The audience has become integral to the online model – not only because eyeballs matter – but because the Internet has shifted the power balance between the masses and the media. Armed with their own blogs, social media tools, and Internet know-how, the general public isn’t just consuming news à la carte, they are also playing a fundamental role in its creation.
Few mainstream media outlets were prepared for this inversion of the power dynamic. Many of them continue to grapple with the ramifications. How should media outlets handle vile comments? Is maximum virality an appropriate journalistic aspiration? How should the relationship between media outlet and audience evolve? Much of the mainstream media’s rhetoric on audience interaction and engagement seems either token or a desperate invocation: Please retweet! Click if you like this! Vote in our reader poll!
Tim Dunlop, author of The New Front Page, understands these quandaries better than most. He was one of Australia’s pioneers of political blogging, having created The Road to Surfdom in the early 2000s (back when blogs were still referred to as weblogs) before blogging in a professional capacity for The Australian. His book perceptively analyses how the Internet has diluted the power of the media proprietor and given the audience more prominence. It used to be the case that the fourth estate was a mediator of information, as they had a form of ‘proprietorial control’ over sources and data. But social media grants this access to the public. As Dunlop says, it is no longer ‘possible for the media to ignore the active role the audience can play in shaping its own experience of the news’.
Webdiary and author of Not Happy, John (2004). Kingston, a refugee from The Sydney Morning Herald, was the spearhead of the new media insurgency. Dunlop writes: ‘She engaged. She published comments – even lengthy articles – from readers, and she argued with them in good faith … the key was that she grasped the difference between online and conventional newspaper journalism: the relationship with her audience.’ Rather than assuming the position of an insider aloof to her audience, Kingston embraced them wholeheartedly. In this sense, blogging was the antithesis of conventional journalism: it did not celebrate its savviness or its credentials. And it embraced a different sort of practice from that of your average gumshoe. Rather than be dependent on anonymous sources – the lifeblood of journalism – a political blogger like Kingston or Dunlop could conduct extensive research online. Most importantly, Dunlop notes, bloggers could ‘offer an alternative reading … without having to worry about being “cut off”’ from a source, creating a narrative that isn’t beholden to commercial interests. Dunlop begins his lively treatise by drawing on the experience of Margo Kingston, the blogger behind
But the vitriol of anonymous commenters is often presented as an ever-present threat to the credibility of new media. Members of the old guard, like former Age editor Bruce Guthrie, believe that online comments and social media have caused discourse to degenerate. Dunlop mounts a convincing counter-argument – that this sort of belief suggests ‘things were better when the only people who could were those whom the gatekeepers, the mainstream media, let through’ – but acknowledges that comment moderation can be an unedifying task.
‘...attention only exists in a provisional sense on the Internet’
Maintaining a balance between openness and civility is notoriously difficult. Dunlop’s own experiences illustrate that even if one sets out standards for a self-regulating community of readers, decorum is not always enforceable. His views on trolling – and by extension, anonymity – go against the grain of the mainstream media’s obsession with the trolling narrative, which represents ‘ordinary people as perpetrators of trolling, and members of various elites … as its victims’. Anonymity is not as much a sign of spinelessness as it is a mark of one’s status, Dunlop argues, and the moral panic whipped up about trolling is ‘designed to serve the status quo and thus reinforce its own cultural primacy’. And yet the mainstream media can troll people, too; the difference is that it has more institutional heft than the average pyjama-clad pleb. Dunlop gives the example of The Australian’s dogged pursuit of journalist and academic Margaret Simons, who had criticised the reporting of that paper and consequently received negative attention in a disproportionate number of news articles. It’s likely, as Dunlop suggests, that countless stories about Simons are not necessarily in the audience’s interest. But if Rupert Murdoch bankrolls that paper, does it even matter?
Ultimately, Dunlop believes new media outlets must coexist with conventional media. The most successful new media outlets tend to be verticals – that is, they cater for a specialised audience – and do not necessarily encourage engagement beyond their niche. But getting Australian audiences interested in politics requires a more far-reaching approach.
Dunlop puts the onus squarely on the mainstream outlets for the public’s disengagement from politics, arguing that it is the broken relationship between journalism and the audience that is the problem. But the root of such sustained market demand is hardly a one-sided affair. I would be interested to know what Dunlop thinks of the rise of content aggregators like BuzzFeed, which combine newsy ‘listicles’ (list-based news articles) with the odd spurt of long-form journalism. It is an online outlet with a business model: string together some dot points, add some pictures, and cash in on click-through revenues. BuzzFeed is another way of storytelling, one that understands the nature of its audience; attention only exists in a provisional sense on the Internet. Indeed, if there is a flaw in The New Front Page, it is that Dunlop is too uncritical of the audience; that they should not be expected to engage politically of their own accord; that the fault lies entirely with the journalist for not making the boring stuff interesting.
Dunlop is right to say that the media have some culpability, but I wonder if a deeper cultural malaise is the problem. (I suspect that subject alone would fill an entire book.) Perhaps we get what we deserve. On the day of writing this review, the most popular stories on The Age’s website included an 1800-word article about an AFL player who set a dwarf on fire and an analysis of Tony Abbott’s awkward appearance on Big Brother, where he effectively told viewers to vote for him because his daughters were ‘not bad looking’. The lure of clickbait is too hard for many readers to resist, and newspapers know it. If BuzzFeed tells us anything about journalism’s future, it’s that there’s no better way to get clicks than with a collage of memes.