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Notes from the papers panel at ISOJ

Moving across the UTexas campus, I’m now at the International Symposium on Online Journalism, hosted by my friend Rosental Alves. The presenters I’ve seen so far are primarily academic researchers conducting experiments to increase the understanding of the relationship between online and offline journalism. Tomorrow includes more practicioners and may have something of a different tone. (I think I’m here more as a practicioner than as an academic, but at this point, in this crazy month, who knows?)

Joshua Braun, a PhD student in communications at Cornell, is studying the adoption of blogging software by network news sites. He traces this trend back to 2002, when ABC News started “The Note” and MSNBC started “Cosmic Log”. As news organizations started these new sites, they talked about “unprecedented transparency” about news decisions of the network – CBS’s new blog promised (somewhat disturbingly) “personal, intimate contact with news consumers”.

If the promise of these blogs was more transparency and interactivity, the results have been disappointing. “There’s been no lifting of the veil,” he tells us. Instead, they’re just new venues for broadcasting video repurposed from their channels.

As such, “what journalists do with blogs is different from what the rest of us do with it.” One of his interview subjects tells him, “I don’t know what a blog is now,” except that they seem to enable less formal speech. Some value blogs because they allow for faster publication of news – one informant tells him “we put stories in blog form to keep up.”

Braun suggests that we’re seeing a publicly presented finished product, produced through an idealized procedure, but readers have very little ability to actually examine the deliberations that go into production. (He offers a comparison to jury trials, which he sees as similarly idealized and practically opaque.) The “stage management” of comments through moderation might be necessary for a medium to maintain credibility, but it’s hardly transparent. He asks, “Should we be critical of this enclosure, or recognize that it’s essential for journalism?”

Pinar Gurleyen and Perrin Ogun Emre have been carrying out research on Turkish media and the emergence of blogs as a space for journalism. They point out that the Turkisn media is controlled by four major groups since the end of the state monopoly on broadcasting in the late 1990s. A recent economic crisis has caused these media giants to lay off many journalists, and some journalists have responded by starting websites and, more recently, by starting blogs.

They believe there are roughly 1 million Turkish bloggers, but it’s unclear which are bloggers. The researchers see the spaces of blogging and journalism as deeply different – they posit a democratic deficit that arises from ownership structures and wonder whether bloggers can create a paradigm shift for greater justice.

They interviewed nine journalists who’ve embraced blogs and used them for five years or longer. Two work in alternative media, and seven for mainstream programs or publications. They were interviewed on their motivations for blogging, the differences between conventional media and blogs in terms of content and workflow and their thoughts on liberatory potential of blogs.

The journalists they spoke to saw blogs as little more than an online platform to reuse original material produced for mainstream media, forming online porfolios or dossiers. While they saw the lack of editorial control as a benefit, they didn’t identify as members of the blogging community but as professionals, they rejected the informal tone of the blogosphere, and sometimes rejected user-created content like comments. Whatever these journalists were doing, it was different from Turkish blogging as we know it.

Nagwa A. Salam Fahmy, professor of journalism in the Mass Communication Department at Ain Shams University in Cairo looks at Egyptian blogs to study one of the most difficult phenomena in communications to document: agenda-cutting. Agenda-cutting occurs when a news story isn’t reported because powerful forces – government, corporate or otherwise – prevent its publication through influence, threats or direct intervention. It’s a pretty common occurance in Egypt, where the country has been under “emergency rule” since 1981, giving the government powers to restrict freedoms of the press. But it’s hard to document – how do you study news stories that never emerged?

Fahmy posits that blogs – which are plentiful in Egypt and often politically active – represent an alternative space to fight the government’s restrictions on flow of information. Of the 160,000 blogs in the country, she focused on a particularly fascinating one – Wael Abbas’sAl Wa’y El Masry“. Abbas is an important Egyptian human rights activist who’s experienced police harrasment for his work, and his blog is often able to break stories that don’t make it into mainstream media.

Fahmy studies whether blogs are able to report stories that are restricted by the government and asks whether readers will see these stories as credible. She further wonders whether the comment threads around these stories can emerge as spaces for public debate. Her interest is based on the fact that no laws govern blogging in Egypt, and that blogs like Abbas’s include detailed descriptions of street protests and video footage. She believes that spaces like Abbas’s blog can serve to inject stories into mainstream media as well as – potentialy – covering stories that are cut from the news agenda.

Her analysis revealed seven stories on the blog that didn’t receive media coverage. Four focused on torture and police abuse, and another cluster were on the tapping of the phones of a key opposition political figure. She found evidence that readers found these stories very credible, but she was disappointed by the possibility of using the comments for debate, noting “the language is very vulgar”. Overall, she’s hopeful that this reveals the possibility that blogs can function as an alternative space in an otherwise closed media environment.

(I follow Egyptian media as closely as I can with my lack of Arabic, and I know Wael, so I was particularly interested in this talk. I just skimmed Fahmy’s paper which is excellent, and doubly impressive as this is the first time she’s written an academic work in English.)

Norwegian media scholar Arne Krumsvik offers an analysis of Norwegian online newspapers. Before jumping into his research, he needs to explain that Norwegians are a bit different than Americans when it comes to media. The country’s got the second highest newspaper consumption in the world, behind only Japan, and possibly the highest online penetration. In Norwegians 50 and under, 90% use the internet daily, and in 35 and under, 90% use mobile data services daily. Norway’s media environment encourages freedom of expression and public debate, and provides press subsidy and public support for newspaper production to encourage debate.

It’s no surprise then that Norwegians started a serious online (only?) newspaper in 1996. Krumsvik studies how online and offline editions of newspapers are regarded by Norwegians of different ages. Both are regarded as very important by readers, regardless of age. But online editions are regarded as more important for people who reported they valued freedom of expression heavily. Oddly, the more a group spends on producing online content, the more skeptical readers appear to be. But while user skepticism increases with production cost, journalist skepticism of the value of online products is high across the board. And editors report that they hate moderating user activities, and would favor much heavier moderation. (Users who favor online editions for their freedom of expression uses don’t favor such moderation.)

His conclusion – there’s a serious disconnect between online media producers and users, and the main motivation for most online publishing is image – appearing to be open and participatory, even if the publication resents the activity.