Wednesday, February 06, 2008

A comparison of audience research in two participatory media

Alternative media such as community broadcasting and blogging play an important role promoting diversity in the Australian mediascape. However participatory media have also blurred the demarcation lines between journalists and audiences. Detailed knowledge of their audience is required to understand where the line is drawn in these fields of citizen journalism. To that end, this paper examines recent Australian audience research using two groundbreaking case studies in broadcasting and the Internet. The first is “Empowering audiences: transformative processes in Australian community broadcasting” (2007) by Michael Meadows, Susan Forde, Jacqui Ewart and Kerrie Foxwell. The second is An Nguyen’s “Journalism in the wake of participatory publishing” (2006) about the rise of blogging. Community broadcasting has a poor research tradition despite attracting large audiences. The industry suffers in relation to its richer commercial cousin. Its stakeholders want to use the research results to justify government spending. In the case of community television, there is the added problem of the move to digital. The research also attempts to show the importance of the industry to Indigenous groups. The qualitative research methodology supported all these objectives. The second case study examines the rise of participatory publishing, mainly blogging. This media sector has exploded in the last few years. The sudden rise in blogging has important implications for journalist educators. Our understanding of the role of the audience has also struggled to keep up with online developments. The research found that Australia is slow to embrace the new trends in comparison to other parts of the world. There is also resistance from established corporate media who fear losing audience share to newer players. A comparison of the two media case studies shows similarities in terms of the way the community broadcasting and blogging industries attempt to use their influence. They are both about empowerment, innovation and ensuring a continuation of alternative voices.

Community broadcasting is a large but under-appreciated alternative voice. Community radio is a highly innovative medium, provides skilled personnel to the commercial sector and has always been important in developing new forms, types and types of radio. The ability to imagine an audience is critical to the processes of radio production however the field of community broadcasting suffers a notable absence of audience research. To that end, the researchers conducted the first national qualitative study of the Australian community broadcasting sector in 2007. Their objective was to reveal some of the ways audiences use local radio and television as a cultural resource. This is important because community broadcasting achieves large and diverse audiences.

However the industry has a problem gaining attention from decision-makers. Although community radio licences vastly outnumber commercial licences they are dwarfed by the financial clout of the latter. The community sector has an annual budget of $51 million compared to the estimated $12 billion industry that is commercial radio. Yet despite the disparity, it is the community sector which is far more diverse, producing more local content, news, music and culture than its richer cousins. Margaret Simons described community broadcasting as the “most diverse if not the most polished sector in the Australian media”. Whereas the commercial media depend upon advertising revenue, the community broadcasting sector survives on subscriptions, donations, sponsorship and fundraising. Minority groups tend to be marginalised because of the commercial imperatives in media production. The aim of the researchers was to uncover evidence that could convince legislators of the worth of the marginalised community broadcasting media.

The people with most to gain from the research were the stakeholders in the community broadcasting industry. The research was paid for by an ARC Linkage Grant funded jointly by the Australian Research Council and the federal Department of Communication, Information Technology and the Arts (DCITA) through the Community Broadcasting Foundation. There was also ‘in-kind’ support from other industry stakeholders including the Community Broadcasting Association of Australia, and Indigenous, ethnic, and print handicapped media groups. Institutional audience research has a close relationship with the politics of power and competition for market share and is tied up with the strategies and plans of stakeholders to prosecute their own agendas. All of the community broadcasting stakeholders expected the research to justify funding of their constituency.

In addition, the community television (CTV) industry has a particular problem which it hopes the survey results will help solve. CTV has been in a policy limbo since the early 1990s and has so far been frozen out of the move to the digital spectrum. The industry has been losing tens of thousands of viewers annually as digital set-top boxes prevent easy access to its analogue signals. The research results were announced just months after a parliamentary enquiry said CTV would die unless the Government set aside digital broadcasting spectrum for community television. It also follows the 2007 annual budget which gave no money to CTV to help it upgrade to digital. One aim therefore of the research is to put the move to digital back on the government agenda. That pressure will now be applied to the new Labor Government in the year ahead.

The research also monitored the Indigenous community broadcasting scene. Aboriginal Australians have longed pressed the view that electronic media, especially radio, is a vital resource for them given their widespread lack of literacy. However Meadows has noted elsewhere difficulties of suspicion and trust in researching Indigenous issues. To get around this requires careful fieldwork incorporating the perspectives of those studied. To this end, the group invited listeners to call into the radio show “TalkBlack” as well as conducting focus groups and attending community cultural events across the country. The field research confirmed that audiences see Indigenous radio and television as “essential services”. Community broadcasting emerged as an important public space for Indigenous culture.

To help the decision-makers, the researchers were keen to explore why community broadcasting attracts significant audiences. They decided on a qualitative approach using focus groups and interviews. In their words the approach “enable(s) a deeper understanding of chosen environments. However as an example of the shift towards a textual treatment of audience media readings, the approach is not without problems, particularly due to its reliance on unmediated observable truths of experience. The audience research model chosen was the “medium audience” where audiences are identified by the choice of a particularly medium. The researchers decided against the quantitative method of the ‘representative sample’ and instead used a ‘theoretical sample’ aimed at extending the range of thinking about the subject matter. They conducted focus groups in a number of languages to get ethnic radio feedback. This approach enabled a deeper understanding of the complexities of the audience environment.

While community broadcasting blossoms in Australia, it still pales in comparison to the explosive rise of the online media. The second case study chosen for analysis is An Nguyen’s paper which concentrates on the rise of Participatory Publishing (hereafter called PP) and its implications for journalism and audiences. As consumers seek more news from different sources, journalism will undergo changes as it seeks to accommodate fragmenting audiences. Nguyen defines PP as the act of a citizen or citizens collecting and disseminating information in order to provide independent and accurate information. Examples of PP include weblogs, email lists, bulletin boards, online forums, chat rooms and collaborative publishing websites. The vast range of easy-to-use tools has given every citizen the potential to be a reporter. However tangible evidence of the contribution of blogs to mainstream journalism remains scarce. Nguyen’s objective was to study the health of this growing sector and the implications of news as a mode of popular expression.

Nguyen was also keen to encourage debate among journalistic educators about those implications. He makes the case that journalism education would benefit from embracing PP both in theory and practice. At the time of the research, An Nguyen was a Ph D student studying public adoption and social impact of online news at the University of Queensland. His research was funded by a federal government International Postgraduate Research Scholarship. Nguyen now teaches journalism part-time at the University of Queensland and the Queensland University of Technology so he does have a vested interest in the research outcome. Nevertheless, his point about journalism educators embracing PP is well made as the Internet continues its apparently inexorable growth.

The timing of the research coincided with an exponential increase in PP. Blogging is the most pervasive form of PP and the numbers of blogs have exploded from a handful in 1999 to 14.2 million in 2005. This has created a wider range of participants in the field of journalism including those that Jay Rosen described as “the people formerly known as the audience”. These participants have the capability of performing “random acts of journalism” merely by pointing out whatever they stumble upon in their web surfing. In this audience-sender model, communication is normative and audience members are essentially participants. However critics of news media assert that journalists are unaware of their audiences’ real interests. Research has shown that over a third of all Australian journalists reported having their copy changed in the newsroom to increase audience appeal. Journalists also frequently complain they have limited access to demographic data and readership survey information. This lack of audience knowledge is as much a problem for online journalism as it is the more traditional forms of print and broadcasting.

An Nguyen attempted to address this with his ambitious audience research methodology. His goal was a quantitative national survey of online news using as stratified sample of Australian addresses. 790 people responded to the survey. The research was originally conducted in 2004 as part of the first national survey of online news consumption in Australia. The researchers sent a questionnaire aimed at eliciting data about their online news activities. The study is an example of uses and gratifications research in that it posits audiences as active agencies using media for their own purposes and pleasures. The question they were attempting to answer was whether people were attracted to online news because of its exclusive technological features or was it simply due to the fact it was offered without charge. The study found that news and information exchange websites remain a minor source of news with poor knowledge of blogs in the wider community. This outcome is corroborated in other studies which found that audiences overwhelmingly prefer to access websites of established media to source their online news. Nguyen blames the established media for hindering the power of PP with practices such as compulsory online registration. Strategic alliances between global transnational corporations dominate the Internet producing a homogeneity of information aimed at middle-class western audiences. The apparent poor reception of Australian blogs is in stark contrast to its success in other parts of the world. In South Korea the site had over 40,000 citizen reporters as of late 2005. In the same year, the US Pew Centre reported that 32 million Americans read blogs which compares quite well with the country’s 50 million weekly newspaper readers. Nguyen’s research shows there is a long way to go before the Australian industry achieves this level of relative strength.

But Nguyen also admits the industry is vibrant, something it shares in common with the community broadcasting sector. Both sectors are part of the gift economy. This is defined as people giving their best thoughts free or for very little reward. They rely on participants to freely donate their time and enthusiasm. It is critical then, that the overarching theme of both case studies is the issue of empowerment and a sense of agency. Both studies are concerned with negotiating media meaning and are more interested in what audiences do with media rather than what media does to audiences. While the ultimate object is different for each case study, they are both third generation constructionist view of audience research. The main focus is not audience reception but rather to gain a grasp of contemporary media culture particularly about its role in everyday life. With mainstream journalists being denounced as little more than “process workers manipulating information for commercial purposes”, alternative media can shape a significant part of that culture. What Hartley wrote about the alternative press in the 1980s holds true today for community broadcasting and blogs: they have turned away from the mass and seek to build counter-hegemonic consciousness in specific cultural and political constituencies. The media has been constructed as central to the experience of living and full participation in a mediated social sphere is conditional on access and use of media technologies. Both case studies chosen address gaps in the knowledge of what audiences do with participatory media. They are both on the ‘pro audience’ end of McQuail’s audience research spectrum, that is they take the perspective and ‘side’ of the audience and are about “people seeking to satisfy their media needs”. For both media the research is showing the biggest problem preventing empowerment is the distribution system. In an era of concentrated global news ownership, maintaining access to these alternative voices has never been more important.

The two case studies have added greatly to our knowledge of Australian participatory media. The community broadcasting sector can use the rich qualitative nature of the evidence to both cement its place in the national culture and also lobby for a seat at the digital table. The participatory publishing industry faces slightly different challenges as it copes with exponential growth. The journalism education model needs to adapt to the new world as do the corporate giants of the old media. But thanks to the vibrancy of its participants and the strength of the audiences, the future looks bright for both community broadcasting and participatory publishing. The two case studies have provided a blueprint of empowerment for the future.

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