In a new move for digital journalism in Australia, Fairfax Media today launched its invitation-only portal for politicians and interest groups to share quotes, documents and photos to be used in news articles.

The idea is that Newso will be “a new infrastructure for digital news”, Elgar Welch, a spokesperson for Newso, told Crikey.

Invited “news makers and opinion leaders” log in to the site and can leave comments of up to 400 characters, which can be used as a quote by journalists or to spark a further story. A timeline shows the most recent comments and they can be searched by topic or author.

Welch says he’s not aware of any other similar technology being used by news outlets in the world — and journalism academics contacted by Crikey said they were unaware of other newsrooms using specific digital journalism technology.

Fairfax is trialling the use of Newso at its Brisbane Times online newsroom as well as its Brisbane radio stations 4BC and 4BH.

The Brisbane Times newsroom seemed an obvious choice for the trial since it’s a digital-only newsroom — and there’s a state election coming, managing editor Conal Hanna told Crikey.

“All the media and sources are coping with the quickening pace of the media cycle, we just saw this as a communication tool that was perhaps able to better facilitate interaction between our journalists and some of our sources,” said Hanna, who expects Newso to be useful for the site’s election live blog.

Currently around 40 groups and individuals have agreed to use Newso, including Queensland’s Liberal-National Party and the Labor Party.

But not everyone sees the change as positive. When rival Courier-Mail editor-in-chief David Fagan was asked via email what he thought of Newso, he replied:

“My issue is the use of tools that limit direct engagement between journalists and those they report. I don’t like, for instance, our reporters doing what you have done and just emailing questions because the reporter doesn’t get the chance to listen to the answer and probe its intent and meaning.”

Journalists can send private messages to a source through Newso and ask them additional questions. “It’s not going to replace the traditional forms of interaction like phone calls and press releases from their side but this is just a new avenue to get short, sharp comment across on stories of the day that are unfolding quickly,” said Hanna.

Julie Posetti, a journalist academic from the University of Canberra currently doing her PhD on the “Twitterisation” of journalism, told Crikey she maintains “an old fashioned objection to broadcast journalists using comments from electronic press releases”.

“I’m cautious about Newso as it may indeed reinforce reliance on spin as journalistic content,” she said. “But let’s see how it works in practice.”

For Axel Bruns — an associate professor at the Centre of Excellence for Creative Industries and Innovation at the Queensland University of Technology — Newso is nothing particularly new, just a different use of technology. But the limited number of users concerned Bruns: “I’m really not sure we need more comment from the usual suspects.”

John Cokley, a professor of journalism at the University of Queensland, sees Newso like a more refined Google+ for journalists, but notes “it doesn’t seem much different from the decades-old system of inviting prominent people such as politicians to send in comments by letter (pre-1980s), fax (1980-90s) or email (post 1990s)”.

“The interesting thing will be in how the journalists and the sources use this portal,” Cokley told Crikey. “While editor Conal Hanna apparently says it won’t be used to chase people for comment, I suspect conversations WILL develop on this portal which will resemble email or chat interviews, which have — again — been going on for decades between journalists and their sources, and which DO allow questioning and scrutiny.

“One thing is, it protects sources from been misquoted, and that’s not a bad thing.”

Posseti suggests Newso should have been made open to everybody, making it “a collaborative public journalism tool”.

But do Australian newsrooms even need Newso? Doesn’t social media and email already offer up most of the opportunities to journalists that Newso is promising?

“No one can dispute the internet is completely changing journalism and we want to be someone that is trialling new technologies and giving these new tools a go,” said Hanna.

Welch from Newso told Crikey the technology “evolved out of the need for clear digital infrastructure for digital news, something that I think is pretty lacking today”. When asked if Newso would also use audio snippets or voice recordings, where people could call up and leave a quote — obviously far more effective for radio — Welch replied: “Watch this space.”

Asked if The Courier-Mail was adopting similar technology for its newsroom, Fagan told Crikey he had “no plans to replicate such a system but in a multimedia newsroom we may very well set up more sophisticated voice-recording systems which will allow our journalists to record broadcast quality interviews”.

Peter Fray

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