Thought fragments: Media Power, Audiences, and Conversation

Following Axel Bruns tweeting of the QUT Industry Conversations: The future of journalism in Australia where Sally Young was making some good observations about the current state of the journalism industry. Sally examines political communication and the media industry. What sparked my interest in this was Axel’s tweet:

Of course, one response to this is to note, as Axel reports Sally as noting, that alternative spaces have emerged primarily online:

This got me thinking about power relations and the media and precisely what is the character of media power in this shifting media environment. I replied to Axel with:

In the past, media power was largely defined in terms of being the power to direct attention (by controlling media channels, hence the problem with media ownership) combined with the power to represent newsworthy events (people, activities, objects, etc.) with a particular ideological bias. Media power was largely collapsed into the politics of media representation. This was combatted on two fronts. Firstly by advocating for increased diversity in media ownership and secondly by advocating for an increased diversity of ‘media voices’ to give expression and self-representation to populations outside of the ideological representive frame. At stake in all this was the reproduction of a hegemonic social order, where ‘common sense’ itself was felt to be programmed by whichever interests held the most media power.

Something has changed however. The above still holds true, but only in limited circumstances as it no longer (if it ever did) defines the entire field of mediated representation. There is a different logic to media power in these ‘alternative spaces’ that Sally and many other people have noted, and that is what I started thinking about based on Sally’s reported comments.

In March 2010 she gave a paper as part of the Papers in Parliament program of the Senate on “Politics on the Media Today“. In it she presents an account of the decreasing audience share for ‘politics’ through traditional media channels (broadcast and print) and the apparent trend of increasing prevalence of ‘politics’ found on the internet. In response to a question at the lecture for the Senate paper, Sally notes that in the context of the coverage of politics that “the people who aren’t interested already, and they are harder to capture”.

Sally is indicating that those holding on to the traditonal models in the media industry are finding it hard to adapt to the new media environment. The new media industry is governed by communities of interests with their own horizons of community engagement determined by these interests. It seems apparent to me (and others!) that a new form of media power is derived from the capacity to capture participants in such a way that the emerging alternative spaces of expression and conversation overlap with the the traditional audience. ‘Owning the conversation’ is what is at stake. How does this happen?

To understand how the audience participates in a community requires following the relations that lead the audience to the community and then hold their interest. Google Adwords is a classic example in the new media economy of media power. Gunther Kress argues that for any given text in a media environment dominated by writing (such as print journalism), the reading path (entry point) is predetermined. You begin at the ‘start’, hence the importance in journalism of a catchy lead. In what he calls ‘multi-modal’ texts the reading path is determined by the criteria of relevance that a reader (as part of a community) brings to the text. For example, on a web page or a new magazine layout, the reader may engage with a flashy image first and then read some text and then flick through more images. There is no single point of entry.

In Kress’s description the community is assumed, but what if one is looking for a ‘community’? Seeding search results with a commercial slant means that the virtual marketplace of ideas or products (or both as cultural commodities) has an ‘entry point’ that is largely determined. #hastags on twitter serve a similar function, they delineate a common thread in the conversation. Paid #hastags direct the conversation to be anchored to particular commercial interests. Social media serves as a driver to media content. Part of the participatory media models that Henry Jenkins and others have written about is that the audience is now an integral part of the mode of distribution.

Then there is the actual ‘space’ of conversation, that is the designed space of the website or blog. In the conservative news space Alan Jones is a strong media channel for disseminating ideologically biased opinion, for example. While Andrew Bolt’s blog is just one of the spaces that ‘owns’ the conversation. Both are ideological in the traditional sense, but Bolt’s blog is organised around and services the community of interest that fuels his large comment threads.

An emergent form of media power — ’emergent’ only to the extent that the media environment is constantly changing with different players, it isn’t ’emergent’ in the sense that structurally it is already established — is to be able to capture a particular community of interest so that (for the traditional media industry) it overlaps with audiences. Hence, Sally Young’s concern that the audience for political coverage in traditional media is falling, yet she is optimistic that engagement with political reportage in ‘alternative spaces’ is increasing. This connects with some of my other thinking about MasterChef (!!!), media and politics that I’ll return to at a later point.

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