The Australian Newspaper Outrage Cycle

Media editor of The Australian, Sharri Markson, has produced an article titled ‘Activism a threat to journalism‘. In it she draws on sources to argue that ‘activist journalism academics’ on ‘social media’ are a threat to journalism. She paraphrases her boss and Australian newspaper editor, Chris Mitchell:

Editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, said the greatest threat to journalism was not the internet or governments and press councils trying to limit free speech, but the rise of the activist journalist over the past 25 years and the privileging of the views of activist groups over the views of the wider community.

Worse than the figure of the ‘activist journalist’ is the ‘modern journalism academic’. Here Markson introduces a Mitchell quote so as describe the ‘modern journalism academic’ as someone with opinions on political issues:

Mr Mitchell, who has edited newspapers for more than 20 years, said media academics who were vocal about ideological issues on social media were part of the problem.

“This is at the heart of my disdain for modern journalism academics. And anyone who watches their Twitter feeds as I do will know I am correct,’’ he said.

Tens of thousands of people, including journalism students and those starting their career in the industry, follow media academics Jenna Price, Wendy Bacon and journalist Margo Kingston on Twitter. All are opinionated on political issues.

Through its Media section the Australian newspaper is running a small-scale ‘moral panic’ about the loss of efficacy of legacy media outlets, like the print-based Australian newspaper. Most of the people who work at the Australian newspaper have been to university and would’ve more than likely come across the concept of a moral panic. Even if they haven’t, as savvy media operators that should be familiar with the concept.

The concept of the ‘moral panic’ once belonged to the academic discipline of sociology, but has now largely leaked into everyday language. A moral panic is a diagnostic tool used to understand how fears and anxieties experienced by social group often about social change is projected onto and becomes fixated around what is called a ‘folk devil’.

A ‘folk devil’ is a social figure who may be represented by actual people, but functions to gather fear and anxiety. I have a book chapter on the folk devil figure of the ‘hoon’. There are actual ‘hoons’ who are a road safety issue, but the hoon moral panics that swept across Australia 10 years ago were completely out of proportion to the actual risk presented by hoons. The figure of the hoon represented fears and anxieties about how young people use public space particularly in areas with high retiree and tourist populations.

Clearly, the ‘activist journalist’ and ‘modern journalism academic’ are the folk devil figures. What fears and anxieties do ‘activist journalists’ and ‘modern journalism academics’ represent? ‘Social media’ is used as a collective term in Markson’s piece to describe technologies and social practices that threaten not only the commercial existence of the Australian newspaper, but also its existential purpose. As Crikey reported last week, the Australian newspaper is losing money hand over fist, but I think this ongoing effort to attack ‘activist journalists’ and ‘modern journalism academics’ indicates that the anxiety has a greater purchase than mere commercial imperatives in the Australian newspaper workplace.

Sharri 2
An example of ‘print enthusiast’ Sharri Markson’s advocacy work on social media.

Markson has been a vocal activist for print-based publication and it is clear from her advocacy work on social media that she is a ‘print media’ enthusiast. Indeed, Markson and Mitchell could be described as what are the ‘moral entrepreneurs‘ of the ‘moral panic’ in this particular example. A ‘moral entrepreneur’ is a person or group of people who advocate and bring attention to a particular issue for the purposes of trying to effect change. In traditional moral panic theory this is largely local politicians who try to effect legislative change to compensate for the social changes that triggered the moral panic in the first place.

The Australian newspaper’s ongoing response to the perceived existential threat of ‘social media’ (as an inaccurate collective term to describe far more complex and longer term shifts in the media industry) is a useful example for thinking about the cyclical character of these outbursts. They are small-scale moral panics because they never really spread beyond a limited number of moral entrepreneurs. The latest round is merely another example of the media-based culture wars that began with the so-called ‘media wars‘ in the late 1990s. Again, journalism academics were central in the conflict over what counted as ‘journalism’ and/or ‘news’. More recently, the Australian newspaper attacked journalism programs and their graduates.

The ‘Outrage Cycle’

The concept of a ‘moral panic’ is a bit clunky and doesn’t really capture the cyclical character of these ideological battles over perceived existential threats. Creator of the ‘moral panic’ concept, Stanley Cohen, included some critical comments about the concept as a revised introduction to the 2002 third edition of his iconic Folk Devils and Moral Panics book. About the possibility of a “permanent moral panic” Cohen writes:

A panic, be defintion, is self-limiting, temporary and spasmodic, a splutter of rage which burns itself out. Every now and then speeches, TV documentaries, trials, parliamentary debates, headlines and editorials cluster into the peculiar mode of managing information and expressing indignation that we call a moral panic. Each one may draw on the same stratum of political morality and cultural unease and — much like Foucault’s micro-systems of power — have a similar logic and internal rhythm. Successful moral panics owe their appeal to their ability to find points of resonance with wider anxieties. But each appeal is a sleight of hand, magic without a magician. (xxx)

A useful model for understanding the cyclical character of the relation between anxiety (or what we call ‘affect’), greater media attention (or what we call, after Foucault, ‘visibility’) and an exaggerated sense of social norms and expectations is Gartner’s ‘Hype Cycle’ model.

HypeCycle

It is not a ‘theoretical’ or even a ‘scientific’ tool; rather, it serves as a kind of rule of thumb about the reception of technological change for the purposes of creating business intelligence. New technologies tend to be hyped so take this into account when making business decisions about risks of investment. (Each year I use the ‘Hype Cycle’ to introduce my third year unit on technological change ; the way it represents technology is useful for understanding social relations and technology beyond technology being an ‘object’.) There is something similar going on with the Australian newspaper’s constant preoccupation with other journalists and in particular the role of journalism academics in society. Rather than the giddy ‘hype’ of the tech press and enthusiasts about technological change, the Australian newspaper’s cycle is organised around ‘outrage’. The Australian newspaper’s ‘Outrage Cycle’ is a useful way to frame how Western societies constantly mobilise to engage with perceived existential threats. The actual curve of the ‘Hype CYcle’ itself is less important than the cyclical character of trigger and response, which is also apparent in ‘moral panic’ theory:

OutrageCycle 2014

I’ve changed the ‘zones’ of the Hype Cycle. ‘Maturity’ did not seem like the most appropriate measure of the X-axis, so I changed it to ‘time’ which Gartner also sometimes uses. I’ve made a table for ease of reference:

Hype Cycle

Outrage Cycle

Technology Trigger

Existential Threat

Peak of Inflated Expectations

Peak of Confected Outrage

Trough of Disillusionment

Trough of Realism

Slope of Enlightenment

Slope of Conservatism

Plateau of Productivity

Plateau of Social Norms

 

Existential threat: In the case of the Australian newspaper, the existential threat is not so much activist journalists and modern journalism academics, but the apparent dire commercial position of the newspaper and the accelerated decline in social importance of a national newspaper. The world is changing around the newspaper and it currently survives because of cross-funding arrangements from other sections of News Corp. The moral entrepreneurs in this case are fighting for the very existence of ‘print’ and the institutional social relations that ‘print’ once enjoyed. A second example of this involves ‘online piracy’, which serves as a perceived existential threat to the current composition of media distribution companies.

Peak of Confected Outrage: It is unclear who is actually outraged besides employees of News Corp about so-called ‘activist journalists’ and ‘modern journalism academics’ in general. There are specific cases, just like with ‘moral panics’, where specific people have triggered the ire of some social groups. They serve as representative ‘folk devils’ for an entire social identity. Similarly, ‘pirates’ serve as an example of ‘bad internet users’ who are part of the disruptions of the legacy media industry. There is a more sophisticated point to be made about reporting on ‘outrage’ and other affective states like ‘fear’ and ‘anxiety’. They become their own sources of newsworthiness.

Trough of Realism: In the case of the Australian newspaper, this is where legacy media advocates face up to the unfortunate reality of the shifting media industry.  It is not clear to me, at least in this example, that this will actually happen. (Perhaps after the Australian newspaper folds?) In terms of ‘online piracy’ facing reality includes companies like Foxtel currently working to create online client versions of their pay TV business. It is basically at this point that proponents have to ‘face reality’.

Slope of Conservatism: In Gartner’s original version, technologies become adopted and companies learn how to use them appropriately. In the ‘Outrage Cycle’ the Slope of Conservatism is ironically named as it signals social change. In some ways, Markson’s advocacy of ‘print’ is a bad example of this. A better example is the way sports fans learn how to adapt to the commodification of broadcast sporting events.

Plateau of Social Norms: The constant change in social values and relations that have characterised Western societies for the last 300 years continues unabated, indicated by the increasing ‘liberalisation’ of normative social values, but societies often pass thresholds of organisational composition where certain norms are dominant. Heterosexual patriarchal social values and racist social values were normative up until the postwar period in Australia, then they began a very slow process of changing and we are still in the midst of these shifts. Most people who work in the media industry are learning to operate in the new norms that characterise contemporary expectations regarding the production, distribution/access and consumption of media and journalistic content. Recent examples of this include the popularity of the ‘home theatre’ as the most recent evolution of domestic cinema culture that become part of mass popular cultures with the VCR.

The ‘Outrage Cycle’ as a Business Model

In our editorial introduction to the recent ‘Trolling’ special issue of Fibreculture Journal, my colleagues Jason Wilson, Christian McCrea and I wrote:

Major media corporations and tech giants have become bogged down in nymwars, post-hoc jerry-rigging and outright comment bans as they attempt to erase conflict around perenially divisive topics. All the while, as media companies are all too happy to trade on clickbait and outrage, there’s a suspicion that they have appropriated and mobilised the figure of the troll in order to constrain a new outpouring of political speech. Trolling has perhaps displaced pornography as the obscenity which underwrites the demand that the Internet be brought under control.

Jason in particular has emphasised the normative character of particular kinds of outrage. On the topic of a recent research report report from the respected Pew Centre about the normative effect of social media, Jason wrote for the Guardian ‘newspaper’:

In the midst of social media’s perpetual flurries of outrage, we teach one another that the range of acceptable opinion is small, that we are individually responsible for comporting ourselves within these limits, and that the negative consequences are unpredictable, and potentially catastrophic. Accepting cues – from media, government and other authorities – about the dangers of incivility and extremism, we monitor each other’s conduct, ensuring that it doesn’t cross any arbitrary lines.

We can read the perpetual Outrage Cycle of the Australian newspaper as a machine for the production of new normative social values. Without being subsidised by other business areas of the News Corp enterprise, the Australian newspaper would be out of business, so to say that the Australian will inevitably fail is to miss the point that it is already in a state of constant ‘fail’. Unless someone thinks that the Australian newspaper will actually become profitable again (and will do so while its editor-in-chief and media editor are advocating for ‘print’), the social function of the Australian newspaper is not to make money as a commercial journalistic enterprise but to serve a social role that reinforce what its employees perceive to be normative social values.

The Australian newspaper and other News Corp print-based products seemed to be currently organised around using this ‘Outrage Cycle’ as a business model. Isolate a perceived existential threat (religion, class difference, education, etc.) and then represent this on the front page of newspapers in such a way as to create feelings of fear, anxiety and outrage in the community. We know that they do not aim to represent and report on this fear, anxiety and outrage, because otherwise their front pages would be full of articles about readers of their own newspapers.

Neo-Antagonisms

My comrade in another country, Jason Wilson, has a rousing Guardian column critiquing the middle-class progressive view that credentialised expertise — in the form of political ‘wonks’ — shall save us (and follow up Tumblr post clarifying comments about Piketty’s celebrity wonk book). Jason’s thesis is that politics is inherently antagonistic. The consensus-driven post-war prosperity was an anomaly and all post-political ‘Third Way’ technocracies of the 1990s have failed. With manifest irony, the problem is — to appropriate Heidegger — the essence of technocratic political wonkery is politically apolitical. Jason argues that political wonks need to resuscitate a partisan appreciation of society. The most savage way to interpret his critique is that alleged progressive political wonks want to perfect and take care of ‘the system’ first… and care for ‘the people’ second.

The grammar of progressive politics needs to put ‘the people’ before the ellipsis, sure, but what if antagonism is integral not only to democracy but to capitalism? Think about narratives of ‘disruption’ and the way total precarity is deployed as a capitalist technocratic project, it turns antagonism inward so the self becomes the site and project of coping with all kinds of insecurities while at the same time turning outward to fetishise the maintenance of borders. Do we need a way to appreciate different kinds of antagonism? What about all the ‘wars’ we have in the Culture Wars, or the neoconservative preference for launching wars on things (war on drugs, war on poverty and so on). What would this aesthetics of antagonism look like? How would it be ‘judged’?

Education and Cluster Funded Explanations

The way fields of knowledge are split into teaching and research clusters in higher education in Australia is confusing . We have Field of Research codes through which we align our research outputs with disciplinary groupings and we have Field of Education codes through which the government analyses student numbers, teaching performances and funding. They don’t always line up, which causes some headaches for staffing and management. In the context of the current shake-up to education funding, FOR and FOE mismatch is the least of anyone’s worries.

The proposed overhaul of funding tiers so they are reduced and reorganised from eight tiers to five has changed the amount of funding universities receive for each Commonwealth Supported Place (CSP). As part of the current series of investigative hearings of the Education and Employment Legislation Committee of Senate Estimates, various senators asked questions about the proposed changes to education funding arrangements.

Below is an exchange from Thursday 5 June 2014 between Senator Rhiannon and various public servant representatives (page 55 of the pdf):

Communications tiers

To explain Mr Warburton and Ms Paul’s respective answers, and then why the answers are wrong, requires understanding the structure of Field of Education codes.

The Field of Education codes have a tree like structure. The 12 two digit codes begin with 01 Natural and Physical Sciences, then 02 Information technology, and end with 11 Food, Hospitality and Personal Services and 12 Mixed Field Programmes. From each of these two digit FOE codes it then separates into four digit codes. Senator Rhiannon was asking about why some of the disciplines in the four digit FOE of 1007 Communication and Media Studies (in the larger two digit FOE of 10 Creative Arts) in the current proposal were being funded at different rates.

The four-digit codes then split into six-digit codes. In the current proposal, the six-digit FOE 100701 Audio Visual Studies is in a higher funding tier than the other four six-digit FOE areas:

100703 Journalism
100705 Written Communication
100707 Verbal Communication
100799 Communication and Media Studies not elsewhere classified

To explain this discrepancy Mr Warburton and Ms Paul both gesture towards the major 2011 report into funding arrangements, Base Funding Review.

The closest any part of the Base Funding Review report comes to supporting their comments is a section across pages 56-57 that deals with funding of the Visual and Performing Arts in the context of student-intensive studio and project-based modes of teaching:

The disparity in costs for FOE 10 (creative arts) between institutions suggests that it may need to be split between funding clusters with visual and performing arts moved to a funding cluster with a higher rate.

I can’t find anywhere in the Base Funding Review where it drills down to four digit FOE detail, let alone the detail required for an analysis at a six-digit FOE level that would make Mr Warburton and Ms Paul’s answer sufficient.

In my investigation into Mr Warburton and Ms Paul’s answer I realised there is a much bigger problem with the current policy proposal to separate funding into the proposed FOE-based tiers:

What is the relation between the level of macro detail of the two-digit FOEs in the 2011 Base Funding Review to the level of detail in the current budget proposal that differentiates funding on the basis of four-digit FOE and even six-digit FOE code clusters? 

The 2011 Base Funding Review report and material does not provide an answer.

A large amount of explanatory information in the Base Funding Review report is provided by 161 submissions and from what I can gather none of these submissions provides the level of overview in the detail required to substantiate Mr Warburton and Ms Paul’s respective claims.

The Deloitte Access Economics report that is part of the supplementary material of the Base Funding Review report seems to be the basis of much of the non-submission-based material. The Deloitte report actually creates its own 19 groups based on aggregating combinations of two-, four- and six-digit FOEs. The report states, “Given the sheer number of 6 digit FOEs (more than 300) it was deemed appropriate to estimate the model based on an aggregation of clusters and bands to form ‘groups’” (21). The FOE two-digit code of 10 is simply regarded as ‘Art’ it seems. Again, there is no supporting material for Mr Warburton and Ms Paul’s respective claims that the separation of funding tiers is derived from the 2011 Base Funding Review.

Where is the detail for how these funding decisions were made?

By the way, one of the recommendations to government from the 2011 Base Funding Review regarding funding:

The Australian Government should address the identified areas of underfunding in the disciplines of accounting, administration, economics, commerce, medicine, veterinary science, agriculture, dentistry, and visual and performing arts, and should consider increasing the funding level for humanities and law.

 

Vox the News Cycle

vox storystreamInteresting discussion at Nieman Journalism Lab triggered by a recent post by Vox Media’s VP of Engineering, Michael Lovitt, on launching Vox.xom as a nine week development project. Vox.com has some very cool features, not least of which is the threading of topically related stories into ‘StoryStreams’, including the stream of “How We Make Vox“. Co-founder of Vox, Melissa Bell, explains:

If we wanted to build a digital startup journalism entity, we would behave like the technology company Vox Media truly is: launch fast and tweak often.

The launch of Vox.com has been framed in terms of it being a technology company. It would be interesting to see a breakdown of how they actually approach stories and the production of content. Hopefully, it is not like David Eun’s 2011 master plan for AOL.

Eun used an ‘engineering flow’ type approach to integrating SEO and analytics information into the production of news-based media content. Not very many people were happy about this. As one recent commentator described it:

It’s telling that throughout “The AOL Way”, the emphasis is on what managers and technology employees can do to maximize pageviews, and not on actual writing or video production, itself. That is, the presentation implies that AOL management took its content’s quality for granted.

Bell describes the work of Vox.com as addressing the problem of having to catch up after dropping out of the constant flow of the news cycle.  She became aware of this problem after being promoted into her previous role at The Washington Post as ‘director of platforms’ and ‘blog strategy’. From the same Guardian piece:

“It was amazing to me as a reader how quickly I felt I fell off the news cycle,” she says. “If I wasn’t paying attention to the rapid developments, it was difficult for me to understand what was happening in major news stories. When I took that step back I realised the challenge of being a reader.”

What is the news cycle according to Vox.com? There seems to be more or less topical news stories being explained through the website, but there is also “7 things the most-highlighted Kindle passages tell us about American readers” as the ‘most read’ story.

vox kindle

The news cycle used to be organised around the habits of consumers. The evening broadcast television bulletin, the morning newspaper, or the hourly radio bulletin. It was structural to the rhythms of industry and cultural expectations of news consumers. Not unlike the difference between the ranking of books in the New York Time’s Bestsellers list as compared to the highlighting of book passages through Kindle as an index of popularity, has there been a shift in the character of the news cycle?

Building Research Capacity

Ben Eltham‘s analysis of the cuts to investment in science and research also touches on some general points about building research capacity in the contemporary era of underfunded research institutions. The main point that needs to be emphasised is the lack of stability that the current de-funding approach produces. Eltham quotes Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt on the difficulties of planning a research program:

“I think the problem that we have right now is that every time we get a new program, the ground shifts,” Schmidt added.

“I’m trying to plan my research program, like everyone else, five to 10 years out, and when we spend money and then switch it a few years later, we end up not getting very good value for the government’s investment.”

Beyond politics and policy, there is a fundamental epistemological problem with the current instability produced by de-funding research.

There is currently too much risk involved in the business case for planning five to 10 year research plans. Who knows how research will be funded in three years, let alone 10? At a minimum, it means creating multiple research plans and diversifying investment in knowledge creation (that is, time required to do research) across these plans, so as to minimise the risk in the ‘ground shifting’ again. This dilutes the amount of work that can be carried out and reduces overall research capacity.

There is a massive drop in efficiency for organisations that lose confidence in how they appreciate their own progress. Who is succeeding in research when a program is simply de-funded? What does it mean to succeed? What are the milestones?

How many potential PhD candidates will look at the state of investment in research in this country and decide that the lack of security is not worth putting at risk their own welfare or the welfare of their families?

Media, culture and philosophy personal research blog by Glen Fuller