In her A.N. Smith Lecture in Journalism delivered last night at the University of Melbourne, Katharine Viner, editor of Guardian Australia, examined the rise of the reader and the shifting power relations brought about by online journalism platforms. The lecture examined the trend towards “open web” environments for news production and consumption, which Viner argues beckons us to reassess what journalism is for.
Viner declares that the digital economy of the web is making fluid the relationship between text and audiences, and the definition of a journalist. But rather than look at these relations from the standpoint of abstract theory, Viner grounds them in a discussion of what has been happening at The Guardian, which has been operating in Australia for only four months or so.
The one indulgence in theory that Viner affords, following Thomas Pettitt (but which could just as easily have referenced Marshall McLuhan or Harold Innis), is that digital culture is ushering in a rebalancing of media toward a world before print: one where conversation, rumour and the “passing on” of information from point to point - that Twitter is famous for - is challenging the galaxy of the print era.
The culture of print journalism, which is based on a more rigid circulation of meaning between authors, readers and texts, increasingly has to reconcile itself with this changed environment of the always-on, open web flow of information where there are many more authors, sources and points of view, all of which can be negotiated and distributed in ways that brings readers into the story-telling process.
“Your readers often know more than you,” argued Viner, with an example of how Google Docs was used by The Guardian’s environment team simply to curate contributions from those most involved in the Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010.
The way electronic platforms enable news outlets to work with readers can also generate content that would not have been possible previously. The lecture described the way readers have responded on Twitter and to “callouts” on The Guardian site for witnesses to event, mobile phone video recordings and the like, which can transform a story into a “scoop”.
The more readers are involved the more original stories can be in creating new content, rather than the “churnalism” of print media recycling stories between themselves, which eventually begins to look like a very closed-shop of self-referential story-telling.
To be released from such a commodified culture of “delivering words from on high”, online-only newspapers need to be creative about how they embed themselves in the “web’s ecosystem”, says Viner. And this means giving attention to four issues that are core to the open web principle.
Firstly, Viner sees paywalls as “utterly antithetical to the open web”.
A paywalled website is just print in another form, making collaboration with the people formerly known as the audience much more difficult. You can’t take advantage of the benefits of the open web if you’re hidden away.
Secondly, journalists should embrace the practice of “linking out” to sources, even when the sources may be competitor news outlets. This makes for a much richer experience for the reader, not confining the story to what you want them to read, but opening out the story to an intertextual set of conversations.
Thirdly, there is the unique feature of hosting comment threads in online news, which makes authors more accountable and allows readers to refine their viewpoints and perspectives.
Viner also observes the importance of how a news outlet uses its in-house traffic management tools. These tools ought not simply be about measuring what is popular simply to serve up more of the popular, says Viner. This is a trend which I would argue pretty much defines the tabloid and “tabloidisation”, as it is even extended to television news.
“Trying to get more readers for something that matters” also counts. Stories that aren’t getting read may need better positioning, headlining or sharing-out on Twitter and Facebook. By definition, to venture away from the populist norm is to provide diversity, but readers will more readily accept this diversity if an open web relationship of trust is developed with them.
This brings Viner to the question of “what is journalism for”. She argues that journalists need to be “outside of all kinds of power — political, institutional and corporate”.
…if you believe that the role of the journalist is as an outsider, then you will be in favour of the open web, open journalism, the free flow of engagement and challenge and debate with the people formerly known as the audience.
But if you think journalism is instead for brokering power, influencing power, keeping power, then you will want to close down the web as much as possible and keep debate to a minimum. More about your own interests, less about the public interest.
But in summing up this review of Viner’s lecture, the move from print to electronic-only news consumption depends on many other external factors. There is the continued diffusion of the internet as a preferred means of reading news, but also the need for media literacy with all of the open web possibilities that Viner mentions. Also in Australia, there is the realisation of economically viable business news service models in a highly concentrated market.
Certainly, we are entering a very interesting period where “open web” online news presents the greatest challenge to newspaper groups that are trying to lure readers behind a paywall.