When is a writer not a journalist but a blogger, and when is a writer/blogger a journalist? Who decides? Does it matter?
Traditional or mainstream or 'old' media, and its power affiliates, are pushing back at the moment against the proliferation of small 'new media' online ventures fighting to be heard. Those broking power in the world of media are pushing hard because, as political commentator and ex-Press Gallery journalist Mungo MacCallum
states, “these are not normal times and those making the judgements [media owners, editors, journalists] are anything but impartial”
Three incidents highlighting the tension in the journalist/blogger, blogger/journalist dynamic occurred in media-world in the last few weeks.
Callum Davison [@callumdav], a freelance journalist, who had sought accreditation as Press Gallery representative for Independent Australia
[@independentaus], received notification that he had been knocked back
Then blogger, commentator and author of The Rise of the Fifth Estate
(2012), Greg Jericho
[@GrogsGamut], notorious overnight for being 'outed' from his blogger pseudonym by The Australian's
James Massola, was hired as a journalist by the not-quite-yet-launched Guardian Australia
(online). (Tweet: “Katharine Viner
@KathViner Delighted to announce: #GuardianAUS joined by @NickEvershed, @GrogsGamut, @SimonJackman, @bkjabour, @heldavidson, @olliemilman, @mikewsc1 12:06 PM - 1 May 13”).
As well, on Monday 29 April, a new kid on the online publication block launched, its aspirations embedded in a somewhat classically titled masthead: The Citizen
These events resurface questions of who gets to define who is or is not a working journalist, how that defining occurs and to what standards a journalist, once defined as such, should be working – including ethical standards. If Callum Davidson (who holds a journalism degree and has worked freelance) can't be a Press Gallery member, could – if he wanted to and applied – Greg Jericho, who may never have actually worked as a journalist before? What about Margaret Simons, now overseeing The Citizen
, who certainly has
worked as a journalist?
We know that many journalists from newspapers and magazines now producing in digital and print media have jumped or been pushed in the last year or two. It's been hard not
to hear the cries of anguish across the industry (especially if you follow journalists on Twitter). But we may be less aware of just how steadily the fourth estate has been bleeding into the so-called fifth and how many people who have worked as journalists are doing or have done real time in behind any number of online ventures that Twitter tags #newmedia. (Nor is it easy to clarify just how many once-were-bloggers have slid the other way across the divide into working as a journalist with reasonably established traditional media, albeit, as with Guardian Australia
, on a digital end-product only.)
What does this two-way drifting make of the so-called divide between the fourth estate and the fifth? Are they still pretty much at standoff, with the fourth accusing the fifth of pea-green envy because they want to be the fourth, but don't have the 'right' credentials? Or, are they collaborating more, as Greg Jericho suggested should happen in his The Rise of the Fifth Estate
? Or is the fourth trying to annex aspects of the fifth it can make fit old media models, while still pushing back against aspects it finds threatening?
Looking at how some of the #newmedia sees itself proffers some first clues, perhaps.
Amongst the more established online ventures set up by, or sometimes employing, journalists, New Matilda
[@newmatilda] describes itself as an 'independent journalism site'; Independent Australia
[@independentaus] as an 'online journal'; The Global Mail
[@TheGlobalMail] as a 'not-for-profit news and features website'; The King’s Tribune
[@TheKingsTribune] as a magazine, now in the form of a subscription email; and The Hoopla
[@TheHoopla] as an 'online news and magazine site'.
Then there's Crikey
[@crikey_news], which describes its own 'mode of delivery' as 'website and email' and its mission (partly) thus: “Crikey sees its role as part of the so-called
fourth estate that acts as a vital check and balance on the activities of government, the political system and the judiciary.” Crikey
described The Citizen
as 'a new site featuring the work of students, staff and freelance writers'
. This is a tad disingenuous given that The Citizen
, while first stating that it is a 'teaching tool', also states:
“Finally, THE CITIZEN aims to be a serious and worthwhile publication in its own right, with an emphasis on quality journalism that, in part, seeks to ‘back fill’ on issues and events neglected by mainstream media battling cut-backs and cost constraints.”
This makes The Citizen
not just a 'site' (for students), but a publication in direct competition with Crikey
. Experienced ex-mainstream journalist and now academic Margaret Simons is Editor-in-Chief of The Citizen
and Simon Mann, ex-The Age
, amongst other things, is Editor. If you don't know Margaret Simons’ work, and her very lateral thinking on where journalism is headed, her 2012 e-book is available from Amazon: Journalism at the Crossroads: Crisis and Opportunity for the Press
. Reading Chapter 5: 'The Citizen's Agenda' should prove illuminating.
Of the online ventures mentioned so far, most see themselves as paperless equivalents of newspapers or print magazines, thereby claiming a space in the fourth estate.
Well may they claim, but are they staking in very soft sand?
There are other online ventures, too, that just may be making claim. These began life more as blogs: community blogs set up for contributions by a group of writers, only one or two of whom might have a background in journalism or even public relations. They tend to describe their raisons d'être
in similar terms to one of the aims of The Citizen
, that is 'to fill the gaps', even if their motivation seems more frustration with the inadequacies of political
reportage in the mainstream, or resisting what they see as bias in the existing media, than with omission via industry cost and cut-back.
There's Australians for Honest Politics (AFHP)
[@NoFibs]. With a 'sub-banner' of 'Citizen Journalism' it describes itself as 'a new citizens journalism project in the tradition of one of the first, Webdiary'
was in turn a first citizen journalism effort run initially under the Fairfax banner by journalist Margo Kingston [@margokingston1] and later run as an independent venture by her and others. Kingston argued strongly that Webdairy was not a blog
, partly because a community of citizens wrote for it, and one would guess she might argue the same for AFHP
, which she set up with Tony Yegles [@geeksrulz] who had some background with Webdairy
in later years. Whether Kingston considers AFHP
to sit within the fourth or the fifth estate might be gleaned from her 'outsider' comment
: “Me, I feel relaxed and comfortable sitting outside the system looking in. In my day, I was the first highly paid mainstream ‘blogger’, regularly on radio and TV. The nasty right, exemplified by Tim Blair, were the volunteer outsiders. Now Tim is ensconced in News Ltd, Andrew Bolt is the most-read mainstream blogger, and I’m the volunteer ignored by the MSM.
“Times change. I like where I am more than where I was. Because I’m free.”
There's the Australian Independent Media Network (AIMN)
, which has the subtitle 'An information alternative'. Its welcome post also flags the term 'citizen journalist'. It references Tim Dunlop's [@timdunlop] piece Media pass: citizen journalists need an industry body
whose headline paragraph states:
“Australian bloggers have a lot to offer in public debate, but an independent body is needed to establish the credibility and increase the exposure of our citizen journalists …”
and whose last sentence reads: “Diversity of opinion is vital to the proper functioning of a democracy, but diversity without reach is just noise.” AIMN's
welcome post also notes: “Over the coming days and weeks you’ll see this site take shape and the network develop, followed by what we endeavour to be quality, unbiased, balanced, independent journalism.”
And then there's Ausvotes2013
[@Ausvotes2013]. Is it a bird, is it a plane, is it – Superblog? The last, it seems, since it has just won the 'Commentary' category of the Australian Writers' Centre Best Australian Blogs 2013 (where one of the judges was Greg Jericho). With a subheading of 'Election policy wonkage and much more' it describes itself as a 'group blog' and states: “The concept for this blog is simple – to provide the observations, analysis and opinion that are missing in the traditional media’s coverage of the election. In short, to provide the perspectives we wish we could read in the MSM.”
But to return to the The Citizen
, it seems, then, to be competition not only for Crikey
, but for any number of longer-term #newmedia ventures as well as a number of recent 'online start-ups', this latter term being one way the Canberra Press Gallery described the growing band of independent, small-press-like online presences seeking real (as opposed to virtual) space in the Press Gallery's wing at Canberra's Parliament House
. This Crikey
piece doesn't quite tell us why Independent Australia's
freelance journalist Callum Davidson didn't make it into the Press Gallery although a further piece from AFHP
adds the insider colour of parliamentary security needs.
But there's the rub. Neither in the office space nor probably in the needs of Parliament House security do we really find the answer to why a Press Gallery pass was refused to Callum Davidson.
One further reason is suggested by The Citizen's
launch edition via a critical article from Sydney Morning Herald
Contributions Editor, and sometimes freelancer, Gay Alcorn, Want to be a journalist? Bloggers, online media sites invited to sign on to ’journalism code of ethics'
. She states: “The journalists’ union, the Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance, wants to bring them into the professional fold, at least tentatively. And the Australian Press Council, which regulates press standards, says one of the most critical issues facing the media is defining who, exactly, is a journalist in the digital age.
“The union has approached 20 websites it believes have shown signs they are interested in ethics, accuracy and paying contributors once they earn enough to do so. It says that so far, 12 have signed up to the union’s ‘Charter of Excellence and Ethics’, to be launched mid-year.”
According to Alcorn, both The Hoopla
and The King’s Tribune
are among the 12 'websites' that have signed up to the MEAA's Charter. Via tweet on the 29th April, Margo Kingston advised she had signed on too – presumably on behalf of AFHP
. (If Independent Australia
did, would that mean Callum Davidson would be accepted by the Press Gallery?)
Alcorn's piece takes us back to the same issue Tim Dunlop raised. But Dunlop posited a different approach: that 'citizen journalists' might, rather than being drawn into existing press structures and regulation, band together in: “… an informal framework that allows smaller websites to acquire advantages currently limited to what we might call the legacy media, the mainstream journalists, who, by convention as much as anything, are given society's permission to pursue stories.”
Clearly, the advent of online media and the blogger/journalist dichotomy is proving a conundrum to those who claim the 'inside'. All kinds of attempts to corral and brand the small online media ventures are being made, either by keeping them outside an 'august' institution such as the Press Gallery, or by pulling them into an arguably equally august institution, such as the MEAA (and offering access to Walkley Training, no less), or perhaps by offering a lesser version of the MEAA's approach, a kind of outside/inside position, as in 'band together, at least in a loose structure, but self-regulate'.
It's a conundrum raising some significant questions – especially for an election year. If the role of the fourth estate is to keep check on the first to third, and the rise of the fifth has been to balance the perceived inadequacies of the fourth, is the fifth better not to join any part of the fourth's power structures? How well can you check and balance if you become part of what you are checking? Does one challenge the status quo best from inside or outside (or is that all false dichotomy?)
If the quality of journalism is plummeting into sensationalist partisan regime-change-bent 'crap', as is often being suggested in this election year, but the ownership is large and powerful, should all the small independents come together to provide some truly competitive weight? Or does coming together, perhaps as one media producer with many arms, or perhaps as a loosely affiliated regulatory body, undercut entirely the potentially more radical action available to many smaller and diverse voices?
Are we even asking the right questions?
Does joining the Press Gallery really matter for #newmedia, or is this a body now diminishing in power and 'on the way out', and different bodies are needed?
In the flurry of Twitter activity following Callum Davidson's rejection by the Gallery, Andrew Elder tweeted:
@awelder @margokingston1 @MargaretOConno5 @SpudBenBean Current President is @PhillipCoorey, who despises socmed. Good luck. Am trying to abolish PG.”
Within 10 days Elder [@awelder] had written this: Shadows on the Press Gallery wall 2: Where the action isn't
. He noted:
“Today, press gallery journalists still think they are Where The Action Is, despite many years of evidence to the contrary. They are confirmed in that opinion by their dull-witted editors, and by the boards of the organisations which currently employ them. When broadcast media laid off hundreds of journalists last year, the fact that very few jobs went from the press gallery was a sign that they'd botched it.” Is it that journalism as we know it is, itself, defunct for what was once its reading public, as Bushfire Bill [@BushfireBill] very recently argued:
“People will not pay to see their beliefs and ideologies, their aspirations and loyalties, their need to be informed and to remain so, trashed by two-bit gurus with a bully pulpit put at their disposal, rabbiting on in the most offensive way about dinner parties, leaks from insiders and their own benighted opinions.
“It just won’t happen”.
Last, but not least: PolitiFact
has launched in Australia. Its Australian editor is former SMH
Editor-in-Chief Peter Fray [@PeterFray]. Will it police across all media, old and new, checking facts? Via its 'Truth-O-Meter TM', will it hound to metered truth all journalist/bloggers or blogger/journalists? Should it? How would it decide, given the ceaseless ferment in the fourth and fifth?
Perhaps we should ask Peter Fray!
What do you think?