of conventional 3-minute news piece yelling at the reporter: “Oh, get on with it!” The rigidity of the convention and format seem unbearably slow.
I didn’t used to be like this: I was comfortably familiar with the stock conventions and formats of TV reporting. But that was before an alternative arrived. I foresee three changes.
1) The relationship between the consumer of “news” and the reporter and editor alters. The latter may be passing to the former new facts, as they have been long accustomed to do. But it is more likely than it was that journalists will be combining information, making sense of it, providing frameworks and context, aggregating. In short, they will facilitate.
2) Some formats are just too slow to survive. The web is creating a new narrative grammar, a richer, quicker form of telling stories, not confined to a single narrative strand. But finding a well-liked and effective way of doing this is a work in progress.
3) A “newspaper” can be understood and used in more than one dimension. That can refer to its new material. But it also means the whole database, the accumulated body of knowledge. In the case of major papers that now runs to several million pages each. Newspapers aren’t Wikipedia, but they can be understood as huge, ever-increasing encyclopaedias of public events. Most newspapers, following the lead of the New York Times topic pages, are working on projects to automate the organisation of their existing information “assets”, carving the information into user-friendly, searchable clusters. Some use firms like Daylife which specialise in this, some are building their own system.