31 December 2009

Mobile Progress: A New Year's Gift for Iranians

Voice of America has unveiled a new Web application that will allow users in Iran to download and send content to VOA’s Persian News Network with their iPhones.

"This new application gives Iranians a unique opportunity to get the latest news on their mobile devices and to share with the world the news as it happens in their country," said Acting PNN Director Alex Belida. "It is a groundbreaking way to expand our reach inside Iran and deepen our relationship with a key VOA audience."

The application will enable users of Apple iPhones and Android phones to get the latest news from PNN and, with a single click, to send links to VOA stories via Facebook and Twitter pages and email accounts. The application will be available shortly in Apple’s online store, PNN’s Web site (http://www1.voanews.com/persian/news/) and on PNN’s Facebook and Twitter accounts.

The application, designed by the Washington-based company Intridea, also gives Iran’s “citizen journalists” the opportunity to use their iPhones and Android phones to send video and still pictures taken on their devices to a secure Web site where VOA’s PNN editors can download the images and review them for possible broadcast use and Web posting.

“This Web application empowers Iranians at a time when the government is staging a crackdown against opposition protesters,” Belida said. “As with the disputed elections earlier this year, VOA’s Persian service continues to be a leading source of news and information for Iranians.”

VOA has the largest combined radio and television audience in Iran of all international broadcasters, with one in four adult Iranians tuning in to a VOA program once a week. PNN broadcasts seven hours of television daily, repeated in a 24 hour format, and five hours of radio. Programming is also available around the clock on the Internet.

16 December 2009

Going Mobile Faster: VOA Needs to Do More

It’s a fact that more and more people worldwide are using mobile devices to receive news and information. Going to work here in Washington on the subway, I see scores of fellow commuters glancing at mobile phone screens, surfing the web, reading email and even watching video. Sometimes it seems more people are using mobile devices than are reading newspapers.

A recent study here in the U.S. found nearly 90 percent of mobile device owners were interested in receiving live news and other programming on the go. Separately, 46 percent found the idea of watching live TV programming on their mobile devices appealing.

Voice of America is trying to meet the mobile challenge. It’s an urgent mission, especially since, as VOA’s Africa Division Director Gwen Dillard noted recently, “The growth of mobile technology is largely due to young, urban users of new technology. It’s important to reach this market and try to shape their news habits, since they will socialize the next generation of users.”

VOA is beefing up SMS delivery in places such as Nigeria, Ghana, Kenya, Pakistan, Indonesia and China.

VOA’s Persian News Network is poised to launch an application for Android and iPhones, a VOA first. VOA English has a mobile-compatible site.

But is it enough? And is it coming quickly enough?

With more and more people worldwide embracing smart phones, Steve Buttry, a U.S.-based media trainer and former journalist, suggests too many news organizations are falling behind consumers, stuck on pursuing “web-first” strategies when they should instead be pursuing a “mobile-first” strategy.

Buttry, who has worked not only in the U.S. but also in several foreign countries, including Ireland, Venezuela, Mexico, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, Ecuador and Russia, writes about this in a column on his website.

Buttry says, “we need to make mobile innovation the top priority and the first thing we think of when we plan change in our organizations.”

Buttry notes, and I have heard the same argument from skeptics, that the percentage of people who actually own iPhones or other smart phones is relatively small. But he says, and I have to agree, “if we wait until nearly everyone has some sort of smart phone, someone else will be filling the roles that we can and should fill.”

A new research study indicates the smart phone market is growing dramatically --- with projected sales of nearly two billion devices over the next five years. A report by Pyramid Research says China will become the biggest smart phone market in 2010, and other key markets such as Brazil, India, Turkey and Nigeria will record annual growth rates above 30% through 2014. Pyramid says Latin America will be the fastest growing region overall followed by Africa and the Middle East.

What does a “mobile first” strategy mean in order to meet these market demands? News executives need to devote more resources to mobile device applications. Journalists need to think more about how to package and deliver news for mobile devices. And the information technology workers at news organizations need to pay more attention to the development of mobile applications.

As Buttry says, “This will either be our future or our next squandered opportunity.”

I think it’s a fair question for VOA managers to consider. The NewsBlog would like to hear from them…and from you.

14 December 2009

Give ‘Em Hell, VOA - Part 2

We recently quoted former U.S. President Harry “Give ‘em Hell” Truman as saying back in 1948 about his political rivals: "I don't give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them and they think it's Hell."

We used the quote to explain why it is that VOA has only to report the news accurately and objectively and some foreign officials, usually in repressive countries with no free press, quickly complain.

The latest case is Zimbabwe, where the state-controlled Herald newspaper now describes VOA as a “pirate radio station.”

Real “pirate radios” rose to fame in the 1950’s and 60’s in Europe, when several, mainly commercial, broadcasters took to the seas, sending out programs from vessels anchored in international waters to circumvent strict government regulation of the airwaves in various countries. These radios mainly broadcast popular music of the sort that couldn’t be heard on state-run stations.

(For the record, VOA did mount a sea-based broadcasting operation back in the 1950’s in an initiative approved by President Truman. The Coast Guard cutter Courier was designed to provide a ship-borne radio relay station to transmit VOA programs behind the "Iron Curtain." She was stationed in the waters of the eastern Mediterranean off the island of Rhodes, Greece. You can read a full history of this vessel here.)

But VOA is no “pirate radio station” by any stretch of the imagination. It is a legitimate international broadcaster and it has been since 1942.

Zimbabwe has also taken to criticizing neighboring Botswana for hosting one of VOA’s transmitter relay facilities -- or as Zimbabwe puts it, “hosting pirate radio stations.”

The government of Botswana has just responded, noting “there is nothing exceptional about Botswana hosting the radio relay broadcasting facilities for an international broadcaster such as VOA.”

As a Botswana government statement also noted, “the VOA relay station, located near Selebi-Phikwe, has been in open operation for three decades. Its frequencies are filed with the International Telecommunications Union. The VOA relay transmitter was not constructed to relay to Zimbabwe alone, but to the region as a whole, including of course Botswana. The Government of Botswana is unaware of any broadcasts being relayed by VOA from the facility could be considered as hostile to Zimbabwe.”

Botswana also made the point that hosting international relay stations like VOA’s is consistent with a protocol agreed to by all Southern African countries which provides for a diversity of opinion and free flow of information in the region.

So like a recent VOA editorial said: “If the Mugabe regime really wants foreign-based stations to stop broadcasting into Zimbabwe, let it release its grip on the media there, liberalize the press and broadcasting environment, and domestic radio stations will flourish.”

In the meantime, don’t call us pirates.

09 December 2009

Hunting Tiger Woods

Go to VOANews.com’s sports page and you will see several stories about Tiger Woods, the star golfer who had a mysterious auto accident outside his Florida home and subsequently admitted to unspecified "transgressions". The admission came amid published allegations that he had extramarital affairs.

The Woods story has dominated the news media. On Google’s new search yesterday, there were nearly 4,000 articles – and not all of them from American media outlets. There were items from India and Ireland, Australia, Canada and Britain, just to mention a few foreign news sources.

VOA editors have discussed the issue of global interest in Tiger Woods and their responsibilities in handling the story.

Like other organizations, there are various camps here: those who say that the golfer is entitled to some privacy, and others who say that as a public figure, anything he is involved in is open to coverage. Some say there is no interest in the story in certain foreign markets. Others say it’s an aspect of American life but needs to be treated as part of a bigger issue – like ‘why are people interested in celebrities’ or ‘why do public figures get involved in sex scandals’ or, simply, ‘what is it about the Tiger story that captivates audiences?’

Listening to the discussion, I had to think about something Time magazine’s James Poniewozik wrote in a blog post this week: about watching “the contortions the respectable media go through” to try to justify covering a hot topic “while appearing to be serious-minded, and not like all those other outlets just trying to pry into Tiger Woods’ personal life.”

He says such justifications are unlikely to help the mainstream media: “What these half-measures do, more than anything, is convey the sense that the mainstream media is phony, inauthentic, that it lacks the courage of its convictions either to go all in and give the public what it wants, or take a bullet and stick to its principles. Trying to please everyone, it pleases no one.”

Do you have an opinion? Do you even care? Would more stories about Tiger Woods cause you to visit our website more often? Let us know.

08 December 2009

Give ‘Em Hell, VOA

During the 1948 U.S. election campaign, President Harry Truman, a Democrat, was delivering a speech in which he criticized the opposition Republicans. A supporter yelled out: "Give 'em Hell, Harry!” Mr. Truman replied, "I don't give them Hell. I just tell the truth about them and they think it's Hell."

This pretty much sums up the reason why some foreign officials, usually in repressive countries lacking a free press, routinely complain about Western coverage of events in such countries. And it explains why VOA, contrary to the claims of critics who accuse it of engaging in propaganda, doesn’t need to do more than deliver the news accurately, objectively and comprehensively to its worldwide audiences.

Take Iran, for example. In recent addresses, Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamene'i has lashed out sharply at the United States and western media like VOA. In one speech, he put it this way: “The priority is what today they call the soft war; meaning a war using cultural tools, infiltration, lies, rumor mongering. They use advanced tools that exist today, communication tools that did not exist 10, 15, 30 years ago.”

In fact, the advanced tools he mentions are being used by Iranians themselves to counter the media restrictions that exist in Iran. While foreign journalists in Iran were barred from going out and watching the protests that took place on Students Day this week, Iranians used the Internet to send video to the outside world for use by broadcasters like VOA. They disseminated news about anti-government protests via Facebook and Twitter. They used cellphones to take pictures and send them. Authorities tried to slow down Internet service and curtail mobile phone service to curb the flow of information. But the effort was unsuccessful.

State television in Iran carried no reports on the actual protests. Western news organizations had to rely on the contributions of amateur “citizen journalists” to get as complete a picture as possible of what is happening inside Iran.

We believe all people have the right to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers – just as it says in Article 19 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

We don’t believe they should be harassed, detained, arrested, charged and imprisoned for seeking to exercise this right.