Here we focus on a few questions that are critical to the running of any website that aspires to a role in ‘public journalism’.
- Why bother?
- Editorial guidelines?
- Legal structure?
- Technical issues?
Every time I see something called an online ‘community newspaper’ I find myself asking a range of questions. Who publishes the site? Sources of funding? Transparency in the way the organisation is run? Accountability and to whom? How do they define the problems they are trying to address? Objectives? Is the website part of a broader strategy? Do they consider themselves to be politically neutral facilitators or do they explicitly acknowledge a particular agenda? How can their position in society be described? Are they interested in building a political party or movement or do they claim to be somehow just interested in ‘democratic processes’ regardless of what the political ends of those processes might be?
What guides their choice of topics? What guides the way they classify topics?
What editorial guidelines for contributors do they provide and why? How active are the editors in questioning, challenging contributors or forcing them to respond to the arguments of other contributors? What kinds of questions do the editors ask and what kinds of questions do they ignore? What scope is there for potential contributors to choose their own topics or to frame topics in an alternative way?
For how long does the website pursue particular topics?
What guides their choice of participants or contributors? Are they trying to fully represent the plurality of political perspectives and the pattern of socio-economic diversity in the community? Or are they trying to establish a kind of reference group, one that is roughly representative of the range of views in society on a particular topic, a reference group whose views can then be the focus of discussion in other forums? Are they focused on activist advocacy or on promoting city-wide discussion? Do they favour activist groups over individuals or vice versa? Are they looking to gather together the like-minded or to bring together, in debate, contributors with different, even opposing views?
Are they appealing to a local, national or global ‘public’?
What kind of ‘discursive process’ are they trying to organise? Dialogues or monologues? How do they define ‘good dialogue’? Or ‘deliberation’, if they are concerned with collective decision-making? Or ‘public debate’? Is there a learning or educational component? Are they looking for consensus? Or for contributors to put their differences on the table in the hope of some compromise or future settlement? Below are some tentative answers to some of these questions.
In the current media landscape, issues don’t stay around for long. They come and go like so many clouds in the sky, or like balloons rising into the ether, not to be seen or heard of until they hit ‘the news’ at some later date, for another brief spell in the media spotlight. Yet we need to stick with issues that we believe belong firmly on the political agenda, if we intend doing anything about them.
How about: ‘to focus on the key political questions of the day and to assist in choosing an appropriate collective course of action’? There is a kind of journalism called ‘public journalism’. Key theorists are Jay Rosen (has blog called pressthink.org), Tanni Haas 2007, The Pursuit of Public Journalism: Theory, Practice and Criticism, New York, Routledge. There is a Public Journalism Network (pjnet.org).
Laura Ahva defines it as follows:
… public journalism is a form of professional journalism that:
1) intentionally aims to foster participation, public deliberation, diversity and connectedness;
2) considers readers as citizens and takes them as its focal point throughout the journalistic process;
3) conceives citizens as actors in the public sphere, before and after the story has been published;
4) and justifies these arguments and defends the practices related to them from the perspective of democracy.
Source: p.48 in Laura Ahva 2010, Making news with citizens: public journalism and professional reflexivity in Finnish newspapers, PhD dissertation, University of Tampere, Finland, available for free download from https://uta-fi.academia.edu/LauraAhva. My notes from this thesis are:
• civil society decides news agenda, not politicians or professional journalists;
• entails collaborative public problem-solving on a practical level, involving citizens, experts and officials in public dialogue and deliberation;
• aims to increase civic participation in politics, not just increased participation in the newsroom;
• news stories are seen as entry points for civic action.
The diagram below (from p. 62 of her thesis) compares ‘public journalism’ with other kinds of journalism:
Sounds like something worth trying right?
Here is some draft text: What constitutes matters of public importance and how to approach them are often controversial. Experts, politicians and citizens all have competing views. Thus while we can put forward for discussion what we think are important public policy issues, we are always open to suggestions for topics. Let’s not fool ourselves though: no one can be politically neutral in such an undertaking. The choice of topics, the framework in which they are addressed, the people chosen to help address them: these are all inescapably political choices and no one should pretend that things can be otherwise. Politics is a sphere of contestation.
We aim to document a range of views on any particular topic we raise. Our watchword is audi alteram partem, Latin meaning ‘always listen to the other side’. We seek the best available advice from persons representing a range of political perspectives. Not everyone will want to publish on our site. We reference their work regardless, if we think their view needs to be taken into account or challenged.
It is unlikely that contributors will reflect the diversity of socio-economic backgrounds in the community as only people who feel comfortable writing and publishing will want to contribute to the website. Thus we see the website as a starting point for public debate, which will be continued in small and larger scale face-to-face gatherings.
What kind of ‘discursive process’ are we trying to organise? First and foremost, dialogue rather than monologue. We want participants to be able to respond to one another and to call one another to account. We try to mimic the dialogue of a chairperson and other participants in a face-to-face meeting, as in a ’roundtable’ or panel discussion.
Unlike in a live chat though, the dialogue will be over weeks, months or even years; a more considered, reflective dialogue. Our editors act like chairpersons and their role is crucial here. Thus we hope to be more than just another blog site. We propose a model for public debate on the internet, for civic engagement in the development of public policy in a way that creates a political public sphere.
Online and offline, we are looking for ‘discourse’ which to us means adequate and equitable opportunities to write or speak in a safe dialogical space. ‘Adequate’ means giving people the time and the opportunity, regardless of things like gender, colour or social status, to articulate, to elaborate on, their view. Like buttons, comment strings and much of the rest of the paraphernalia on the web don’t fit the bill in this regard.
Finally, we are not necessarily seeking consensus on policy preferences; a map of areas of agreement and disagreement might be all we can hope to expect on some topics. We do expect contributors to defend their positions against critics, to give reasons for their preferences, to elaborate on, articulate their position on a thoroughgoing, ongoing basis. Contributions will be retained on the website until updated by their authors, with reference hopefully to the contributions of others, which we hope all authors will do as the idea is to foster dialogue not monologues. Our aim is not to keep a record of who said what and when but to reach a collective view or range of views.
A website is a publication and whoever produces a website is a publisher. To protect themselves as individuals, publishers need to operate as a corporation of some kind. In Australia, a Pty Ltd company is a suitable legal structure. Note well, however, that to register a company the director has to provide a residential address (not a PO box) and to have a registered office. These details are then available online to anyone via the ASIC website. An incorporated association is an alternative and office holders do not need to provide their residential addresses. Am not sure if this provides the same level of protection as a company. A disclaimer and ‘terms and conditions’ need to be prominently displayed on the website. You might need to apply for an ABN or a Trademark. You might need to get authors and editors to agree to a Licence to Publish which gives them copyright and indemnifies the company against any claims arising from their work.
Avoid advertising or government funding; these come with strings attached. Funding will always be an issue. Donations and subscriptions seem to be the way to go.
This is a complex area and there are various ‘packages’ offered by insurance providers. Legal advice is needed to pick the most appropriate insurance but some of the kinds of insurance that might be applicable include: Directors and Officers Cover, Professional Indemnity Cover, Unintentional defamation, Loss of or damage to Documents which were in the Insured’s physical custody or control at the time of loss or damage, Unintentional infringement of any patent, copyright, design or trademark or plagiarism, Unintentional breach of confidentiality, Unintentional breach of Part V of the Trade Practices Act 1974 or corresponding sections of the Fair Trading legislation enacted throughout Australia (but not for criminal liability). CGU, for example, has an ‘association liability’ package for associations and non profit organisations which includes the above and more. If a company or association is renting office space, it will need public liability insurance up to $10 million to cover it in case of accidental damage to the property or accidental injury to other persons, and for any other property where the company might hold meetings (e.g. public libraries). You might need a ‘business pack’ insurance policy plus workers compensation insurance (for contractors like cleaners who are not a company) plus volunteers accident insurance.
This demo website has been created using WordPress.com without using HTML or CSS. A small amount of Custom CSS has been applied.