futurejournalism · online journalism

Britney Spears ate my crocodile: An analysis of online content Down Under

Here are the slides and the text of my presentation on ambient journalism at the Future of Journalism conference at Cardiff University:


Here are the slides and the text of my presentation on ambient journalism at the Future of Journalism conference at Cardiff University:
“Britney Spears ate my crocodile: an analysis of online content down under.”
Katrina Mandy Oakham, Senior Lecturer RMIT University, Renee Barnes, Lecturer RMIT University

Online Journalism Down Under
Australia’s first ever newspaper the Sydney Gazette 1803-42 was described as being a mixture of “fulsome flattery of Government officials and … inane twaddle on other matters”(Mayer, 1968 p. 10). In 2009 most of the newspapers in that former convict colony are in the process of migrating their masthead content to online platforms. Some critics have suggested that the “inane twaddle” of those Gazette days continues as a dominant theme of current content.

At the outset before looking specifically at Australian online journalism, we must look at the broader context of Australian journalism and unfortunately this country retains its title as having one of the most concentrated media ownership structures in the Western world. This feature of the Australian journalistic context of course has explicit implications for the nature of journalism produced in this country. It could be said that the convict press has replaced it colonial and political chains with the new and more resilient restraints of ownership and commercialism. Simons sums it up, “As the dominant player in newspapers, News Limited incorporates some of the best and worst of Australian journalism.” (2007, p.336)

Three of the mastheads in this study, that is, The Australian, the Northern Territory News and The Cairns Post are owned by Murdoch’s News Corporation.

Like the rest of the world, Australian newspapers have suffered from the shift of advertising dollars to online or non-news sources. This has resulted in the loss of journalism jobs and an intense debate about who will undertake the traditional newspaper role of investigative journalism (MEAA, 2008). On the bright side, the MEAA reports Hitwise figures as showing Australia has one of the highest percentages of online news visitors with 6.75 per cent of internet visits in 2008 used to gather news. This is compared to 3.97 per cent in the US and 4.63 per cent in the UK (2008, p.11).

Key changes in modern journalism practice identified by Bradshaw ( 2008) include his contention that the nature of journalism as a form of communication has changed from being a lecture format to a conversation format with more efforts to engage audience in the news generation and news production process. Other changes identified by Bradshaw include the notion that everything in journalism, including its many targeted audiences are now just a click away. Another key factor identified by Bradshaw includes the rise and rise of the hyperlocal as an irresistible force in modern journalism. In this preliminary study of four online news sites we will be particularly interested in the way these sites are attempting to engage their audiences in conversation and one of the issues to be discussed is whether the focus on tabloid type content, what some may dismiss as “inane twaddle”, is actually about reinforcing the news value of proximity and reinvigorating conversation with their readers. Engaging with the local through the lived experiences of its audiences, we believe, is one way this form of online media is attempting to prevent that audience from “clicking away”.

Goc (2008) in referring to changing formats and content of “serious broadsheet newspapers” suggests that “The once clear line between entertainment and news is blurring. Today, stories about the war in Iraq sit on the front page beside stories of Madonna’s bid to adopt an African child and Paris Hilton’s release from jail.”(2008, p.33) In relation to the down under online sites monitored for this research it could be said forget the war and in terms of content it is definitely a case of “if it bleeds it leads” with “crims” and “crocs” emerging as favourite topics.

Tabloid tendencies
Deuze (2005) quotes the work of Hallin (1992) and van Zoonen (1998b) in his effort to define the notion of tabloid for his study of Dutch journalists working in this genre. He ultimately defines tabloid as “… a popular medium where one cannot draw a meaningful distinction between ‘information’ and ‘entertainment’.”( 2005, p.863) Deuze goes on to raise the issue of whether the tabloid genre is a form of journalism which exists outside the margins of what might be considered mainstream professional journalism. For the purposes of our study we would consider the tabloid tendencies identified on the Australian websites as being a variant within mainstream journalism. Clearly tabloid journalism has in the past been identified with its focus on certain subject matter, that is, scandal, sex and sport and entertainment.

While Australian tabloids have never really been as extreme as their wild cousins in the United Kingdom or the United States they have certainly demonstrated a penchant for the same topic areas, especially sex and sport.

Turner (2005) defines tabloid as the hybridisation from news and information to entertainment formats, in which the standard mode of reporting is now sensationalist. (p.152) Lumby (1999) argues that shifts are underway in contemporary media wrought by changing technologies, social structures and globalisation. Lumby’s major contention is that critics of digital news measure quality in the context of a bygone era in which print media dominated. Lumby offers an alternative view of what the blurring of the boundaries of entertainment and information might mean. She finds that the ‘classic’ tabloid story is concerned with the ordinary – either ordinary people in extraordinary circumstances or extraordinary people (i.e. celebrities) caught in ordinary circumstances (e.g. divorce or romance). In this way, the tabloid story is more relevant to the domestic sphere in which the people consume it and provides lessons in how to engage the public in democratic discussion.

Fiske (2000) argues that a key element of tabloid news is a cynicism with the information provided by those in authority and therefore authority’s disapproval of the format gives it credibility. Popular information, then, is partisan, not objective: it is information that serves the people’s interests, “not information as the servant of an objective truth acting as a mask for domination” (Fiske 2000, p.47) Tabloidisation is often used as a way of differentiating the high-brow and low-brow media. However, this study seeks not to judge tabloidisation or popularisation of online media content within an élitist framework of what the public should be seeing. Rather it is concerned with highlighting a possible change in the media’s role in public discourse through the technological developments wrought by the Internet.

Methodology
We see this study breaking into two clear stages: the first stage is the monitoring of four identified websites, with the second stage involving interviews with the editors and journalists of these sites. This paper will focus on the findings from the first stage of this project. The mastheads have been chosen as comparative sites, that is, two sites bearing the mastheads of conservative broadsheets and two sites associated with more stereotypically tabloid mastheads.

In the first stage we wanted to look at the nature of stories carried ‘above the fold’, which is defined as everything visible without scrolling on an average sized screen of 800 x 600 pixels of resolution or a 15-inch monitor (Foust, 2005 p.109) on each site for a week. In this analysis we looked at issues of placement and news values, with attention also being paid to promotional features of the site, adjacent to the news stories. The second stage of this research will incorporate interviews to allow the further explication of the role of news values and will identify any mismatches between the news values on show in these sites and the professional ideological values of the journalists involved in producing the sites.

The mastheads being monitored have weekday print circulations of The Age (197,600), The Australian (136,000), The Northern Territory News ( 21, 319) and The Cairns Post (27,148). Given that the purpose of this study is the exploration of any links between content on online news sites and the news values operating in this genre of news production, we have been deliberate in our selection of these four newspaper sites. Most of these sites are updated constantly throughout the day, however for this survey we looked to each site once a day at differing times. This allowed for a random purposive sample.

Weerakkody defines purposive sampling as, “Here, the researcher selects subjects or elements that possess the specific characteristics or qualities required for the study, in other words, the subjects serve the ‘purpose’ of the study.” (2008, p.99) While Weerakkoddy warns that results of such sampling are not generalisable, she does suggest that such a process can provide “valuable insights into a research question or hypothesis under examination.” (2008, p.99) Therefore given that our ultimate aim with our research is to identify what differing news values maybe operating in the new online news habitus it is logical that a sampling of the suggested online news sites can provide us with areas to explore with the online journalists in the second stage of this study.

Content
“Crime, crumpet and cricket” and “women, wampum and wrongdoing” have been used to sum up the general domains of tabloid coverage. In analyzing the stories that appear above the fold we were conscious of applying the “norms” of copy presentation, that is, we wanted to categorise not only the nature of the news story, but also look at headlines, intros and leads and language use involved in the story. Hall (2008), in analyzing the success of the London Sun operating with the Murdoch introduced Oz tabloid style, describes it as “With its lurid headlines, cocky tone and brazen addiction to the beat-up and the stunt, the paper seemed to be plugged into exactly what its readers wanted” (2008, p. 297-8). “Tabloids succeed when they and their readers can bask in the glow of having their shared prejudices confirmed.” (2008, p.299) While “confirming prejudices” may be one way of looking at this relationship established between tabloids and their audiences, we would argue, it can also be seen as an example of a successful opening up of a genuine dialogue.

Turner (2005) argues a tabloid story is not focused on traditional news values but favours entertainment, celebrity and domestic issues. For this study the category system was based on Turner’s assertions on what defines a tabloid story, in conjunction with the traditional news values outlined by Granato (1991: 31-36).As such stories contained ‘above the fold’ on the websites during sampling were determined as tabloid if the central news value concerned crime in a deliberately sensationalist fashion, celebrity, ordinary people’s achievements and domestic issues; sport or novelty.

(Refer to tables in slides) When stories are classed by subject matter it is interesting to note that the two websites of the traditionally ‘quality’ broadsheets, The Age and The Australian, have higher counts of stories on sport and celebrity / entertainment than the websites of the traditionally tabloid newspapers. The Northern Territory News and The Cairns Post tended to focus more on crime and novelty when tackling stories classed as tabloid.

Clearly from the above tables it is relatively easy to apply the label of tabloid to the nature of stories presented on these sites, but it is not enough to say that because all sites appear for example to focus on crime stories that this is clear evidence of tabloid tendencies. It is not just a case of what stories are put up on the sites, but how the stories are presented. With the crimes stories on these sites our analysis found that crime quickly moved to top of the screen in terms of placement on the both the more conservative broadsheet sites, as well as the more conventionally tabloid masthead sites. With the more conventionally tabloid mastheads it was notable that wherever possible accident stories were accompanied by relatively large pictures of mangled car wreckage.

Also notable in the treatment of crime stories was the way in which the nature of the coverage stripped back the story to the impact on the ordinary person or the victim. Headlines were also a very important indicator of the tabloid treatment of crime stories with the wording chosen seemingly capable of simultaneously sensationalising and trivializing the story. Some examples included the headings “Kicked to death for phone” (The Age 29/7/09) which was a story about a violent street assault “Gran murder” (The Cairns Post 30/7/09) a story about the brutal rape and murder of an 81 year old woman and “Mum-to-be’s train attack” (The Age 30/7/09) which was a story about a sexual assault on a pregnant woman on a city train. It was also noted that The Age carried daily reports of the “buck’s rape case”, a story about the alleged rape of a man at a buck’s party by a stripper using a sex toy. The Age’s preoccupation with crime may be attributed to the Melbourne context, with the city now known as the home of Australia’s most notorious gangland wars. These wars were written about in a series entitled Underbelly by two of the newspaper’s most respected crime and investigative journalists. The book was then turned into a major award winning and top rating television drama series. This could be seen as a clear example of a conservative masthead’s news values merging with the media organisation’s commercial values and the wider popular culture context. The Age did try to include stories that would be classed as ‘quality’ or non-tabloid, politics and political analysis, but these positioned alongside visuals representing celebrity and entertainment stories.

As well as treatment of crime stories our analysis identified other key themes in relation to language use, focus on celebrity and the use of pictures, in particular the good old tabloid stand-by of the “picture do-up”, that is use of a feel-good picture with an extended caption, such as a sun-baking rabbit, rescued koala, or cat in the arms of a hero rescuer.
Language use was an important indicator with the tabloid love of alliteration on show for example “Buffed, bronzed bloke boasts bulging biceps” (The Cairns Post 29/7/09 or “St Kilda’s stabbing: sickening scream” (The Age 31/7/09) or “Steak sanger sackings (The Age 29/7/09). This is story is also an example of how tabloid type stories work best when there is strong identification from the audience with some aspects of their lived experience. This story also demonstrates how this form of tabloid treatment can work to assist in the construction of aspects of the public sphere within people’s ordinary lives. The story is about two council workers sacked after it was revealed that they had used some left over pot hole mix to fix holes in a local sports club. The workers had then accepted a steak sandwich lunch as a “thank you” from the club.

The story is an example of tapping into the ordinariness of life for that targeted audience. Other examples of intensifying the level of identification would include the stories “Pensioners criticise rate rises” (The Cairns Post 31/7/09), “Man stabs girlfriend, makes her walk to hospital” (The Northern Territory News 31/7/09). Tabloid language is at its most rampant when The Northern Territory News gets to cover its all time favourite subject, crocodiles. One particularly colourful example is the story with the headline “Cucumber truck hits buff near jumping crocs” which is followed up with the intro –
“A truck driver had a lucky escape when his cucumber laden rig rolled near a crocodile infesting river after hitting a buffalo yesterday.” (The Northern Territory News 30/7/2009).

This story was however surpassed the next day when tabloid heaven happened and crocodiles and blonde bombshells collided with the winner of a headline “5m croc goes the chomp on Miss Universe” (The Northern Territory News 31/7/2009).

Family values and their obvious link to the everyday lived experience are often invoked in stories as demonstrated in the example “QC’s son sent to jail” (The Northern Territory News 31/7/09). A picture do-up in The Age with the headline “2 Dads, 2 Bubs” was used to transform a potentially controversial story about gay marriage rights story to a “feel good” family story. (The Age 31/7/09) Another example of any animal will do picture do up was the “Frog eats bird” caption only and picture which ran on The Cairns Post site on 29/7/09.

The focus on celebrity was used creatively across a number of sites with a running story about a “Junior Jacko” a talented young Michael Jackson look-a-like on The Cairns Post site throughout the monitored week. A story with the headline, “Swim star torpedoes camp takeover plan” (The Northern Territory News 31/7/09) making using of the tabloid technique of punning on a story about swimming star Ian Thorpe whose nickname is Torpedo and “Lisa McCune sails north again” (The Cairns Post 31/7/09), a story about anactor currently starring in a television drama series about the Australian navy.

The Age ( 31/7/09) featured an example of a “get- Britney-in-there-somewhere-someway-story” under its video special section. The headlined “Like Britney peep-show video victim harassed by media” story turns out to be a story about a celebrity reporter who had been secretly filmed naked in her hotel room saying she felt like Britney Spears! Finally a big story featured to some extent on all sites during this week was the story of two radio personalities caught up in a family/sex/rape outrage which resonated with many of the values underlying tabloid coverage. The story centred on the fate of two radio personalities who had set up a 14-year-old girl and her mother in a lie detector test during which the girl revealed she had been raped.

Conclusions
Fiske (2000) states that tabloid news makes no attempt to finalise the story, as does ‘quality’ news, instead the tabloid story provokes a conversation in which the people construct aspects of the public sphere within their own lives. At the core of online media is its ability to offer readers an immediate forum for discussion – therefore availing itself more to tabloid news values. Within Fiske’s argument it follows then that popular taste requires information to have relevance and use. Relevant information to an individual’s social situation can rarely be produced in the top-down model of ‘quality’ news. This is because an individual is rarely able to exert influence over the system that produces the social conditions under which they live, but they do strive to control their own immediate conditions of existence.

One way the tabloid news is able to use relevance of content is to rely on the experience of ordinary people as evidenced in the examples highlighted from the four sites monitored for this preliminary research. The Australian’s lower count of tabloid stories could therefore be accounted for not as a deliberate editorial decision, but rather the result of a lack adaptation for the online medium. Sparks (2003) found that the online sites of ‘quality’ newspapers in the United Kingdom were more successful than those of ‘tabloid’ newspapers. He concluded the possible reason for this was that the stories normally found in quality newspapers were enhanced by their presentation online, whereas those found in tabloid newspapers were often provided better online by other specialist competitors. 


Another issue to be considered in relation to these online sites is their level of engagement with popular culture and what is clear from the four sites chosen for this study is that the journalists and editors involved would appear to be having fun with their role as infotainment providers and should this function of a commercialized journalistic environment be necessarily condemned? A notion of journalistic “play” will be an issue that can be explored in the second stage of this research when the producers of these sites are interviewed. If these sites can be seen in the light of being public affirmations of prevailing social concerns and attitudes amongst the targeted audience can they then be judged as being anything less than successful as communication platforms? While the easy conclusion is to see these online sites as examples of journalists and their product being “dumbed down”, we argue that these sites can also be seen as demonstrating some positive indicators for the future of journalistic practice.

These sites could be looked at in terms of a development which is forcing journalists to focus on the wants and needs of those who consume their news selections. Ultimately, we argue, that news production may no longer be confined to an internal, newsroom, dialogue about what should be “above the fold” and further that journalistic or editorial judgement may no longer be the sole determinant of news values. This could be seen in one sense as a rebirth of an old news culture of the afternoon dailies which ceased production in Australia at the beginning of the 1980s. It could also be argued that constraints of space and speed and the 24/7 news cycle could lead to a sharpening of journalistic news gathering and news processing skills as these online news sites expand and develop. Indeed these developments could be seen as Deuze argues as a form of truly “dialogical journalism” (2003, p. 207). That ribald and bloody convict press may indeed be undergoing a rebirth, but just as the early popular press was literally in physical contact with its audience, maybe the new online tabloid can be seen as a reconnection between content and community. 


Bibliography

* Bradshaw, P. (2008) Ten ways journalism has changed in the last ten years. http://onlinejournalismblog.com/2008/03/06/ accessed July 26, 2009.
* Deuze, M (2003) The web and its journalisms: considering the consequences of different types of newsmedia online. New Media and Society. Sage, London pp 203 -226.
* Deuze, M. (2005) Popular Journalism and professional ideology: tabloid reports and editors speak out. Media, Culture and Society, Vol 27, No 6, pp. 861 -882.
* Fiske, J. (2000). Popularity and the politics of information. In P. Dalhgren & C. Sparks (Eds), Journalism and Popular Culture, London, California: Sage.
* Foust, J. C, (2005). Online journalism: principles and practices of news for the Web. Scottsdale, Ariz.: Holcomb Hathaway
* Goc. N. in Bainbridge, J., Goc, N. and Tynan, L. Media and Journalism, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, Australia.
* Granato, L. (1991) Reporting and Writing News. Sydney: Prentice-Hall.
* Lumby, C. (1999). Gotcha: life in a tabloid world. St Leonards: Allen & Unwin.
* Media Entertainment and Arts Alliance. (2008). Life in the Clickstream: The Future of Journalism. Sydney: MEAA.
* Hall, S. (2008) Tabloid Man: The Life and Times of Ezra Norton, Harper Collins, Australia.
* Simons, M (2007) The Content makers: understanding the media in Australia. Penguin Books, Victoria, Australia.
* Sparks C. (2003). The contribution of online newspapers to the public shere: a Uk case study. Trends in Communication, 11(2), 111-126.
* Turner, G. (2005). Ending the affair: the decline of television current affairs in Australia. Sydney: University of New South Wales Press.

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