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Tuesday, 22 September 2015

Book review: The New Front Page, Tim Dunlop (2013)

Chapter 5 of the book is titled 'The Rules of Engagement' and in it, Dunlop writes: "It was all about a belief in the importance of society having places where people could come together as equals and discuss matters of social and political importance." If a novel has a plot that drives the action, a book of non-fiction has something similar, which might be called a thesis, and which does the same thing. If this book has a basic thesis it's about bringing the audience to the front, right into the heart of the democratic process itself. A parallel thesis might be the problem of monetisation for the news.

Dunlop currently teaches at Melbourne University in the journalism department but it is his first-hand involvement with new media that makes this book so entertaining. And if, as he says toward the end of the book, only 12 percent of people are dedicated observers of politics - and the same people will likely be the most interested in matters to do with the media itself - then society has a problem. In a real way, his book is motivated by such concerns.

There are a number of things in Australia today he regrets, including the dismissive way the mainstream media deals with the new media including blogs and social media, the way the true elites in society try to reserve for themselves opportunities to be heard in the public sphere, and the multiplication of trivial stories in the media that attract views but that do not - in his view - add materially to the quality of public debate.

On this last point, I have to take issue with Dunlop because, as I have written in another blogpost, all news stories are proxies for larger debates. That post went up in May this year when comedian Rebel Wilson was caught being free with facts about her age. I find it hard to line my thinking up with the chestnut that some stories are more worthy than others, and near the end of the book Dunlop also tries to talk his way through this puzzle unsuccessfully. The fact is that older, better-educated white males will have a different set of things that cleave to their identities. For myself, it wasn't until I got back from Japan when I was almost 40 that I started watching every evening TV newscast serially, although Fairfax journalist Latika Bourke says in her book that she was doing the same thing in her 20s. There is another debate to have about peoples' identities and how they are catered to in the public sphere. Maybe the current process of turning the government leadership into a reality TV show can be part of the answer.

Dunlop talks about the disconnect between the media and its audience, of which a symptom is an inability of the media to adequately monetise its offerings. This disconnect has elsewhere been quantified in opinion polls that place journalists low in the approval rankings for the community generally, but oddly this very specific locus of meaning fails to consone easily with the willingness of people on social media to follow journalists' accounts. While the distance between a journalist and her readership may you would think constitute a barrier to creating a meaningful connection, it is the journalist's insider status, their ability to get close to centres of political influence, that has value in the eyes of the reader. This mismatch of realities constitutes something of a paradox.

Generally speaking, Dunlop talks more, in purely quantitative terms, about blogging than about social media. I was surprised later in the book to discover that Dunlop doesn't have a Facebook account, but he has his reasons for this. He talks about Twitter mostly in the context of the issue of "trolling", so-called, and has a chapter in the book dedicated to that topic. But probably because Twitter didn't come into its own until around 2009, by which time Dunlop had stopped blogging for News Corp (his stint there went from 2005 to 2008), he has less insight into its functioning. Maybe it's time for this veteran to do what Margo Kingston - who features in the first chapter of the book for her work writing for a Fairfax website - has done, and return to the fray.

To be brief in summary, this is a great book for that 12 percent who love politics and get involved in debates online with such enthusiasm they sometimes place an unreasonable strain on their grammatical capacities. (Joke.) People who do participate in social media and read the news will be fascinated to read about the early days of journalism in the age of the WWW. It's an accessible book that uses a language register anyone who reads a site like the ABC's The Drum will have no problem with, and it's also a worthy read. You can feel better informed after putting it down. As for answers, Dunlop voices the hope in the end that offerings such as his will help to stimulate debate so that better outcomes can be reached. 

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