Free Journalism Essay: Media Audience
1.0Introduction and Aims
New technologies are a poisoned chalice for newspaper journalists and their audiences: at once equipping journalists with the resources they need to compete in the 21st century but at the same time threatening their very survival and forcing newspaper insiders to contemplate what Robert Rosenthal, the former Managing Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, called: “the greatest upheaval our industry and the institution of journalism has ever faced” (Beckett 2008, p.9).
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I have chosen newspapers as the basis of my inquiry into new technologies because it is a medium which some have observed to be in terminal decline due to flat lining circulations (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development 2010), merciless redundancies (Beckett 2008, p.27) and of course the rise of online journalism and new technologies (Bardoel 1999, p.379), one aspect of which is User Generated Content such as Youtube or Twitter where the audience is both a user and a producer of content (Birdsall 2007, p.1284). Web 2.0 technology has forced many commentators to reassess the ways in which both audience and audiences are understood (Nightingale 2011, p.7).
We currently live in a time when both print and online newspapers exist side-by-side and in some respects we have our feet in both the last remnants of the industrial wave of technology and what has been identified by some commentators as the “information society” (Toffler 1980). Two related aspects of the decline of newspapers is the rise of online journalism and the advent of citizen journalism enabled by new technologies and symbolized by the Korean online newspaper OhmyNews. The specific focus of the secondary research and this report is citizen-journalism and User Generated Content (UGC) and their effect on media audience theories with comparison to newspapers and the traditional models of audience research which describe common features: “vertical, top-down, passive, one-way flow of information” (Birdsall 2007, p.1284). UGC comes in many different forms of course and, although as pointed out above Web 2.0 has forced many commentators to reassess media audience theory (Nightingale, 2010 p.7), there is a lack of scrutiny of citizen journalism in media audience theories. This report hopes principally to correct some of this imbalance.
The aim of this report is consequently to understand whether the traditional understanding of the media audience applies to UGC and online journalism and if not, which theory can best be applied to them without falling foul of “technological determinism” (Bardoel 1999, p.386). The core structural components of audience theory, adopting the words of Nightingale (2011), can be distilled to firstly the active passive dimension and the micro-macro dimension. Both of these dialectics can explain UGC to a large extent and the work of both Nightingale (2011) and Jenkins (1999) will both be examined to see if new media and UGC can be located within present theories of audiences and indeed whether the term “audience” is still a useful term: will the death of newspapers also bring about the death of the traditional passive audience (Lievrouw & Livingstone, 2006, p.27 Valdivia, 2005, p.353)?
(a) Traditional audience theory and definitions
It is Nightingale’s (2011) analysis of the two dimensions of audience theory which is adopted for the purpose of this report and have been described usefully by Littlejohn as firstly a tension between “the idea that the audience is a mass public versus the idea that it is a small community,” and the tension between “the idea that the audience is passive versus the belief that it is active” (1996, p.310). This dual framework is a useful starting point for understanding what is now commonly perceived to be the old model and the new interactive world of UGC (Nightingale 2011, p.191). The traditional model is recognized as being one-directional and it is McQuail who produces a classic definition: “the audience concept implies an attentive, receptive but relatively passive set of listeners or spectators assembled in a more or less public setting” (McQuail, 2010 p.391). When offering a definition for audience theories McQuail puts forward three criteria: people, medium or channel, the content of the message(s) and time (Ibid). McQuail himself concedes, however, that Nightingale’s definition is best suited to the new media environment and implicitly acknowledges that his own definition is becoming redundant in the face of diversity. Nightingale’s definition runs as follows and embraces audience interactions:
“Audience as ‘the people assembled’…audience as the ‘people addressed’…audience as ‘happening’…audience as ‘hearing or audition’”. (Quoted from MacQuail 2011, p.399).
(b) UGC and the decline of newspapers:
According to Allan (2006) it was a speech made by media mogul Rupert Murdoch in 2005 which heralded the death of the newspaper, at least in its paper and ink format, in the irresistible current of new technology. As noted above there are many explanations for the demise of the print newspaper but chief among them are flat lining circulations (Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development 2010), merciless redundancies (Beckett 2008, p.27) and of course the rise of online journalism and new technologies (Bardoel 1999, p.379). User Generated Content (UGC) has, in the opinion of some, shifted the balance of power between consumer and the media by enabling the public to become more intimately involved with the process of deciding the content of news (Kucuka & Krishnamurthy 2007). According to Redden & Witschge (2011) however, there has been no such fundamental rebalancing to the consumer or even to the audience as ultimately it is the editor and the journalist who retains control. This approach is echoed by the experience of OhmyNews in citizen journalism where editorial control is retained (Kim and Hamilton 2006 p. 542).
According to Bevans (2008), UGC is any news related material produced by the public via the internet. UGC has enabled a very radical form of reporting to flourish: citizen journalism. This is a very new concept and as such there is a lack of analysis but the term first surfaced during the Indonesian tsunami and has grown rapidly ever since. Guardian blogger Neil Mcintosh saw this as a pivotal moment:
“… for those watching this small, comparatively insignificant world of media, this may also be remembered as a time when citizen reporting, through the force of its huge army of volunteers and their simple type and publish weblog mechanisms, finally found its voice, and delivered in a way the established media simply could not.” (Guardian Unlimited News Blog, 4 January 2005).
I have focused on existing research and scholarship for this report and have drawn sources from the leading theorists in media audiences as well as those commentators who described the death of print newspapers and the advent of UGC and citizen journalism. I have drawn the sources widely from books, journals and websites. I chose this methodology because I felt that small-scale empirical research would be unsatisfactory in firstly giving any kind of indication of whether or not present theories of audiences can be applied to UGC which is absolutely crucial to the focus of this work. The conceptual difficulties behind adopting any kind of surveys or any kind of qualitative research would be manifest and would have to be conducted on a much larger scale than a report of 2,000 words can allow. Furthermore this particular issue is one which can only be understood with a comprehensive look at past scholarship on media audiences. As pointed out above many commentators shy away from technological determinism in hailing a new epoch and so try to explain UGC in terms of existing audience theory.