Hard News by Russell Brown


We're in this together

A couple of months ago, the excellent Katharine Viner, deputy editor of The Guardian and editor of Guardian Australia, gave a speech called The rise of the reader: journalism in the age of the open web. It voiced many of the things that have become apparent to me in the 20-odd years that I've been using the internet and the only marginally shorter time that I've been publishing internet content.

Viner's first point is this:

The web has changed the way we organise information in a very clear way: from the boundaried, solid format of books and newspapers to something liquid and free-flowing, with limitless possibilities.

A newspaper is complete. It is finished, sure of itself, certain. By contrast, digital news is constantly updated, improved upon, changed, moved, developed, an ongoing conversation and collaboration. It is living, evolving, limitless, relentless.

This idea of a fixed and limited version of the truth applied particularly to the New Zealand in which I grew up, because -- just as there were two kinds of beer and two brands of refrigerator -- there simply weren't very many versions of the truth to be had.

The colonial cacophony in media had long consolidated. Governments of either stripe had their used ownership of all broadcasting to control the discussion. For all that we revere Michael Joseph Savage, it is worth recalling that he not only nationalised all radio, he personally vetted the news radio put to air. For decades, it was forbidden to discuss politics or religion on the radio and for longer, to broadcast individual opinion.

Deregulation and re-privatisation did not, of course, necessarily fix things. In 2014, we have access to many brands of refrigerator but most of us get our radio from one of two large media companies. State radio, once a monolith, now seems like a blessed alternative.

Much more revolutionary, for me, anyway, was the discovery, on getting online in late 1992, of a group of people who knew things and were skillful and prolific in communicating what they knew. These were ideal attributes of journalism, but these people were not journalists. I found this exciting, but other journalists seemed to find it threatening, and some still do.

Viner notes that some commentators see these apparently new lines of communication as, rather, "a return to the oral cultures of much earlier eras". However you read it, it changes things. As Viner says:

Digital is not about putting up your story on the web. It's about a fundamental redrawing of journalists' relationship with our audience, how we think about our readers, our perception of our role in society, our status.

We are no longer the all-seeing all-knowing journalists, delivering words from on high for readers to take in, passively, save perhaps an occasional letter to the editor. Digital has wrecked those hierarchies almost overnight, creating a more levelled world, where responses can be instant, where some readers will almost certainly know more about a particular subject than the journalist, where the reader might be better placed to uncover a story. 

This has implications for both journalists and what NYU journalism professor Jay Rosen calls "the people formerly known as the audience". The former are, hopefully, learning to perceive an opportunity rather than a threat. And the latter are, hopefully, developing customs and cultures that do justice to the remarkable opportunities they now have. You only need to dip into media-Twitter on any day of the week to see that this is a work in progress.

My local heroes in all this are Matt and the others at TransportBlog, who have almost transcended advocacy. Because they work so hard, because they strategise and, most of all, because they they know their turf so well, they are effectively the authority in their area. Even people who disagree with them need to read TransportBlog. That's a remarkable achievement.

It's also more valuable than any amount of tub-thumping and armchair political generalising. The more so because it frequently addresses local government, a sector where, as Arthur Schenck noted recently, the bloggers are strong -- and mainstream media coverage is often (but certainly not always) really bloody awful.

Local government, like any government, needs to be held to account. But, especially in Auckland, where local boards have to make big decisions and wrestle with difficult issues, it's also different in kind to central goverment. Your local MP spends most of her or his year in Wellington. Your local board member is someone you'll pull up next to at the traffic lights.

Local goverment coverage is too important for the stupid gotchas and faulty stories that too often dominate the headlines, and for its agenda to be driven, as it is in Auckland, by the representatives who do least. There are so many official documents to be translated and so few who are fluent in officialese.

My goal for Public Address in the year to come is for us to play a more useful role in talking about local issues. In doing so, I would hope to take lessons from the people behind the brilliant Once in a Lifetime: City-building after Disaster in Christchurch, who were forced by nature to envision their city.

And, in general, I think a good way forward for us will be through specialised subject blogs with multiple authors. Personal blogs are hard to maintain over time, even for those of us who can't help but write. I'm deeply proud of the way Access, our disability blog, has gone this year, and grateful to everyone involved -- especally Hilary Stace and Sacha Dylan, who know and bring so much.

Hilary and Sacha both hail from the ranks of The People Formerly Known As The Audience. The same is true of Emma Hart (literally the first commenter on Public Address System), David Haywood (who I first "met" when he got in touch to give me a telling-off about carbon sequestration) and Graeme Edgeler (I can't believe no one got to Edge before me).

You're a good crowd. And I will take some credit for that. Through my journalistic career, I have, without necessarily trying to do so, been good at drawing a crowd. There are literally people who read Hard News who listened to its original incarnation, as a weekly rant on 95bFM, in 1991.

If I say so myself, I throw a good a party. It's the only part of my life in which I can say I am truly organised. I make sure everyone has their chosen drink in their hands, that there's food to go round and that the music is choice. Running this place is not entirely unlike being a DJ: it helps to be able to read the crowd and drop the right tune.

But the party metaphor only takes you so far. Even here, we can take a tone with each other that would spoil a real-life party pretty quickly. And that's fine and inevitable. But everyone can help by not being a bore and being civil to the other guests, especially the strangers. Sometimes on Twitter, where people become so devoted to their damn arguments they forget themselves, all hope goes missing. But this here is my house and I'll say what goes on and who gets to be here. And because I will move to show someone the door, I rarely have to.

That can be taxing -- indeed, it's easily the most taxing thing about doing this. But it's my host responsibilty. Hateful speech and tendentious behaviour might have their place on the internet, which has a place for everything, but that place isn't here. Whether you're running a busy blog or an online newspaper comments forum, you do at some level own what you publish.

There are distractions now, most notably on Twitter, where the party never stops and there's always a punning game or an argument and frequently both. I'll try and redirect more of the Twitter energy back here next year, but you may also want to join the 22,000 or so people who follow me there.

There is also a day job to be done, although my working life now seems likely to be more a spacious and varied place, with less than half the year devoted to making weekly television. I'm good with that -- and I would like to thank the New Zealand Drug Foundation, whose magazine Matters of Substance is my favourite writing gig, for so generously allowing me to bring to Public Address the research and writing they pay me to do.

Speaking of pay, I'm delighted and grateful with the way the voluntary subscriptions idea has gone this year. Your small monthly donations don't add up to anything like a professional wage -- they total about $700 a month -- but they actually make a big difference. Thank you, everyone. And thanks also to CactusLab, the best and most generous developers anyone could hope to have. They're the part of this story that needs mentioning every time.

In a year when "the bloggers" and "the blogosphere" have been commonly deployed as synonyms for a certain awful enterprise, I think it's valuable to demonstrate that's not the case. You can be angry without hurting others, political without being pointlessly partisan. You can have a bit of fun. You can dance, if you want to.

Anyway, this will be my last substantial post here for the year (but Friday Music will still run tomorrow), so let me conclude by thanking everyone who's helped, including those of you who simply joined a discussion. If you've never done that, sign up and give it a go. Contribute.

Because we are, after all, in this together.

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