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Journalism's life after death


Atton, Chris and Hamilton, James F: Alternative Journalism. Sage, UK, 2008. ISBN 9781412947039

Seattle Post-IntelligencerLike a choc-top at the movies, traditional 'Big Media' journalism is having its head ripped off at the moment. Thousands of newspaper reporters and editors in the United States and the UK have lost their permanent jobs in the past year.

In the United States, subscribers to venerable printed newspapers such as the 100-year-old Christian Science Monitor and the 146-year-old Hearst regional, the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (pictured), now have to settle for daily online delivery instead.

And even in Brisbane, newsprint addicts who also like Fairfax products have become accustomed to reading their version of the daily news online at The Brisbane Times.

Question is: as the choc-top is ripped off, is there anything other than lily-white ice-cream under there, or is there something of substance perhaps, like those no-boring bits products on the tele?

Newspaper circulations have been sinking (i.e. not keeping pace with population growth) for the past 30 years, but since the global financial crisis heated up, thousands of journalists have actually been sacked.

The comparative few from Fairfax in Australia late last year have been dwarfed by those thousands overseas. The rot might yet still spread deeper here. Murdoch's News Corporation last month announced comparatively huge losses, and Fairfax bosses have hinted strongly at more adjustments.

Of course, there is a big 'so what?' factor here. Thousands of miners, manufacturing workers and retail staff have gotten the bump since June and the numbers say layoffs are only going to get worse. Why should we feel any sadder just because journalists are feeling the pinch?

Perhaps it's because journalists — at least those worth bothering about — are the canaries in our national mine. You might get a build up of lethal gases but unless the canaries are there in the first place to tweet, you'll never know. Then everyone dies, including the canary. Unless journalists are there to help us stay in touch with the problems and issues of our society, the gas can close in without warning.

So it's reassuring to see a book which offers an alternative to the canary-shaped journalism which seems to be keeling over right now.

Two academic researchers, Chris Atton and James F Hamilton, have combined to show us that, despite what the Big Media bigwigs of the establishment say, there is an alternative to the journalism of Murdoch, Fairfax and the ABC, and internationally of the BBC, CNN and Reuters. In fact there are many alternatives. This is apparently also news to many journalists themselves, judging by the industry moaning now.

Atton and Hamilton demonstrate, step by careful step, what these alternatives to the existing media look and sound like. They point out the successful business models which allow them to continue and become successful.

Their essential message is: the mere fact that established media journalists say 'journalism is dying', doesn't make it so.

Traditional journalists today and last year have been worrying that the world as they know it — employed journalism beneath the roofs of Murdoch, Packer, Stokes, Fairfax and even Aunty ABC — is changing.

Well, it is, but Atton and Hamilton demonstrate that the move to alternative journalism, which, admittedly, includes amateur as well as professional citizen journalism, blogging, YouTube and Flikr, along with many others, has a long history which predates the Internet, the BBC, and the famous big-name newspapers of the 19th and 20th enturies.

For instance, the 'new journalism' of the 1960s and 70s and the bloggers of the 21st century might be more accurately described as 'newer versions' of the Industrial Revolution phenomenon of popular presses challenging political journalism of the day.

I enjoyed seeing what my mates and I did for 20 years in the Murdoch Empire being described as 'bourgeois journalism' … it is exactly that, of course, although we would have been horrified to hear it so described.

And if the mainstream journos of today reckon they're taking the fight up to their various governments, they might consider what Atton and Hamilton call 'oppositional journalism' and get real about the task of criticism.

There are serious and gritty topics in Alternative Journalism and some questions are raised but not solved … a nice contemporary interactive touch, since we the readers are left to write the answers on the blank pages of our lives.

Issues such as professionalization and epistemology: is something correct because a trained journalist writes it, and equally incorrect because an amateur citizen journalism writes it? Are activist/advocate journalists stepping over an ethical line, or is the line even there?

The authors collect information on who these alternative journalists are, and what they do. They look at what are called 'participatory forms' and fanzines (online magazines run by fans of various artists and subcultures).

And the big issue of commercial models for journalism: who will pay for it? At the Future of Journalism conference in Sydney last year, I sat on the stage and squirmed as old hands asked who would pay them and what would they do next as employers desperately sought to save struggling enterprises.

My response was that we journalists should look to ourselves for the answer and find our own business models, rather than wait for investors and other capital-rich types to find it and tell us when it's ready.

Big Media is beginning to respond. For example, the New York Times has moved explicitly to incorporate citizen journalism into its sections.

I liked reading Alternative Journalism for another reason: these guys are teachers and they carefully signpost their work. The introduction tells you what's coming in the book, and the start of each chapter tells you what's coming next.

But heed this other signpost on our road: you'll have to be keen to get the message, or be in a very intellectual frame of mind, because Alternative Journalism is a typical textbook: densely written and chock full of academic terminology. This is a good thing in my world, of course, but I breathe university air. Perhaps Atton and Hamilton will follow up with a Twitter version of their book, published in single sentences.

Talking point:
Have you ever contributed an article or picture or digital file to a citizen journalism website? Do you think there is any difference these days between citizen journalism and other journalism? What do you expect from journalism? Share your thoughts and links to your citizen journalism work below.

John CokleyJohn Cokley is a lecturer in journalism at the University of Queensland.

Topic tags: atton, citizen journalism, Flickr, Christian Science Monitor, Seattle Post-Intelligencer, new york times



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Existing comments

Given the concentration of media ownership, I don't know how anyone in Australia could think that mass media journalism has greater claim to objectivity and independence than citizen journalism. At the same time, the internet seems to be lowering standards of public discourse to a disheartening level. The internet has its potential, it is just that so few people have the motivation or intellect to exploit that.

My guess is that self-created media is the business model of the near future and it will be interesting to see what kind of culture develops through this. It is already difficult to tell who are the culture jammers and who are the spammers.

After recently studying journalistic writing I set up Citizen Sovereignty because I was not happy with the quality of information published on hot issues. It is at citizensovereignty.net

I think that presenting both sides of an issue is very important to democratic participation and existing media seldom bothers to see this process through.

Rosie Williams | 20 March 2009  

A thoughtful piece with much one agrees with and much one disagrees with. Thank you,

Paul Wiggins | 20 March 2009  

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