Margo Kingston asked me to kick-off a new series on No Fibs about the experiences of citizen journalists working with professional journalists in online media. Here is my response.
A WEEK after the 2013 federal election I was driving to my casual sub-editing job on a Fairfax weekly newspaper when I let a brilliant photo opportunity go.
During the campaign I’d had to pass a vast billboard of our electorate’s returned sitting member, Andrew Laming, along that route.
But on that day, Laming’s face was burning into black ash as a farmer torched his latest crop’s stubble. It was one of those moments when your mind takes the shot, writes the story and formulates the headline in a flash.
‘Laming wins, Redland City loses’ was my angle, with the remnant of that smiling, burning face front and centre, while Redlanders settled in for another stint of terrible representation because our federal member had no currency in Canberra.
Laming’s team, the Coalition, had won the election, but after representing the people of Bowman, Queensland, for almost ten years, he’d sent inappropriate tweets that put us on the map for all the wrong reasons. Word was he wouldn’t be getting a promotion in the Abbott Government.
It was a scorching week. Parts of the nation were ablaze. At work there were half-hearted jokes about not mentioning the D-word – drought – for fear of scaring-off advertisers.
Up to my ears sub-editing, I sorely missed my stint as a citizen journalist for No Fibs.
It was clear a generation of hungry media graduates blogging in their pyjamas expected their musings to garner a living wage.
I stumbled into No Fibs following a Twitter conversation on the Peter Slipper fallout and was immediately drawn to its fresh interface.
The election was just weeks away and my gut told me marriage equality would be a hot issue, but when I tried to find the subject on the site I came up with nothing.
I mentioned that to editor Margo Kingston and she immediately suggested I write it.
My opinion piece was published the week that tweeters were bitching about lack of pay for online journalists. Mia Freedman of Mamamia was praised for finally paying some of her contributors, but slammed for suggesting most of what she published was opinion so shouldn’t attract a high dollar value.
I tended to agree. Having an opinion is not reporting. Reporting is getting off your bum, taking a few risks and meeting people in order to flush out the truth. But it was clear a generation of hungry media graduates blogging in their pyjamas expected their musings to garner a living wage.
“Can’t pay the rent with a by-line,” one tweep fired-off.
“That’s where the day job kicks in,” I fired back.
My young tweep admitted she had a day job that kept her in the flow of human experience that will never be replaced by the internet, but wanted to blast down the doorways of media companies to create entry-level positions.
What would she have found if she had?
At my workplace she’d have felt the fear of cutbacks, amalgamations and redundancies, like standing on the deck of a ship when a list starts to show, and someone’s just noticed there are not enough lifeboats.
It was an extremely bleak landscape for journalists. No wonder a reporting stint on the No Fibs election project was so attractive to me.
It didn’t matter that Bowman was safe Coalition territory. I wanted to meet the candidates and decide where my preference votes should go. I also wanted to flex my journalistic muscles.
Not for me the ease of press conferences. Here in Bowman, otherwise known as Redland City, politicians need flushing-out. Most Australians don’t know where the region is and many locals like it that way. It’s a blind spot perfect for parachuting any political aspirant into.
I lined-up interviews with candidates from the Palmer United Party, Labor and The Greens and netted thousands of words of material in three hours’ work, knowing none of it was going to make an ounce of difference to sitting member Andrew Laming’s 10.4 per cent margin.
As I published, a few savvy heads popped up on Twitter – critical thinkers dotted across greater Brisbane, grateful for more than the coverage in the local paper, The Bayside Bulletin.
Andrew Laming said he’d talk to me once the election was called, then reneged. Knowing that nothing I’d offered him was different to what every other candidate had agreed to, I got despondent, wrote my wrap-up piece and sat back to watch the reporting on the neighbouring divisions.
One day later, a breaking story on campaign cheating landed in my lap, with a great editorial photograph (taken not by a journo, but one of the candidates), and a social media audience urging me to file it with No Fibs, so I did!
A week later I read The Bayside Bulletin was hosting a candidates’ forum. No-one could recall if they’d been held before, but the perception was they were ineffective.
So I called the editor, Brian Hurst. Before I’d finished saying “No Fibs” I got put through to him. He’d read my work, heard Margo interviewed, and was more than happy for me to tweet from the event.
I sat up the back, all thumbs on my phone while The Bayside Bulletin’s journos had luxurious tablets, but I got as many tweets out to my audience, who were glad I was providing a less-constrained voice on Bowman’s newly-minted hashtag #bowmanpol.
Brian generously gave No Fibs permission to publish his paper’s photographs with my article on the event.
The election came and went and I struggled to settle back into sub-editing and blogging, because I acknowledged to myself I should have taken that photograph of Laming’s poster burning – it’s just in my nature to report.
I’d been part of nudging the mainstream media (MSM) into a brief communion with the social media, and we made a tiny scratch on the surface of the area’s democratic future.
But a scratch can become the infected wound which brings down a sizeable political animal like Sophie Mirabella, a process that was unfolding at the other end of the country in the division of Indi.
The No Fibs election project had excellent, strong rowers, skilled navigators who knew the currents, and the courage of explorers charting new territory. I just couldn’t let it go, so I decided to take a risk and stay on the lifeboat.
It felt buoyant enough for a journo wanting to join the great reader migration to the new news world.
On the No Fibs lifeboat
BEING a WordPress blogger I was able to start work as a site editor immediately, with regular tips from site manager Tony Yegles. That got me right to the coal face of online news.
I decided to sub-edit in the same manner as I did at my day-job, meaning there was some risk citizen journalists would not understand why certain choices were made about shaping their work.
I also felt the headlines needed to differentiate facts from opinions.
So I began to operate under an ‘if they were there, they were reporting’ principle. A ‘report’ was an eyewitness account; a ‘comment’ was a bum-on-seat rumination. To publish any other way would confuse readers and writers.
Margo was also adamant the citizen journalist’s ‘voice’ should not be edited-out, and that meant lighter sub-editing rules allowing an original social media edge.
It was far easier to imagine a mainstream media replete with lazy or biased journalists than to include ourselves in the blame.
Kevin Rudd resigned, resulting in the Griffith by-election, and Jan Bowman started to write regularly about the line-up of candidates.
Because her subject was on the news cycle, Jan’s articles needed to take their place promptly and I needed to find ways to make No Fibs’ contributions stand out.
Jan was getting into press conferences and meeting all the candidates, and I was determined to match her commitment. We both had little time outside work, which meant filing and sub-editing at all hours.
As a team, No Fibs provided another voice in the first litmus test for the newly-minted Abbott Government.
When Margo gave me a great gift by asking me to keep writing for the site as arts editor, I had never been given such a green light by an editor. She’d read a few of my arts-based pieces on my blog and knew I had a lot to say. I’d observed how her tweets about my articles increased my readership, and how the same phenomenon occurred on No Fibs.
I finally understood what an incredible shopfront Twitter was for journalism.
It’s a great feeling to be granted a small piece of online real estate to fill, but it also came with a commitment to posting articles on a regular basis.
I developed subject parameters, since art and politics didn’t seem to be such a natural blend, and I attracted fascinating interviewees, including Amanda Bishop, who impersonated Julia Gillard throughout the former Prime Minister’s term.
When I decided to compare journalism and art as career choices in one article I found something rather interesting: somehow, journalism had replaced art at the bottom of the ‘career scale’.
It was a shock to learn the industry I entered only five years prior as a means to survive as an artist was now more precarious than a career as an artist.
From that point I decided to include journalism as an art form within my #CreatingWaves column and explore what had brought it so low.
The social media was one obvious culprit. Every time we hit the publish button (or post, or share, or like) we provide free content (and site statistics) to very large corporations in direct competition with the MSM for advertising revenue.
That was a dark moment for me – accepting that we journalists who weren’t quite buoyed-up by the MSM were partially to blame for its demise through nothing worse than the desire to communicate via the social media.
My article on this issue sparked debate from some who could not accept our blogging, tweeting and facebooking had an impact on the MSM. It was far easier to imagine a mainstream media replete with lazy or biased journalists than to include ourselves in the blame.
It dawned on me that many readers were unaware of how stretched newsrooms are – they expected top-notch news but they were not always willing to pay for it, or didn’t understand why media outlets needed to find increasingly inventive ways to remain viable.
Blaming the MSM came into very sharp focus during the national March in March (MiM) protests. I attended the Brisbane event, not intending to report, but when I saw the scale of proceedings I decided I was there, so I was reporting. Twitter took care of the rest.
The anger directed at the MSM for its lack of MiM coverage was partially assuaged by No Fibs.
A few of us had dived in and learned how to Storify – an immediate way to gather social media into one report.
With two No Fibs Citizen Journalists (Anne Carlin and Wayne Jansson) tweeting on the ground at the Canberra MiM, we were able to use Storify to remotely publish a moment no other news source managed – the presentation of the vote of no confidence that some 100,000 people had marched for, off the back of the broadest national coverage of the MiM protests reported by citizen journalists.
The site’s purpose hit home when we were offered a report on the creation of MiM by one of the organisers, Sally Farrell.
The tenor of the No Fibs pieces I was sub-editing went up a gear. Margo was attracting a very broad range of contributors, from academics to students and activists.
The first online journalism job I ever saw advertised was on Facebook, a position writing for a lifestyle website in north America. Anyone in the world could apply, so I posted it on my Facebook page as a milestone, wondering if it was an anomaly or the start of something new.
The Australian social media came under very public government analysis when a Twitter furore erupted about the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s (DIBP) demand that a Facebook comment by an asylum seeker advocate be removed.
This led to a long cycle of reporting for me, way beyond the scope of the arts, simply because I did not see anyone else on an Australian political news site connecting the dots between passionate social media users, asylum seeker advocates, and the DIBP’s censorship.
Working in collaboration with other journalists and bloggers, No Fibs led the way to a clearer picture of exactly what had occurred, and why.
I tried for many weeks to get in touch with George Georgiadis, who made the Facebook comment the DIBP didn’t like. Patience and transparency got No Fibs a scoop in our extended interview with Georgiadis, which remains my most well-read piece and was an eye-opening experience to put together.
Sub-editing No Fibs citizen journalists, including Guinevere Hall in WA reporting on the West Australian Senate ‘rerun’, was reaching critical mass by April of 2014, but it was the work of four University of Technology journalism students that gave me an idea about changing the site’s approach to online publishing.
Their work on the #leardblockade committed to principles many journalists twice their age should take note of, but as I uploaded the stories I felt we were doing them a great disservice, because they will graduate into an industry without sub-editors.
A phrase I used to say as a joke – ‘journalist, edit thyself’ – had become a reality in the MSM.
So, I took another risk and suggested the core team behind No Fibs alter the way we processed submissions. We did not have to let go of sub-editorial control, but the process of preparing citizen journalists’ material had become far too time consuming for a small, overworked voluntary team.
In order to make the leap, No Fibs needed its contributors to file stories in a similar manner to MSM journalists. It also needed a style guide, so I wrote one.
This gave Margo an opportunity to revisit her vision for the website, from headlines to layout. A strong, Twitter-oriented style emerged.
We also needed a team of sub-editors, which we got by putting out a call on Twitter.
Our regular writers’ copy improved dramatically, and the rate of submissions did not significantly diminish by requiring citizen journalists to be self-sufficient.
Worlds collided for me when Fairfax announced in early May that around 80 production staff and photographers would be made redundant, and the social media arced-up about the potential for citizen journalists to cross the picket line of the resulting Fairfax strike.
As both a part-time Fairfax employee and an independent citizen journalist, I was informed on both sides of the debate, and wrote an appeal for critics of citizen journalism to broaden their thinking.
I had vitriol aimed at me that day, particularly from journalists.
We are all struggling to build and maintain careers and earn livings – but the panic spilled over into attack at the very idea of citizen and mainstream journalists working in collaboration, primarily for the sake of the best news coverage for readers.
The only journalist who crossed the picket line that day was a Fairfax writer, possibly in fear of losing their job.
There was some good news for Fairfax staff – the company had increased readership in online news experiments at a regional weekly newspaper, and the process allowed the title to remain in print.
A consolidation of offices meant my workplace welcomed The Bayside Bulletin into the space left by long-redundant production staff, and Redland City got a new local paper when two weeklies amalgamated to form The Redland City Bulletin as part of Fairfax’s continued commitment to local news.
I now worked in the same environment as the other journos who’d tweeted from the #bowmanpol candidates‘ forum.
Having done my best to make myself more redundant as a sub-editor at No Fibs, I let go and went on a holiday. When I came home I saw a job advertised which was uncannily close to what I’d been doing for No Fibs.
I have rarely felt as confident applying for a position, especially one at the cutting edge of online news media. A few weeks into the job, for which I work at home most days, it’s amazing how close the basics are to the average blogging platform.
My year of growing with No Fibs as it expanded during a critical phase, with all its learning curves and voluntary hours, aided my transformation into a match-fit, self-sufficient, paid online writer.
I’d reached the new news world in the No Fibs lifeboat, only to find it is not defined territory that can be seen on a chart, it’s an energy I carry inside me across a growing number of sites and audiences.
Journalists may have reached rock bottom, but if we grow and promote our self-sufficient currency, share our skills and work together, I believe we will start to rise. After all, you don’t get paid for passage in a lifeboat, you grab an oar and row like hell.