Online News: Journalism and the Internet

Allan, Stuart
Open University Press, Buckingham
9780335221219 (pb)

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Cover of book This insightful and informative study explores the interactions of different forms of news-making in the 'emergent ecology' of online news. It particularly foregrounds the contested relations between various forms of 'citizen journalism' and the news provided by established media organisations, which quickly identified the internet as an alternative means of delivery for their products. In Allan's view, the new 'participatory' journalism online is developing distinctive 'forms, practices and epistemologies' of news, which challenge the distancing conventions of professional journalism. Increasingly, however, the grassroots energies at work in online news are confronted by more resourceful and inventive mainstream responses to the new medium. A process of 'consolidation' may now be taking place, comparable to the increasing commercialisation of American TV news from the end of the 50s, in which the hoped-for renewal of the public sphere gives way to something much more like business as usual.

The first chapter indicates the broad parameters of the book's approach by juxtaposing two 'tipping points': Rupert Murdoch's address in April 2005 outlining a corporate response to the challenge of the new medium; and the 'citizen journalism' response to the tsunami in the Indian Ocean on 26 December 2004. For Allan (p.10) these illustrate a 'communication continuum that stretches between the interests of multinational news corporations (where online news is first and foremost a commodity defined by profit-maximisation), at one end, and the spontaneous actions of ordinary citizens compelled to adopt the role of a journalist in order to participate in the making of online news, at the other.' The polarity identified here structures the book as both an authoritative account of the development of online news and a persuasive analysis of what is at stake in it.

The tsunami is one of a series of tipping points in online news (others include September 11, 2001, the invasion of Iraq in 2003, the London Underground bombings in July 2005 and Hurricane Katrina in August 2005) that are the focus of subsequent chapters. In each case Allan examines how individuals caught up in a major crisis use their access to digital technologies to circulate firsthand reports. In the case of the tsunami he contrasts their immediacy with the 'helicopter journalism' of incoming western journalists: this was 'inside-out' and 'bottom-up' reporting rather than 'top-down'. In a later chapter he praises Salam Pax's blogging from Baghdad under attack for providing 'a stronger sense of immediacy, an emotional feel for life on the ground, than more traditional news sites' (p.111).

Murdoch's 2005 address, however, articulates an emerging corporate consensus on how to meet the challenges of the new medium. In this view, the internet offers new opportunities for 'personalising' the distribution of content to consumers. Instead of 'one-size-fits-all' coverage by print and broadcast news, digital natives who have grown up with the internet expect 'news on demand' delivered by 'pull' not 'push' technologies. The interactivity of the medium is seen as enabling a 're-purposing' of content for 'time-shifting' consumers rather than as an opportunity for active participation in news-making. Nonetheless, as the book goes on to show, mainstream media increasingly recognise the value of user-generated content for strengthening relationships with audiences.

The corporate perception of digital technology as a breakthrough in marketing contrasts with the belief that it enables a democratic challenge to 'big media' domination of news. The phrase 'We the media' encapsulates a commitment to grassroots journalism which is particularly important for the development of blogging. Allan shows how the conventions of blogging break with those of 'objective' journalism, by expressing the individual blogger's voice and concerns, and by linking reports to their sources so as to share the evidence on which they are based. Professional journalists have criticised bloggers as rumour-mongering and factually inaccurate, 'wannabe journalists' badly in need of editing; but blogging can 'enhance its reportorial integrity', by hewing to its own conventions rather than copying the mainstream.

There is, of course, much two-way traffic: citizen journalists look to mainstream news for information while professional journalists scan blogs for story leads and reactions to issues. As Allan shows, it has become increasingly common for professional journalists to describe the relationship as complementary, albeit on terms that assume mainstream domination of 'hard news'. The mainstream appropriation of forms of journalism developed independently contributes to Allan's fear of an imminent 'consolidation' of online news, signalled by the extent to which news sites are coming to resemble each other. He uses's Weblog Central to illustrate the limitations of blogging on a major corporate site: its three Iraq warblogs were scrutinised by MSNBC editors for 'fairness, accuracy and balance' just like any of its other news stories, according to a senior executive. A more pervasive constraint is created by mainstream media's influence over which blogs get audiences, privileging an elite of celebrity bloggers with 'safely controversial' views.

Allan's sense that the earlier commitment to an alternative journalism online is weakening re-emerges in the book's conclusion, following a well-documented account in the previous chapter of the role of citizen journalism in coverage of the London Underground bombings. By this stage mainstream media are increasingly ready to use texts and images selected from the floods of material sent in by amateurs on such an occasion, often in hope of recognition or reward. Against the magnetic pull of corporate media, Allan argues for alliances between non-profit news organisations and citizen journalists based on a shared public service ethos and notes that the BBC offers users training in reporting skills and makes space for their contributions in news programmes. Allan's continuing commitment to a democratic renewal of news informs his insights into the contending forces shaping online news and gives depth as well as urgency to his assessment. The book deserves to be widely read, not just by those studying the development of online news but by all those interested in the renewal of the public sphere.

Frank McMahon
Thames Valley University