Brave News World: how social does the media now have to be?
Social media will enhance or destroy the journalism model, depending on who you believe. Gideon Haigh on Twitter, Facebook and measuring news in the third chapter of his investigative special for Crikey on the future of the media.
The expression “social media” contains a kind of implicit rebuke. What does that make the rest of the media? Anti-social? Asocial? What was news media meant to be about except society? Yet for a group thought to live and die by public approval, journalists have had ambivalent relations with their readers and viewers, sometimes pandering to them, sometimes hectoring them, sometimes ignoring them altogether.
The advent of social media platforms such as Blogger, WordPress, Tumblr, Twitter and Facebook, therefore, threatens a whole culture and sense of journalistic primacy. The fashionable media critic Jay Rosen refers to the “people formerly known as the audience”, which makes those in newsrooms wonder whether they might as a result end up as “people formerly known as journalists”.
Even if his emancipation proclamation is probably a little premature, the dynamic has obviously changed. “If I was to say one thing about the future, it would be that we’ve reached the point of no return in the reader being passive,” argues Greg Jericho, the Canberra-based blogger and tweeter behind the handle Grog’s Gamut. “And that’s not a change to be underestimated. I think that most news organisations are still at the point where they’re thinking that they’re just facing a bigger version of letters to the editor, whereas it goes way beyond that.”
Blogging has been a phenomenon so long that it seems almost passé. It’s been 17 years since The Drudge Report pulled off its first scoops, 12 years since Talking Points Memo emerged from the middle of the Bush v Gore Florida recount fight. In Australia, the unflaggingly caustic Tim Blair has been blogging since December 2001; the protean group blog Club Troppo was founded by Nick Gruen and Ken Parish soon after. Yet it remains the original and most robust form of “user-generated content” — a phrase that itself might be due revision, given the collapsing distinctions between readers and read, viewers and viewed. In his new book The Rise of the Fifth Estate, Jericho lists 324 Australian blogs, only a fifth of which carry any form of advertising — the urge to write is clearly independent of any expectation of financial reward.
Yet in Australia, journalists have held aloof from blogs, where they have not been actively hostile. The Daily Telegraph acquired Blair’s blog and made him a columnist; the Herald Sun leveraged Andrew Bolt’s column into a successful blog; The Punch has occupied a blurred space between blog and column since March 2009. The Australian assembled its convocation of bloggers, which now include George Megalogenis, Chris Kenny, Henry Ergas, Peter Brent and Peter Hoysted (“Jack the Insider”), only quite recently. While partial himself to perusing the comments on Megalogenis’s Meganomics and Kenny’s Goodly Fabric in search of story ideas, editor-in-chief Chris Mitchell sees considerable room for improvement: “It’s something we don’t do enough of. We don’t do reader feedback well and we don’t do social media well. We’ve got a lot to learn.”
For its part, Fairfax parted with its popular bloggers Margo Kingston and Jack Marx in 2005 and 2007 respectively, and only John Birmingham of the present crop commands a significant following; The Age’s ‘Blog Central’ is an untended graveyard of dormant blogs. Even at the ABC’s The Drum, what passes for “blogs” are maintained in only a desultory fashion, although the comments section of key contributors such as online editor Annabel Crabb often seethe with views.
“… wow, lots of people like to do what we do for nothing. Tell me an industry that’s not going to be a bit freaked out about that.”
For her part, Crabb says journalists will always feel some discomfiture where bloggers are concerned. “One of the confronting things about this environment for journalists is: wow, lots of people like to do what we do for nothing,” she says. “Tell me an industry that’s not going to be a bit freaked out about that.”
Bloggers also reverse the life cycle of journalists. For a journalist, the status of commentator comes only as a career evolves; bloggers, aspiring to commentary without having done what journalists see as “the hard yards”, are perceived as queue jumpers and status seekers. What journalists sometimes fail to grasp is the expertise that bloggers do bring, which is often considerable, even if it is not directly journalistic. “My attitude is shaped a bit by studying literature at university,” says Jericho. “The attitude there was that while Harold Bloom might say one thing about a text, if you had a different opinion and were prepared to argue it then you could go ahead. I think a lot of bloggers are academics or have academic training, so they think the same way.”
In the US, the blogosphere is regarded more and more as a cause for optimism. As Robert McChesney and John Nichols argue in their powerful prescription for industry regeneration, The Death and Life of American Journalism (2010):
“Blogging has evolved, in many instances, into a vehicle for sophisticated reporting as well as commentary, with original research and links to all sorts of evidence, background material, related articles and opposing positions. It has blasted open the once-shackled doors of journalism for a number of talented people who, for whatever reason, had been locked out of the old media system.”
Yet Australian journalists have been mainly bystanders to the growth and maturation of the blogosphere, which for all its occasional incivility and self-indulgence also reveals remarkable depths of knowledge, from the science/technology blogs of Renai LeMay (DeLimiter) and Becky Crew (Running Ponies), to the online economics commentaries of Gruen, John Quiggin (John Quiggin), Christopher Joye (Aussie Macro Moments), Sinclair Davidson and Steve Kates (Catallaxy Files). Andrew Landeryou (VexNews) regularly reveals the superficiality of much daily state political coverage and James Morrow (Prick with a Fork) the banality of much modern food writing, while the knotty comments threads at William Bowe’s Crikey blog Poll Bludger belie assumptions that Australians are politically apathetic. Many in mainstream media now speak in high-sounding tones about building “senses of community” around their mastheads, channels and sites, having spent most of the last decade scorning somewhere it has abounded.
JOURNALISTS ON TWITTER
Journalists have tried harder to master and harness the microblogging technology Twitter. Caroline Overington of The Australian provided a stunning early exposition of its reportorial potential in February 2009 with her coverage of the Victorian bushfires, and its capacity for setting news agendas became clear just before 7pm on June 23, 2010 when the ABC’s chief political correspondent Chris Uhlmann tweeted: “Kevin Rudd’s leadership is under siege tonight from some of the labor party’s most influential factional warlords. Watch ABC news. NOW!” Followers flocked to Uhlman’s evening news report of the prime minister’s travails, then afterwards settled in on Twitter to follow developments, 140 panting characters at a time; Annabel Crabb recalls being at a function in Sydney when the tweet appeared on her smartphone, and sweating over it during the ensuing three-hour drive to Canberra.
Crabb (64,000) and her ABC colleagues Latika Bourke (32,000), Leigh Sales (38,000) and Mark Colvin (27,000) have since been among the most prolific gatherers of followers. More than 200 journalists covering federal politics and national affairs are now on Twitter, and additional dimensions of the technology are being steadily revealed. Twitter is obviously a tremendous news alert — a source of tips, of quotes, of gossip, the kind that sets the hares running. It has also matured into a potent news tool, marking the end, as Sales observes, “of asking around the office whether anyone’s given up smoking recently”: if a reporter wants a face or a case study to bring a report to life, they can just dangle a bait on Twitter. For a recent story about the first day of the school year, Sales decided that she wanted to follow a young teacher take their first classes: no sooner had she mooted the idea on Twitter than the Catholic Education Board had found her a school and a contact.Sales has even grown to appreciate real-time reviews of her work, at least when they’re constructive: “When I did a pre-recorded interview recently, someone tweeted that I’d talked too fast, and because I was actually sitting in the studio watching it I could tell they were exactly right. A few weeks ago we did a story on self-harm which was pretty graphic, and when the response came that it should have carried a warning I had to agree.” When they’re less constructive, she has decided, she will suck it up: “I will block people for repeated nastiness, like someone who last week told I was a dumb bitch. And you do get a lot of people telling you they think you’re shit. But I guess I’m happy enough having people tell me I’m good, so I can put up with the opposite.”
Not every journalist feels similarly. Jericho, who joined Twitter in July 2009 a year after commencing his blog, believe many journalists remain uncomfortable in a genre so unmediated, and in which they do not hold the upper hand by right. “They turn up with the idea that Twitter is there for journalists and media organisations,” he says. “But it’s there for everyone who cares to join and they’re on equal footing. Anyone can command an audience. I have 13,000 followers, which is a lot for someone without a television presence. But anyone can be heard if they say something that’s retweeted by someone with a big following, and it can happen in an instant.”
Jericho shot to prominence during the last election campaign, when he tweeted a link to a scathing blogpost deploring the superficiality and contrivance of the daily media coverage. It reverberated round the social mediasphere, antagonising many in the gallery, touching off another round of the journalists versus bloggers debate, and eventually leading to his “unmasking” by The Australian. As The Spectator’s long-time media columnist Stephen Glover once wrote: “If journalists have a fault, it is to bear grudges and nurse hatreds as a result of having rude or harsh things written about them. They are much worse than politicians in this respect.”
For his part, Jericho does not believe that the fourth and fifth estates are inimical. “I value good journalism,” he insists. “I just have no compunction about criticising poor journalism.” But it has shocked Jericho just how easy it is to get a rise out of seasoned reporters and columnists: “I’ve had some fairly prominent journalists who after I’ve written a tweet even mildly critical of them trying to get in touch with me — y’know, just a friendly chat. I’ve had late night direct messages from journalists suggesting I’d better be careful what I’m writing and that I should make sure I have a lawyer handy. It’s not an uncommon response. There is very much this desire to reassert the pecking order: we’ll push back and put you guys in your place. The pattern is so similar — “we’re journalists, you’re just a blogger, you’re not here talking to the people we’re talking to’.”
In fact, technology is eroding even the journalists’ proprietorship of “here”, their proximity to event and their privileges of access. Nowadays anyone can look over the journalist’s shoulder, as it were, at the media releases and economic statistics they are perusing, which are almost always available online, and at the press conferences they are attending, which are commonly broadcast on Sky News and ABC News 24 or live-streamed. Watching journalists at work, furthermore, can be pretty unedifying. In November last year, for example, Wayne Swan announced a range of spending cuts including the baby bonus, prompting a question from the Herald Sun’s Philip Hudson about gold passes for travel for members of parliament. “Well,” Jericho tweeted, “I think we know the angle the Herald Sun is going to take — baby bonus cut while pollies sitting pretty on the gold pass.” Sure enough, next day’s headline ran: “Julia Gillard hits families, but won’t stop Gold Pass travel scheme.”
For all the excitement around Twitter, however, it’s possible the Twitterati have too full an estimate of the application’s value. Ironically, it’s members of traditional media who most commonly contribute to the idea that Twitter is a genuine cross-section of the public rather than the work of a self-selecting elite, with idly credulous surveys of “the reaction” to events on social media, reading Tweets aloud on radio and scrolling them across pull-throughs along the bottom of television screens. In the end, it may be the more ubiquitous Facebook — with 800 million active users worldwide compared to 140 million on Twitter — that will exert a greater influence on the news media, although it is not so obviously about news.
THE RISE AND RISE OF FACEBOOK
Where only 10% of Australians are Twitter users, three-quarters have Facebook accounts — a formidable penetration. News websites have grown accustomed to deriving a sizeable chunk of traffic from aggregators, of which overwhelmingly the greatest is Google News, but this may have peaked: Facebook, and other platforms like Pinterest and LinkedIn, are responsible for an increasing proportion of online activity. Six months ago, The Guardian reported for the first time experiencing days when Facebook was the biggest single origin of traffic to its website, as much as 30%, compared to 2% just six months earlier.
Australian media organisations have been slow on the uptake. While The Guardian and The Washington Post have created and offered apps to work inside Facebook, The Age’s rather desolate Facebook page boasts only 7000 “likes” — a derisory number when it still claims weekday readership of more than 600,000. Some, though, are addressing the challenge, like Hal Crawford, the young head of news at ninemsn.
In some respects, online digital news is media wallpaper: pervasive but unnoticed. But it’s this, says Crawford, that enthuses ninemsn about social media. Five hundred stories a day cycle through its site; 18% of its traffic is generated by people recommending stories to Facebook friends. “Every time that happens, it’s a little victory,” he says. “It’s like: thank God we don’t have to rely on ninemsn to keep the lights on. Knowing that, we have to work out what makes people share stories. Which is different to what makes people click on a story on a home page.”
Earlier this year, Crawford and a colleague spent three months involved in a huge data collection exercise, taking a daily scrape of the front pages of 119 news websites around the world, and comparing the results with URLs being exchanged on Facebook, concentrating on the UK and the US. Britons, they found, liked sharing stories that were whimsical or quirky, such as the response to the hapless Samantha Brick, perpetrator of the Daily Mail column “Why women hate me for being beautiful“. Americans, meanwhile, shared serious news, from the deaths of famous people to the deeds of Barack Obama, especially his support for gay marriage. “We call that norming, a reinforcement of your group and its beliefs,” says Crawford. “A story like that resonates both with people who love Obama and who hate him.”
The mildly counterintuitive nature of the findings about Facebook, that Americans converse so earnestly and Brits so frivolously, may be explained by a poorer general cognisance of current affairs: people share stories they think friends have missed, not ones they sense they will already have read. Whatever the case, it’s such analyses that in the competition for traffic will grow more important — so that Crawford is disinclined to say too much about his discoveries concerning Australian readers. Otherwise, he is explicit: “Basically, we’re now trying to get our guys to write stories that will be shared. To choose a mundane example, dogs do well, really well. If you’ve got a choice to write a dog story or a food story, do the dog. People love the anthropomorphic. If the dog is acting like a person, you have sharing gold.” Rupert Murdoch, reputedly a lifelong devotee of animal stories, may always have been ahead of the game.
“The new model is not entirely different from the old model, inasmuch as you used to pay $1 for a paper, while the newspaper sold access to your kitchen table to advertisers.”
So what might a news environment shaped by Facebook look like? Conversational and interactive, certainly, although not, perhaps, overly stimulating or challenging. Consuming news in a Facebook setting, you grow increasingly aware of the technology’s relentless positivity. The only permissible response to something on Facebook is to “like” it — “like” being, like, seemingly the most ubiquitous, like, word in the, like, modern English vernacular. What if you’re outraged by a story, or frustrated, or bored? What if a story is inaccurate, or patronising, or mawkish, or manipulative?
To Eyal Halamish, executive director of the e-governance group OurSay, this was the initial provocation. “One of the reasons we started OurSay was because we realised this was a serious problem,” Halamish explains. “You could not disagree with anyone in your social life. You can only “like” them. Not that we need a dislike button, but we need to recognise that Facebook is simply built on the principle of ‘let’s all have fun together’. We need other social media forums that allow us to interact with ‘the other’.”
OurSay is inspired by similar experiments in the US by Open For Questions, a White House initiative, and in the UK by TheyWorkForYou, created by the NGO mySociety. “What we’re looking at is culture change across three realities,” Halamish argues. “It’s the leaders in our society who need to find ways to be more accountable, more responsible, more politically courageous; it’s the media, who need to focus on issues for longer periods of time, because no issue is getting enough time at the moment; and about citizens, who need to be involved in the ways we’re approaching issues, who need to mobilise themselves, not just say to politicians: you sort it out for us.”
OurSay commenced offering “direct access to the people in power” during the 2010 federal election when it concentrated on the seat of Brunswick and its three competing candidates. Earlier this year, it collaborated with Crikey in crowdsourcing a question that was asked in parliament by the Greens’ Adam Bandt, and in July it involved Fairfax and Deakin University in a “hangout” with prime minister Julia Gillard using the brand new Google+ social networking and identity technology. More than 100,000 votes were cast for 2000 questions, and 40,000 logged on to watch the hour-long discussion which looked a little like a rather stilted talk show with multiple hosts — although these are early days. Again in collaboration with Crikey, it hosted a web chat with independent members of parliament during September.
Other news media perspectives on social media are in a more commercial spirit. Some believe there is information of significance to be gleaned from its to and fro, begetting monitoring companies like Sentia, Brantology and Sentiment Metrics, the latest of which has just gone into partnership with Australian Associated Press. Potentially such exercises could lead to some profitable places — and also some spooky ones. As Annabel Crabb notes: “People’s private information is worth something.”
The targeting of advertising through traditional media has never been exact — thus Lord Leverhulme’s famous comment, that he wasted half his advertising budget, but didn’t know which half. But that is changing, with media organisations gently grilling their readers for more personal information, in return for enhanced digital service, and advertisers measuring bang for their buck on a performance model, in which premiums attach to a consumer staying long enough to disgorge data about themselves.
‘The new model is not entirely different from the old model, inasmuch as you used to pay $1 for a paper, while the newspaper sold access to your kitchen table to advertisers,” notes Crabb. “Here I am in my dressing gown and there is an ad for a toaster here which I would not have picked up had it been lying in the street. And yet somehow, sufficiently often for it to be worth the advertiser and the newspaper’s time, I find that I do need a new toaster. But the new model is about using the spying capacities of online to find what individual readers are interested in and will respond to because narrowing down audiences like that is a compelling proposition. It’s also icky.”
Anti-social media — it might be closer than we imagine.