Australian Online Publishers Network

For those interested in how and why I came to conceptualise the Australian Online Publishers Network as part of my journalism project at the University of Melbourne,  the impetus to explore the viability of establishing a network or industry peak body that would serve new media outlets in Australia arose out of my work at Meld Magazine, a not-for-profit hyperlocal news website serving the international student community in Victoria.

The website now attracts a steady stream of visitors, but despite the average 1000 a day visits, efforts to monetise have been painstakingly slow. I realised I was not alone. Tim Burrowes wryly observes in his review of What’s Next in Journalism, which invited new media entrepreneurs to tell their stories, it was a “somewhat depressing read because so few people seem to have answers. In common, just about all of them run their outlets as passion projects first, media models second.” I was guilty of that.

Prior to Meld, I was a print journalist in mainstream media. At the time, it was an exciting prospect that technology had lowered the barriers of entry to allow everyone and anyone with an internet connection to publish to the world. After about nine months of ideation, Meld was launched in August 2008, admittedly as a bit of a “social experiment”, to test what was possible. In the years that followed however, the need to turn this passion project into a viable business took on a new urgency as I witnessed first hand the impact the democratisation of news online was having on newspapers and their business model.

Printed circulation and readership were declining as readers migrated online, and coupled with external drivers including big cuts to advertising spend during the economic downturn (Fitzpatrick, N 2013, IBISWorld Industry Report J5411: Newspaper Publishing in Australia), jobs in big media were drying up. What was most worrying was that despite the influx of new players offering free content with revenue derived from advertising, few were able to profit from this business model (Shulman, C 2013. IBISWorld Industry Report J5700 Internet Publishing and Broadcasting in Australia). In response to this crisis in business models, I began searching for answers in earnest.

I came across the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism’s New Business Models for News Project. Led by Jeff Jarvis and a team of business analysts and journalists, the project put forward innovative solutions and fresh perspectives to understanding this changed economy in the new media landscape. The future of business, according to Jarvis, would lie in ecosystems, not conglomerates or industries, as the industrial age with its hierarchical and centralised structures for the organisation of production, distribution, and market economies made way for an increasingly networked, decentralised and open environment. He saw the new economy and its opportunities being built in three layers: platforms, entrepreneurial enterprises and networks. The latter in particular, was about the necessity to “gather the smalls together into bigs” – audiences brought together so advertisers can buy access to them more easily, purchasing brought together to get better prices. One of the business models to emerge as a result was the Ecosystem Framework – the opportunity to build an infrastructure that provides services to the new news ecosystem. Specifically, the team led by Jarvis envisioned the emergence of a company or companies that would bring together independent players to reach critical mass so they can recognise greater market value and greater efficiency through the creation of local ad alliances, aggregation/curation of sites, technology and training.

This Ecosystem Framework was foundational in the conceptualisation of the Australian Online Publishers Network as I shifted my focus from finding a business model that would work for Meld, to thinking at a network level, about the kind of infrastructure that could be built to support Australia’s fledgling new media industry. How these needs would be met has changed significantly since the first iteration of the business plan, but the original concept for the Australian Online Publishers Network (see figure below) was to create value for online publishers through the provision of training and consulting services, a suite of backend shared services, the creation of an ad network, media accreditation through membership, and representation and advocacy as an industry peak body. It was envisioned that the Network’s office could potentially also serve as a shared office or ‘hub’.

Karen Poh - Australian Online Publishers Network

One of the questions I have been repeatedly asked over the course of this project when I tested my ideas with stakeholders from a cross section of the media industry was: What criteria would membership be based on? Who will be considered as an online publisher?

I have sought to be as open-minded as possible when thinking about whom a peak body like the Australian Online Publisher Network could serve. In the business plan (you can view the executive summary via slideshare below), I have asserted that the industry will increasingly need to recognise the role of bloggers and citizen journalists in the future media mix.

I believe blogger-journalist J.D. Lasica was right when she wrote more than a decade ago, that blogs and journalism need each other:

“We need, then, to stop looking at this as a binary, either-or choice. We need to move beyond the increasingly stale debate of whether blogging is or isn’t journalism and celebrate Weblogs’ place in the media ecosystem. Instead of looking at blogging and traditional journalism as rivals for readers’ eyeballs, we should recognise that we’re entering an era in which they complement each other, intersect with each other, play off one another.”

The same thinking should be extended to social media users today. The emergence of social media platforms in the second half of the 2000s has further reduced barriers to entry, and where one was previously required to set up his/her own blog or website to publish content, all anyone needs now is a user registration on Facebook and Twitter to engage in news dissemination, curation and commentary – and for some, attract a significant following in doing so. In Google’s Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt and Director of Google Ideas Jared Cohen’s view, “reporting duties” will only become more widely distributed than they are today:

“It is manifestly clear that media outlets will increasingly find themselves a step behind in the reporting of news worldwide. These organisations simply cannot move quickly enough in a connected age, no matter how talented their reporters and stringers are, and how many sources they have. Instead, the world’s breaking news will continually come from platforms like Twitter: open networks that facilitate information-sharing instantly, widely and in accessible packages. If everyone in the world has a data-enabled phone or access to one – a not-so-distant reality – then the ability to “break news” will be left to luck and chance…” (Schmidt, Eric and Cohen, Jared, ‘The Future of Identity, Citizenship and Reporting’, The New Digital Age: Reshaping the Future of People, Nations and Business)

In the same breath, Schmidt and Cohen acknowledge the downside to this is the resulting “massive swell of low-grade reporting and information in the system”10 – but perhaps that is to be expected after an industrial age where journalism has been left to the “professionals”.

With all of this in mind, the Australian Online Publishers Network that I have envisioned is one that seeks to represent a broad spectrum of online publishers. From social media users, bloggers or citizen journalists to established online news sites, I had sought to be inclusive and platform agnostic in my approach and provide opportunities for participants to be involved with the Australian Online Publishers Network on different levels.

Karen Poh - Australian Online Publishers Network role in the media landscape

In 2007, J-Lab – the Institute for Interactive Journalism at American University’s School of Communication – launched the Knight Community News Network, a self-help portal that guides both ordinary citizens and traditional journalists in launching and responsibly operating community news and information sites. Part of the Network’s work included the articulation of a set of Principles of Citizen Journalism. The Knight Community News Network’s website explains the principles were an effort to “flesh out the core values and tenets of quality journalism at the grassroots level” (accuracy, thoroughness, transparency, fairness, independence), with the ultimate goal to “help citizen reporters master the fundamentals of the craft in a networked age”. This is important, and was the intention of the Australian Online Publishers Network (see figure above). In this new ecology of journalism, to borrow Doc Searls’ words, “We need new institutions where these kinds of principles can be practiced. And new practices where these principles can be institutionalised.”

On a concluding note, the responses I have received from stakeholders over the course of this project’s development have been mixed. However, if you are interested in furthering my work, do get in touch with me via karen@karenpoh.com.

Karen Poh - food bloggers go pro, unlikely journalists in the digital age

Much of the research and wider public discussion surrounding the citizen journalism phenomenon has focused mainly on political news and commentary, and perpetuated the distinction between ‘hard’ and ‘soft’ news, and a bias in privileging the political over most other forms of reporting – relegating to the background other areas of the news which may benefit just as much from a broader range of news outlets and contributions from non-professional journalists. This was an observation that Axel Bruns at the University of Queensland made in his paper Citizen Journalism and Everyday Life: A Case Study of Germany’s myHeimat.de. It struck a chord with me as I went about my research at the University of Melbourne last year. Examples that came to my mind included food, fashion, beauty and ‘mummy’ bloggers.

The journalism project which I had been working on and have since completed looked at the viability of establishing a peak body for online publishers and citizen journalists in Australia. As part of that, I had, through the eyes of Thang Ngo, the privilege of gaining a more in-depth look into the world of food blogging, the place it occupies in online publishing, and how food blogging practice has evolved over the years. The interview that follows occurred last July, but the project was submitted only in October, and I am able to release it now. However, I believe the insights are still relevant many months on.

To provide some background and context, Ngo is the multicultural director at Universal McCann Sydney, a global media agency that provides services in marketing consultancy, communications strategy and media buying. He is also one of Sydney’s top food bloggers – with a difference. He has a self-published code of ethics on his popular food blog Noodlies. While Ngo says he doesn’t ”pretend or aspire to be a food critic or journalist”, he accepts fair responsibility as a content publisher – but admits accountability is the exception rather than the rule in the food blogging community.

In the digital age where everyone can publish to the world, bloggers started as amateurs, Ngo says. Distinct from professional journalists and writers, they largely viewed blogging as a hobby. As food blogging became a phenomenon not just in Australia but around the world, the early adopters were rewarded with the first mover advantage, attracting large audiences, the attention of marketers and advertisers who saw a new channel for outreach, and for some, an income stream. It inspired a wave of new entrants wanting to get in not merely because they were hobbyists, but because of the perks they perceived were being freely dished out.

It invited the criticism of Fooderati’s Melissa Leong, who spoke out on the ethics in food blogging. In addition to being a blog writer, her other roles as a PR consultant, freelance food writer and radio host, allowed her to see an unsavoury side of the blog world. To be fair, she observed that bloggers weren’t the only ones doing the offending, but on the side of content publishers at least, she cites instances where bloggers have called on restaurants to demand free meals, failed to disclose freebies they’ve accepted, soliciting payments for guaranteed posts and plagiarism.

In her own words:

Unlike the 4th estate, who are generally (there are always exceptions) ruled by a code of ethics, blogging and social media influencers have no such widely accepted, enforced framework around which to operate.

Given that the roots of blogging (web logging) come from what is in essence an open public diary entry, since when did it become OK for bloggers to don the ego and demand preferential treatment from restaurants or free stuff from PR agencies, all in exchange for a post that may or may not be that great to begin with?

…I’ve come across some pretty questionable behaviour on the part of bloggers as well as restaurants and their representatives. I’ve had PR agencies send unsolicited goods and then badger for coverage, and I’ve had freebie whore bloggers demanding free meals at hatted restaurants as if it were their god-given right. Neither of these things is acceptable and most alarmingly, the frequency of this kind of behaviour continues to increase.

As Ngo recalls, Leong’s criticisms, understandably, sparked a backlash among the food blogging community. He saw the need for ethics, but rather than join the fray, he thought the better way of communicating this need was by committing to a self-published code of ethics on Noodlies.

Sticking his finger in the wind, Ngo believes the blogging community still largely regards the lack of accountability as a plus. They’ve been going so far without, it would be hard to imagine any move to introduce regulation of any sort, voluntary or otherwise, would be warmly received. “Many food bloggers are now wanting to commercialise, but they would be reluctant to be accountable,” he says.

But perhaps Ngo’s own learnings would compel some food bloggers to think differently.

Started in 2009, Ngo’s Noodlies blog was initially a response to incessant requests from friends for recommendations on where to eat in the culturally diverse suburb of Cabramatta in Sydney where he lives. Today, in addition to uncovering authentic, culturally diverse food and culture around Sydney, Ngo has expanded his coverage to include travel and lifestyle issues that pique his interests. He has a YouTube channel, which has attracted more than half a million views to date.

Though Ngo has never been formally trained as a journalist, he has a sophisticated understanding of editorial strategy and regularly employs the tools of the trade to perform acts of journalism.

He reports on food trends such as the ramen craze – on that Ngo says “there’s only so much you can say about the broth and the decor of a restaurant”; and has delved into investigative-type reporting examining the popularity of Sydney’s food blogs. The outcome of which was a list of the top 30 Sydney food blogs using data from Urbanspoon, Google and Alexa, first published in July 2013. The response was so great Ngo eventually mobilised the food blogging community to participate and add to the list (his own website was ranked fifth) and now seeks to update the list regularly.

Through his investigations, Ngo has made some interesting observations. With so many food bloggers out there today, those who have succeeded in attracting sizable audiences have typically one thing in common – they operate by a code of ethics, whether expressly declared as a manifesto on their website or not. Content coverage is largely independent, and pecuniary interests, be it in the form of gifts, samples, free meals or sponsorship deals, are declared.

Already, he notes the impact that food bloggers are having on mainstream media. There are now fewer food critics employed not only because media outlets have to pick up the tab on every meal reviewed, but because one will have to question the wisdom of paying a professional to do it when everyone else is doing it out of their own pocket anyway. Add to the mix platforms that crowdsource public opinion to give you a rating (think Urbanspoon), and user-generated photos of what a restaurant looks like and the dishes being ordered (thanks to geotagging on Instagram). Mainstream media’s solution, says Ngo, has been to offer up food recipes instead.

As Ngo ponders this point, he wonders if the burden of accountability is perhaps the bullet that food bloggers looking to “commercialise” will need to bite. Audiences value independence and don’t want to be sold to, not least through content that purports to reflect an individual’s honest appraisal on matters such as quality, taste and service. And though food bloggers would nary regard themselves as or aspire to become a journalist or food critic, Ngo nonetheless believes there are benefits to learning to do like the professionals do, not just when it comes to ethics, but also in areas such as content strategy – understanding what audiences want and expect, and how that all feeds into their ultimate aim of commercialising.

Coca-Cola digital chief: ‘Kill the press release’

By 2015, the press release will be a thing of the past at Coke, thanks to its new brand journalism website, which replaced its home page.

City Journal interview about resume tips

Early this year, I had the privilege of contributing a chapter to a book called What’s next in journalism? New media entrepreneurs tell their stories.  I expect it should hit the shelves this October. Befittingly, you can also buy it as an e-book.

As the title suggests, the book takes the temperature of the emerging sector of news media, and contains a collection of contributions by new media entrepreneurs from a variety of backgrounds including journalism, IT innovation, social activism and community work.

More about the book via Scribe, the publisher’s website.

What's Next in Journalism

It only occurred to me that Meld would typically be considered a social enterprise until I attended Global Shifts 2012, a social enterprise conference hosted by RMIT. At the heart of social enterprise is the understanding that businesses can be used to solve problems in the community – which is a departure from the traditional notion of not-for-profit organisations being unprofitable ventures and hence wholly reliant on grant funding.

More on that in my interview with Pro Bono News: http://www.probonoaustralia.com.au/news/2013/03/new-media-gap-market-leads-social-enterprise

Who gets the jobs?

Heady idealism needs to be taken with consistent doses of hard work and humility.

I remember interviewing a first-year media and communications student who demanded work as an editor.

She had no prior work experience, only hifalutin ideas of the glamorous life as an editor for a glossy.

And nevermind that as a young start-up, the only editor we were going to have in the organisation at the time was me.

“You probably need a bit of experience before you can do any editing work. Why don’t you start out by doing some reporting first?” I tried to dissuade her gently.

“No, I’m not interested. I’m going to return home and work as an editor for a magazine.”

Enough said.

If there’s one piece of advice I can give to journalism students, it’s don’t ever stop dreaming. But do keep your feet planted firmly on the ground. And know this – a spirit of humility will take you places.

You may wish to become a reporter dedicated to lifestyle/entertainment/sports/insert-your-favourite-round here, and you may be keen to build up a portfolio of work to have something to show for it.

But at the infancy of your career development, building up your skills and competencies in journalism should be your priority, and that means being open to learn new skills, and writing outside your areas of interest.

Getting hard news reporting down pat for example, can teach you valuable lessons on writing quickly and succinctly, fairness and balance, fact-checking, sourcing and more.

Versatile reporters are definitely prized, plus, you don’t always get the dream job you want at the first instance.

Learn to say yes, even if it’s outside of your comfort zone. Don’t wrangle your way out of a difficult assignment, or change the brief to escape doing the hard yards. Don’t make excuses, all you have to do is ask if there’s something you don’t know.

Good habits and attitudes cultivated early will help set you apart as someone who knows how to conduct themselves professionally.

And finally, in anything you do, be polite. Prima donnas are not welcome anywhere.

I will never forget the editor who made this remark long ago to a bunch of us rookie journalists: “All of you are turds, you know nothing.”

It probably wasn’t the most politically correct thing to say, but it was certainly a painful reminder about the importance of being humble.

This article was originally published in Meld Magazine.

Meld Magazine profiled in Crikey

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