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Christopher Scanlon doesn't get it

This is very embarrassing. I'm about to write something of a defence of 'citizen journalism'.

It's embarrassing not least because 'citizen journalism' is a stupid coinage for a concept that has been kneaded and pummelled in so many directions that it is approximately meaningless. But it's even more embarrassing because I'm arguing against someone who is trying to champion a lost cause — what Chris Scanlon rails against will happen anyway; the cold water he attempts to pour upon it is like a raindrop falling upon the fourth ring of Hell.

But I'm an obstinate prick, and this is an opportunity to set out some ideas I hold dear. In today's Age, Scanlon has written an article called 'DIY journalism is not a real alternative'.

Like one who has learned his VCE English well, he begins with a dictionary definition:

"Citizen journalism" is a broad, loose term that encompasses everything from sending a photo or video to an established news organisation or posting comments on an online forum, to writing a blog or editing or writing for a collaborative online publishing venture.

This is not a bad definition — for a columnist in a wide-circulation newspaper. It's the very definition being promulgated by the press, because it works in their favour. Fairfax, in particular, has been big on the idea that if you send them your happy phone-snaps of the Burnley tunnel disaster, or the Moomba parade, or snowfalls in June, congratulations, you're a citizen journalist. Fairfax actually thinks its own blogs are citizen journalism too — the syrupy irony of chief Fairfax blogger James Farmer (who writes cute little rants against Connex) calling his blog 'Citizen' appears lost on them.

What this and most definitions of the concept egregiously labelled 'citizen journalism' get wrong is the emphasis: it's on the source. The source is important, and a journalist/columnist will always think it's pre-eminent, but there's actually a higher power when it comes to 21st century media in society: the consumer. Hang on, let's get another Scanlon quote, one that gets to the heart of his argument:

For example, when federal Communications Minister Helen Coonan needed to defend the Government's changes to the cross-media ownership laws, she reached for the hype surrounding citizen journalism. In a speech to the Millennium Forum in Sydney in October last year, Coonan claimed: "While traditional media are constantly on the lookout for new media to invest in — think Rupert Murdoch and MySpace or PBL in Australia with ninemsn and Channel Seven and Yahoo!'s recent partnering, the rise of citizen journalism is challenging even these evolved business models."

This is interesting, because we find ourselves wedged. Coonan is the strategist/figurehead in the war against traditional media diversity in Australia. Scanlon pits this putsch against Coonan's apparent advocation of citizen journalism.

I'm pretty sure that Coonan's understanding of this phenomenon is even more diaphanous than Scanlon's. But the typical argument against the blandification of Australia's mainstream media is that the consumer is left without a smorgasbord of viewpoints — that Rupert Murdoch (who hardly cares) or James Packer (who really doesn't give a shit) and their vassals (who we can assume do) will dictate what the good people of Australia think about taxes or land rights or industrial relations or Glenn McGrath's legacy or turkey slaps on Big Brother.

Assuming nobody but loonies have ever seriously read Green Left Weekly, it's arguable that an overflowing buffet ever existed before in the lucky country. Recently a sizeable chunk of Age journalists defected to the Hun — who noticed? Even Andrew Bolt, that dimply scourge of the hand-wringing left, began his career at The Age.

But if the smorgasbord wasn't being served up before, it is now. If there is an active issue that I care about, I read The Age and I read the Herald-Sun. Then, because I consider myself a humanist and often find myself slightly left-of-centre in political arguments, I read Larvatus Prodeo. I check in on Mr Spleen for a second, if usually somewhat rabid, opinion. Arguably the most reviled journalist [ie, in this sense, not-columnist] in Australia, Christian Kerr, writes deliciously polemical articles at Crikey — I agree with hardly anything he says, but his opinions are an important part of my media consumption. Oz Politics, with its wealth of polls analysis and reasonable balance of commentators, lets me drill down and make comparisons.

And if I need to know more about American politics, I favour Google News and The New York Times as a first port of call, but for deep analysis I move on to Daily Kos to get blue views and Real Clear Politics for red. I also quite enjoy Wonkette for DC news.

As I've said, citizen journalism is a stupid term, and a better one, albeit more pretentious, is 'media triangulation'. By indulging in a variety of sources, we can more easily locate our own opinions. Traditional journalism places a great deal of emphasis on objectivity. This journalistic objectivity is generally interpreted as meaning 'both sides of the story'. In reality though, stories are usually lop-sided. To take a contemporaneous example, the mainstream Australian media has made a great fuss over big business' response to the ALP's proposed industrial relations reforms. But in the sphere of opinionation, most commentators have noted that it is something of a beat-up — business will always co-operate with the government of the day (because there's no margin in protestation), and there are few votes in appeasing BHP anyway — where are they gonna go?

Scanlon thinks that he can debunk these two new 'attacks' upon traditional media in one: by saying that Coonan's reforms are reliant on the rise of citizen journalism. The problem is, they're worlds apart. Yes, the assault on mainstream media diversity needs to be debated. But you can't do it by denying the potency of online media dissemination. If Coonan has genuinely attempted that diversion, Scanlon has totally fallen for it.

By aggregating opinions, by compiling subjective analyses, the opportunity for an enlightened understanding of the zeitgeist is greater now than ever before. That Crikey and Wonkette are privately owned, or that DailyKos and RCP are dripping-sleeve partisans, is beside the point. That a lot of valuable opinion is served up via Blogger, and therefore hosted by Google, is also irrelevant. Do you think any Google employee has ever read Ms Fits? If they had, and if they somehow took umbrage, would it matter? If she were uprooted, there are any number of places she could easily plant herself again. And if she were silenced, there's a hundred others (arguably not as humourous) we could read in her stead.

This is the brave new unstoppable world. If you care about an issue, you can feast on a hundred different views. You can consume as narrowly or as widely as you like. These sources are infiltrating the lives of everyday folk. At the moment you are at the forefront, but it will increasingly and inevitably become the norm. Every single Google/Yahoo/Live search brings it nearer. And it's a good thing. Embrace your agency. Happily ignore — or don't — Mr Scanlon. It's up to you.

Joseph | 7 May 2007

Thu 10 May 2007, 6:19AM Andrew

Maybe there's two separate arguments going on here: you say that for the consumer, there's a "smorgasbord" of online opinion. I agree, to some extent, but when was the last time Mr Spleen broke an important story? Nearly everything significant comes from Fairfax or News--opinion is cheap but the irony is that only the trust-funded or the extremely lucky can afford to break news and bring down governments via Blogger.

Chris is basically talking about Capital (and Coonan) kicking back with their feet up because the Left have got it in their heads that kicking vitriol around on blogs is a substitute for actual politics. This represents divide and rule by other means. Both mainstream and blog content continues to be produced by a narrow elite but the answer doesn't lie with more blog rants. There needs to be an actual redistribution of real-world resources to realise anything resembling meaningful democratic production. You can consume until the cows come home, but nuanced consumption does not a democracy make.

Having said that, I do think blogs work well as a confidence raising exercise. The same argument goes for the shareholder activism that Stephen Mayne trumpets. If people start caring about the direction of companies, the maybe they'll start looking at the interests behind 99% of shares and then maybe they'll start bullocking governments. We can only hope.

Thu 10 May 2007, 1:42PM Joseph

True enough, few stories 'break' on blogs. Some do, but the phrase 'citizen journalists' conjures up an army of pen- and phone-cam-wielding vigilantes out and about, scribbling furiously into notebooks. That's not happening, and if it were, it would be a bit laughable.

It's true as well that the blogosphere is overpopulated with angry, ineffective screeds about this or that injustice/pandering/whatever. I write the odd one myself, but generally avoid reading them.

If people start caring about the direction of companies, the maybe they'll start looking at the interests behind 99% of shares and then maybe they'll start bullocking governments.

And this is the clue, isn't it? What the Web opens up is the possibility that people who care enough about 'broken' issues can do the additional research — the research that the major press outlets judge is not worth expenditure — and bring new insights to it. Insights that drive the public debate forward. The Smoking Gun and even Snopes do it frequently, without substantial resources (to my knowledge). Academics are bringing their research methodologies to contemporary events and revelling in the opportunity to influence the discussion while it is still active. Diverse people in comment threads or trackbacks are picking apart arguments relentlessly, turning up new ideas or evidence, correlating hidden similarities or drawing interesting historical comparisons. This is the good stuff.

In my thesis I wrote extensively about a major public debate of the 1980s, but at points in my research it could be bloody hard to find — sometimes I wasn't even sure there was one. There was, of course; it was just heavily mediated. Twenty years on, the difference in the propulsion mechanisms of a public debate is already vast, and getting bigger.

Thu 10 May 2007, 4:43PM Ben

Just briefly, there is a bit more of this debate going on over in the LA Times. Viz, Giggles McChesney and some fella named Glen Harlan Reynolds (how terribly aristocratic): http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-op-dustup7may07,0,6735373.story?coll=la-opinion-center http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-op-dustup8may08,0,7194127.story?coll=la-opinion-center http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-op-dustup9may09,0,7652881.story?coll=la-promo-opinion

Thu 10 May 2007, 5:24PM Joseph

Now I've got the name 'Giggles McChesney' stuck in my head.

Sat 12 May 2007, 9:37PM Andrew

A few more here:

http://www.inthesetimes.com/article/2485/ http://www.tnr.com/user/nregi.mhtml?i=20070507&s=chait050707

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