Thursday, September 18, 2008

Future of Journalism Queensland 4: Bloggers

This is the fourth in a series of posts about the Future of Journalism Queensland summit held last Saturday at the QUT campus in central Brisbane. See links to parts one, two, and three. This one was about bloggers and was subtitled “amateur netizens or professionals of the future?” The session was moderated by the ABC’s Christen Tilley, a senior producer and opinion editor at ABC News Online. The panellists were freelance journalist Marian Edmunds, sociologist and blogger Mark Bahnisch and Dr Axel Bruns, a senior lecturer in the Creative Industries Faculty at QUT.

Tilley began the discussion by quoting at length from Mark Day’s article in the Australian last week. Day said the only model that could support investigative journalism was “the traditional advertiser-supported model that has sustained newspapers for more than a century” and said blogging won’t work as an alternative. He said citizen journalism “hasn’t happened and is not likely to.” In Day’s view, effort should not be wasted on blogs and instead editors should focus on creating news. For Day that meant: “revealing information about the communities in which they work, setting agendas for discussion, reporting events figuratively over the back fence, and using this to add value to the essentially free flow of breaking news and information accessible virtually anywhere.”

Marian Edmunds spoke first in response. Edmunds is a very experienced journalist who has worked in Australia, London and Hong Kong on such publications as the Financial Times (fulltime) and the Australian Financial Review, and the Weekend Australian as a freelancer. She now blogs at “Will write for money”. She began by describing why she had turned to blogging. “For me,” she said, “it being in touch with people who are not normally sources or contacts…voices we don’t normally hear that provide local colour”. Edmunds advised those starting out to look at the business models and create your own space. But the fundamentals of journalism still applied: "Learn the craft," she advised.

Mark Bahnisch, custodian of perhaps Australia’s most influential blog Larvatus Prodeo, attacked the issue of Mark Day more directly. He firstly pointed out the absurdity of Day attacking blogs in a space entitled “Mark Day blogs”. Bahnisch said the debate between journalism and blogging was poorly presented. There were many aspects to the debate, but…“It has little to do with blogging and more to do with changes in journalist profile,” he said. “(Their) identity was at risk from online competition and changes in the industrial environment”.

Bahnisch pointed out that bloggers represent an “incredibly diverse” range of opinions. He blasted the newspaper stereotype of “bloggers in pyjamas” and said journalists were blaming bloggers for their own problems. The debate had little to do with bloggers and more to do with changes in the profile of journalism. “The underlying angst of what is a journalist is projected onto the nefarious figure of bloggers (who will) steal their spot,” he said. Bahnisch could not see why the narrative was one of competition and said that journalists were using “imaginary demons” to “keep the opposition alive”.

Axel Bruns took up the narrative at this point. He also disputed Day’s view and said there were hundreds of different forms of blogging. He pleaded for the debate to move on from the “us and them” and said the line between professional and amateurs had changed with the Crikified blogs of Possums Pollytics and The Poll Bludger. Possum’s free analysis gave the mainstream media a run for its money and set off the “who owns the polls” debate in The Australian. Bruns noted that this was a peculiarly Australian problem and harked on the notorious 2007 The Australian (newspaper) editorial which claimed that “unlike Crikey, we understand Newspoll because we own it.” Bruns said it was Rupert Murdoch who owned Newspoll not The Australian.

Bahnisch said blogs were a “distinct space for micro communicators and micro publishers on line”. Blogs create a community that do not rely on “arm’s length sources”. He pointed out how different they were to George Megalogenis’s so-called blog which appealed for civility claiming a “significant minority” of bloggers begin their posts with an assumption that everyone who disagrees with them is a “moron”. Bahnisch quoted Trevor Cook’s response which called out a wonderful comment response to Megalogenis that laid the blame squarely at The Australian for earning the civility (or lack thereof) it gets.

Axel Bruns said this antagonism towards blogs occurred only in Australia. He said projects elsewhere united blogs and professional journalism in much more productive ways. Bruns said the local situation was a product of “a severe lack of diversity” in the media. Because of this, he said, there was no need to drive exploration of new models. Bahnisch agreed and said that blogging was a risk-taking, conversational form. From the audience, Antony Funnell took passionate exception to this sense of antagonism that Bahnisch believed existed between journalists and bloggers. Funnell said that the anti-blogging opinions of Day and Christian Kerr were “not representative”. He said most journalists understand new media and use bloggers as part of their daily media diet.

To my mind, Funnell’s point is valid. With more than a hint of a sympathetic working journalist’s anger when provoked, he showed up some glaring open wounds between the two disciplines of “journalism” and “blogging”. For all their talk of false dichotomies, none of the panel were able to bridge the gap between the two. The scholar Bruns clearly understands how the models operate but showed no sympathy for those in his audience who are about to be impaled on the pointy end of the media stick. Bahnisch, meanwhile, is the archetypal blogger-netizen who uses his sharp intellect and wit to slam the justifiable flaws of mainstream media without stopping to worry if he is casting the first stone. Somehow of the three, it seems to me that it is Edmunds who comes closest to the honest norm of a working journalist who happens to use the medium of blogging to “write for money”.


Jason said...

Hi Derek - nice post. I agree - I get pretty frustrated with both sides of this debate at times. Nice account of this panel.

Derek Barry said...

Thanks, Jason.

The arguments are frustrating and even a little boring now. However, I believe it is helpful for them to be thrashed out in forums like this one where there are so stakeholders in the outcome.

I also suspect the argument will look very dated in a few years time when some other technology replaces "blogging" as the platform for mass micro-communication.

leany said...

As future journalism has become a global phenomenon with global networks, journalism research can no longer operate within national or cultural borders.