chapter  9
Separate, supplementary or seamless? Alternative news and professional journalism
ByChris Atton
Pages 13

This chapter begins from pessimism. It begins by arguing that the history of alternative media is predominantly one of failure: failure to reach any but the most specialist of audiences and a consequent failure to effect the political and social transformations that represent the ambition of so many of its projects. However, I do not wish simply to reproduce past arguments here. Emerging forms of journalism and user-generated content have begun to engage with traditional media. This chapter will examine how newer ways of doing journalism are interacting with established forms. Recent developments in journalism have emphasized the role of citizens as sources, as content providers and as reporters. Some of the most conspicuous of these developments have taken place within professionalized media. Is this perhaps a more fruitful location for alternative media practices than we might think? This chapter will explore three dominant models for understanding the contribu-

tion of alternative journalism to mainstream practices and how the two practices are interacting: user-generated content in professional news organizations; hybrid practices brought together on citizen journalism websites; and the ‘pure’ or ‘separatist’ ideologies and practices of activist journalism. First, though, we need to address a more general problem, that of the location and nature of counter-hegemonic practices. Some alternative media – such as the publications of separatist feminism or the anti-technology writings of primitivist anarchists – will, by their self-determined ideological location, lie beyond the mainstream. Their limited reach and radical content lends them a ‘purity’ that offers ideological protection, but it also weakens their influence. They might be oppositional in intent, but their praxis limits their reach. Raymond Williams (1983) recognized the impotence of what he termed an alternative culture that would forever be condemned to attempt to coexist with the dominant culture, but never be able to challenge it. Even alternative media that seek

broader audiences have historically been constrained if not by ideology, then by the near-impossibility of breaking into distribution and retail networks beyond their immediate constituency. In the 1980s it was argued that the only route to success for alternative media was to adopt commercial imperatives of capitalization through the maximizing of audiences (Comedia, 1984). Of course, Comedia were writing at a time where the dominant alternative medium was print (cheaper and less regulated than broadcast media, requiring less technical expertise); today the dominant medium is electronic – the internet – and is able to combine print and broadcast. Comedia also recognized another commercial aspect to alternative media: only rarely were its producers paid a living wage for their journalism. Instead, alternative media tended to be generated by activists for whom commitment to a project was more important than financial reward. It is the case, though, that many such projects were shortlived, unable to be sustained by a volunteer workforce that ran on self-exploited labour. Contemporary alternative media projects suffer from the same limit; there is no evidence that this situation is about to change (Atton and Hamilton, 2008). Whilst media audiences might be attracted to alternative journalism practices out of commitment to a cause or to a community, it is just as likely that a combination of economic necessity and a lack of time will inevitably reduce their capacity to contribute. As a technology, the internet has ‘been responsible in large part for the massive

increase and visibility of alternative forms of journalism’ (Atton and Hamilton, 2008: 136). This is not to say that the problems of access, reach and audience have been solved, but we cannot doubt the very high levels of participation in media production and dissemination brought about by access to the internet (again, though, we must acknowledge the limits on that participation when there is little or no financial remuneration). Yet, whether in terms of resistance or democratic participation, we need to question the significance of alternative journalism projects to the degree that they demonstrate ‘active citizenship’. In other words, does participation in a highly mediatized world enable the efficacy of sociopolitical activity in the lived world? Does it perhaps do no more than diminish lived experience, and with that diminish the possibility of social and political change sought by so many activist amateur journalists? These questions are best addressed by an examination of the contexts and purposes

to which various forms of alternative journalism are put. The activities of amateur, citizen journalists (whether acting alone, in groups or communities, or with professional assistance) are capable of raising many challenges. These can range from the hyperlocal benefits of community identity and cohesion (Kim and Hamilton, 2006; Bruns, 2011b) to projects that might challenge an entire state (Xin, 2010). They might entail challenges to the dominant ontological and epistemological claims for journalism, where the key questions are: What does it mean to be a journalist? What is the status of the amateur reporter as authority and expert (for example, Bruns, 2006; Lowrey, 2006; Carlson, 2007; Matheson and Allan, 2007)? Graeme Turner’s (2009) notion of the ‘demotic turn’ in media production is useful

here. It not only captures an argument about the media’s increasingly powerful role

in the construction of cultural identities, but also draws attention to a set of emerging crises in corporate news organizations: crises of capital, credibility and authority. Turner argues that ‘mainstream news media have lost their connection to the community’ ( p. 8) and have taken advantage of the high levels of audience interest in the amateur reporter and blogger. In some cases this has seen the emergence of the professional journalist as blogger, eschewing the routines of news in its objective setting to present personal (yet ‘expert’) opinion beyond the limits of the op-ed pages. Elsewhere we see audiences at work, most conspicuously in the setting of usergenerated content. The uses to which this content is put, together with the responsibilities such content is made to bear, provide insights into how non-professional journalism is construed and deployed in contemporary settings. The first model we shall examine is developed from the practice of embedding user-generated content in professional news organizations, a practice that vividly demonstrates the tensions between two approaches to the creation of news.