Goodbye to the News?

Nikki Usher‘s 2010 article in New Media & Society “Goodbye to the news: how out-of-work journalists assess enduring news values and the new media landscape” examines the goodbye letters, emails, speeches, columns and blog postings — “final musings” — of journalists who have been laid off, taken a ‘voluntary buyout’ or who have left the industry. Usher’s piece is somewhat polemical in tone at times, not that this is necessarily a problem, it just needs to be taken into account when digesting her arguments:

[A]ll these goodbyes reveal a silver lining – those that are being let go may be let go for business reasons, but they may also be the people failing to see the opportunities for new media and those who are unable to help newspapers be entrepreneurial in their attempts to come through the crisis they face. (924)

Usher analysed 31 ‘final musings’ as presented on the Poynter.org blog by Jim Romenesko. The terrific irony of this for anyone following the current state of journalism in the US is that Romenesko resigned from the Poynter Institute late last year after being accused of improper attribution by allegedly not using “quote marks” appropriately. The Romenesko blog was rebranded Romenesko+ and is now simply Media Wire. It is a brilliant example to use in my first lecture for my Online News unit this semester, in concert with Usher’s piece as a set reading, as we introduce and explore with students the role of ‘online news’ in the tensions of the current journalism industry.

Usher’s piece is a useful way to frame traditional understandings of journalism in the context of structural change. The analysis is useful for locating the prevailing culture of legacy print journalism in terms of the relation between individual experiences and the structural shifts that in part form their context. From a Foucaultian perspective Usher is isolating a ‘discourse event’ in the point of inflection between two discursive regimes and correlative compositions of power relations (dispositifs). Usher draws on Fredric Jameson’s conceptualisation of ‘nostalgia’ and Barbie Zelizer’s notion that rather than ‘profession’, US journalists should be understood as belonging to an ‘interpretive community’.

Usher’s use of Jameson’s ‘nostalgia’ begins with her arguing that journalists now work in a ‘post-modern news era’ (914). (What would be absolutely fascinating for me would be to revisit the so-called ‘Media Wars’ of the late-1990s in light of such a description. On the face of it, Keith Windschuttle and his ‘traditionalist’ supporters have lost.) She is mostly describing the shift Fordist modes of news production, which includes changes to reliable occupational routines of ‘newsroom’ work practices and changes to the status and function of the audience. The inherent double movement of Jameson’s nostalgia is that it is backwards oriented and forward directed. Nostalgia produces collective memories of the past while at the same produces a potential of a better future. The nostalgia of journalists, Usher suggests, also masks reality in that bias, corporate control and so on are not constitutive elements:

They are nostalgic for a time when journalism meant stability and economic security, and deeply believe that traditional print journalism contributed to democratic discourse and public service – masking the reality, perhaps, that their work may have helped sustain and perpetuate power structures. The old way of doing newspapers is threatened, and journalists are uncertain about the future. But significantly, they also fail to be forward-looking even as they are backward-looking: their nostalgia is self-limiting because it fails to produce a vision of the future that catapults traditional journalists into the new media world and new media economics. (923)

The current transformations to the legacy news industry serve as an example of what Zelizer calls the ‘interpretive community’. Usher writes:

Discourse about the changes in the news industry creates a discursive community of journalists. This, then, shapes shared meanings about the trials and tribulations journalists face and takes on the collective memory of ‘professional journalism’ in a pre-web, pre-blog, pre-newspaper slump era. (915)

Usher’s analysis is structured around four main areas of journalists’s discourse functioning as an ‘interpretive community’: 1) ‘Journalism as an ideal’ (916-9), 2) ‘New Media Economics’ (919-21), 3) confusion around what is being challenged or changed, mostly in terms of technology (921-2), and 4) a failure to be ‘forward thinking’ (923-5).

The basic tenets of journalism as an ideal are that journalism works in the public interest, it remains impartial, serves the voiceless and provides a crucial link in democracy (916). The ideal of journalism is to serve as ‘public service journalism’. Mark Deuze defines public service journalism as:

Journalists share a sense of ‘doing it for the public’, of working as some kind of representative watchdog of the status quo in the name of people, who ‘vote with their wallets’ for their services (by buying a newspaper, watching or listening to a newscast, visiting and returning to a news site). (447)

Deuze (2005: 448) notes that journalists can learn to have more responsive attitude to their ‘publics’ and therefore use this “age-old ideological value” as a wau to maintain the power relations of the status quo while learbing how to adapt to changing conditions. As Usher describes it, in the context of ‘prestige papers’ (such as the LA Times or New York Times), “these individuals want to reassert their claims to defining the public interest and determining what public service journalism is, rather than creating a more open conversation with a newly engaged audience of news producers and consumers” (917).

In the context of smaller, local newspapers this public service ideal is described in terms of a newspaper being a (more paternalistic than patronizing) ‘caretaker’ helping a public “interpret difficult ideas” and also sustaining local community by reproducing existing routines of newspaper communication and correlative power relations. Usher’s point is that this does not take into account those on- and off-line practices that reproduce ‘community’ that do not have the newspaper at the centre (918). Newspaper in general are seen to be arbiters of democracy in the idealized practice of highlighting the power relations that underpin existing governmental and market-based power relations. There was a general lament, Usher notes, that transformations to journalism are understood in terms of catering to the ‘market’ rather than ‘democracy’. ‘New media economics’ (and ‘new media technologies’) therefore become a threat to the democratic role of public service journalism. Political writer Michele Jacklin’s final column captures a sense of this when she writes, “As a substitute for hard news and insightful analysis, readers are served up a steady diet of splashy graphics, celebrity gossip and stories with the heft of cotton candy.”

In the Australian context, this tension between hard news and insightful analysis versus forms of content designed to increase website visitors and ‘hits’ is represented from the other side of the conflict by NineMSN.com’s online news editor Hal Crawford in his commentary about the Australian Federal Government’s Independent Media Inquiry posted to mUmbrella.com.

Real time data tell you exactly how popular a story is, and to maximise your audience size you need to weed out stories that no one wants to read. This kind of brutal treatment can be hard for an old school journalist to take.
Initially you may get upset that no one is reading the ‘important’ stories, but that arrogance fades quickly. Truly important stories rate. If some piece of news is going to change lives or become socially necessary or is just plain interesting, it gets traffic.

The NineMSN submission to the inquiry similarly seeks to problematise ‘quality journalism’:

The traditional view is that a key role for the news media is to be an independent monitor of government power and therefore quality journalism requires truth, accuracy and independence. We think it’s also important to acknowledge that that news media serves diverse roles. […]
For ninemsn the most important indicator of quality content is that it is trusted. Trust is the key concern for our news team because trust equates to brand reputation which drives of audience. […]
The traditional media are no longer small elite who serve as the gatekeepers of the news. Value in the digital news media is increasingly generated by interactions with users including the use of social media to provide commentary, share stories and drive traffic. News produced for digital platforms has to be a quality product if we want people to engage with our stories, to contribute their own insights and to participate in their dissemination.

The discourse surrounding ‘new media economics’ in Usher’s analysis is less important to my Online News unit this semester, but will be central to the second semester unit organised around ‘innovation’ and ‘entrepreneurial journalism’. The second semester unit is designed to prepare students for a more market-oriented, audience-driven form of journalism at the level of producing individual stories through to the level of creating standalone ‘online media enterprises’. Usher’s analysis notes that individual journalists generally take structural shifts personally, and see their respective departures as a failure of ‘owners’ or ‘Wall St’ to recognise talent. This is important in an educational context because ‘talent’ is still recognised, of course; it is more a question of the character of the ‘talent’ and of the mechanisms of ‘recognition’.

Jacklin’s comments are also interesting in the context of the socio-technical practices and technologies that Usher suggests will assist journalism. She lists a number of “recommendations as the possible salvation for traditional journalism’s problems: increased social networking, conections with the audience, more multimedia platforms, crowd-sourcing, better forums, flash-graphics, newspaper-hosted community blogs and hyperlocal reporting, to name a few” (922).

Lastly, Usher notes that the article odes not mean to say that other journalists are not reconsidering with the public and “are deeply engaged in trying to understand what such things as user-generated content, blogging, comment boards, data-mining, crowd sourcing and the like might mean for their newsrooms” (924-5). She ends with a provocative question: “to what extent are non-traditional journalists concerned with the discourse about traditional news values and the idea of what it means to be a journalist?” My response, shared with other educators, is to work on developing units that hope to empower students when they hit the job market.

ReachOut.com training camp

Over the weekend I led a session as part of a workshop camp training youth media advocates for ReachOut.com. ReachOut.com is an advocacy group that seeks to raise awareness about issues relating to youth mental health and suicide, and is part of Inspire.org.au. I was very happy to donate my Saturday morning and the couple of days it took to put together my session. Like most people, I’ve had some personal experience with a loved one struggling to overcome the ‘black dog’. It has been good to see depression and mental health issues receive proper media attention over the last few years as struggles with mental health issues transcend social and cultural boundaries.

In my session I introduced the youth advocates to the concept of a ‘complex media environment’. It builds on well established concepts within media studies from key figures such as Marshall “The medium is the message” McLuhan (see this video of McLuhan in Australia from ABC Open) and Neil “Media Ecology” Postman. The key outcome from my session was to get the advocates to realise that as media advocates they are no longer simply ‘consumers’ of media content, but nor are they properly ‘producers’ within the media industry. Instead, they are somewhere in between, what I described as being ‘operators’.

ReachOut.com’s own media advocacy kit for the workshop was put together (EDIT: 13/12/11) under the direction of co-manager Nathalie Swainston by Phoebe Netto and it is a brilliant practical guide for working with journalists and other content producers within the media industry. For example, it presents the well known values of news worthiness (timeliness, proximity, impact, etc) in an inverted form so media advocates know how to position their message so as to be useful for journalists working on producing a story.

I built on the media advocacy kit by reaching out to the youth media advocates’ existing mode of engagement with the media — as mostly ‘crticial consumers’ — to point out ways this could be extended and intensified so as to spot and plan for ‘opportunities’ for their message. I focused on two methods for doing this. The first involves working within the constraints of the journalistic ‘news cycle’ and also tracking the rhythm of the media activities of other social institutions, such as governmental authorities or the NGO sector publishing relevant reports.

The second involves appreciating the strucutral dimensions of the media industry. The commercial media industry basically operates as an ‘apparatus of capture’: it produces content so as to ‘capturre’ an audience, and then sell this audience to advertisers (or others). The questions the media advocates need to work through are, what sort of audience can I help produce and who would want the traffic/metrics/listeners/viewers/readership that my message can help deliver? The session after mine was delivered by the lovely and talented Pheobe Netto (who also took the phone camera snap above during my presentation!) and it was about the practical skills of crafting one’s media message. The ‘complex’ bit of the ‘complex media environment’ comes from the structural changes that the Australian media industry has undergone over the last decade or so. There are increased opportunities for engagement for those with the necessary skills to turn out good copy for many media outlets.

One of the qualities of this complex media enviroment that I discussed in my session was the way media stories can cascade across multiple channels and platforms. Most people are familiar with the concept of an ‘echo chamber’, but a more general example of a similar phenomenon is the way various media outlets will pay attention to what other media outlets are reporting on. This doesn’t only happen amongst competitors (or ‘co-opetitors’) but also sub-jacently related channels, such as local radio stories picked up by larger ‘talkback’ radio, picked up by print journalist, picked up by TV journalists, etc.

I think it was a very good day and the feedback I’ve received from participants is that they found my session to be very productive.

Pub Theory: Cultural Studies when it isn’t

Mel Gregg has a post on her blog about how no one has come forward wanting to host the annual CSAA conference. In the comments she writes this zinger:

But the consistency with which the association has backed away from engaging in activism, on the very basis of its inclusiveness, is perhaps the impasse that is at the bottom of all of this: it is the consequence of trying to accrue the benefits of cultural studies as an empty signifier; of not actually standing for anything.

Empty signifiers have utility purely as fab fashion accessories for the post-post-ironic. I’d also add at this stage that ‘activism’ itself needs to be rethought. I don’t particularly want hippy style activism, thanks. Nor do I want matron-ish bourgeois CWA-style activism. Surely we can do something high impact and which cuts to the heart of the matter?

Then C chimes in critiquing the expectation of running a conference when the structural conditions of employment aren’t there:

A bit rich under such circumstances/conditions of possibility to ask for continuing unaffected enthusiasm and more unpaid labor to roll out a conference, isn’t it? The reason is structural and grounded, not ideological or because of shifting loyalties.

I have rock solid job security (after writing that I’ll probably get sacked next week, lol). So my suggestion in the comments seemed a bit obvious:

Why don’t we bugger the association off and have an anti-conference conference?

Inspired by MelC’s comment:

I think the best bits are long dinners and epic drinking sessions – at one stage we were going to found a new journal, Pub Theory.

Hence, title for conference: Pub Theory: Cultural Studies when it isn’t

Here were my first seven discussion points:

1) Lets have only postgrads, ECRs and super-cool rockstar cultstud ECnR (Early Career non-Researchers, putting their awesome skills to use making money for someone else)
2) No possibility of publication afterwards, unless it is via blog or somesuch
3) It would need to be held over a weekend to allow those working stiffs to attend
4) I vote Sydney for the location, it is between QLD and VIC, cheapest flights from elsewhere, soz SA and WA
5) Ballot accomodation to keep costs down and party up (I can house one person, or three drunks)
6) ??????
7) Profit.

Then I went down to the shops and gave this some more thought.

Another commenter, db, suggested that

Wasn’t it partially about saying to English and Sociology in their grey-bearded days: “Fuck you old farts, your paradigms can’t touch where we’re at, so we’re upending the system and getting amongst it, real f***ing life”. Whatever the procedural issues in Glen’s suggestion, it at least seems to capture that spirit, and I’d fund myself along if I was in the vicinity, cos it sounds like fun.

I like db’s analysis and, having put on my Deleuzian hat in the comments, I suggested we have the potential to differentially repeat the CS-event.

Then I appended the above dot points with a few more:

8 ) Venue, this got me scratching my head for a while… until I remembered that I worked for 2 years in a place (a bookshop) that does 50-200 person events, has PP facilities, a bar, a toilet, books for the bored and loves this sort of thing. Then there are two other similar venues in the same strip (s/h bookshop and a cafe) in that they also have events and also love this sort of thing. I’ll make enquiries. What date suits everyone? Anyone got any other ideas?

9) Themed panels? Now there are two points to this.
a) If my undergraduate years taught me anything it is that themes rock because they allow everyone to dress appropriately. We need awesome themes like “Cultural Studies: Epic Fails” looking at the failures of CS (which is really in the dialectic with all these definitions of CS debates, ie What is CS? counter-histories of counter-histories FTW!), “How to spend someone else’s bureaucracy in ten easy steps!” on how to get funding out/in/beside the institution, and “Producing surplus value in the whatever economy using CS” on exploiting the shit out of hard won critical literacies. So themes, good?
b) Theme t-shirts. We need to take it old school street protest and make our own t-shirts. They will be awesome.

10) Activities, now this is where it gets so awesome I can’t contain myself. We need a committee to organise this, which I can’t be part of so I don’t fuck it up with too much enthusiam. I’ll only offer two words: sing and star.

11) Promotion and fund raising. My first idea is to auction the conference on eBay and tell BoingBoing so it eventually filters through to the MSM. Maybe we could lean on MSM connections to make it happen. If some dickhead can auction off a night out with his mates then we can do the conference. Whoever wins the conference auction gets shared banner naming rights. I really hope it is the Sydney Institute. That would be awesome. But a white knight would suffice, or even a grey knight. This probably also needs a committee. I vote for Richard Branson being on the committee.

12) Oh, that reminds me. Find people to head up the committees. Hmmm, email me at glen dot r dot fuller at gmail dot com if you are keen.

You’ll note the humour. I think it was Elspeth Probyn who once said something along the lines of ‘we’ (being CS scholars, which I am not) need to use humour rather than outright critique when combating a social nemesis.

Summer days

It is hot in Perth, but in my parents’ house it is cool due to insulation in the roof. I haven’t been doing much since I’ve been back.

Much of my time has been spent discussing with my folks my plans to buy some sort of housing. They would very much like to help me out with some money towards a deposit as a result of the sale of my grandmother’s house. They can’t sell it at the moment, however. They can’t sell for the main reason I should buy due to the housing slump. There are currently two or three parts of this unit/studio buying business that occupy my mind.

The first immediate problem is to raise capital for a deposit. I have some limted savings. The bulk of my money will come from the sale of one of my cars (or parts of it at least), which has been in storage over here since I’ve been in Sydney. I also have a few matters with the Tax Man that I need to resolve, about 5 years worth of matters. Not that I owe money to anyone, rather, they owe me money.

The second problem is a complex mixture of two problems. Do I buy a tiny studio in my beloved inner-west of Sydney? I really do love Glebe. Quite simply, it is where I have been the happiest in my life. Or do I move out closer to work in Silverwater (anywhere between Burwood and Auburn)? Do I want a tiny studio or at most a modest one bedroom place or similar? I have little qualms about moving out to say Auburn to be within walking distance of work. Staying in the inner-west would require a greater finiancial strain and definitely a studio-style apartment that would be less modest abd more humble.

In all the advertisements I mull over they are described as ‘perfect investment opportunity/first home buyers’. Hopefully, the investment property buyers will have a dimished capacity to take part in the property game due to the financial crisis (I am not sure that, with all the hand wringing going on, if people in ‘power’ do not realise how happy this crisis makes some people!?! Pure glee!). I am certainly of the view that I am in fact both investing and first home buying. I don’t really regard any place I have lived so far as a home. A home is more complex that simply buying or inhabiting a place. I feel more at home in suburbs than I do in my actual place. The loose networks of casual connections between familiar faces and shop keepers makes me feel more at home than any brick and motar has so far in my life.

The investing and first home buying scenario complicates my options. If I was buying my home I would wait and save up enough of a deposit to afford a place in Glebe, which with my current finances would take about 5 or 6 years. I am not buying a home. My chief priority is to avoid paying rent as much as possible. I have a stable job now and have the means to buy a very very small place. I find the idea of building on that stability an attractive one, even if that means assuming the shackles of debt. My enthusiasm for properties on the humble end of the modest sprectrum is in part born of a desire to retain some mobility. I am hopefully earning the least amount of money I shall ever earn as an adult. I should be able to pay off the home debt quite comfortably.

Subscription-based streaming of tourist locales for private consumption on wall size screens

Idea: Subscription-based live streaming of tourist locales for private consumption on wall size screens.

One way remote, beach-side, famous or whatever tourist location-based businesses can make money is to have a multi-camera live video and audio recording of whatever view they have of their locale (and ambience produced) and then broadcast it live to subscribers over the internet.

Subscribers would then set up a multi-projector display on a wall of their house or business or whatever and have a wall-sized installation. Then they can have a taste of whatever location.

Think google street view, but live and fixed. Local governments in remote but beautiful parts of the world could sell their view on the internet.

Idea 2: An extension of the above. Think of a scenario of a chain of say four cafes in famous places around the world. Each would have the display setup on three walls and have recorder setup for the shop front. Imagine how freaky that would be to be sitting in a cafe that has one actual shop-front and then three other virtual shopfronts of equally famous locations.

It would be a useful way to think about the commodification of experience in relation to iconic tourist locations as it intersects with the post-industrial, service-based economy.