‘The Audience is not the Enemy’: Why New Media Versus Old Media is Old News

Tim Dunlop, author of The New Front Page: New Media and the Rise of the Audience, argues we need to stop talking about new media versus old media and instead look at ways for them to work together in service of the citizens they purport to serve.

Like most Melburnians, most of my free time is spent going to events organised by the Wheeler Centre, and so it happened that last Sunday I attended a talk given by David Simon, the man responsible for those tremendous shows, The Wire and Treme.

Treme is Simon’s ode to post-Katrina New Orleans and it is driven by a belief — a faint belief — in the restorative value of culture, of how a city distressed and non-functional on so many levels, can survive, even thrive, when it digs into its cultural roots.

In one compelling scene in the show’s fourth series, one of the lead characters, Toni Burnett, a civil-rights lawyer, attends with her daughter a local performance of Samuel Beckett’s play, Waiting for Godot.

In that wonderful way that Simon has, in the long arc of his narrative, events from Season One, the death of Toni’s husband in controversial circumstances, come back to haunt her and us in Season Four.

As she sits there watching the final scenes of Godot, as Vladimir and Estragon argue with each other about what to do next, the power of the scene suddenly seems to her to be all about her own circumstances — in the way that great art always does — and she is overwhelmed by the moment.

She grips her daughter’s hand and she is crying more and more uncontrollably as the characters on stage have their final, futile/vital argument about the whereabouts of Godot.

Sitting on the other side of her is a black man in, I’d say his sixties, and we can take it that he knows nothing of this play he has probably been dragged along to watch, that he knows nothing of Beckett, and certainly nothing of the crying woman beside him to whom, it has to be said, he is oblivious.

He is, though, completely engrossed in the story that has unfolded on stage, and he sits there angry and affected and mumbles something which Toni hears, and it is enough to disturb her thoughts of her lost husband and all that is crashing down upon her.

‘What did you say?’ she says to the man next to her.

And in one of the great lines of contemporary literature, overwhelmed by the story being told on the stage in front of him, and suddenly struck by the central truth of the play he is watching, he says, ‘Motherfucker ain’t coming.’

This is pretty much how I feel about the possibility of a restorative media arising, one that both thrives commercially and gives sustenance to the civic life of the nation: ‘Motherfucker ain’t coming.’

I’ve been waiting for the media Godot to arrive for a while now, all my life in one respect, but more seriously in the decade and a bit since I accidentally started blogging in the US in 2002.

’Never let the perfect be the enemy of the good’

I don’t want to be too negative about this because this is not a perfect world and we should never let the perfect be the enemy of the good.

So yes, we have to recognise that media organisations are under enormous commercial pressures and that the technologies that have given we-the-people access to unprecedented stores of information, that have allowed us, if we so choose, to participate as never before in the conversations about the things that matter to us as citizens, have also destroyed the business model on which media organisations operated and have made it virtually impossible for them to employ journalists in the same numbers as they have in the past.

I get all that — god knows I’ve heard it all often enough — but I’m getting a bit sick and tired of that being trotted out as an excuse not to change or not to do better. I’m REALLY sick of being told I ‘just don’t get’ how tough journalism is, with its 24/7 news cycle, its multiple platforms, and its collapsed business model.

You know what? Lots of industries are forced to go through change, to do more with less, to lay off staff, to adapt or die, and I don’t seem to remember anyone in the media thinking those industries should therefore be given a free pass. As I said in a recent piece in the Walkley Magazine:

Such defensiveness (from journalists) is understandable, but to truly recognise how lame it is, consider, as a journalist, how much time you would give to a politician [or a bureaucrat] who responded to your criticism of what they do with similar arguments. Quite frankly, you would scoff.

It’s time for journalists to get over their defensiveness. We-the-audience understand perfectly well that your business model has collapsed, that the news cycle is long and grinding, and that you are being asked to do more with less. But here’s thing: we still think you should provide a service we are happy with, especially as, increasingly, you are asking us to pay for it via paywalls.

Journalism is now an act of negotiation

It still amazes me the extent to which the mainstream media fails to understand that the disruption that has upended their industry isn’t just a matter of technological change, but one of relationship transformation. Specifically, the relationship between them and their audience.

Time and again, on Twitter in particular, I see journalists talking to members of their audience as if they were some sort of nuisance that had to be reluctantly dealt with — or as some sort of interloper who had to be ejected — rather than as the person they are hoping will buy their product.

It simply hasn’t sunk in that journalism is no longer simply the act of delivering information, opinions, analysis, or news from on high, from behind the edited and moderated pages of a newspaper, or in the distant, abstracted space of television or radio, but is now an act of negotiation between journalists and their audience of which the newspaper article — or television program or radio show — is just the starting point.

This is why I called my book The New Front Page. I was trying to capture what it is that happens when an audience, now armed with maybe their own blog, certainly their own Facebook page and Twitter account, engages with the daily news and then uses these new sites, these outlets of social media, to start talking, not just to each other, but to the journalists themselves about what they think about those stories, those articles, those television programs.

We no longer go to a single source of information and accept as authoritative their particular take on a given news story.

We flick between dozens, and we are much more likely to accept a friend’s recommendation as to what to read first — when we log onto Twitter or Facebook or whatever — than we are to accept whatever it is that a news editor has decided to give the biggest headline.

And if we don’t like what a reporter has said, we can probably find them on Twitter and let them know.

Many journalists don’t like this and they get cross and dismissive.

The social media ‘echo chamber’

You thus hear social media often referred to as an ‘echo chamber’. You see article after article complaining about what a cesspit the comments threads under news stories are, or of how people ‘only ever talk about their lunch’ or other such putdowns.

The whole phenomenon of ‘trolling’ — at least in how it explained and discussed in the mainstream — is an attempt by to reassert their control over a space that is no longer at their exclusive command.

If you can define a significant section of your audience as uncivil, as disengaged, or as plain stupid, you can not only justify being dismissive of their criticisms of your work, you can rationalise away the fact that a lot of the product you supply is crap anyway.

Why should we expend resources on complex, difficult investigative reports, when all you want to read is Hollywood gossip or look at pictures of cats playing violins?

As I say, being contemptuous of your audience is a great way to rationalise your own failures.

But this is where the other shoe drops.

The rise of citizen journalism

Some people — particularly those most passionate about news in a civic sense, as the place where power is meant to be held to account and where we are meant to be able to find the information we need in order to be informed citizens — conclude from these failures of the mainstream that we can therefore do away with the mainstream.

There is a feeling that a hardy band of citizen journalists, armed with phone cameras and blogs, can somehow replace the difficult, expensive work that is serious journalism.

And look, in some ways that is true. Much expert analysis and just plain old interesting and worthwhile discussion of important political and social matters, can be better got from the people formerly known as the audience.

There are 20 economists I would go to to read about the Budget before I would read even the best general news reporter on the same topic.

There are ten amateur psephologists I would rather read than any mainstream journalist on interpreting the polls.

But beyond these sorts of exceptions, on the idea that amateurs can replace professionals on an ongoing basis in gathering and reporting the daily news, then I say no.

That motherfucker ain’t coming.

’Only power can stand up to power’

The fact is, even in this day and age of distributed knowledge, engaged audiences, accommodating technologies and an industry struggling to come to terms with all of it, we need those big, institutionally important media organisations to perform the sorts of civic interventions that a functioning democracy requires.

To put it simply, only power can stand up to power.

Nick Davies, the Guardian journalist who exposed the corruption at the News of the World newspaper in Britain could not have done what he did as Nick Davies, blogger.

Without the institutional clout and support of the Guardian organisation, News International, the subject of his investigations, would’ve either laughed at him or crushed him in the courts.

Let me quote that man David Simon again. In testimony to the US Congress he nailed the point I am making:

[H]igh-end journalism — that which acquires essential information about our government and society in the first place — is a profession; it requires daily, full-time commitment by trained men and women who return to the same beats day in and day out until the best of them know everything with which a given institution is contending. For a relatively brief period in American history — no more than the last fifty years or so — a lot of smart and talented people were paid a living wage and benefits to challenge the unrestrained authority of our institutions and to hold those institutions to task. Modern newspaper reporting was the hardest and in some ways most gratifying job I ever had. I am offended to think that anyone, anywhere believes American institutions as insulated, self-preserving and self-justifying as police departments, school systems, legislatures and chief executives can be held to gathered facts by amateurs pursuing the task without compensation, training or for that matter, sufficient standing to make public officials even care to whom it is they are lying or from whom they are withholding information.

We need the mainstream, ladies and gentlemen, and we-the-audience need to find ways to support them financially.

Journalists showing contempt for their audience

But this is where we come full-circle again: the media itself needs to realise that that financial support will not be forthcoming unless they are genuinely responsive to the newly activated senses of their most engaged audience segment.

I am not asking them to pander to us, just to give us the respect we deserve, not just as their customers but as the whole point of their activities as a civic institution.

I really hate to belabour this point but I keep coming across examples of journalists not only showing contempt for their audience, and casting aspersions on their desire to join public conversations, but I still see evidence of this really crazy idea that we somehow all want to be journalists.

I now happen to be a member of the journalists union, something that came about because the Union invented a new class of membership — in part in response to an article I wrote — designed to capture those of us who do our writing in the realms of new media.

The attraction of joining is that it helps bridge the clout gap between the new and the old media and helps gives those in new media the same sort of access that the mainstream rightly takes for granted.

But like a lot people who involve themselves in new media, I don’t really think of myself as a journalists, even though I do, on occasion, commit acts of journalism.

This is a bit of tired old argument, but as I say, I keep coming across journalists getting the new landscape wrong.

So the most recent example of this was the Andrew Olle address given by Channel Nine breakfast show host, Lisa Wilkinson. The speech itself is pretty interesting in parts, but in the throat-clearing section at the beginning, Wilkinson betrays an amazing contempt for those who use social media, and in so doing, misses the point of the whole social media exercise.

She says:

For as we know, we are all members of a once-rock-solid profession in full-blown transition, as this rising tide of new media swirls around us, sweeping away much of the landscape we once knew, and too often taking cherished colleagues with it. I am sad to note that since Mark Colvin delivered the 2012 Olle lecture, the MEAA reports that more than 1000 jobs for Australian journalists have been lost, with the numbers going from around 9000 to just under 8000 around the country. With the collapse of the funding model, our once exclusive Fourth Estate has been under siege, by millions of enthusiasts bearing iPhones and laptops.

So now, while traditional media struggles, contracts, reinvents and tries desperately to survive, everyone, it seems, can now join us in the sandpit and play journalist. Who needs membership in the mighty journalists' union, when all you need is a smartphone, an opinion that can be tightly compressed, and the desire to experience the sticky sweet rush of a 140 character tweet gone viral?

Playing journalists or being citizens?

Just pay attention to the language and what it reveals. ‘The rising tide of new media’; ‘our once exclusive Fourth Estate’; ‘under siege’; ‘join the sandpit and play journalist’; ‘all you need is an opinion’, blah, blah blah.

This is her audience she is talking about and she exhibits nothing but contempt.

But it is the accusation that we all want to ‘play journalist’ that really stuns me.

We do not!

What we want to be is citizens! We want to contribute to the important debates that are central to our democracy, and if that means breaking into the ‘once exclusive’ club of the ‘Fourth Estate’ then so be it — and get used to it.

We can be as sympathetic as we like to the changes the media is going through, the hardships it is causing, the job losses that are resulting, but I can tell you one thing for sure, none of that is going to change or improve unless journalists get their head around the fact that a significant section of their audience now wants a say — an equal say — in the stuff they report on.

And giving speeches mocking those who try and join these civic conversations and who you expect to pay for and consume your product is a pretty dumb idea.

Good journalism will only thrive in a civic space that is engaged and vibrant.

Our job going forward — as journalists, as citizens, as content providers, as consumers, as audience — is to use the public space created by the new technologies to reinvent what we think of as ‘the news’, ‘the media’, ‘the public sphere’ and turn it into the messy, contentious, endless negotiation that should be the hallmark of any functioning democracy.

Journalists and editors really need to get their head around the fact that we-the-people are their audience, not their enemy.