About James Clark

I do things on the internet to stop climate change.

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.

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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.

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.

Is open journalism commercially viable?

There are one important question that remains unanswered in our research: is open journalism commercially viable?

As readers, advertisers, and the revenue that they bring leave newspapers for the internet, many news outlets are cutting back on reporters. The reporters that remain are constantly being asked to do more with less. With less reporters on the ground, and less money flowing into news rooms, what can be done to ensure that quality reporting is being produced. This is one of the great problems facing journalism today and, along with the issues of trust and authority that I have already mentioned, is what leads us to discussing new models for journalism.

In conceptualising a new model for journalism, the new model needs to satisfactorily address these two problems: does the new model of journalism solve the fading public trust in journalism and is it financial viable?

Our research is concerned with open journalism; so is open journalism as we have identified it commercially viable?

In 2009 Media Watch discussed News Limited’s plan to build a “paywall” for their online content, which only now in 2012 is being implemented in Australia. Rupert Murdoch’s view was that quality journalism costs money to produces and that consumers who wanted access to quality journalism would need to pay. Murdoch also leaves little doubt about his views on bloggers and news aggregation services:

The Philistine phase of the digital age is almost over. The aggregators and the plagiarists will soon have to pay a price for the co-opting of our content.

In Murdoch’s view bloggers are not content creators on a equal footing as journalists, they are plagiarists who copy and comment on stories that “real” journalists uncover. This signifies a broader adversarial relationship between bloggers and journalists that, I believe, runs right though Murdoch’s newspapers. The relationship between bloggers and journalists warrants a post of its own, but Mark Scott, Managing Director of the ABC noted:

It strikes me as a classic play of old empire, of empire in decline. Believing that because you once controlled the world you can continue to do so, because you once set the rules, you can do so again.

I think Scott has identified one of the major problems that newspapers face in attempting to build a paywall around their content; news organisation (or journalists) no longer have control over the dissemination of information, and they are never getting it back. I don’t think there was any way that they would have been able to hold on to control in this environment. In a follow up interview with Jonathan Holmes, Scott goes on to say:

the reality of the circumstance that we all find ourselves in as media organisations: the audience has the power now. And in a sense you have to engage with those audiences on the audiences’ terms. Now for 15 years people have got their content online free of charge. You have younger people who have never paid for anything online. And you can’t just say snap your fingers and expect that they will pay – particularly if there’s going to be so much content out there that is available free of charge.

If news is free elsewhere, what would motivate a user to pay for it from a news organisation, especially when the research tells us that they don’t trust news organisations? If news and information is being provided for free is there any model for news that can be commercially viable? James Murdoch argues that the biggest threat for comercial news is state sponsored news from organisations such as the ABC in Australia and the BBC in the UK. Public broadcasters are increasingly operating in the same space as comercial outlets, but I think James Murdoch is underselling the complexity of the online environment and placing undue blame for his company’s commercial worries at the feet of publicly funded news.

If news and information can be shared for free on the internet, do we even need professional journalists? Can citizen journalism adequately inform the public without professional journalism on the scale that we have come to expect? This may seem a silly question, but unless an model that makes news profitable can be found, the answers to that question may be more than a mere hypothetical. If we are going to look at a new model of journalism, I believe that we need to first aim for self sufficiency: that is, it can pay for itself and survive in the current marketplace. Public broadcasters have an obligation to be open with their audience and transparent in the way that they produce their news. In Australia the ABC is making great strides to leading the way in audience engagement with projects such as The Drum, ABC Open and Pool. (As an aside here, it is worth nothing that since the real innovation in this space is coming from public broadcasters, we should challenge the generally accepted economic orthodoxy that competition leads to greater innovation and efficiency, but I digress). It is generally accepted that more diversity in the media space will lead to greater outcomes in terms of democratic representation and public discourse; but what constitutes diversity of media voices? Is it multiple commercial news organisations, or would one publicly funded news organisation that facilitates a platform open to many individual voices fulfil the requirement for a diversity of voices? Can comercial open platforms be profitable?

The Guardian, who are moving towards adopting a form of open journalism, are facing commercial troubles of their own. Guardian Media Group (GMG) Chair, Dame Amelia Fawcett, wrote in the 2010/11 Annual Report that GMG relied on revenue that was coming from outside of the core news media assets. Fawcett is optimistic about The Guardian’s prospects, while realistic about the challenges that face them.

The Guardian – like other parts of GMG – has demonstrated great ingenuity and vision in adapting to the digital age and attracting a new, global readership. Its current initiative to develop its US operation, building on an already sizeable audience in the States, is a prime example of this. However, digital revenues, while growing steadily, do not fully offset declining print revenues. This is the challenge facing GNM and news organisations across the world.

CEO of operations, Andrew Miller, wrote in the anual report of the “aim of ensuring the Guardian’s long-term economic sustainability,” and that “During the year under review, GMG continued to provide GNM with a stable financial foundation, allowing the Guardian and Observer to focus on producing outstanding journalism” suggesting that the financial sustainability of GNM’s news media asests are still in doubt, even if there is much optimism and pride in the quality of the journalism that is being produced.

Chair of the Scott Trust, owners of GNM, Dame Liz Forgan, reiterates the problems facing The Guardian and their new open media model.

Along with every other media organisation we face enormous challenges in the coming years as advertising and readers move ever faster from print on paper to the web, resulting in the destabilisation of traditional business models. In the new war of the worlds between open and closed information systems, the Guardian has championed the former with passion. Open is in our DNA, in our liberalism, in our journalism and in our relationship with readers. Our model therefore conforms in a profound sense with our values and our culture. But the challenge to find new sources of revenue in new markets across the world is a tough one to which the whole Company is dedicated.

Of course, there is a large part of The Guardian’s operation that is based on traditional journalistic models; a large part of The Guardian’s income comes from print and subscriptions. How they will monetize open journalism in the online environment will be a huge litmus test for open journalism.

If open journalism is a method of organising, engaging and aggregating the knowledge and reporting that exists in online communities, the cost of producing content must be lower than it was before, and this will work in favour of open journalism. Identifying whether open journalism can be profitable is still difficult and will remain an open question for quite some time. We’re not even sure what open journalism is; our own definition is still quite ambiguous.

But I would love to hear you reaction to this question on the comments.

Is Twitter ruining journalism or are journalists ruining Twitter?

Is Twitter ruining journalism or are journalists ruining Twitter?

A quick article that I found today about Twitter being used by journalists to disseminate information about Rupert Murdoch’s testimony to the Levinson inquiry in the UK.

If journalists stopped reporting via Twitter, would there be no reporting on Twitter? Of course not. Thousands of people were watching and tweeting Murdoch’s testimony live on the internet and TV. Witholding journalism on Twitter because it doesn’t generate income for the company is only going to further distance journalists from the broader news discussion that they need to be a part of. Further distancing themselves will only serve to alienate readers and exacerbate the issues of trust in news media.

I think that this criticism of Twitter is more enlightening:

It makes everything as important as everything else. For political reporting, the mega-tweet eternal motion stream devalues perspective, judgment and reflection, […] that favors the trivial over the substantive […] and events over ideas […]

The result: a second-by-second, self-contained and self-referential closed feedback loop.

What I think is enlightening about this comment (and the entire article) is that it blames Twitter (a tool) for journalists developing short attention spans. Twitter is just a tool that can be used in reporting like a range of others. Twitter is fast, it is chaotic and it can create a closed feedback loop. I think it a valuable tool for reporting and for news gathering, but Journalists need to understand that it is just a tool with its own set of opportunities and limitations. It is not the fault of the tool if journalism is being devalued.

What is the role of a journalist on Twitter? Should they be curators of content? Should they report to Twitter or report about Twitter? I think that for journalism to be open, journalists should be engaging with Twitter, which serves as a hub for political discussion, commentary and citizen reporting, in a conversation that runs in both directions. The role of the journalist in open journalism is a topic that we will spend more time on later, and how they engage with social media will be an important part of that discusion.

I’m there, you’re not.

I’m there, you’re not.

Following on from my previous post realting to a journalists authority, this piece by Jay Rosen is an interesting exploration of the origins of authority in journalism. When it is possible for anyone who is “there” to publish or transmit their own experiences to a wide audience, how can a journalist lay claim on “authority”?

Authority?

Over on The Drum yesterday, Tim Dunlop has nailed one of the biggest problems facing journalism in the digital age:

The collapse of the funding model on which media relied is one thing, but even more worrying is the self-aggrandisement of the audience that has accompanied it.

This development raises the most vital question confronting the media today: just how did the audience for news, the famed ‘punters’ of newsroom banter and contempt, ever get it into their heads that they were entitled to question the way journalists went about their jobs rather than continue, ad infinitum, to passively consume whatever editors in a fiscally prudent limited number of outlets fed them?

How did these same punters ever think that their role in society was anything more than to allow themselves to be aggregated into homogenous demographic categories that were sold by media organisations to advertisers for unchallenged profit?

And what ungodly devil’s spawn of misinformation found its way into the water supply and convinced ‘the audience’ that they should be allowed to bypass the righteous gatekeeping of the mainstream media (peace be upon it) and fooled them into thinking that they, too, could have a role in contributing to public discourse?

This insidious invention, the Frankenstein monster of tenured academics alive during the discredited 1960s, has completely overturned the natural order of tenured news gatherers.

Armed with this new tool of mass dissemination, an unlikely number of ‘readers’ have convinced themselves that they are also actually ‘writers’ and they fill up their ‘blogs’ (an abbreviation for blah-blah-blah catalogue), their Twitter feeds, their Facebook pages, and, heaven-forfend, the ‘comments boxes’ on the websites of the mainstream media with their thoughts on subjects.

This is the attitude that seems to be common among many news organizations and among journalists themselves. “How dare the audience think it can do what we do?”. Journalists can no longer rely on the authority that is granted to them by access to the means of distribution; self publishing is free and easy, knowledge flows openly, and there is a community of peer to peer reporting and commentary that is threatening the traditional role of the journalist.

What Tim Dunlop has identified is the resistance from journalists to the changing dynamics of the news industry. How are journalists going to retain their authority in an age when anyone can self publish? I don’t think it’s going to come from shutting themselves off from the wider knowledge community through paywalls. They will not earn the respect of their readers by belittling bloggers; anyone who has looked at the NBN coverage in Australia will know that a blog can cover news as well as, and often better than any newspaper.

I think we are entering an age where journalists will gain their respect and voice by engaging with the citizen reporters, bloggers and journalists and becoming a part of the conversation that already exists around news.

What is the role of the journalist in open journalism? Does the journalist have a role at all? Is it one of curator as author? How does citizen journalism fit in to this?