Isolating offline communities
In the turn of the century, newspapers started to migrate to online platforms. At first, going digital and moving their content online was a struggle. Newspaper were hesitant but knew they had to do it. Many journalists hated it it. But today, everyone involved in the newspaper industry knows print is dead, and local newspapers either online or print are rare, very few are left. It would be impossible to find the news if you were offline.
It's like locking yourself in a cabin in a faraway place; if you don't look at your phone for two days, even two hours, you miss out on what is happening in the world. In a hyperconnected world, that seems insane. The worst part is that since everything is happening online, people have forgotten about real world interactions, and newspapers have neglected offline communities.
Shockingly, 4.1. Billion people, half of the world's population, are still offline according to a report published by Facebook in 2016.
The question is how are these 4.1 billion people getting their news? Who is taking care of these communities who haven't gotten online? And how can we connect them to the world?
In places like India, Guatemala and Nigeria, over 60% of the people who were offline have never heard of the Internet, according to Facebook´s 2016 report. Over two thirds of developing countries don't understand what it is. Other reasons for disconnectivity were availability, these people were not covered by broadband connection; affordability, some people within these 4.1 billion could not afford the costs of connection services; relevance, since for some there is little content on their language online; and readiness, meaning the skills, understanding, and cultural acceptance of the internet.
This means there is a huge inequality on who are connected and informed, and those who remain in the shadows. Newspapers have to take care of their audiences. Today, we don't only serve our local community, the internet has taught us to think global. Now that it has, indeed we must think global, but think global offline as well. Our industry must start thinking about how to tackle these communities that remain uninformed.
What’s already being done: Google, Facebook and BusTV
Since 2017, an initiative called El Bus TV has been delivering news offline and on buses in the South American country Venezuela. 440% of its population is still offline, and the cheapest smartphone there costs more than three minimum wage salaries. Due to state censorship and lack of connectivity, Venezuelans were reporting word of mouth to be their main source of news, followed by Twitter and Facebook.
The country was, and still is, in the midst of a crisis with daily protests due to food and medicine scarcity, insecurity, and government corruption just to name a few. Journalists had stories to tell, but didnt know how to reach their audiences, so two local reporters invented El Bus TV. They collected news and wrote a script, put a team of 4 together and stated boarding buses. Their goal was to fill the information gap created by systematic censorship, delivering news where it was most needed.
El Bus TV started in the capital city Caracas, but expanded to several cities across the country. According to their data, around July and August they reached 6471 people a month. 2275 in routes around Caracas.
Like these two Venezuelan journalists, other initiatives have been trying to expand access to the internet or connectivity.
Facebook brought “Facebook Zero” to Africa, a simplified text-only version of their platform. Accessing it was free, without affecting or increasing data fees, all you needed was a mobile device. No need for smartphones. The company also founded Internet.org, which works on expanding internet access in rural, poor countries and remote places in developed countries alike.
While Facebook seeks to give connection in remote place through solar-powered internet place; Google´s Project Loon looks forward to a network of Internet-beaming balloons. In 2016, they launched one of their balloons in Puerto Rico. It travelled all the way to Peru, and drifted in the Latin American country's airspace for 98 days, giving connectivity to its citizens.
All of these seek to connect the unconnected. But there are many things that can be done.
Big news organizations could start thinking about what stories are relevant to which offline communities and think of specific ways of reaching them without the need to connect to the internet in any ways, like did El Bus TV; nevertheless we should seek ways to try to connect these isolated communities.
Taking the solution one rural step further: News Kiosks in Isolated Areas.
Setting up “News Terminals” in places with low internet penetration and lack of resources could be a way to offer news to these communities. Whether disconnected because of absence of internet connection, lack of devices, or both, citizens can go to these stations to read the news, or print them to read elsewhere and share these pieces of information with their families and friends.
These “News Terminals” are to be found in several points throughout these rural areas in common, shared places like squares and commercial areas. The “news terminals” would connect to servers through public internet provided by local governments, given some rural areas are near enough to more developed towns, and can take advantage of their infrastructure. However, when tackling communities in more isolated towns that don’t have the infrastructure that allows devices ( our “kiosks” or any) to connect there, regardless of the technology contained within the kiosk. Therefore, taking advantage of Google Loon´s technology, and potentially partnering with them, would be necessary for our kiosks and the tackled towns to connect to servers that allow them access to news.
By default, its screen would give you 4 notifications or “top news”, always taking the location of the terminal into consideration. These notifications can be city announcements or emergencies, news that refer to the town, the country or the world. Ideally, one of each.
After swiping through the headlines of 4 pieces of “top news” by default, you are able to further explore the “news kiosk”. The news will be accessible and laid out like GoogleNews or Flipboard, or the digital landing page of traditional newspapers like NYtimes and WSJ. You are provided a “front page” but can also explore the page, which will be divided by sections in regards to location: local, regional, national, global; and by subject: news, politics, economy, culture, entertainment.
You will also be able to search for news by source. The sources will include many local news outlets, government press releases, as well as national and foreign newspapers.
Everything on the screen must be clear and legible, in the case that two or more people are navigating the kiosk for news together. This means large type readable by many and good on print.
Newsrooms share the responsibility: Offline community desks.
The “news kiosk” would not require any extra work from newsrooms on thinking how to reach the offline community because they would be able to reach it in the same way that they do the online.
However, just as newsrooms developed “social media editors” to think and translate their stories into the many different platforms that have emerged such as Instagram, Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat; newsrooms should create an “offline community” position to think of ways to deliver specific stories to the isolated communities to which these stories would be relevant, in the efforts of bridging the gap and relieving the inequality that shift to online, and almost “online only”, has created.