Everything has changed. Traditional media is no longer the dominant source of news, information, entertainment, and advertising. Information gathering, content creation, and distribution is no longer a set of tasks reserved for paid professionals.
Technology and the internet have changed all that. Blogs, social media and copious apps and tools for content creation have changed all that. Subsequently, a new media landscape has emerged – one where the privilege of contributing to public discussion and debate and the power of publishing and broadcasting is afforded to many rather than just a few. All of this is particularly significant for those involved in the news media industry.
The new media landscape has led news media to update their distribution methods to suit modern media consumption habits and has caused the industry to accommodate the audience’s ability to interact with content and contribute to public discourse.
In the past, traditional mastheads and programs have been able to command large, loyal and concentrated audiences. Today though, each media brand tends to be a broad but interconnected network across multiple platforms.
For example, Fairfax Media Limited’s Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) newspaper has the largest cross-platform readership (print, web or app) in Australia – 4.235 million in August 2017 (Roy Morgan, 2017). The reach of the SMH brand doesn’t end there though. The SMH owns multiple Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram accounts, including accounts for content and niche audiences tied to specific segments of coverage such as sport (@SMHsport).
This type of modern media network is commonplace today and, subsequently, journalists are having to produce more content. They’re also having to use social media to observe, listen, and interact with their audience; they’re required to manage and utilise the interactivity that these channels innately allow and encourage (Lipschultz, 2018, p. 16).
Some journalists aren’t convinced there’re benefits to this (Lipschultz, 2018, p. 91). I am compelled to argue the contrary having recently learned more about the complexities of audience participation and related concepts such as co-creation (Lipschultz, 2018, p. 104), cultural production (Hutchinson, 2017, p.6), and cultural intermediation (Hutchinson, 2017, p. 221). I now have little doubt about the importance of new communication theory for news media practitioners, particularly where audience participation and guidelines for best practice are concerned(Lipschultz, 2018, pg 72). In my opinion, knowledge of methods for encouraging and facilitating audience participation is important and news media practitioners will be better off if they learn to be comfortable with increased participation sooner rather than later.
Generally, those who were once powerful gatekeepers (Lipschultz, 2018, p. 349) are experimenting with audience participation and elements of it have become part of the media’s day-to-day practices (Lipschultz, 2018, p. 299).
Many news media organisations now encourage their journalists to use Twitter to share their work and to use the platform as a way to find information and sources (Lipschultz, 2018, p. 16). Many journalists can also be observed on Twitter making an effort to engage with their audience in some way (liking and retweeting comments, gifs or memes by their audience). Journalists also often include or embed tweets in online articles and blogs.
Monday night is a particularly good time to sit back and observe how the media and the audience can interact and various forms of audience participation.
From early in the evening, Australia’s avid news consumers can be seen commenting, reacting and conversing on Twitter about current affairs while watching ABC TV programs such as The Drum; the nightly news at 7pm; the current affairs program 7.30; Australian Story at 8pm; Four Corners at 8.30pm; and then the live panel discussion and audience participation program Q&A.
The Drum actively encourages people during the broadcast to converse on Twitter using its hashtag – #TheDrum.
Those behind the ABC’s nightly news broadcast and its current affairs program, 7.30, don’t explicitly tell viewers to interact on Twitter, but people do, of course: the hashtag #abc730 is primarily used by news junkies wanting to comment or react to what they’re watching. This hashtag is a prime example of Twitter users organising themselves around a hashtag in order to ensure their contributions are seen and that they can connect with others.
Practitioners associated with Australian Story and Four Corners frequently interact with their audience on Twitter. The official Twitter accounts for each of these programs (@AustralianStory; @4corners) consistently share their own content as well as interact with user-generated-content by Liking and Retweeting and Replying to tweets by the general public. The journalists and producers associated with these programs often do the same.
Q&A represents the ABC’s most effective use of social media and takes audience participation to a whole new level. It is an interesting case study: it demonstrates how social media can become a fundamental part of broadcast media.
The program is broadcast live with a studio audience and a panel of guests who are chosen by the ABC based on their position in society, their expertise and their relevance to particular topics. Though the program is centred around politics, the program frequently facilitates discussion about issues related to society and culture (Q&A, “About the show”).
The program has always stood out because of its format – it allows members of the public to step into the shoes of the traditional gatekeepers so they can ask questions directly to elected leaders and other influencers. The public can submit questions prior to the show and ask their question (if selected) as a member of the audience (Q&A, “About the show”, para. 2). Questions can also be submitted as videos (Q&A, “About the show”, para. 13).
I suspect that Q&A’s relevance in today’s media landscape though has more to do with its use of Twitter than anything else. Twitter is arguably the best place to observe the type of discussion and interaction that can take place in an online community. The Q&A Twitter conversation is so comprehensive, an observer can grasp what’s being discussed – what panelists are saying on the program – and how people are reacting without watching the live broadcast at all. I for one often consume Q&A this way.
Having said that, one incentive for people to watch the program is to view the tweets that are shared by Q&A during the broadcast. These tweets appear at the bottom of the screen and are selected by the show’s producers, who are perhaps the only gatekeeper’s left in this context.
Q&A says that it selects just a few of the thousands of tweets containing the Q&A hashtag (#QandA) published during the program (Q&A, “Q&A’s Twitter Feed”, para. 3). Anyone hoping to get their tweet broadcast can adapt their tweeting habits to ensure their tweets are eligible though.
For starters, a tweet must be only 115 characters to be broadcastable. It cannot include attached media, links or emojis (Q&A, “Q&A’s Twitter Feed”, para. 2). Tweeters can also adapt their writing style to suit what the gatekeepers are apparently looking for – tweets that are interesting and new ideas to the debate (Q&A, “Q&A’s Twitter Feed”, para. 6).
Having a tweet shared by Q&A may be exciting or validating for a user, but it’s the conversation that happens on Twitter around the hashtag that is most valuable, I believe. Everyone’s contributions give an observer a better understanding of the variety of opinions that exist in our society. It also allows us to learn about other’s ideas, experiences, and knowledge. In this situation, it seems the Q&A Twitter audience is participating in cultural intermediation, a concept described by Hutchinson (2017, p. 221) as a “process of audience participation that is built on key aspects such as knowledge and expertise exchange, social and cultural capital translation, and multiple forms of platform governance”.
The examples above demonstrate that audience participation can exist on a scale. It can be anything in between consumers interacting around professionally produced content of their own accord or it can be organised and encouraged. As someone who believes audience participation can be beneficial to journalism and its ultimate objective – to inform and educate the public – I hope to see more programs and content creators adopting some kind of audience participation strategy. Ultimately, in my opinion, any professional in the field of mass communications who remains reluctant to use social media to reach and interact with their target audience is doing themselves and their audience a disservice.
Hutchinson, J. (2017). Cultural Intermediaries: Audience Participation in Media Organisations. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.
Lipschultz, J. H. (2018). Social media communication concepts, practices, data, law and ethics (Second edition.). London, [England]: Routledge,Routledge Ltd – M.U.A,Taylor and Francis,Taylor & Francis Group.
Q&A. (n.d.). About the show. Retrieved May 1, 2018, from http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/about.htm
Q&A. (n.d.). Q&A’s Twitter Feed. Retrieved May 4, 2018, from http://www.abc.net.au/tv/qanda/about.htm
Roy Morgan. (2017). Sydney Morning Herald is still Australia’s most widely read masthead and Australians continue to embrace the shift to digital news. Retrieved May 5, 2018, from http://www.roymorgan.com/findings/7306-roy-morgan-australian-newspaper-readership-june-2017-201708101543
Sydney Morning Herald. (n.d.). Celebrating 185 years of the Herald. Retrieved May 7, 2018, from https://www.smh.com.au/interactive/2016/185-anniversary/index.html