Print isn’t dead

How does news publishing change when a newspaper sells fewer than 300,000 copies but its website attracts 31 million visitors? These shifts are forcing assumptions and practices to be rethought from first principles.

The internet is not simply allowing faster, wider distribution of material: digital technology is demanding transformative change. Journalism needs to be rethought globally and remade to meet the demands of new conditions.

George Brock’s new book Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age examines the past, present and future for a fragile industry battling a perfect storm of falling circulations, reduced advertising revenue, rising print costs and the impact of citizen journalists and free news aggregators.

Perhaps surprisingly to some, Brock argues that journalism can flourish in a new communications age:

·      Journalism’s history shows that reporting the news is always being disrupted. The late 20th century was unusual for being a period when news was profitable and its institutions stable. Journalism has always had to adapt, experiment, improvise and renegotiate.

·      Only some journalism is under threat, particularly regional journalism. Many printed newspapers will survive, though in the UK there is currently over-supply in all national categories (mass market, mid-market, high end).

·      Print was in trouble before the internet came along. The peak year for daily and Sunday national paper circulation in Britain was 1955. What is falling apart is the industrial structure of the news business – and the ideas which went with it. The time when big news media dominated is over for print, broadcast and, even, online.

·      What the internet does to news is reroute information, measure who consumes what and rewrite the business model. It does not abolish peoples’ need to know or the need to navigate (huge) information flows – the importance of journalistic selection, navigation, curation and comment remains.

·      Unseen by many established journalists, a new generation of editors, writers and publishers are taking journalism’s values and trying to make them work in new contexts. The future of journalism depends on the quality of their experiments and failures to reboot journalism.

·      Online communications bring the industrial phase of news media to an end, returning it – via social networks – to something which looks more like the news publishing of an earlier era.

·      Online news platforms may not yet rival the institutions of mainstream media, but a few have moved past the phase of being fragile startups. Their agility (and lower cost base) will give them an advantage over time.

·      If the journalists of tomorrow want to understand what happened and what will happen, they need to understand both what’s happening to journalism and to the business of news.

Out of Print: Newspapers, Journalism and the Business of News in the Digital Age
George Brock
Kogan Page (Paperback, £19.99, 256 pages)
Published in the UK on 3 September

Those pesky hackers

In the last 10 years, cryptography researchers have demonstrated that even the most secure-seeming computer is shockingly vulnerable to attack. The time it takes a computer to store data in memory, fluctuations in its power consumption and even the noises it emits can betray information to a savvy assailant.

Attacks that use such indirect sources of information are called side-channel attacks, and the increasing popularity of cloud computing makes them an even greater threat. An attacker would have to be pretty motivated to install a device in your wall to measure your computer’s power consumption. But it’s comparatively easy to load a bit of code on a server in the cloud and eavesdrop on other applications it’s running.

Fortunately, even as they’ve been researching side-channel attacks, cryptographers have also been investigating ways of stopping them. Shafi Goldwasser, the RSA Professor of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, and her former student Guy Rothblum, who’s now a researcher at Microsoft Research, recently posted a long report on the website of the Electronic Colloquium on Computational Complexity, describing a general approach to mitigating side-channel attacks.

This month, at the Association for Computing Machinery’s Symposium on Theory of Computing (STOC), Goldwasser and colleagues are presenting a paper demonstrating how the technique she developed with Rothblum can be adapted to protect information processed on web servers.

As well as preventing attacks on private information, Goldwasser says, the technique could also protect proprietary software so that it can’t be reverse-engineered by pirates or market competitors — an application that she, Rothblum and others described at last year’s AsiaCrypt conference.

Today, when a personal computer is in use, it’s usually running multiple programs — say, a word processor, a browser, a PDF viewer, maybe an email program or a spreadsheet program. All the programs are storing data in memory, but the laptop’s operating system won’t let any program look at the data stored by any other.

The operating systems running on servers in the cloud are no different, but a malicious program could launch a side-channel attack simply by sending its own data to memory over and over again. From the time the data storage and retrieval takes, it can infer what the other programs are doing with remarkable accuracy.

Goldwasser and Rothblum’s technique obscures the computational details of a program, whether it’s running on a laptop or a server. Their system converts a given computation into a sequence of smaller computational modules. Data fed into the first module is encrypted, and at no point during the module’s execution is it decrypted.

The still-encrypted output of the first module is fed into the second module, which encrypts it in yet a different way, and so on.

The encryption schemes and the modules are devised so that the output of the final module is exactly the output of the original computation. But the operations performed by the individual modules are entirely different.

A side-channel attacker could extract information about how the data in any given module is encrypted, but that won’t let him deduce what the sequence of modules do as a whole. The adversary can take measurements of each module, Goldwasser says, but they can’t learn anything more than they could from a black box.

The report by Goldwasser and Rothblum describes a type of compiler, a program that takes code written in a form intelligible to humans and converts it into the low-level instruction intelligible to a computer.

There, the computational modules are an abstraction: The instruction that inaugurates a new module looks no different from the instruction that concluded the last one. But in the STOC paper, the modules are executed on different servers on a network.

(With thanks to Larry Hardesty at MIT)

Forget the bankers, cancer and AIDs need the cash

An expert from the Pancreatic Cancer Awareness Group – which comprises the UK’s major pancreatic cancer charities – is calling for a more realistic approach to pancreatic cancer research funding.

It appears that the current level of investment has led to no improvement in survival rates over the last 40 years.

Consultant Surgeon Hemant Kocher, based at Barts and The London, says that both clinicians and researchers are frustrated by the lack of investment into service provision and research for this deadly cancer – referred to as the ‘silent killer’, the tenth most common type and the fifth most common cause of cancer death:

“It is shocking to think that average life expectancy once pancreatic cancer is diagnosed is just six months. In the next year seven thousand people in the UK will die from this cancer and yet only one per cent of all cancer funding goes towards pancreatic cancer research.”

According to Mr Kocher, where research is able to be carried out there are some encouraging signs for the future. Researchers are discovering that as far as surgery for pancreatic cancer goes, less is more. Says Mr Kocher:

“Allowing patients to undergo surgery and get additional chemotherapy immediately afterwards helps to prolong survival. Information collected from recent studies suggests that doing the standard surgical excision for pancreatic cancer is perhaps as good as the extensive operations, with fewer complications after surgery.

“We can only learn so much with the limited resources we have, however. If we want to make a swift and significant impact then more investment is vital. It is crucial that we capitalise on the progress made to date, otherwise we run the risk of another 40 years with very little change.”

An aggressive spending programme is also the only way to end global HIV/AIDS. This is in contrast to previous research which advises that gradual spending over 15 to 20 years is needed to eradicate the epidemic.

Canadian researchers found that an aggressive programme over five years is the only way to end the epidemic, given our current resources.

Their study – part of a supplement on The OptAIDS project: towards global halting of HIV/AIDS – was based on a mathematical model developed by mathematicians and biologists.

Professor Robert J. Smith and his team from the University of Ottawa – working with researchers from York University and the University of Manitoba – developed the mathematical model to examine how best to eliminate HIV/AIDS worldwide, given the large amounts of money that have been committed to fighting the disease.

They found that the $60 billion currently committed to fighting HIV/AIDS might suffice to end the epidemic globally. However, spending this money over the proposed 15 to 20 years will almost certainly fail, given the ability of HIV/AIDS to spread through travel and migration.

Recent scientific advances combined with education campaigns and condoms have been very effective in reducing the incidence of the disease in many countries and regions. However, the incidence of infection is still on the rise in many countries.

Travel and immigration will also make it impossible to contain the disease to these regions. As a result, the researchers predict that the spread of the disease will continue to outpace treatment. Says Professor Smith:

“The OptAIDS project grew out of a frustration with existing attempts to tackle the disease. HIV/AIDS is mostly addressed at a community or national level, when it needs to be tackled globally.”

The team is now working to develop a model for how best to spend existing resources in the developing world to contain the disease before it spreads beyond our reach.

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