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Citizen Journalism in Australia and Elsewhere

Citizen Journalism in the 2007 Australian Federal ElectionI was the first presenter in the next session at AMIC 2008 (and my presentation on citizen journalism in the 2007 Australian federal election is already online here). Hopefully the audio recording worked as well - I'll add it as soon as possible. The audio from my talk is now online.

Kitty van Vuuren from the University of Queensland is the next speaker; her interest is in local independent newspapers in South-East Queensland - a growing trend in recent years, and driven to some extent by local businesses (grocery stores, bakeries, and other local entrepreneurs). South-East Queensland is a very rapidly growing area, of course, with significant population movements into the area (and associated problems with infrastructure, services, and labour supply).

The state government is spending a great deal of time planning for this growth, and claims to involve and consult the community in these processes, but exactly how communicative capacity in the community is being developed remains somewhat unclear; Kitty's work has traced communicative practices especially around issues related to water shortages and water management.

On the one hand, there is an abundance of media in this region - national and state commercial media in print and broadcast as well as online, and also community radio and television stations, specialist media (e.g. for ethnic groupings), as well as some 50 community newspapers (sometimes with multiple papers in the same area). These newspapers often can only be found directly in the local area - state and local libraries tend not to archive this material, and even the publishers don't necessarily keep back issues.

Most of the community newspapers are privately owned and run as small businesses; only some run as non-profit organisations. A few of these have existed for a long time (up to and over 100 years), but many were established only very recently, especially with the advent of cheap and effective desktop publishing software. Many are vehicles for local advertising, but they do also run a certain degree of local news. They chronicle local news, provide information about local matters, promote community events, and a forum for local discussion, and also act as a watchdog for the more mainstream media - focussing especially on locally important topics which are not or only poorly covered in regional, state, and national media outlets.

Across 32 newspapers studied by Kitty, some 47.5% of the items relating to water issues were news, some 2.1% editorials, 6.3% letters to the editors, and 44.1% advertising. Emphasis was on installing rainwater tanks (mainly in ads), restriction and conservation (in ads and news), dams and weirs development (in news), recycling and quality issues (again often in ads), the long-term future (in news and letters to the editor), wider infrastructure, and questions around rain and drought (both mainly in news content). The extent of coverage also differed strongly across papers - the Beaudesert Times, for example, focussed much more strongly on water issues than did many of the other community newspapers. Coverage also rises and falls in response to current events, of course.

Community press remains largely parochial, reflecting local issues and social structures. It is concerned with social integration, and there is an overt solidarity with the community where issues can be seen in terms of 'us vs. them.'

The next speaker is Xu Xiaoge from Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. His interest is in questions of engagement and empowerment of online media users, as measured through the usage of Web features on news Websites (both on the central homepages and on individual story pages). On homepages, common engagement features are search functions, news updates, news alerts (SMS, email), RSS feeds, and hypermedia content (videos, audio, slides, interactive infographics etc.); on story pages, engagement features include hyperlinks to additional information about the story, 'save story' functions, print functions, and functions to email, blog, or share news stories through instant messaging.

Empowering functions on homepages allow users to choose between text, Web, mobile, and other editions, enable them to provide news tips through various means, provide chat, blog, commenting, and poll functions, or enable users to contribute their own versions of events; on story pages, empowering functions include features to change the story format (switching between one or multiple columns, between linear and non-linear story structure, or to narrated slides, Flash, video, and audio versions), to change the text size and language, to comment on and rate news stories, and to correct errors in stories through various communication channels.

Such features have been studied in various research projects in the past - often focussing on specific features or on news sites in particular countries. Xiaoge's focus is more broadly on Asian newspaper Websites, and tracks the use of all of these features (categorised into customisation, interactivity, multimedia (both within / next to the story), and services). The results of this show that there is a very limited use of layout customisation functions, a limited use of interactive functions, some more use of multimedia (often limited only to the homepage), a somewhat limited use of user-friendly services (largely limited to search and archive browsing functions on the homepage, and email, print, and some commenting functions on story pages), and a very limited take-up of multiple delivery channels (even RSS is not used widely).

Among the nine major Asian newspaper sites studied, only the Straits Times, China Daily, the Times of India, and the Inquirer even reached a medium level of such features on the homepage, and all newspaper sites rated poorly for their story pages. Web user engagement and empowerment are both seriously limited, in other words; where features exist, they are limited mainly to the homepage, and story pages exist as an afterthought. This may point to the overall mentality and skills of online journalists, and the fact that these newspapers may not have separate online newsrooms or online content strategies (indeed, internal competition between print and online editions may stifle the development of online features). This contrasts with the mentality of Web users, who expect free online services, and also links to the limited infrastructure within some Asian countries (which also manifests itself in the fact that online services remain a low priority for online news providers).

Finally now to Emily Braham from Monash University, who brings our focus back to citizen journalism in Australia. The Australian media landscape is changing toward greater user involvement, and the Australian media are gradually beginning to respond to the greater demand for user involvement in the news; this mirrors global developments (as witnessed for example in the 2005 London bombings, the coverage of cyclone Larry's landfall in Northern Queensland in 2006, and the events of the Burma uprisings in 2007, and of course the 2007 Australian federal election). To some extent, use of user-generated content also helps news organisations fill gaps in the 24-hour news cycle, of course.

Most media companies in Australia do have a Web presence, but there is a limited direct engagement with audiences beyond what is necessary to drive eyeballs to advertising; on the commercial side, Fairfax news media outlets perhaps are market leaders in this field, along with the national public broadcaster, the ABC (if limited by its funding). News Ltd. is keeping up (and was exhorted to do so by Rupert Murdoch some time ago), but is hardly at leader at this point.

Overall, though, there is very little effort to engage the public directly in media production; commercial news organisations don't necessarily feel that they do have a responsibility to do so (their responsibility is mostly to shareholders) - this is a different story for the ABC, of course. At the same time, the positive response from users is itself a driver of developments to some extent. The situation in the U.S. and the U.K. is a useful point of comparison; Australia lags behind here, even though the U.S. mediasphere is driven largely by commercial interests, while the BBC as a public broadcaster is a key driver in the U.K. environment - so funding models alone can not be seen as a determinant for the take-up of citizen journalism elements by mainstream news sites. A further comparison is with South Korea, where OhmyNews has been highly successful - this builds on the excellent broadband and high literacy rates which exist in that country.

Australians consume media at a different rate, and continue to see online media as a less important and trustworthy source of news (though this might have changed in the wake of the 2007 election). There is a fairly firmly entrenched journalism industry here, too, for which citizen journalism has not yet posititioned itself as a strong alternative. Further cultural reasons for the limited development of citizen journalism can also be found; Australians remain followers rather than leaders in Internet developments (also because of our comparatively poor broadband services). There is a great potential especially for local and hyperlocal news coverage in the country, though; rural and regional areas are comparatively underserved by media, which provides an opening for citizen journalism, but at the same time, these areas may continue to be more interested in offline than online services.

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