Search Engines: Second site: Grub Street on the Internet

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The Independent Culture
THE FICTIONAL Fleet Street of Evelyn Waugh's Scoop had the Daily Brute and the Daily Beast; the virtual Grub Street of the British digital scene has Ninfomania and Need To Know. Every Friday, their subscribers receive the latest "newsfeeds" - bulletins of news and smart comments about Net business, politics and tech stuff, mixed up with snipes and snippets about clubs, music mixes and television shows. You'll find insider gossip about service providers' attitude to e-mail surveillance, the latest in the row over downloading music, and esoteric hacker stunts.

Ninfomania styles itself "the number one weekly NewsFeed for the contemporary digirati", whereas NTK claims to be "the weekly hi-tech sarcastic update for the UK". Ninfomania is longer, more discursive, and more like normal journalism. NTK is more clipped, stylised and self-consciously hip. Neither costs anything but, like other free Net services, they don't provide technical support. While parts of a Ninfomania bulletin will always be accessible to normal people, NTK prides itself on being out of reach.

Dave Green, who produces NTK with fellow journalist Danny O'Brien, claims that therein lies its appeal: "It's for people who enjoy reading things that they don't fully understand." And it's by people who enjoy writing things they don't fully understand, judging by his assurance that "we understand most of it".

NTK even makes out that its Friday publication date is a lifestyle statement. The bulletin is supposed to arrive at that stage in the afternoon when you can't be bothered to start anything new. They suggest you print it out and read it over the weekend if you've nothing better to do. Now this is a revelation. While technology is forcing many of us to work increasingly irregular hours, those at the digital vanguard of the globalising wave are back watching the clock and thinking about knocking off early because tomorrow's Saturday. They clearly know something the rest of us need to know.

Yet neither NTK nor Ninfomania represents slacker culture. Their producers allocate a working day every week to meeting a deadline they have imposed upon themselves, and they have kept it up for a couple of years. Ninfomania reaches 10,000 odd subscribers, NTK about 7,000. Why do the newsfeeders work so hard to supply a service to people who pay nothing for it? One reason is that editorial freedom is its own reward. As journalists, Green and O'Brien are dissatisfied with the standard of commercial reporting on digital matters, and the Net gives them a channel to call things the way they see them.

Ninfomania started out as William Rowe's attempt to formalise the traffic of forwarded e-mails he received while working with Irish Internet company Indigo. He now wants to build a sensible business around the newsfeed. His broadcasting channel ProteinTV, which launched its full programming schedule earlier this month, promises an hour-long "pod" of digital video every month.

The opening item in the launch pod, Chris Cunningham's video for Squarepusher's "Come On My Selector", is typical. It tells the story of how a small girl escapes from a Japanese asylum by swapping her dog's brain with that of one of the guards. The action all takes place within a small frame that fits tidily into the corner of your screen, leaving you free to multi- task. "It's peripheral vision," says Rowe. "We're not trying to be MTV."

Rowe sees potential for sponsorship or advertising. Meanwhile, Ninfomania could come to you as Internet radio instead of e-mail. But whatever the medium, newsfeed writers will probably continue to pay for editorial freedom themselves. Advertising will compromise it, and the readers won't pay for it.

Visit www.poptel.org.uk/secondsite for links to pages mentioned or contact Marek Kohn on secondsite@pop3.poptel.org.uk

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