In age in which we are flooded with largely depressing books on the death of traditional media and establishment journalism, it’s exciting to read the perspective of someone who has grown up in new media and who celebrates the rise of the audience.
Tim Dunlop, a writer, academic and one of Australia’s pioneer political bloggers, has written a refreshing insiders’ account of the rise of the new media insurgency. Thankfully absent is the now ritual characterisation of bloggers as pyjama-clad single-issue boffins or journalistic wannabes.
‘The New Front Page: New Media and the Rise of the Audience’ is an incident-filled exploration of the history of the blogosphere and of the consequences for democracy and citizenship of greater engagement and collaboration between traditional journalists and the new digital natives.
Most importantly, Dunlop shreds the notion of an unbridgeable demarcation between the two groups. Instead, he notes the pioneering role in the Australian blogosphere of Margo Kingston. Once a troublesome member of Fairfax’s press gallery team, Kingston was shunted off by her employer to run a ‘Webdiary’ experiment on the SMH online at the turn of the century.
Around that time, Fairfax, along with most other established media companies, saw the digital world as a marginal playpen where they could stick all the square pegs. (I was one of them, by the way, having been employed back then by the AFR from Reuters to work on their ‘new media’ ventures.)
Kingston’s great revelation, at least to her, was the novelty of the readers not only talking back to her, but becoming part of the news-gathering exercise. Along with a few others of the time, she was inadvertently breaking down the invisible wall that separated journalists from the public. As Dunlop writes, this process revealed to her a worrying distrust of the power of journalists.
“This conflict goes to the heart of the media’s image of itself as a profession, its understanding of its role in the formation of public opinion, and, most importantly, its its understanding of the source of its power, as both a gatekeeper deciding who gets to participate, and as an interpreter of the national conversation. Once you let the audience in as an equal player, much of that power dissipates.”
But the blogosphere was not just a creation of journalists finding a new way to engage with the public. It also became a way for those outside the traditional media news factories and with something to say to find audiences of their own. And that’s where Dunlop’s own story comes in.
He moved to the US in late 2001, into an online commentary scene fermented by the 9/11 shock, the build-up to the second Iraq war, the ‘culture’ wars and the shift in journalism (under the Murdoch-run Fox network) to an opinion-led model in which the facts were no longer sacrosanct.
“If that moment wasn’t the right time to hear from the citizenry at large, then I don’t know when was,” he writes. “The sheer numbers who began blogging around this time indicated that people wanted to be heard.”
Dunlop was one of them, starting his ‘Road to Surfdom’ blog in May 2002. The commentary trend exploded in the lead-up to the Iraq war, with the success of such outlets as Daily Kos, Instapundit and, from the right, Australia’s own Tim Blair. Unlike the MSM, where journalists assumed a distance from the audience and adopted a cult of ‘savviness’, the bloggers were not constrained by notions of fake objectivity. Neither were they hostage to official ‘sources’ about the war.
Instead, they swapped evidence among themselves and drew their own conclusions -as it turned out more accurate than the official media version.
“This is where standard journalistic practice actively mitigates against good journalism,” Dunlop writes. “The symbiotic relationship between the media and politicians leaves both sets of insiders vulnerable to each other’s groupthink, even when one isn’t consciously trying to cultivate the other.”
And this is where Dunlop’s criticism of established media becomes most pertinent to our situation now, where people formerly know as the audience actively mock the framing of traditional media coverage of politics – the staged photo opportunities and soundbites, the confected conflict and the rehearsed talking points. Everyone in the media knows these analog-era constructs are redundant. But still being inside the factory that is complicit in the manufacture of this rubbish, they can’t call it for what it is. So Twitter and Facebook is where the frontline of engagement is moving.
People can see the strings being pulled. They resent being patronised. And they will not tolerate deliberate misinformation or spin generated by cynical media companies trying to generate outrage and page impressions. Journalists can be part of that movement or they can sell out and be part of the machine that is manufacturing the bullshit.
Being a media outsider and clearly sensitive to the accusation that enthusiastic amateurs cannot replace a professional media corps, Dunlop is careful to praise the efforts of traditional ‘beat’ journalists in covering complex issues in depth and providing public service journalism.
Personally, as someone who has gone the other way (from inside journalism to outside), I think he is being too kind. He talks of bloggers merely as readers and journalists as people who call people up and talk to them. Yeah, right. In my final few years in journalism, staff numbers had already been cut to the point where most people were just churning stuff out using the cut and paste model. Insofar as we called people on the phone, they were usually the rent-a-quotes.
But never mind. This is an important book. It puts meat around the issues raised in blogs like this and imagines a possibility where the Fourth Estate is strengthened and supplemented by those outside journalism who can contribute to the effort to uncover truth and create an informed citizenry.
‘The New Front Page’, Tim Dunlop, Scribe Publications, 2013