Platform Native Journalism

This report on buzzfeed caught my attention this morning; Tumblr have sent journalists to Tampa to cover the Republican National Convention.

Of the estimated thousands of journalists at the Republican National Convention, these people stand out. For one, they’re not political reporters in the traditional sense of the term. And, though this is less of a novelty than it may seem, they’re posting exclusively to Tumblr. They’re also posting for Tumblr, as part of one the site’s early forays into original journalism.

While this may seem insignificant this is a bold new move on the part of Tumblr and, to the best of my knowledge, is the first time a social network has invested in original or professional content.

What I think is most interesting is the idea of a native experience for reporting. This is not new, people on Twitter will know that a number of journalists use Twitter to report on breaking events and many news organisations have official accounts which are used in much the same way. This is reporting that is entirely native to Twitter; it happens on Twitter first in a form that is native to Twitter. The ABC, to their credit, have even employed a dedicated social media journalist. Latika Bourke, despite her critics (myself often among them), is successful in her use of Twitter for reporting. She is not retrofitting old style journalism for social media, but rather making social media the central focus of her reporting.

Twitter can also be used in a “non-native” way; that is turning to Twitter to promote and disseminate reporting that happened first on an external site (i.e. newspaper’s websites). At present, this is the most common use of Twitter. News organisations see Twitter as a way to drive users to their website where they can serve their own ads or (in the case of News Ltd.) charge admission fees to their paywalled garden.

The difference with Tumblr’s http://election.tumblr.com site is that it is itself the destination, with the “journalism” happening on the social network rather than on a external site to be promoted. This is not an abstract, academic difference, it has significant impacts on a journalist’s focus and workflow. I have already spoken about how important it is for modern journalists to place themselves at the centre of the news and journalistic ecosystem and how important it is for them to be involved in conversations. Native reporting like what Tumblr is attempting, is designed to service the communities of that platform and take full advantage of the features of that service. This reporting fits naturally into the social graph of the service.

It doesn’t seem that Twitter or Facebook are going to move towards content creation anytime soon, preferring cheaper data driven curation, but whether it is driven by the social network themselves or by external news organizations, platform native journalism could prove to be a simple but important idea.

He said, she said… it’s time for a conversation.

Quote

There’s also the simple reality now that fact-checking is occurring anyway. Rare is the false claim by a politician or spinner now that won’t be picked up and torn apart online. But fact-checking on a little-trafficked blog, or on Twitter, won’t match fact-checking in the originating report, particularly when that will be viewed far more widely in the community than online-only material. Greater dialogue between journalists and social media participants, making stories more of an online conversation and less about authoritative pronouncements, partly addresses the resourcing issue, but alters the role of mainstream media journalists in a way many are uncomfortable with.

Nonetheless, given the community’s very clear trust issues with commercial media, the debate Brisbane initiated deserves to be had here as well.

This quote from Crikey’s Bernard Keane fantastic article discussing “he said, she said” journalism.

How is Australian Journalism operating today?

This would seem to be a simple enough question with a simple enough answer, but the current journalism landscape in Australia, as we have found, is more complex, and more dense, than it appears on the surface.

It is no great secret of course, that the commercial news sector in Australia is largely owned and operated by two major players, Fairfax and News Limited. Australian media ownership is among the most concentrated in the world. Fairfax operates major Australian publications including The Sydney Morning Herald, The Age, The Canberra  Times, and the Australian Financial Review. News Limited’s titles include The Australian, The Daily Telegraph, The Herald Sun, and The Mercury. Both companies also control news websites that operate alongside their print publications, and some websites that even run independently, as ‘online-only’ news (for example, Fairfax’s brisbanetimes.com.au). Together, these two corporations dominate the news market. For many years they operated on the traditional journalism model; that is, professionally trained journalists writing the stories, professional news organisations publishing them, with reader input and opinions coming from ‘Letters to the editor’, or in the case of broadcast media, ‘phone-ins’ to radio shows. When newspapers made the shift and began publishing their content online as well as in print, reader input came in a similar fashion, with leaving comments on stories or opinion pieces becoming the digital equivalent to a ‘letter to the editor’. The online world however, opened up brand new opportunities for accessing, and publishing news. As Karthika Muthukumaraswamy notes,

No longer reliant on journalists to function as their representatives, people chime in with their own voices, whether on an online forum, a blog, or the websites of newspapers. (2010)

Muthukumaraswamy is quite optimistic in her article about the what she refers to as crowd-sourced or citizen journalism, and believes that while initially wary, news organisations are embracing a more open model of journalism. However, she does not refer specifically to the Australian journalism landscape and it appears that here, there is far less to be optimistic about.

Print circulation has been steadily dropping. This is because, quite obviously, readers are increasingly accessing their news online. Advertisers are also distancing themselves from newspapers, in line with the drop in revenue. Some newspapers have even shut down their print editions and are only available online (which is cheaper to produce, although whether they make up the same revenue of print newspapers is another matter). It is clear that News Limited and Fairfax are increasingly looking to subsidise the industry online. Fairfax, for example, is cutting down on unprofitable print circulation, printing less copies of newspapers such as The Age. However, even though print circulation may be dropping,  overall readership has increased, with a 7% rise in readers of The Age and theage.com.au as reported by thebrisbanetimes.com.auIt is clear that, as best they can, Fairfax and News Limited intend to use the online market to their full advantage. Indeed, digital revenue is forecast to rise 11% of what it was in 2012, and Australian newspapers generally perform much better than other global markets in terms of revenue (Newspaper Works, 2011 report). Revenue and readership is not the main issue here. With the rise of the digital age, and online journalism, the question that remains is ‘Is the Australian journalistic landscape moving towards a more open environment?’ If we take the idea of ‘Open Journalism’ as a philosophy, is this gap between the more traditional journalists and the bloggers being bridged? Are we moving towards a more dialectical, collaborative approach?

Rupert Murdoch, owner of News Limited, in a piece written in 2009 expressed his views on the direction that online journalism was taking very emphatically.

Quality content is not free. In the future, good journalism will depend on the ability of a news organization to attract customers by providing news and information they are willing to pay for.

In outlining his vision for a new business model, it is Murdoch’s idea to have people pay to subscribe to news online, a model which has begun to take effect very recently, with The Australian beginning to implement a subscription based service (though at the time of writing this, it is still possible to freely access most articles, although for ‘exclusive’ content, you must sign up. A free, 28 day trial is currently on offer). There is nothing new, or open, about the model that Murdoch is here proposing. It is his view that bloggers and citizens who take it upon themselves to write about news or give their own views are merely re-writing the content that his corporations are putting out. He even goes so far as to refer to it as stealing.

Taking a step back for a minute, let’s look at what ‘open journalism’ entails, as we have defined it. It is an ecosystem – a form of organisation, in which different forms of journalism (be they professional or citizen) are curated and shared. It is a philosophy, an environment that aims to bridge the gap between the journalists and the bloggers and the citizen journalists. Whereas a traditional news article/publication is closed, fixed or static, a publication that adheres to the open philosophy is just that – open. It is never ‘finished’, as it is commented upon, transformed, and a process that is continually built upon. There is dialogue between the journalists and the bloggers. Establishing this, are Australian news publications following this open philosophy?

The short answer is no. Mr. Murdoch has made it very clear the attitude that his vision for News. Limited is to keep the role of the journalist, and the role of the ‘reader’ as close to what it has been as possible. The introduction of pay walls around online news websites is not only another source of revenue to supplement online advertising, but another example of news corporations attempt to claim the news as their own content – to stop bloggers ‘stealing’ it, or re-appropriating it. According to data journalist, Lisa Cornish (2012),

…we definitely come from a more closed society that thinks ‘This is our information, we’re holding on to it’, which is completely different in Europe and America. This may be impacting the journalism aspect as well.

Unfortunately, evidence points to this idea that a lot of journalists and news organisations today have this very attitude. Moving news online doesn’t necessarily guarantee a more open model of journalism.  Indeed, Alan Knight (2007) summarised Fairfax’s strategy in the face of the rise of online journalism as this:

Fairfax Media had engaged on a three pronged strategy; defend and grow its existing newspapers and magazines, aggressively expand its online portfolio, and build a digital media company using broadband as a driver for growth. (p. 4)

Part of this strategy seems to have been not to try and connect with the bloggers or the citizen journalists. According to Knight, they are seen as ‘amateurs’, and the major extent of the interactions with them comes primarily from comments on left on published stories, or the opportunity to ‘suggest’ a story available on most news websites. The continuing flow of dialogue that is so often craved is simply not there.

This isn’t to say that journalism in Australia is completely closed off, but it is certainly moving forward a lot slower than we would like it to be. Data Journalism is emerging as a launching pad for a more dialectical approach to journalism. The whole concept of data journalism is that the story itself comes from the data and an analysis of the data – but the information itself is on display, and open for the readers to interpret in the way they wish. The journalists interpretation of it is just one possible interpretation of many. It is, unfortunately, still a very young development here in Australia compared to overseas. One news service that has begun to incorporate this form of journalism is the ABC. The ABC, a government funded organisation, seems to be embracing the digital age and the concept of a more open approach to journalism than it’s commercial news counterparts. With sites such as ABC Open, ABC Pool, and the Drum, the ABC are facilitating discussion and dialogue around it’s news, and allowing the consumers (who are increasingly becoming producers) to contribute and interact, to create their own stories. Admittedly, ABC Open in particular is more about creating stories that are specific and of interest to local rural communities, rather than hard-hitting political stories that seem to be the focus of the issues of trust and authority that plague journalism today. The idea and the method, however, are still valid and perhaps a model to consider.

Returning once more, and finally, to Knight:

The Internet overwhelmed journalists’ monopolies on international news distribution. It challenges their presumptions to the truth. It may replace professional reporters with citizen journalists and traditional editors with an interactive online community.

An open model of journalism is not necessarily about replacing journalists completely, but about redefining their role and the way journalism operates in an online space. Change in the landscape of Australian Journalism however, is happening very slowly, and certainly not fast enough to dispel the growing mistrust of our major media corporations.

Ideology

After the invention of the printing press there was a long period of societal restructuring as the technology facilitated mass communication for the first time. Ideas were shared more widely and faster than ever before and all forms of society were re-organised by this communication revolution; government, education and religious organisations were all disrupted. The internet is as revolutionary a technology as the printing press and we are currently experiencing a period of change on a scale comparable with the scale of the societal reorganisation that accompanied the printing press. How far we are into this period of change and how much change lies ahead of us is hard to gauge, but I believe that when it comes to our news media and journalism we are really only at the beginning of the revolution. Given how young this change is, I don’t think we are at a point where we can understand the mechanics of how journalism is going to look going in the future. As Greg Jericho of Grog’s Gamut told a lecture at The University of Canberra, “it would be like looking at news on the TV in 1959 and predicting that we were going to have 24 hour news channels”.

When we began researching for this project we thought that we might be able to uncover models for journalism; defining what open journalism is and how it will work. But as our research progressed it became apparent that what we were looking at was not a mode of journalism, but a way of conceptualising journalism. The public perception of journalism has long been one of the “journalist as a hero” where the journalist is the ‘fourth estate’ which holds the powerful to account. This is a view that journalists have internalized, forming what Mark Deuze describes as “a consensual occupational ideology”. Deuze lists the concepts, values and beliefs of the journalism ideology as:

  • Public service: journalists provide a public service (as watchdogs or ‘newshounds’, active collectors and disseminators of information);
  • Objectivity: journalists are impartial, neutral, objective, fair and (thus) credible;
  • Autonomy: journalists must be autonomous, free and independent in their work;
  • Immediacy: journalists have a sense of immediacy, actuality and speed (inherent in the concept of ‘news’);
  • Ethics: journalists have a sense of ethics, validity and legitimacy.

Deuze discribes how this ideology is used by journalists to justify the decision they make and to reinforce their authority.

Ideology has also been identified as an instrument in the hands of journalists and editors to naturalize the structure of the news organization or media corporation one works for. Especially when faced with public criticism, journalists apply ideological values to legitimate or self-police the recurring self similar selection and description of events and views in their media.

The use of this ideology by journalists to justify their work is most evident in the journalistic defence of ‘objectivity’. Where being attacked from both sides is seen as a sign that they are doing their job properly. Jay Rosen describes this as the view from nowhere; or creating a sense of false symmetry. A belief that if two sides make competing assertions both sides must be wrong and that the truth must lie somewhere in the middle.

It would be wrong, however, to suggest that just because this is the dominant ideology (or discourse) held by journalists, that it is the only one.

This criticism also comes from within the profession, as, for example, supporters of the public journalism movement blame this ideological way of thinking for the news media’s inability to engage citizens (Merritt, 1995; Rosen, 1999).

This criticism of the dominant journalistic ideology has proven to be an accurate prediction of the crisis that currently faces political journalism in the digital age. Because the dominant journalistic ideology sees only journalists as holding the attributes of impartiality and objectivity, they see their account as the authoritative and final “correct” account. This has prevented many journalists and news institutions from engaging with their readers.

The current journalistic ideology values balance and objectivity; it encourages a sense that because the journalist has spoken to “both sides” in a story that the journalist’s story is the authorative account. As the barriers between journalists and readers are broken down, readers are able to challenge this binary take on objectivity. However with the advent of self publishing on the Internet, the audience have been able to offer alternative narratives, interpretations and even challenged the facts reported by journalists; no longer is a story finished when it is published and there is no longer one single “authoritative” account of any political event.

On blogs, as on Twitter, authors are aware that they are part of a larger dialogue and that a story is never finished; the story is only the beginning. Barthes describes in his essay “From Work to Text” a move away from a static ‘work’,with fixed meaning, to a more fluid ‘text’, which defers meaning. I think something similar is happening to journalism; there is no singular meaning or narrative and no authoritative voice. The current ideology of journalism fails to account for this discussion. The current journalistic discourse sees the journalist as the prescriber of meaning due to their value of objectivity and balance. But the audience is taking the journalist’s words away from them, prescribing their own meaning, discussing, republishing, responding. The audience is creating their own stories whether the journalist wants them to or not.

I think we need to start a new discourse for journalism; a new ideology. Open journalism.

This is not a view that has emerged only in the digital age, the dominant journalist ideology has been challenged for years. Terry Flew and Jason Wilson quoted Daniel Hallin from 1994 in their article Journalism as social networking: The Australian youdecide project and the 2007 federal election.

Hallin argued for new forms of journalism that aimed to be in dialogue with the wider public rather than ‘mediating between political institutions and the mass public’, and a professional practice where ‘the voice and judgment of the journalist … [are] more honestly acknowledged’ (1994: 176).

Flew and Wilson go on to add:

Hallin’s diagnosis of a crisis in journalism, arising from a growing disconnect between journalism and the communities it intends to serve, was developed at precisely the moment of the mass popularization of the internet, but almost a decade before its full implications began to permeate the culture and organization of journalism and news media.

We are already seeing the audience reject the journalist’s authority. The mere existence of self published blogs should be enough to prove that the audience does not accept the final authority of the news profession. Narratives, interpretations, assumptions and assertions are all now challenged in an online discussion. There is no one singular meaning or one single way of distilling meaning from news; there has never been. Through technology the dissent has found an outlet and a voice. The people formally known as the audience are expressing their dissatisfaction.

If the old ideology values public service, objectivity, autonomy and immediacy; what of the new ideology? What are the values and beliefs of open journalism?

I suggest a different set of values, ones that I believe will allow journalists and journalism to thrive in the social age.

  • public engagement: the news doesn’t stop and the story isn’t complete once a report is filed. The journalist should be involved in the ecology of reporting that exists outside of their news publication. Informing and being informed by community discussion;
  • accuracy: objectivity constructs a false sense of symmetry, excludes actors and obscure the truth. Instead journalists should use their skills and judgment in checking facts and pursing the truth (or truths);
  • transparency: building trust through honest dialogue with the community; about their judgments, their doubts and their opinions. Sharing documents and source material for stories so that the community can build on the work of the journalist and ensuring the accuracy of the original report.

This is not a complete list, nor is it a final one. It’s only where I am at the moment, I have my doubts and I am certain that it will change.

Under Threat: How Twitter has the journalist in defence mode

There has been an illusion amongst journalists for a long time about getting “both sides of the story,” which is beginning to recede in the digital age. No longer can journalist hide from the criticism from a finished article. Journalism is becoming a dialogue in which there will be constant discussion around a piece of journalism and it is time for the journalist to be ready to converse.

Greg Jericho of Grog’s Gamut delivered a lecture last Thursday at The University of Canberra to discuss how Twitter and other social media outlets are changing the way that journalism functions and in turn how journalists should adapt. “Suddenly they come on Twitter and they are confronted with responses to something that they have said,” says Jericho. “And too often political journalists…think that Twitter is filled with annoying people.” Journalists have long been privileged with an authority that grants their work a sense of finality, however on the internet no story is ever finished and there is no definitive or authoritative account. For the most part, this idea that there can be a response to a piece of journalism is new to journalists. While yes, there has always existed the comments section at the bottom of online articles, nothing compares to the opportunity for feedback that Twitter offers. Bloggers and tweeters are used to the conversational nature of these social media platforms, “Every statement on Twitter is made with the view of there being a response;” says Jericho. “You know you’re not just making it to nobody, you’re making it to your followers.” But journalists are mostly alien to this conversational style of critique. No longer is their work seen as an authoritative account, but as a beginning of a dialogue where the story will be challenged, discussed, interpreted in a de-centred discussion among the audience and, potentially, the journalist.

Twitter, as a platform for dialogue between journalists and audience, is an example of how modes of open journalism are changing the role of the journalist. Gone are the days of publishing a piece with finality. There is no longer the security of posting a story on the web that is unchangeable. This is causing the journalist to go into a defence mode. While they know they must be present on Twitter, partly to show their unbiased and neutral view, they are apprehensive of the open nature. In his lecture, Jericho mentioned Peter van Onselen as an example of a journalist feeling under attack on Twitter. After writing a post that received negative feedback from only 10 followers, van Onselen felt the need to defend himself, tweeting “The one eyed ALP supporters on Twitter are right silly me. The PM is doing a bang up job well done #oopsiadvocatedavotefortheALPin2010 #wakeup” in what Jericho describes as a sort of “High Broderism“; “you’ve got it wrong, I’m not biased I’m telling the truth because I once advocated for the ALP…you can’t accuse me of being bias because I’m in the middle.” Just an example of how journalists feel under threat due to response and in turn how they must defend their unbiased views.

Jericho notes that this defense from journalists is a product of the new lack of control and destruction of the old conditions. He says, “They are unable to cope with this, what I think is a widening gyre of social media, in while journalists words are taken and spun away from their hands.” No longer does the journalist have the final say in what they produce. So what does this all mean for the authority held by journalist? Basically, that it no longer exists. And the journalist better get used to it.

While the author of a piece will still be crucial, they must get used to the fact that their piece will  no longer be finished when published but instead be altered, adjusted, explained, discussed. “No longer will it be the columnist that provokes outrage,” says Jericho. “It will be someone who provokes discussion.” The journalist must become comfortable with engaging in discussion and realize that this is all now just part of the process.

Jericho quotes John Bergin, the director of social media and the digital news at Sky News, “This dialogue between the formerly passive readers and the active journalist is never going to go away. It’s going to be there whether we are still using Twitter or not,” Bergin says. “This is going to need a different set of skills from journalists.”

Trust, the missing link

At the moment Australian journalism seems to be at odds with its audience and it all seems to come down to trust. The Finkelstein report, released earlier this year, names journalists as the fourth least trustworthy professionals, above only real estate agents, advertising people, and used car salesmen.

Though it’s not as though journalists themselves are too blind too see it. In a study conducted in 2004 by RMIT and Roy Morgan a sample of journalists were surveyed. And it seems there are mutual concerns for both journalists and audiences. The report identifies accuracy, bias, and ownership as key contributors to the public’s lack of trust in journalists. With 56% of the surveyed journalists admitting to ‘often’ making mistakes, and 62% say these mistakes are ‘sometimes’ corrected. Further, 73% agree that media proprietors ‘use their outlets to push their own business and/or political interests to influence the national debate’.

Accuracy, bias, and ownership all contribute to the lack of trust that has created the gap that divides news producers and audiences. Since the rapid increase in the usage of online media outlets and the decline in newspaper readership, this gap seems to have grown. There have been attempts to address this in other countries such as the United Kingdom, with The Guardian. Editor-in-cheif Alan Rusbridger identifies the web as being a crucial factor in bringing a higher level of transparency to world affairs. He says “Our approach recognises the importance of putting a newspaper at the heart of the open eco-structure of information so that you can then harness different voices and link to an array of other sources.” This quote does more than establish The Guardian’s change in journalistic practice it also highlights a change in mind set. The notion of an eco-structure that works through a reciprocal collaboration of recourses, that allows for a relationship between news-producers and those formerly known as the audience; a relationship rooted in and encouraging trust.

Deni Elliott, in Essential Shard Values and 21st Century Journalism, claims that the social responsibility of the journalist in a democracy is to “notice and report the important events and issues that citizens need to know so that they can govern themselves effectively”. Yet with the rise of digital media it seems that the role of the journalist has changed, and that in order to notice report important events and issues journalists need to adopt this notion of an eco-system that collaborates with others (such as bloggers), curates material, and encourages debate. However, insofar as Australian journalism, this change is seen as more of a threat than a benefit. James discusses the attitude of the journalist towards the changing dynamics of the news industry in Authority?. This perceived separation between journalistic ‘professionals’ and those formerly known as the audience is no longer viable.

I find myself perplexed, given the current state of the relationship between the Australian public and Australian media outlets, it begs the question, what are we waiting for?

Data Journalism

Another interesting aspect that we’ve come across in our research is the field of Data Journalism, which could easily be considered a part of the Open Journalism eco-system. From the Data Journalism Handbook, I was able to glean these key points on what this form of journalism is:

  • Combination of traditional journalism, with the ability to tell a story with the scale and range of digital info now available.
  • Complex stories can be told through engaging info graphics, or how a story relates to an individual, and it can open up the news gathering process.
  • Data as the source, and data as the tool with which the story is told.

Once again, the Guardian is showing everyone how open it is to new models of journalism by employing this model, but it seems Australian news broadcasters are not out of the loop either. The ABC (already looking to work more collaboratively with their audience using projects such as ABC Pool and ABC Open) is also working on implementing data journalism on its website. One of the main benefits of data journalism seems to be however, that it allows for a more open and transparent look at the facts of a story, and allows the audience to interpret the numbers for themselves, without simply taking a journalists word for it.

The Coal Seam Gas By the Numbers project that the handbook mentions is still up on the ABC site, and contains corrections from the editor down the bottom, where data has been revised or incorrectly stated, a list of references used in compiling the report, and invites users to have their say on Twitter, Facebook and the comments thread.

Geoff McGhee, an online journalist who specialises in multi-media and inforgraphics, produced this video piece about Journalism in the Age of Data that is very informative.