524 – I read the news today, oh boy

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With most of the world in lock-down and everyone staying at home, it’s easy to be fixated with the news, even though there’s really only one topic.

clip_image004You could look at Microsoft News – a recently-updated app and website that serves up a mixture of curated news from 3rd party sources that you can define, along with annoying click-bait adverts for sometimes dubious products that you clip_image006are seemingly unable to block or hide.

The same guff pollutes the otherwise excellent new-tab experience in the new Edge browser, assuming you aren’t seeing the Office 365 tab.

There’s an FAQ that explains the rationale behind the advertising, though if you have time on your hands, you could always make your feelings known through the Feedback Hub app (here’s how), add your voice to the reviews tab on the Store, or join up to the Microsoft Old Timers group on Facebook and gripe about it while sharing photos of old t-shirts and stuff.

In the “good old days” theme, a new beta “News bar” app has been released, offering to display the same curated and presumably ad-filthy content on a sidebar reminiscent of a Vista gadget, or a ticker running along the top of the task bar like a 1990s website. Though it may be geo-locked so you can only get it in certain countries for now, read more on the News bar app here.

Whilst cooped up inside, spending your life on conference calls or Teams meetings, spare a thought for those who are new to the whole experience, and shed a tear for the technology they’re using. They could be Skyping.

Tip o’ the Week 467 – Gardyloo, It’s the News!

clip_image002Edinburghers will know of the term, “Gardyloo” – perhaps a corruption of a French warning that “water” was about to need avoiding, like dodging the gutters in Blackadder. As well as regarding the loos, it’s in everyone’s interest to make sure your source of news is clean and fresh. Not fake.

clip_image004clip_image006A startup called NewsGuard hit the, er, news recently, after launching a service that uses real journalists to assesses sources of news, and scores them on various criteria on how they source, handle and attribute the stories they report.

The Mobile version of Edge browser was updated in January 2019, to include the NewsGuard plugin (though it wasn’t enabled by default), and at the time it was widely reported that their vetting had decided the UK’s Daily Mail, a popular newspaper and at one time the largest newspaper website in the world, was not to be trusted. (Screenshots above & right were taken on 24 Jan 2019).

More people probably read about the warning that was gleefully propagated by the Mail’s competitors, than there are actual users of the Edge mobile browser itself (if you use Edge on your PC, give it a try on your phone – it’s really rather good).

clip_image008clip_image010If you’d like to add the NewsGuard addin to the Edge browser on your PC, go to the Settings menu (…) on the top right of the Edge toolbar, and look under Extensions – then find NewsGuard in the Store to add it to the browser from there.

NewsGuard has since worked with the Daily Mail and decided that it’s not quite as bad as all that, so has backtracked and removed the klaxon warning.

It’s still not giving a completely clean bill of health – see the “nutrition label” –  but the feedback NewsGuard has shared with some other news websites may well help to improve the quality of their output.

The same extension is available on other browsers too.

Tip o’ the Week 436 – I read the News today

Oh boy. clip_image001Sometimes, the news is so troubling that you wonder if it’s worth trying to keep up-to-date at all, and instead only read and watch the stuff you know you’re interested in, that you’re going to like. This is the dichotomy of online news – since the dawn of the widely-used web, the end of the traditional news media as we know it (and particularly, print) has been forecast. Editorial skill gives way to sensationalism so as to attract the reader’s eye: headline writers have been doing this for years, but in an ad-funded online world, the need to turn eyeballs into clicks is even worse.

The upside of snacking on a smörgåsbord of news sources is that the reader gets to choose the topics (and the providers of content too), so they can filter out the rubbish they’re not interested in, excluding the media outlets they don’t want to read. The flipside, of course, is that confirmation bias will tend to guide people to read and watch stuff that reinforces their existing opinions; so they’ll pick sources of news according to their political beliefs, and may not read about topics they know nothing about, to the detriment of balanced reporting of “news”.

Anyway, news apps are one of the most used categories on mobile devices – rather than shuttling around between several web sites, aggregator apps consolidate the content and can alert the reader to breaking news.

Google has a News app for iOS and Android, and is investing in AI technology to help curate compelling packages of news content that people don’t necessarily know they want to read. Apple has their own app, for fruity devices only, not as widely available and not quite as curated.

Meanwhile, MSN News has been around for years, too, both as a service that shows tiles on the Edge browser’s start page and the MSN.com site, and as apps for Windows, iOS and Android. Well, the whole thing is getting a rebrand and the back end is being sharpened up; see coverage here, and here, and the official announcement.

The Windows version of MSN News is still known as such in the Store, though clip_image003once installed (as it is by default), it’s simply “News”. If you sign in with your Microsoft Account, you can select specific topics and sources, and those preferences will be stored and roam across other devices.

clip_image005Mobile versions are available from Apple’s App Store or Google’s Play, and offer the same kind of news customisation experience if you also sign in with your MSA. The naming convention can be a little clip_image007confusing… but at least the “Microsoft” name doesn’t get in the way of the app when it’s installed, as it’s just listed as “News”.

There’s a light or dark theme, and the content is displayed clearly and it’s easy to navigate by swiping left or right; the “My News” category is a summary of the categories you like, whereas “Top Stories” is curated by an editorial news team rather than using AI alone. Much is made of the partnerships established with the real news sources that provide the content, and it’s probably the Microsoft News service’s biggest strength.

clip_image009The personalisation of the mobile apps function much the same as the Windows one; various categories of your choice presented in summary and with the ability to flick between them at your leisure, though the clickbait sponsored stories (which are clearly labelled SPONSORED and showing the source) still rankle a bit.

Even without the warning in the headline, it’s pretty easy to spot sponsored content; headlines like Content Providers Are Furious About This… Something You Don’t Need Exciting People In <town you’re not in>, Hotels Don’t Want You To Know About This Secret Discount Trick, etc, etc.

If any “story” Capitalises Every Headline Word, Even Mundane Ones… then maybe don’t open it. Still, the funding collected from sponsored stories is shared with the real news sources that provide the actual content, so it pays for everything else.

If you don’t like the news presented in one app, then try another – like weather apps, it never does any harm to have a few on the go, so you can find something that makes you feel better.