Inside Story, a new publication on which I have blogged before, has an interesting article by Sally Young, Senior Lecturer in Media and Communications at the University of Melbourne, on changing habits in consuming news.*

I disagree with elements of Young’s essentialy pessimistic analysis. She says:”Even though we are spending more time with media today, we’re spending less time on news,” and backs this up with figures on declining newspaper sales and declining and ageing  audiences for television and radio news and current events.

My main point of disagreement is the definition of news. If you define news as that which is put out by big media companies, then the picture is grim. But that definition is circular.

The decline of mass media does not necessarily mean the decline of news. Indeed, it would be strange if this were so. Gathering and passing on news is a basic human activity. It preexisted literacy, printing and broadcasting. It will outlive them, I believe. But what we think of as “news” has changed in the past and will change in the future.

Jan Schaffer, the US Pulitizer Prize winner who now runs J-Lab, talks about “news ecologies” that are developing, using online social networks among other things. News is no longer only that which is put out by journalists. (In fact, it never was, but we were able to kid ourselves…)

The young people I know are very well informed indeed about the things that interest them. On other things, they may not have the kind of broad yet superficial knowledge that comes from reading a daily newspaper or watching a television newscast. Yet they are able to bring themselves up to speed with astonishing rapidity when they want to.

For example, a twenty something friend of mine who has taught me much of what I know about new media might not know why Australia intervened in East Timor, but if he wanted to know, he might do some of the following things: Post a question on the issue in Facebook or some other social networking site, and follow the links provided in the responses. He might perhaps join a group concerned with East Timor on Facebook. he might look on Twitter for members who know about or are interested in East Timor, and “Follow” their posts. These Twitter posts would lead him to other sources of information – blogs, academic articles and the like.

He would Google, and the Google search would send him to many places: some established media sites, but also to lobby groups and special interest groups and East Timor based bloggers. And that’s all without even mentioning Wikipedia.

Meanwhile there are many things that he hears about long before they make it into the newspapers and television news broadcasts. For example, he was telling me about this story to do with Google’s Chrome browser controversy in great depth a clear week before it made page three of the Age. He heard about it from a friend online, and a visit to a few sites gave him an in depth briefing from international expert sources in moments.

He was also able to tell me, earlier this year, that the later episodes of the TV series Underbelly were available online at a time when Channel Nine was protesting to me and other journalists that this could not possibly be so, because the episodes in question were not even out of the production suite. Foolishly, I trusted Channel Nine and not my friend. He turned out to be right – something he has not stopped rubbing in. Thus his online knowledge undermined, or could have undermined, the claims of corporate PR.

Young writes about the internet, but makes the rather dismissive observation that young people use the internet for “email, socialising …doing homework/research”.  Yet all these activities are often ways of accessing  and disseminating news. Young acknowledges this possibility, but then dismisses it by saying that figures suggest that when citizens search for news online, three fifths of their searches are for the names of familiar news outlets, rather than searches by news topic. Once again, the circular definition.

Yet research by Hitwise here in Australia shows that when a topic is in the news, there are clear “spikes” in the number of searches on the topic – and the traffic from these searches goes in all directions. Hitwise figures also show that of the traffic to print news sites 13.34 comes from Google topic searches. Social networking sites are also becoming significant drivers of traffic to both traditional news sites and news-based blogs. I’ve written more on social networking as a driver of news and other media consumption here .

Certainly there is cause for concern about the loss of  broad knowledge of current events. But we do also need to acknowledge that the concept what is news, and what consitutes current events, may need re-examining. After all, before the printing press “news” was what happened locally or could be passed by word of mouth, and “current events” did not really exist in the same way it does now.

We are living through a change at least equivalent to the invention of the printing press. It isn’t sufficient to say “this is what has been news, and this is declining, therefore news is declining”.

If I may (modestly) give an example. Four weeks ago this blog, which is mainly a source of news on media with an emphasis on journalists, did not exist. I gather my information from friends, colleagues, and the usual journalistic trick of wearing out the telephone keypad and some shoe leather. The audience at this stage is only just over a thousand strong – nearly all media workers or those closely interested in media. Before this blog came in to being that audience did not exist as a single, identifiable entity. I am glad to report that it is growing strongly, and there is no doubt that what drives site traffic most is news – about internecine ABC disputes, who is going to be the next editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, and so forth. Stuff that would not interest the great majority of the population, but does interest this audience-in-the-making.

Media workers being what they are, they gossip, and the contents of that gossip both finds its way on to this site (if I can verify it) and is also fuelled by this site. Bloggers link to this site. I link to bloggers.  When I have some news here, I Twitter about it, and Twitterers re-tweet my posts. And so it goes on. What I am doing here is news, yet it looks nothing like any traditional news source. The audience is niche, but if I do my job properly it will be intensely engaged. The boundary between “source” and “audience” is more than usually blurred.

This is my own little meta-journalism experiment.

More in the future on questions such as: “can serving an Australian niche audience pay enough to make it worthwhile”.

Sigh.

*Declaration: Inside Story is published at the Institute for Social Research, Swinburne University of Technology, where I am employed part time.

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