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an independent media in Australia? « Previous | |Next »
November 7, 2008

Tim Dunlop has closed his Road to Surfdom weblog down, a few weeks or so after finishing his Blogocracy gig at News Ltd in order to write a book. These were high profile and successful weblogs and it is sad to see them become another archive. Still, blogging is a tough gig, and people move on to do different things.

In his final post Dunlop comments on the state of the mainstream media in Australia, and his diagnosis of its unhealthy condition is spot on. He says:

The fact is, Australia’s mainstream media is moribund. Although there are great journalists and other contributors out there, the institution itself is stuck in a hopeless, self-serving, tenured cul-de-sac and is failing in its job to properly inform, discuss, debate and entertain. Not to mention, reinvent itself. The form is dominated by a handful of insiders who have grown so content with their own lot that they are immune to sensible criticism and lack the self-awareness to reassess what it is they are doing. They are supported in this self-satisfied loop by a political class that is happy to exploit the status quo, feeding them leaks and other tidbits to keep the whole charade ticking over in such a way that nothing really changes.

I concur. It's not the liberal bias that the conservatives complain about that is the problem. It is that the media do not do their job as the watchdog of democracy. They have mostly dumped that tradition and shifted to the insider drip feed, infotainment and partisan opinion, whilst the old journalist ethos that underpinned informing discussing, debating has been buried.

Dunlop continues with his diagnosis:

The narratives, the memes, the discussions of our political and social life are set in concrete and endlessly recycled. We have learned to accept the daily, largely manufactured, controversies of political and social discussion in lieu of genuine examination. The same voices — and there are only about 20 of them — continue to define what is important or useful or worthy of discussion and the few organs of the mainstream media keep churning them out. Their lack [of] seriousness is only matched by their lack of courage.

Spot on.There is little by way of analysis and general examination of policy issues and problems in the mainstream media. We are subjected to manufactured moral outrage, crude ideology by entrenched economic interests and the outpourings of the political noise machines. Many journalists recycle media releases, and they have no knowledge of, or interest in, policy issues. Nor do they see this as a cause of concern. The media's political focus is primarily on leadership conflict within the political parties and between them.

This dumbing down or decline of the mainstream media creates a space in a digital Australia for an "independent media" to pick up the watchdog for democracy role. What then is the condition of the "independent media"? Dunlop says that:

there are some new voices out there trying to make a difference. Some of them are thinktanks, some of them of grassroots organisations, some of them are blogs or other forms of online media. None of them has really “broken through” in the way that is necessary to make a real difference, but they are a start.

This space is quite healthy and vigorous in a grassroots way, as the new and independent media slowly replace the little magazines of the pre-internet era. However, their public presence and influence is low apart from Crikey, and there is little of the cross fertilisation of ideas between journalists, bloggers and thinktanks as there is in the US. Most of us in the new media still live in our silos.

So where to now? What do we need to do? Dunlop adds that at this moment we need to foster an independent media and enable it to move into a new and more vibrant phase. This means that people need:

to think about what needs to be done and what we can do. Citizenship matters and it is too important than to leave in the hands of the cynical gatekeepers who currently decide what is important in this democracy of ours.

True. What is the next step? A professional independent media says Dunlop. What do we need to do to produce the professional product that Dunlop says is necessary? Dunlop says it's hard cash--financial support. Mark Bahnisch, in picking up Dunlop's post at Larvatus Prodeo, concurs. Dunlop's call for a genuinely professional product, he says, requires the shift from amateur bloggers to professional writers, and that this step requires some way to earn a living from the writing so the writers can write full time:
not to put too fine a point on it - if we really wanted to try to provide the sort of independent media we think we deserve in this country, we’d need several people working full time on such an effort. There is just no other way.The frustrating thing is that I know we’ve collectively got the expertise to do it, but we can’t, because we don’t have the seed money to even get started. (And I very much include the LP community in that “we”.)

That is probably true as well--the expertise is there, the cash is not. Bahnisch appears to be reinventing the professional journalist in the mainstream media for the digital age. As a collective blog LP may evolve into some kind of online magazine with some blogs.

However, not everyone wants to be a full time citizen journalist in the independent media--an example of what is meant by citizen journalism? Many do want to do do other things than practice citizen journalism---as they are academics, policy wonks, artists, writers of books etc. If the internet's technology has opened up many ways for us to become produsers, then diverse opportunities beckon, especially for those with an entrepreneurial bent, or an eye to innovation.

| Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at 5:53 AM | | Comments (26)


Tim started around 9/11 and figures Obama is a good time to quit. A lot of his commenters agree.

Ages ago someone at Gatewatching suggested that the blogosphere evolved and continued as a response to right wing nastiness and they were shouted down for it, but I thought at the time, and still do, that it's pretty much right. Ken commented on his own retirement from RTS thread that he wasn't enjoying blogging anymore. It sounded as if he was just sick of being angry.

Blogs come into their own when people feel strongly enough about something that they're motivated to participate. The sorts of things that generated that level of motivation don't come along every day and are likely to be even less frequent in this new global environment.

As someone more interested in comments than bloggers, Mark's piece conceptualises bloggers in pretty much the same way as the MSM locates the commentariat. I don't see how that model can survive long when we're seeing a shift away from trust in centralised authority.

It will be interesting to watch what happens from here on in.

Is anger the only motivation of independent bloggers? Why not a desire to be a part of, and contribute to, the flow of discussion in the Canberra beltway? To be an insider produser?

Bloggers give all sorts of reasons for blogging, different blogs do different things, and anger isn't the only thing that motivates people to comment. There was a lot of activity over the apology to the stolen generations and there's been a lot over Obama, examples of people being motivated for positive reasons.

So much has changed. People seem to be motivated by all kinds of things. It's just that the neocon motivation isn't there any more.

The newly established Pundit in NZ is one (good) example of a development in the independent media. It is a daily online current affairs magazine that was established to counter the dumbing down of the mainstream media. In its own words:

The point of Pundit is to create a community where current affairs can be analysed and debated. We've pulled together a team of top commentators to lead the conversation, but it is meant to be a conversation. Between all of us. We want your contributions. Sure, that means commenting on the blogs and features you find here, but it's more than just that

In contrast, Crikey is about more Crikey rather than endeavoring to nurture a public conversation on public issues.

I couldn't comment on your interesting post on The Interpreter, which shows how money can make a serious difference and allow full time writing. You say:

You might argue that as part of the Lowy Institute, The Interpreter doesn't really qualify as 'independent' media. Nor have we ever pretended to be a 'citizen journalism' outfit. But I doubt I would get a look in with senior politicians and the many other influential voices I have access to if I was an independent blogger — it's the Lowy Institute name that opens those doors.

I concur. Your blog is one example of what we need more of---something inbetween the Canberra Press Gallery, Crikey, independent weblogs, citizen journalists, political speeches and Parliamentary inquiries; a space that is concerned with policy issues. To open some of those the doors--especially around foreign policy-- means being attached to a think tank, as you point out. .

I see The Interpreter as akin to the excellent Washington Note run by Steve Clemons. I look forward to reading your interviews with politicians --an greatt idea provided they questions dig beneath the spin and asked informed searching questions.

On a personal note that kind of inside the Beltway work provides raw material for people like me to engage in the process of analysis and interpretation.

The Australian blog movement is more about public intellectuals than entrepreneurial media though. Nearly all the big names in the Australian-blogosphere are fringe public intellectuals or come from the institutions that are pre-requisite for being a public intellectual; such as academia, government policy maker, former politician, etc.

If you look at the Australian blogosphere as providing wider scope for public intellectuals it has been a success to this point.

We write because we can, yes we can. And sometimes because we must. I'd be interested in a deeper exploration of what professionalism implies in blogging or political writing in general.

you are right the Australian blog movement is more about public intellectuals than entrepreneurial media and in providing wider scope for public intellectual to practice their skills.

I am wary of the amateur /professionalism duality.

Professionalism in the first cut would mean doing it on a full time basis; better writing, longer posts; more sophisticated technology; better analysis; more time spent on the craft.

I would like to see a blog where knowledgeable people could write occasional longish posts to stimulate an extended conversation in the comments thread. One where various aspects of an issue were examined and maybe a consensus reached.

Unfortunately I don't see it happening on a blog that is open to public comment. One thing that took the fun out of writing at Surfdom was the way comments threads would be hijacked by people with their own interminable turgid non sequiturs, or corrupted by trolls, or muddled by people who were determined to misinterpret a post on the basis of my perceived political affiliations (which never existed).

Another turn-off was the reality that despite the huffing about supposed intellectual independence, original thinking meets with fierce criticism in the 'progressive' blogosphere. At Surfdom, I could toss off a formulaic hatchet job on Miranda Devine's latest op-ed and be acclaimed with hearty cheers but anything outside the well-worn anti-conservative talking points would be met with a puzzled "Which page of the book is that on?" response or accusations that I was a mole for the Liberal Party or News Limited or some such nonsense.

I can't see any way at the moment in which a blog could have a wide audience (which would be necessary to get decent funding) AND be a mature, balanced source of public discussion. People who want to do the latter would just get overwhelmed by the crazies and the one-eyed zealots. Such are the consequences of universal access to the internet.

I have to admit that I was put off by the comments on Road to Surfdom that came from the crazies and partisans of the left of centre field. I didn't learn much from the comments on the issue. I found them quite depressing. That is why I never participated.

I've always been puzzled by people not using the openness offered by the comment threads of a blog to engage in a conversation on a public issue that concerns them. Why so? Don't they have the skills to do this? Or don't they want to?

"I am wary of the amateur /professionalism duality."

Agreed. It's the same duality that privileges the MSM in the first place. That's also what makes me wary of the way discussion on this is developing around the place. I think Cam's partly right about the way the Ozblogosphere has developed, but there's also an 'alternative media' model which, to my mind, undermines the 'think tank' model.

Or is that just me associating the word 'media' with broadcast instead of participation?

I'm with Gary on RTS. In the end I'd comment out of some sense of loyalty, but knew that if there were 4 comments by the time I got there the hijackers had already derailed the thing. It's the price you pay for a big fan base it seems.

'Don't they have the skills to do this? Or don't they want to?'

There might be a clue in some of the valedictory comments at Surfdom which imply that it was part of some sort of heroic resistance to the evils of Howardism and the Bush Administration and can now claim victory. I never ever saw the site as having a political mission and I don't believe Tim Dunlop did either, although that's not based on any private knowledge of his opinions. Nevertheless many regulars clearly saw it as an organ of propaganda and were outraged if the party line was ever questioned. Spoiler commenters also viewed it in party-political terms and were more concerned to attack Teh Left than to discuss the substance of an issue.

BTW I over-stated my case when I wrote that extended conversations were improbable on 'a blog that is open to public comment'. Clearly that does happen sometimes on many blogs, including this one, John Quiggin, Andrew Norton and occasionally on LP. My observation was directed at blogs with wide readership that could conceivably get enough funding to employ professional staff.

what is the 'alternative media' model which you say undermines the 'think tank' model? I have no idea what the 'alternative media' model refers to. Is it Crikey? Or Pundit mentioned by Anon above?

Or does what you have in mind have more to do with participation than broadcast? Is it citizen journalism? Can you give us an example in Australia or the US?

Can you give us an example of "blogs with wide readership that could conceivably get enough funding to employ professional staff." Are there Australian ones? Or are you referring to ones in the US?

Sorry Nan I expressed myself clumsily. My comments have mainly been discussing hypothetical blogs and I confused things by naming some real ones.

My main thought now is that one can have an 'amateur' blog with a small readership that can have a constructive, extended discussions about issues, or one could have a commercial blog with enough readers to support a paid staff, in which case there is virtually no chance that a constructive conversation will develop. One can have one or the other but not both.

Perhaps a group of retirees might emerge who make a substantial commitment to a blog on a non-commercial basis. That might have potential. The actual costs of running the blog are within the means of self-funded retirees or they can use their regular government 'vote-for-us' payments :). Trouble is nobody can afford to retire now ...

That's how I've interpreted the ways people have been talking about this around the blogs over the past few days. Some commenters talk about blogs as their news and analysis sources, an alternative to MSM, thus alternative media. Others talk about blogs as somewhere for nutting out ideas, as Ken said "a blog where knowledgeable people could write occasional longish posts to stimulate an extended conversation in the comments thread. One where various aspects of an issue were examined and maybe a consensus reached." That's what I'm thinking of when I say 'think tank' model.

Public Opinion would be an example of the think tank model. Sometimes, anyway.

you say:

a group of retirees might emerge who make a substantial commitment to a blog on a non-commercial basis. That might have potential. The actual costs of running the blog are within the means of self-funded retirees

My understanding is that setting up and running a professional looking weblog is relatively cheap---$3000-$5000. So you are talking about the wages of the full time writers. That would be $100,000 plus would it not?

Or would the self-funded retirees be the writers?

Public opinion may have some of the characteristics of a think tank blog, but it is not attached to any think tank --as say The Interpreter (Lowy Institute); or Jennifer Marohasy at the IPA. These are run by full time writers who are on the staff of, or employed by, the think tank.

Public opinion is an example of what Tim Dunlop would call independent media; one that needs to lift its game by becoming more professional (my posts are often slapdash and badly written) if it is to have any "cut through" presence in the public sphere. It's potential is limited by not having full time writers. So it doesn't grow its readership.

I meant the retirees would do the research and the writing Peter. If they were suitably talented there's no reason why a bunch of dedicated amateurs couldn't do a 'professional' job, a bit like some of the community radio stations. Expert writers might contribute an occasional post without having to worry about moderating comments.

Now that is a promising model. Do you know people who are thinking of doing this? Who want to do this? Are in a position to do this? Or is this a possibility in the future?

Nah Gary just thinking aloud .. erm thinking online, you know what I mean. I'd be surprised if some people didn't do it sooner or later and I guess their success or lack thereof will depend on the quality of what they write and how they manage the comments threads.

The think tank/media distinction is only analytical. I don't know of any independent blog with either of those narrow purposes. There are problems with the terms 'think tank' and 'media' as well.

Still, I think it's true as Ken says, that some blogs lend themselves to thinking, problem solving, discussing without prejudice, more than others. For mine, that's more appealing than just being informed, which can be depressing.

Most of the literature on blogging and internet use has 35 plus, white collar professionals as the main users, but when you focus on commenters it's (probably not) surprising how many are retired or on some kind of pension. So I wonder why Ken's self funded retirees haven't done something more substantial. Mind you, if they did it would probably be dedicated to their own interests.

Personally, I think we're in a kind of frontier period. All those kids studying media and journalism at uni now will have to go somewhere, and not all of them will be happy to shelve their degrees to go and work at KMart or Centrelink.

pity. It is such a lovely idea.

I see that Overland has an increased web presence. That is good news.