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Convergence, Citizen Journalism, and Social Change

We're now in the opening session of the AMIC conference "Convergence, Citizen Journalism and Social Change". Today is just a short afternoon with a couple of keynote speeches; tomorrow, the bulk of the papers (including my colleague Jason Wilson's and mine) will be presented. Pradip Thomas from the University of Queensland is offering some opening remarks - referring to the common trope of the decline of mainstream journalism, and the corresponding rise of citizen journalism and its effect on political developments.

Pradip now hands over to Michael Bromley, also from UQ, who raises the notion of totalisation (total capitalism, total war, the massification of media); perhaps citizen journalism sits in a fissure to the side of this, and questions around it deal largely with questions of inclusion and exclusion. Other key questions relate to modes of expression (in industrial journalism vs. citizen journalism), the role and effects of new technologies in relation to their emerging social uses, and the configuration of identity practices, authority and authenticity as a result of emerging new practices. What new formations, what new languages of communication arise through the diffusion of the journalistic paradigm through the arrival of new citizen-led modes of communication?

We now get a quick overview of AMIC from Ang Peng Hwa, who especially also highlights the challenges for journalism education: where will journalism graduates go - will they go into industrial or citizen journalism, or become independent bloggers who may not even consider themselves to be bloggers? What is the impact of citizen journalism, in other words, not only on the journalism industry, but also on the journalism education industry?

The final member of the welcoming panel is Indrajit Banerjee; he points especially to what he calls the appaling lack of interest in citizens by the media, and positions the rise of citizen journalism as a reaction against this.

The keynote speaker for this afternoon is Steven Gan, a co-founder of the Malaysian Website Malaysiakini ("Malaysia Now"), an enormously influential online news service which was temporarily closed down by the outgoing Mahathir regime due to the impact on public opinion of its critical investigative news reporting. The Malaysian mainstream media continues to show unwavering support to the increasingly unpopular government; Malaysiakini is a rare oppositional voice in the country, and therefore all the more valuable.

He begins by noting the important role of students for social change in Asia-Pacific countries over the past decades, and also points out that right now is a good time to speak about Malaysian journalism and politics, given that the Malaysian opposition has found great success in its recent parliamentary elections. Steven now shows a brief video introducing Malaysiakini and its work; the site is celebrating its tenth anniversary next year. The site now has a 25-strong editorial staff and publishes in English, Bahasa Indonesia, and Hindi, it is also exploring a Tamil-language news service at the moment. (Hope I have this right.)

The site was affected significantly by the 2000/1 bust as many of the Internet startup advertisers supporting the site disappeared; at the same time, the government leant heavily on its bricks-and-mortar advertisers to stifle their support for the site. Given this dwindling advertising income, the site began introducing a subscription service despite its staff's own misgivings; the readership declined after this, but a core of supporters remained and helped the site remain operational (at a cost of around A$5/month per user) - it may be one of only a handful of journalism Websites still operating under a subscription model. Last year's revenue was around A$350,000, and that amount has been surpassed already after only three months this year.

The role of the Net in what Steven calls Malaysia's political tsunami (the major setback in the government's fortunes in the recent elections) remains debatable, but Steven suggests that it certainly had an impact; it helped break the mainstream media's monopoly on the truth, and the government's monopoly on power. Malaysiakini was a pain in the neck for Mahathir Mohamed and his successors, and provided a voice for Anwar Ibrahim; its task is hardly done, but it has had an impact on the political process in the country.

Steven suggests that journalism as we knew it - as an institution - is long gone; the role of the journalists in providing facts and guiding opinion is here to stay, however. Journalism, then, isn't as much under threat as are the media companies which are (or claim to be) engaged in journalism; in this context, Steven suggests, it's not content that's king, but technologies are.

Not the content providers, but the telecommunication companies are reaping the rewards of the rise of the Net, and this is a challenge for future developments: advertisers no longer rely on journalists to provide their readers' eyeballs, but deal directly with the providers of the telecommunications platforms which publish the work of journalists. Additionally, there is intense competition for advertising revenue outside of the core handful of leading telecommunications companies. Media companies continue to cut costs, and the quality of journalism suffers as a result.

Ultimately, in fact, digital media economics might not support professionally produced journalism; investment has already shifted to sport and other forms of entertainment which customers may still be prepared to pay for. Technology has given us more power over how we consume information, and we continue to develop ways of understanding this new role for the consumer who has now become a user and content creator as well. But more choices doesn't necessarily mean better choices, and the vast majority of material available online remains banal and shallow; the challenge therefore becomes filtering out the best material. Here, again, journalism no longer necessarily plays a leading role.

Indeed, Steven notes, with Malaysiakini's application to be recognised as professional journalists denied by the Malaysian government long ago, its staff are not journalists in the orthodox sense; the same applies to news bloggers and other citizen journalists. Nonetheless, they must live up to the standards against we have traditionally held journalism (and which industrial journalists themselves don't necessarily meet) - there is just as much irresponsible blogging as there is bad journalism. We must improve the standards of the news blogosphere as much as we must improve the standards of professional journalism - the 'bloggers vs.' journalists' war is over. Few of us would want to live in a world only with news bloggers, and without journalists; at the same time, a world without news bloggers in addition to journalists is hardly desirable, either.

The press, Steven suggests, are the canaries in the coalmine of democracy; when press freedom is being stifled, bad things are about to happen. And press freedoms have been assaulted in Malaysia for some time now - the only democratic space in Malaysia is cyberspace - and even here, sites such as Malaysiakini have had to live with harassment and intervention, too. Oppression is driven by government as well as big business, and it is difficult for journalists to make an effective stance against this; indeed, some journalists have become willing tools of this oppression as well, aspiring to be part of the ruling classes. Therefore, an important aspect of Malaysiakini's work is to develop a viable model to fight the oppression from the market.

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