Voyage to the new news world – part two

JOURNALISTS AT SEA Grab an oar and row like hell.
JOURNALISTS AT SEA Grab an oar and row like hell.

BEING a WordPress blogger I was able to start work as a site editor on No Fibs immediately, with regular tips from site manager Tony Yegles. That got me right to the coal face of online news.

I decided to sub-edit in the same manner as I did at my day-job, meaning there was some risk citizen journalists would not understand why certain choices were made about shaping their work.

I also felt the headlines needed to differentiate facts from opinions.

So I began to operate under an ‘if they were there, they were reporting’ principle. A ‘report’ was an eyewitness account; a ‘comment’ was a bum-on-seat rumination. To publish any other way would confuse readers and writers.

Margo was also adamant the citizen journalist’s ‘voice’ should not be edited-out, and that meant lighter sub-editing rules allowing an original social media edge.

“It was far easier to imagine a mainstream media replete with lazy or biased journalists than to include ourselves in the blame.”

Kevin Rudd resigned, resulting in the Griffith by-election, and Jan Bowman started to write regularly about the line-up of candidates.

Because her subject was on the news cycle, Jan’s articles needed to take their place promptly and I needed to find ways to make No Fibs’ contributions stand out.

Jan was getting into press conferences and meeting all the candidates, and I was determined to match her commitment. We both had little time outside work, which meant filing and sub-editing at all hours.

As a team, No Fibs provided another voice in the first litmus test for the newly minted Abbott Government.

When Margo gave me a great gift by asking me to keep writing for the site as arts editor, I had never been given such a green light by an editor. She’d read a few of my arts-based pieces on my blog and knew I had a lot to say. I’d observed how her tweets about my articles increased my readership, and how the same phenomenon occurred on No Fibs.

I finally understood what an incredible shopfront Twitter was for journalism.

It’s a great feeling to be granted a small piece of online real estate to fill, but it also came with a commitment to posting articles on a regular basis.

I developed subject parameters, since art and politics didn’t seem to be such a natural blend, and I attracted fascinating interviewees, including Amanda Bishop, who impersonated Julia Gillard throughout the former Prime Minister’s term.

When I decided to compare journalism and art as career choices in one article I found something rather interesting: somehow, journalism had replaced art at the bottom of the ‘career scale’.

It was a shock to learn the industry I entered only five years prior as a means to survive as an artist was now more precarious than a career as an artist.

From that point I decided to include journalism as an art form within my #CreatingWaves column and explore what had brought it so low.

CLICK BAIT The mainstream media's fight for attention is ugly.
CLICK BAIT The mainstream media’s fight for attention is ugly.

The social media was one obvious culprit. Every time we hit the publish button (or post, or share, or like) we provide free content (and site statistics) to very large corporations in direct competition with the MSM for advertising revenue.

That was a dark moment for me – accepting that we journalists who weren’t quite buoyed-up by the MSM were partially to blame for its demise through nothing worse than the desire to communicate via the social media.

My article on this issue sparked debate from some who could not accept our blogging, tweeting and facebooking had an impact on the MSM. It was far easier to imagine a mainstream media replete with lazy or biased journalists than to include ourselves in the blame.

It dawned on me that many readers were unaware of how stretched newsrooms are – they expected top-notch news but they were not always willing to pay for it, or didn’t understand why media outlets needed to find increasingly inventive ways to remain viable.

Blaming the MSM came into very sharp focus during the national March in March (MiM) protests. I attended the Brisbane event, not intending to report, but when I saw the scale of proceedings I decided I was there, so I was reporting. Twitter took care of the rest.

The anger directed at the MSM for its lack of MiM coverage was partially assuaged by No Fibs.

A few of us had dived in and learned how to Storify – an immediate way to gather social media into one report.

With two No Fibs Citizen Journalists (Anne Carlin and Wayne Jansson) tweeting on the ground at the Canberra MiM, we were able to use Storify to remotely publish a moment no other news source managed – the presentation of the vote of no confidence that some 100,000 people had marched for, off the back of the broadest national coverage of the MiM protests reported by citizen journalists.

The site’s purpose hit home when we were offered a report on the creation of MiM by one of the organisers, Sally Farrell.

The tenor of the No Fibs pieces I was sub-editing went up a gear. Margo was attracting a very broad range of contributors, from academics to students and activists.

The first online journalism job I ever saw advertised was on Facebook, a position writing for a lifestyle website in north America. Anyone in the world could apply, so I posted it on my Facebook page as a milestone, wondering if it was an anomaly or the start of something new.

The Australian social media came under very public government analysis when a Twitter furore erupted about the Department of Immigration and Border Protection’s (DIBP) demand that a Facebook comment by an asylum seeker advocate be removed.

BOOK BURNING Another issue altogether in online media.
BOOK BURNING Another issue altogether in online media.

This led to a long cycle of reporting for me, way beyond the scope of the arts, simply because I did not see anyone else on an Australian political news site connecting the dots between passionate social media users, asylum seeker advocates, and the DIBP’s censorship.

Working in collaboration with other journalists and bloggers, No Fibs led the way to a clearer picture of exactly what had occurred, and why.

I tried for many weeks to get in touch with George Georgiadis, who made the Facebook comment the DIBP didn’t like. Patience and transparency got No Fibs a scoop in our extended interview with Georgiadis, which remains my most well-read piece and was an eye-opening experience to put together.

Sub-editing No Fibs citizen journalists, including Guinevere Hall in WA reporting on the West Australian Senate ‘rerun’, was reaching critical mass by April of 2014, but it was the work of four University of Technology journalism students that gave me an idea about changing the site’s approach to online publishing.

Their work on the #leardblockade committed to principles many journalists twice their age should take note of, but as I uploaded the stories I felt we were doing them a great disservice, because they will graduate into an industry without sub-editors.

A phrase I used to say as a joke – ‘journalist, edit thyself’ – had become a reality in the MSM.

So, I took another risk and suggested the core team behind No Fibs alter the way we processed submissions. We did not have to let go of sub-editorial control, but the process of preparing citizen journalists’ material had become far too time consuming for a small, overworked voluntary team.

In order to make the leap, No Fibs needed its contributors to file stories in a similar manner to MSM journalists. It also needed a style guide, so I wrote one.

This gave Margo an opportunity to revisit her vision for the website, from headlines to layout. A strong, Twitter-oriented style emerged.

We also needed a team of sub-editors, which we got by putting out a call on Twitter.

Our regular writers’ copy improved dramatically, and the rate of submissions did not significantly diminish by requiring citizen journalists to be self-sufficient.

Worlds collided for me when Fairfax announced in early May that around 80 production staff and photographers would be made redundant, and the social media arced-up about the potential for citizen journalists to cross the picket line of the resulting Fairfax strike.

STAND UP Citizen Journalists.
STAND UP Citizen Journalists.

As both a part-time Fairfax employee and an independent citizen journalist, I was informed on both sides of the debate, and wrote an appeal for critics of citizen journalism to broaden their thinking.

I had vitriol aimed at me that day, particularly from journalists.

We are all struggling to build and maintain careers and earn livings – but the panic spilled over into attack at the very idea of citizen and mainstream journalists working in collaboration, primarily for the sake of the best news coverage for readers.

The only journalist who crossed the picket line that day was a Fairfax writer, possibly in fear of losing their job.

There was some good news for Fairfax staff – the company had increased readership in online news experiments at a regional weekly newspaper, and the process allowed the title to remain in print.

A consolidation of offices meant my workplace welcomed The Bayside Bulletin into the space left by long-redundant production staff, and Redland City got a new local paper when two weeklies amalgamated to form The Redland City Bulletin as part of Fairfax’s continued commitment to local news.

I now worked in the same environment as the other journos who’d tweeted from the #bowmanpol candidates‘ forum.

Having done my best to make myself more redundant as a sub-editor at No Fibs, I let go and went on a holiday. When I came home I saw a job advertised which was uncannily close to what I’d been doing for No Fibs.

I have rarely felt as confident applying for a position, especially one at the cutting edge of online news media. A few weeks into the job, for which I work at home most days, it’s amazing how close the basics are to the average blogging platform.

My year of growing with No Fibs as it expanded during a critical phase, with all its learning curves and voluntary hours, aided my transformation into a match-fit, self-sufficient, paid online writer.

I’d reached the new news world in the No Fibs lifeboat, only to find it is not defined territory that can be seen on a chart, it’s an energy I carry inside me across a growing number of sites and audiences.


Journalists may have reached rock bottom, but if we grow and promote our self-sufficient currency, share our skills and work together, I believe we will start to rise. After all, you don’t get paid for passage in a lifeboat, you grab an oar and row like hell.

© Michael Burge, all rights reserved.

This article appears in Michael’s eBook Creating Waves: Critical takes on culture and politics.

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