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When we think of alternative journalism – we tend to think of radical content. And that can certainly be true. In fact Downing’s seminal work Radical Media – framed alternative journalism as partisan publications that ‘lived their socialist principles through a organsiation and content.
Audience participation in online news media is variously defined in relation to the key concepts of citizen journalism and participatory journalism. As a result focus on audience participation in scholarly work looks at active contributions, the impact of these contributions on journalists’ working lives and the journalism industry more broadly and of course the large body of work that looks at active contributions as enhancing deliberative democracy. Very little work has focused on what motivates the audience to particpate and how they understand participation on an online news website.
This paper is particularly concerned with the comments that follow stories.
This is reflected in other studies of journalists’ views of audience participation. For example,
Drawing on Jurgen Habermas’ theory of the public sphere which allocates rational critical discourse a preeminent role, Gray (2007) argues that fan literature reflects how fandom, as the site of intense pleasure and play, contributes emotional or ‘irrational’ discourse. As political communication, journalism has generally been treated as the home of ‘rational’ discourse. However, Gray (2007) posits that this focus on news serving a primarily informational purpose (and not as a pleasurable experience as is associated with objects of fandom) is the result of studies focused on news production and ‘idealised discussion of what the news should do’ (p. 77).
New Matilda , an Australian independent online news and analysis website with content that focuses on Australian and international politics, and social justice issues.
Mumbrella , a news blog that covers the media, marketing and advertising industries in Australia.
Baristanet , a highly successful hyperlocal website which targets the commuter-belt communities surrounding Montclair in New Jersey.
Homicide Watch DC , an independent community–reporting project that offers full reportage of homicides in the Washington D.C. area.
As respondents to the survey were self-selected, the survey does not meet the criteria for a probability sample. As a result, interpretation of the results is limited.
Of those who responded to the surveys 79.8% had never or rarely left a comment (see table 1). This is despite comments being the most popular form of participation (Singer et al. 2011; Hermida & Thurman 2007; Singer & Ashman 2009; Williams, Wardle & Wahl-Jorgensen 2010) and reflects other studies which suggest only a small portion of the overall audience makes active contributions (Van Dijck 2009; Thurman 2008).
Of those who didn’t leave a comment a suggestion of textual authority portrayed by other commenters or the journalist intimidated them. – first two comments Of those that did comment – a suggestion that a relationship with other commenters is formed, where the commenter not only wants their opinion to be published, but for others to validate it.
while the majority were not making comments, these respondents did still value both the comments left by other readers and the invitation to comment – even if they chose not to take advantage of this opportunity. This suggests, that for many the comments following the story are an integral part of the experience of visiting the website.
Survey respondents were also asked, in open response format, whether the ability to comment influenced their decision to visit the site. Again, responses suggest that for many the comments of others are valued
What this data shows is that despite only a 5.5 per cent (n= 69) ‘regularly’ or ‘often’ making comments, many readers place a high value on the comments. For many, the comments are an integral part of the overall story, while others may never or rarely take advantage of the opportunity to comment they nevertheless value the option. This points to a broader role for comments on the site.
Further analysis of the data collected in the surveys suggests that emotion plays an integral role in engagement on the sites. Respondents suggested that an emotional attachment or engagement with a story was a catalyst for participation. For example, as these participants noted: These statements are examples of what Gray (2007) describes as a fanlike response to news which is invoked by emotion. For these respondents the ‘affect’ of passion inspires their contribution. Others note ‘affects’ of pain or sadness also induce them to make a comment.
However, emotion did not just play a role for those leaving active contributions, it was a significant factor for many who read the comments of others. In the above examples, the reading of the comments inspires an ‘affect’, whether it be joy, annoyance or sadness. The experience of these ‘affects’ becomes a method of engagement with the text and the website as a whole. The above discussion reveals that the impulse of the fan and the impulse of readers of the studied websites may be similar in that both depend on emotional engagement as a stimulus for participation and production.
‘ Active contributors’ publicly flag their participation by leaving a comment or providing a story. This is akin to what Lancaster (2001), in his articulation of actively contributing fans, describes as ‘performing the self’. This textual performance can be enacted through creative self-expression, as well as through communal activities and flags to active contributors and those not actively contributing that these audience members are participating. However, active contributors do not represent the bulk of participation. There is a large section of the audience that constitute what could be termed ‘engaged listeners’. ‘Engaged listeners’ do not publicly flag their participation, but internalise it (Bird 2011). They are not simply ‘listening’ to the conversations taking place on the websites, but are undertaking a complex process whereby the content (both journalist produced and that provided by active contributors) inspires an emotional reaction and in some cases is used to garner a sense of belonging to the online community. ‘Engaged listeners’ may have emotional or personal reactions to the content, but they will not publicly declare this, instead they will internalise this response. ‘Engaged listeners’ may not be taking the opportunity to make an active contribution, but they still value the opportunity to do so. Crawford (2009) has used the metaphor of ‘listening’ to capture these elusive audience members who ‘form a sense of intimacy and awareness’ through online communication (p. 528). However, ‘engaged listeners’ are undertaking a form of participation online, albeit unseen, where a sense of belonging and networked community attachment are developed. Listening can include ‘background listening’, where ‘commentary and conversations continue as a backdrop throughout the day, with only a few moments requiring concentrated attention’ (Crawford 2009, p. 528). This analysis, however, suggests that a significant portion of the audience for these sites is more engaged than this. They are actively producing meanings and pleasure from the texts. They are forming a sense of connection to the collective audience through visiting the site. This form of participation is associated with fan behaviours as it is motivated by identity construction and the desire to connect with the community. The final form, emerging from the analyses of the case studies, is distribution. ‘Distributors’ are those who share and discuss content from the news sites on external sites. It was beyond the scope of this study to investigate participation outside of the actual websites studied (such as social networking sites), however sharing and discussion of content from the case studies and other websites is happening on social networks. As this Homicide Watch DC reader noted in a survey response : ‘I talk about this site all the time on facebook (1206)’.