The 'ecology of participation': an investigation of audience engagement on alternative journalism websites

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Presentation given at the IAMCR conference 2013 in Dublin.

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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)’.
  • The 'ecology of participation': an investigation of audience engagement on alternative journalism websites

    1. 1. 1 The ‘ecology of participation’: A study of audience engagement on alternative journalism websites Renee Barnes University of the Sunshine Coast @renbarau
    2. 2. 2 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.
    3. 3. 3 Why does alternative journalism matter? • 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).
    4. 4. 4 • ‘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.
    5. 5. 5 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)
    6. 6. 6 Online comments • Audience comments are the most popular form of participation (Singer et al. 2011; Hermida & Thurman 2007; Singer & Ashman 2009; Williams, Wardle & Wahl-Jorgensen 2010). • 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.
    7. 7. 7 • The dominant perception of audience input amongst BBC journalists was as another source – not as a form of collaborative news journalism (Williams, Wardle & Wahl-Jorgensen 2010). • 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; Bird 2010).
    8. 8. 8 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)
    9. 9. 9 Case study: New Matilda
    10. 10. 10 Case study: Mumbrella
    11. 11. 11 Case study: Baristanet
    12. 12. 12 Case study: Homicide Watch DC
    13. 13. 13 Methodology • 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).
    14. 14. 14 Results 1. Low levels of active contributions, in particular comments following news stories. 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.
    15. 15. 15 Low levels of active contributions TABLE 1: How often have you made comments on stories on the site? Answer Options Response Percent Response Count (n) 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
    16. 16. 16 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 (8). 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).
    17. 17. 17 High ‘value’ given to comments • 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.
    18. 18. 18 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 itself (19).
    19. 19. 19 Value given to the ability to comment 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 (30). I tend to lurk in all online communities, it takes a lot to get me to comment, but I like to know that I can. (80) I enjoy observing only, but I like the idea that I CAN leave a comment (20).
    20. 20. 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 debate (75). • 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 express my sympathy to the love[d] ones of the victims... (12).
    21. 21. 21 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 provokes (190). The pain that families are going through, I feel the pain (16).
    22. 22. 22 Discussion • 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 the sites. • Emotion was a significant factor of engagement for those who were not leaving active contributions
    23. 23. 23 An ecology of participation • Active contribution • Engaged listening • Distribution
    24. 24. 24 • • @renbarau 24