Wednesday, November 01, 2006

Review: Online News

[Keyword: , , , ]. This review will be appearing in a forthcoming issue of the journal Journalism.

online news cover In 2004 American technology journalist and publisher Dan Gillmor published We The Media, a book that described how journalism in the new media age was changing from a ‘lecture’ to a ‘conversation’. It quickly became the bible of online journalism, while Gillmor was heralded as a guru on citizen journalism in particular.

With Online News Stuart Allan has produced a book of comparable importance, but from a much-needed British – or at least transatlantic – perspective.

The concept is straightforward: an overview of online journalism in its different forms, with a historical perspective focusing on key events. The execution is clear, critical, and thoroughly researched, and even much-repeated stories – such as the ‘Rathergate’ or ‘Memogate’ affair that led to Dan Rather’s resignation – are illuminated with fresh detail.

Allan identifies two key ‘tipping points’ in the development of online news: the tsunami in South East Asia and the importance that that gave to citizen journalism - and the speech by Rupert Murdoch which finally acknowledged the need for newspapers to embrace the web – or be buried by it.

From there he explores a number of other ‘tipping points’: how September 11th “redefined” news when mainstream agencies crashed under excessive demand, and smaller sites took up the strain; how the Iraq war created a demand from readers for alternative voices from abroad; how participatory journalism is creating opportunities for news outside of commercial pressures; and how bloggers have become both news source and news watchdog.

What is laudable here is the rigour with which Allan approaches his subject matter, and his avoidance of the hype that characterises so much writing on online news. While the importance of blogs are acknowledged, for instance, the potential for descent into ‘mob rule mentality’ is outlined – for instance, in the way in which rightwing bloggers targeted what they perceived as the ‘liberal’ CBS and CNN. Likewise, while bloggers can be seen as ‘democratising’ journalism, Allan points out that there is an emerging hierarchy of “celebrity bloggers” that dominate that conversation; and that “bloggers who actively resist pressures to conform – that is, who continues to strive to speak truth to power – will find it that much more difficult to reach a broad audience”.

In his final chapter Allan notes the importance of Google News and its ‘computer editors’ for the future of journalism and news distribution, while also identifying how “notions of ‘authority’, ‘credibility’ and ‘prestige’ are in flux”. The BBC is held up as an example of the genuinely empowering possibilities of new journalism technologies – particularly the organisation’s moves to make both software and archive content available to users – but ultimately “too often the pressures of the marketplace being brought to bear on online news are working to narrow the spectrum of possible viewpoints to those which advertisers are inclined to support”.

Summing up, Allan identifies a worrying trend in online news becoming “aligned with the ‘attractive wrapping’ of commercial television”, a trend which has most recently been reinforced by The Times, Telegraph, Guardian, Sun and Trinity Mirror all making moves towards producing online video. If the promises of online news are to be fulfilled books like this deserve the widest possible readership.
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