Lowering the guard

 
 

As the Guardian opens yet another facet of its production to the wider public, Emer Sugrue examines the effect that user-generated content has had on the media

Last week the Guardian embarked on an interesting experiment. Abandoning the protective aura of secrecy that usually surrounds upcoming news stories, they have decided to open up their news feed to contributions from the public. People can now see exactly what stories the Guardian staff are working on, and using the Twitter hashtag #opennews, send on tips and ideas. The Guardian’s aim is to restore the public trust in media in the wake of recent scandals by lifting the veil on the news process, thus hopefully boosting interest in the work they do.

This innovative move plays into the wider trend of democratization in the media. While once content was decided by shadowy figures behind closed doors and public opinion was limited to the vaguely mocking readouts in Points of View, the views of the many are now impossible to ignore. The opportunities to contribute to media output has exploded in the last ten years with the rise of the internet; every broadcast, newspaper, magazine and website begs you to ‘send them your views’. Call them, text them, email them, tweet them because your views are so important and deserve airtime.

The communication revolution of the last decade has also led to a decline in traditional media. To try and stem the huge financial losses caused by falling circulation and advertising revenue, job cuts have become common. Earlier this month the New York Times, RTÉ and the BBC announced job cuts, with the latter eliminating nearly 2,000 positions, and several papers in Paris failed to print over a number of days last week due to strikes over planned redundancies. Barely one round of lay-offs has finished before another is announced. However, these cuts don’t come with a decrease in output. On the contrary, they scrabble for new and innovative forms of communication. It’s now standard for a newspaper not only to have a website, but videos, podcasts, blogs, Facebook, Twitter and live-feeds, all of which need to be maintained. Twenty-four hour coverage is no longer the preserve of television.

The workload for the remaining workers has gone through the roof. Whereas a staff writer might once have had to turn in two or three articles in a work day, allowing time to follow up leads, make calls and research their stories, they are now expected to submit up to ten. It’s no wonder that the practise of reprinting press releases has become endemic. Research by Cardiff University discovered that fifty-four per cent of news articles use PR-created stories or text, while much else is bought in from news agencies such as Associated Press and Reuters. The remaining gaps are plugged by the public.

While it’s of course not the fault of unpaid public contributors that so many journalists are being laid off, it is part of a vicious cycle which helps make these cuts feasible when demand for content is so high. There simply isn’t the time or resources to research and write enough to fill all the necessary spaces, whether in print or broadcast. Turn on Sky News and see how they spend time counting down the top ten YouTube videos, or what percentage of radio shows are just DJs reading out text messages. Have a look at how much of a news site is taken up with polls, comments and forums. As free content is made available, it allows space to be filled more easily and cheaply. When space-filling is cheap and writers are expensive, it’s not hard to see why cut-backs are made where they are. The Guardian’s move plays into this; if it’s successful and the tweets flood in with stories, it may start to look quite tempting to budget-conscious bosses to cut loose those researchers whose work loads are now lightened. Perhaps next they will start asking for full articles for free; just so as to express the public’s view of course.

While newspapers may want to demystify the news process, this actually increases mistrust of the media by positioning trained media professionals as ‘others’. They are seen as elitist, the non-public who don’t care about you and tell you what to think rather than ordinary people working in an office, writing reports on events rather than reports on clients. The third millennium has been marked by an obsession with the man on the street, where scripted television been tossed aside for the far cheaper reality TV, and where the public sing and cry and humiliate themselves for our amusement. Everything is becoming like Wikipedia: user generated. We are not terribly far away from ‘reality news’.

As more and more jobs are cut and journalists are stretched to breaking point, the work becomes rushed, shoddy, poorly researched and largely plagiarised. People stop reading, circulation falls further and more jobs are cut. With just the bare bones – a skeleton staff of overwhelmed, overworked and undervalued writers – how can things go on? Send us your views.

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