Citizen Byte conference part 3: Political blogging in Australia

This is the third and final post about Friday’s “New Media and the Informed Citizen” symposium at Brisbane’s South Bank. See links to parts one and two.

In his book Blogwars (2008), American academic David Perlmutter says too many news and information blogs read like reporters’ notes prior to going to press. He quotes the dictum of Washington Post publisher Philip Graham who said  journalism is the first draft of history. Blogs, said Perlmutter, could now be considered the first draft of journalism. But where exactly blogging and journalism intersect has always been a thorny subject in the Australian political and media landscape and this was a topic Graham Young touched on in his speech to the Citizen Byte forum.

Young is qualified to speak to this theme having vast experience across blogging, the media, and politics. He blogs at Ambit Gambit, conducts online polling at What the People Want and also the chief editor of one of Australia’s most important Internet journals, On Line Opinion. In the 1990s he was the vice-president and campaign chairman of the Queensland Liberal Party. He was successful too – the Liberals’ last election victory in 1995 occurred on his watch. But Young was always too iconoclastic to be a Liberal hero and is now outside the fold.

He began by discussing how the Internet was affecting Australian politics. He quoted the 2007 Nielsen Internet Technology Report which found the technology was pervasive and that 72 percent of all Internet users use it for news, sport and weather updates. However he found that despite the thousands of political blogs, online users were consistently turning to existing media organisations for their news. The most accessed were (with Alexa ranking in brackets) Nine MSN (9), News.com (11), SMH (14), ABC (21) and The Age (26). The exclusively online organisations were well down the ladder with the biggest Crikey at 40,977 and Young’s On Line Opinion further down at 142,137.

The message, said Young, was that “tyrants rule” in Australia. Existing brands count as do the number of resources at their disposal, their national presence, and the fact that Australia is such a small and competitive marketplace. The few successful exclusively online operations serve niche markets. Young also found geographical proximity counted on the Internet and 30 percent of On Line Opinion’s users were from Queensland.

This accentuation of the local was repeated in the Youdecide2007 citizen journalism project which Young was also involved. This 2007 federal election site was an initiative of the Creative Industries faculty at QUT, funded by the Australian Research Council, and supported by On Line Opinion, SBS and Cisco. The intention was to provide hyperlocal news and information on a seat-by-seat basis. Audiences and stories from Queensland predominated (including the site’s one ‘gotcha’ story crategate) and this can be attributed to the fact the project was run out of Brisbane.

Young also noted how Australian “para-parties” use the Internet. In the last election, 200,000 people joined the union-based Your Rights At Work campaign to fight the then-Governments Workchoices legislation. Activist group Getup! has an even bigger membership with 325,000 people. Young disputes these are “members” in a traditional sense. He see Getup! as a harvester of e-mail addresses to which it then targets fundraising and single-political issue campaigns. According to AEC returns Getup! raised $1.2m in the election year of 2007 and campaigned heavily (with mixed success) in the seats of Bennelong and Wentworth against Liberal heavyweights John Howard and Malcolm Turnbull.

The mainstream political parties haven’t embraced the Internet as much as the “para-parties”. Young says there is a good reason for this – old fashioned methods still work. TV ads and direct mail remain the most successful media campaign techniques. According to Young, Liberals used the Internet the most (with 44 percent of candidates having websites) with Labor on 30 percent. The minor parties such as the Greens and the Democrats were well behind, preferring to use scarce funds on traditional advertising. Despite their apparent net-friendly credentials, these parties were aware where the real priority was when it came to spending money. This is not a unique Australian problem; Perlmutter notes in his book that despite being an adept blogger, Iowa Democrat governor Tom Vilsack dropped out of the 2008 presidential race because didn’t have the money to buy television time.

Young turned his attention to the problem of “the failure of the blogosphere”. He gave his version of an a-list of blogs he called “the domain” which included Larvatus Prodeo, Jennifer Marohasy, Homepagedaily, John Quiggin, Club Troppo and Henry Thornton. Young said that with the possible exception of Thornton who writes a fortnightly column in The Australian, none have successfully made a breakthrough like US blogs. Possible reasons for this include their point-of-view, a competitive market, the unwillingness of the MSM to interact, and the lack of a sustainable financial model. Young conceded polling blogs have succeeded in impacting the agenda but this was hardly a mainstream interest. He also suggested  the highly educated people that ran most of the “domain” blogs may not be talking about issues relevant to everyday Australians.

Because, he said, in the mainstream “brands count”. Media companies rely on audience inertia acting against change. Commercial television stations know the 5.30pm slot is the most important because if they can lock in viewers prior to the high cost ads of the 6pm news, the likelihood they won’t change the channel. Other issues affecting the ability of blogs to impact on politics here include the central control of party funding and candidate selection and the fact that Australia, generally speaking, is well run. People generally don’t need to think about politics in daily life – they have more exciting things to do. The reason almost 100 percent of people voted in Iran’s recent election, said Young, was because there was a burning desire to fix a problem. The same desires don’t exist here. The blogs have their community but have not crashed through to a greater public. According to Young, “the days of the Interknight errant never arrived”.

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