In the latest instalment of her Sunday Age commentary on the intertubes election, Rachel Hills was kind enough to quote me:
Mark Bahnisch, founder of leading Australian blog Larvatus Prodeo, believes that, to change this, citizen journalists need to focus on beats not being covered in the mainstream media, and to find original voices.
To elaborate on that a little, I think that “citizen journalism” is possibly an unfortunate choice of term. As Hills writes:
It can be difficult to determine exactly where the line between citizen and professional journalism falls. After all, even hardened political commentators are also citizens and there is substantial overlap between independent and mainstream media, both in personnel and in the exchange of information and ideas.
There is an increasing recognition (well analysed by Margaret Simons in her recent book The Content Makers) that journalism as a form can, and perhaps should, exist independently from the medium which delivers it. Just as “blogging” is now too narrow a concept for what has become a practice rather than a platform, so too I suspect that aspects of “journalism” crowd out what’s involved in “citizen”. That is to say, I question what value is added if those who see themselves as citizen journos try to do the same sort of thing in the same sort of stereotyped way as journos do. That’s not meant to be a criticism of journalists as such, but rather a recognition that the constraints of editorial power, format and traditional form place real limits on creativity and innovation. Although CitJ doesn’t have the resources that big J Journalism does, its contribution should be distinctive and not an echo. I’m not sure at all that interviewing candidates and asking a bland set of questions (“what are the main issues in this electorate?”) becomes interesting just because it’s popped up on YouTube.
Some of this might be compounded because many of those attracted to CitJ are actually journalism or media students doing a bit of resume building – there’s nothing wrong with that – but it would seem to me to encourage a more formulaic style of practice to pad out the resume and the writing portfolio. While Jason Wilson of youdecide2007 is right to suggest that CitJ has the potential to break outside of an “insider’s perspective”, actually doing that requires something more than just being someone who’s “reporting” but not getting paid for it. None of this should be taken as critical – I’m well aware that CitJ in Australia is in its infancy, but it is worth doing some thinking about what role it can play, and how it can play that role.
Hills points to Election Tracker as a positive example of CitJ practice. She writes:
Where these sites, often referred to as “citizen journalism”, differ from traditional media is that while the content they publish might be of professional quality, that content is as much about the experience of the contributor as it is about informing the reader.
That’s spot on, I think, and that’s what’s good about blogging (and for that matter, much of the writing in online media such as Crikey and New Matilda) – the sense that a different perspective is being offered, and one that doesn’t just offer a distinctive voice but also is deeply personal. The interactivity that online writing fosters also adds to the fact that what we are or should be seeing is a conversation between persons rather than a “professional” message directed to an audience. If you think about it, this isn’t necessarily all that new – the great “literary journalists” such as Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion exemplify at least the first aspect of this form of writing.
So my advice to aspiring citizen journos would be to put the personal into the political.
Election Tracker facilitates that, because as well as filing stories, the writers comment on the experience through blogging on the same web platform, and through various other aspects of the site.
It’s something you can also do via the YouTube interview, and a good example of how to do it, in my view, is this interview with Julian Burnside QC conducted by Jessie Taylor, who blogs here. Taylor lets Burnside speak for himself, and doesn’t push too hard for a “money quote”, but her questions are also well framed to express both her own view and that which others might want to be put to him. The way the video is filmed also says “discussion” or “conversation” rather than “interview”, and folks can flesh out where Taylor is coming from by reading her blog, and a Facebook group she started which is what led me to this video. So, what we have here, I think, is an individual expressing a set of concerns and using a variety of platforms to reach and discuss those concerns with others who have similar interests – and that’s very far from the model of a “journalist” writing for an “audience”, and a lot more interesting.
No doubt there’ll be all sorts of reflections on the online coverage of the election – and Hills is quite right to say that one of the most fascinating aspects of it in an Australian context is that there are far more people writing about it than ever before – but it’s also worth taking stock while we’re still in the midst of it. I’d be very interested in what LP folks think has and hasn’t worked, what’s good and what’s mediocre, about the intertubes coverage of this election.