The ‘ecology of
participation’: A study of
audience engagement on
University of the Sunshine Coast
What is alternative journalism?
• Atton and Hamilton (2008) define ‘alternative
journalism’ as being informed by a critique of
either or all of the following: commercialisation
and professionalisation of media organisations;
dominant journalism practices; and dominant
media coverage of particular issues or topics.
Why does alternative
• The changing role of the audience, highlighted in what
is variously referred to as ‘citizen journalism’,
‘participatory journalism’, ‘user generated content’ or
‘pro-am journalism’, is a challenge for the practices of
mainstream journalism (Deuze 2006; Bruns 2011).
• The internet has enabled the greatest expansion of
alternative journalism through user-driven programmes
that enable easy and cheap content development and
distribution (Deuze 2006; Atton & Hamilton 2008).
• ‘The increasing presence of non-
professional or citizen journalists is
suggestive of a different type of
journalism that may be able to disrupt
and change institutionalised journalism
in particular circumstances.’ (Fenton and
Witschge 2011, p. 160)
• The concept of ‘alternative journalism’
offers a method for interrogating
changing journalism practices.
Audience participation in
online news media
• A citizen or group of citizens ‘playing an active role in
the process of collecting, reporting, analysing and
disseminating news and information’ (Bowman & Willis
2003, p. 9).
• Encompasses people inside and outside the
newsroom communicating to and with each other in an
ongoing process of creating a news website and
building a multifaceted community.(Singer et al. 2011)
• Audience comments are the most popular form of
participation (Singer et al. 2011; Hermida & Thurman
2007; Singer & Ashman 2009; Williams, Wardle &
• Hermida (2011) argues this is because it is the most
offered avenue of participation and provides the least
challenge to a journalist’s agency and authority.
• The dominant perception of audience input amongst
BBC journalists was as another source – not as a form
of collaborative news journalism (Williams, Wardle &
• As a result many journalists and academics question
the value of online comments as contributions to
public discourse because of their low quality, uncertain
origins and propensity for aggression and vulgarity
(Reich 2011; Shepard 2011; Singer & Ashman 2009;
A space for fan studies
• ‘News acts as a command center for many projects of
identity and personal security that are deeply
emotional, and not at all coldly “rational,” and yet that
allow us to place ourselves in our house,
neighbourhood, nation, and world’ (Gray 2007, p. 78).
• Overall, fan theory places an emphasis on the
‘emotional investment’ given by fans to the object of
their fandom. This suggests value in considering the
role emotion and affect plays in an individual’s
engagement with a text (Grossberg 1992)
• Online surveys were placed on each case study
website and distributed through social media for two
weeks between February and November 2011,
providing a self-selected sample of 1261.
• As Couldry (2010) notes ‘the heterogeneous, fast-
changing space of online [media] means it is
impossible to achieve a “sample” in the statistical
sense’ (p. 140).
1. Low levels of active contributions,
in particular comments following
2. A high ‘value’ given to the ability to
comment and to readers’
comments on the website.
3. The role emotion plays in audience
engagement with the websites.
Low levels of active
TABLE 1: How often have you made comments on stories on the site?
Answer Options Response Percent
Never 60.00% 756
Rarely (1-3 times) 19.80% 250
Sometimes (3-10 times) 14.70% 186
Often (10-30 times) 3.60% 45
Regularly (at least each week) 1.90% 24
answered question 1261
skipped question 10
I am a little shy of making a comment, but I do find that
among the comments by others, I often find some
helpful (and some trivial as well) comments (133).
[I] also the fear that I may not be able to communicate a
point across as well as the article intends to (147).
Where I have personal experience that seems relevant -
the same motivation that would make me chip in with a
group of friends [or] I take exception to something or I
feel I can uniquely elucidate a point with an anecdote
I like to read what others are thinking but to a certain
extent I like to know that others are reading what I am
thinking. I like to feel that I am contributing to the
industry, that I am a voice within it (30).
High ‘value’ given to
• When asked how often they read other
people’s comments on stories, 45.6 per
cent (n= 554) regularly or often read the
comments and 35 per cent (n= 424)
sometimes read the comments.
A story is more than just the article, it's people's
reactions to it (254).
I observe the comments and value them, but
rarely consider making a comment (269).
Not so much because it helps me to make a
comment, but more because I know the
comments that are made by others often
enhances the story (60).
I think it's definitely a good feature but I've
never been motivated to leave a comment
myself. I do often find the discussion that
follows stories almost as interesting as the story
Value given to the ability to
I almost never do [leave a comment], but good to
know the option is there (395).
Yes. I submit photos & make comments
infrequently, but it's nice to know I CAN do this
I tend to lurk in all online communities, it takes a
lot to get me to comment, but I like to know that I
I enjoy observing only, but I like the idea that I
CAN leave a comment (20).
A role for emotion
• A story must move me on an emotional level
and then I feel the urge to comment after
deciding I have a new angle to add to the
• When the emotions are stirred - for either the
right or wrong reasons (51).
• [I provide a comment on] things that I have
experience with, or that bring up a particular
emotional response (25).
• The sadness of it all...to express my
sympathy to the love[d] ones of the victims...
Not just for active contributors
I enjoy to read the comments to feel part of the
conversation even if I don’t take part (345).
Sometimes the comments just annoy me, Other
times they make me laugh it is just always
interesting to see what sort of discussion a story
The pain that families are going through, I feel
the pain (16).
• Low levels of active contributions
• Audience members value reading others’
comments and the ability to comment, even
if they don’t take up the opportunity.
• Emotion was found to be a driving factor for
participation across all four case studies.
• Pleasure, humour, grief and personal
attachment motivated many to participate on
• Emotion was a significant factor of
engagement for those who were not leaving
An ecology of participation
• Active contribution
• Engaged listening