Should ‘alternative’ Scottish media chase news stories?

On Sunday 21st June, six months on from the CommonSpace launch, there is an afternoon party event in Glasgow organised by CommonSpace to celebrate new media in Scotland (https://www.facebook.com/events/840972362624376/) .

Independence Live in action

And the discussion has already started! G.A. Ponsonby, a founder and former editor of Newsnet.scot is not convinced that there are reasons for this celebration. (http://newsnet.scot/2015/06/scotlands-alternative-media-has-a-long-way-to-go-if-it-is-to-succeed/) In his opinion, Yes lost the referendum because voters in Scotland continued to rely on traditional (and unionist media), and ignored the pro-independence messages of the three main “new media” organisations (Newsnet.scot, Bella Caledonia and Wings Over Scotland). He thinks that these organisations remained three “solitary” websites, failing to join forces in order to create their own powerfully sensational news stories to overshadow those produced by traditional media.

But should new media focus on producing sensational news stories? Absolutely not in my opinion, although I do agree with G. A. Ponsonby that new (Scottish) media can benefit from joining forces… … But let’s see first who the organisations currently are under the category of “new media” in Scotland…

G.A. Ponsonby has forgotten to include some other “websites” of a much more radically alternative character, which had considerable impact on developments for a radical Scotland, both before the referendum, and after. These are Common Weal (http://www.allofusfirst.org/) and Independence Live (www.independencelive.net). CommonSpace is a post-referendum initiative, but Common Weal which is one of the most dynamic grassroots movements of the recent years was born during the period of the referendum. Common Weal not only created an audience for CommonSpace, but provided a politically aware community, as a result of running regular events with an informative/educational aim, including very specific events on economics, fracking, new approaches to food, climate change etc. Most people would find it difficult to think of Common Weal as part of the alternative Scottish new media scene, but this is because such people continue to think of media as organisations which constantly chase (or create) news stories. Most people forget that the making of news stories is only one method of disseminating information, and it is based on turning information into commodity, through chasing, processing, packaging and fetishizing carefully selected fragments of information. This process often results in sheer misrepresentation of reality for the benefit of the few. And yet, Common Weal, defined as a ‘think and do tank’ campaigning for social and economic equality in Scotland, is at the core of radical developments in Scotland. Such developments are only possible through accessing, and sharing key information amongst us (the citizens), pursuing a continuous process of education that enables us to cope with the demands of the vision for a new society, leading us to new places every day, because we do not want to abandon our precious vision of radical change.

Understanding the key principle that, ownership of information should totally be with the citizens, is a key aspect of coming to terms with the process of transformation towards a radical Scotland.  Furthermore, the ways in which information is handled, used and circulated should be fully determined by genuine conditions of access, sharing and transparency. The alterative future of Scotland will only emerge as a concrete manifestation of Scottish people’s empowerment. There is no doubt that Common Weal has been a critical driving force in this radical process from very early on. It achieved this through adopting a deeply ‘educational’ approach in the handling, processing and sharing of information. And of course, Common Weal is not a news agency, rather it is a radical laboratory which has allowed us to confirm the importance of configuring information dissemination processes in relation to their educational potential, as opposed to their role in generating commodities with a successful future in the international market of news information. Aspects of the Radical Independence Campaign (RIC) activity have also contributed to the same educational aim by pursuing activism through channels which presented numerous educational opportunities. It was again about ownership of information by the people of Scotland and sharing it with the support of appropriate democratic structures. I will not cover in this article the contributions of Bella Caledonia, because this is a topic in its own right, and I have no space to give it the credit it deserves. I have also not referred to Left Scotland at all, because it is only now starting officially (see Launch event this Friday here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/left-scotland-launch-tickets-17297871399), but I am expecting to have a lot of interesting things to say about it in a couple of months.

But I need to talk briefly about this other crucial “solitary website”, which is missing from G.A. Ponsonby’s list, and is the one hosting the very blog I am writing this article for ! Independence Live (www.indepenencelive.net), the Citizens’s broadcast channel, is a “solitary website”, which has been livestreaming/archiving events since the period of the referendum and continues to do so now. The videos produced during the referendum are now included in the National Archives, as a unique historical record of the period of the referendum. More casually called IndyLive, this “solitary website” has been working since 2013, capitalising on the enthusiasm and creativity of its volunteers to capture unique live moments of the continuous process of change of the Scottish society, not only for the benefit of creating historical records, but most importantly for the purposes of making visible and fully sharable the process of radical change, as this happens in our evolving society. IndyLive has adopted livestreaming technology to allow citizens to fully own, and handle key information about the life and politics of our society. Livestreaming technology used in this way, not only allows for a genuine process of crowdsourcing information but makes accessible this live material in ways which literally draw the users into the centre of the action. Streaming of live events, infused with the enthusiasm of each citizen livestreamer is crucially empathetic. People who cannot attend a live event for various reasons (and this includes carers, disabled people, Scottish who live in other countries etc) feel as if they are part of this event. It literally draws the user into the emotional space of each livestreamed event. Users become able to see themselves as part of the event, and can start to envision ways of becoming active within it and beyond it.  Livestreaming in these conditions activates users psychologically, because it encourages them to imagine ways of participation, even if this is only ‘online’ participation.  It gives them a space for online interaction in relation to crucial topics about the transformation of our society. Livestreaming in these conditions offers access to news information in a strongly empowering manner. It encourages users to become active, and offers space and resources in which they can develop their skills and confidence in this area. It becomes educational in some respect too.

G. A. Ponsonby did not mention any of this (and has of course missed the fact that Common Weal and Independence Live have been working closely together all this time to produce and disseminate truly informative events with the sole aim of empowering the people of Scotland). Instead he was very critical of the achievements (if any) of the new media and talked extensively about the strengths of traditional media, the main one being their ability to “speak with one voice” – ie their ability to join forces in order to pursue the same story across several newspapers. However, this convergence is clearly not designed to empower users. It is a selfish task aiming at benefit the media organisation. Traditional media do not engage with popular news stories, because they care about their audiences! They are simply worried that they might be sidelined and forgotten if they don’t. It is all about the organisations themselves – nothing to do with the news, information or the public. It is about continuously building the reputation of the organisation to maintain its position in the news scene.

And yet, G.A. Ponsonby feels very disappointed because new media do not seem able to “chase new stories”. But what does this mean? Let’s remind ourselves that those who “chase” are essentially predators. Animal predators usually search for food, and when they see an animal they could eat, they take control of it, and most of the times devour it on the spot. This often attracts other predators who might attempt to steal the food. These visual metaphors can easily represent the dynamics within which news is generated on a daily basis in the world of traditional media. It is not a secret that, in the processes of chasing and producing news stories, traditional media use several strategies: they mystify, overwhelm, excite, entertain the users, in order to fully attract their attention, and make them constantly want more news. The concept of ‘new’ becomes central for its own sake. To use a Marxist expression, ‘news’ becomes a fetish, as everybody starts to desperately expect an ‘update’. Users become passive observers, looking constantly for more information, just for the sake of it. This bombardment and the sensualised ways in which this happens, end up numbing the users’ brains. The more updates we get of wars, and natural disasters, the less we act, the more we expect to simply hear new stuff. It becomes a form of addiction, and the world presented in these constantly updated news items, becomes a world outside our own, and designed to be watched, not generate active responses. This is why chasing stories by traditional media is about fetishizing fragments of information, processing them into things that exist for their own sake, to have an integrated potential to regenerate themselves and an ultimate aim to “sell well” in the appropriate markets. Chasing stories is a technique of turning information into commodity.

Why should new media be expected to engage with this process? Let’s say things as they are! The new media I have in mind are clearly interested in challenging the mainstream media and the distorted view of reality they produce, and as result of this, have nothing to do with turning information into commodity. Perhaps G.A. Ponsonby refers to something else. Maybe there are some organisations that would like to present themselves as new media, simply because this is the most effective way to attract attention. This is what creates confusion, and wrong criteria.  Of course, conservative forces are capable of assimilating the new, appropriating its concepts and innovative aspects and turning this to its head. I don’t have enough information right now to argue whether this has happened yet or not.  But if it hasn’t happened yet, it is almost certain that it will in the future. We need conceptual clarity of high quality to deal with the confusion that certain self-named representatives of new media might create. We need contemporary historians of current media to develop theoretical frameworks and attempt to assess the positions, roles, contributions and failures of the various organisations that have presented themselves as part of the new scene, or proposed as such by others. This would almost look like watching an historian’s fingers typing on a keyboard, as events unfold…. Very challenging task, which requires extremely sharp and fast minds, and I haven’t come across any such historians yet. This is why, for the time being, we (the true representatives of the new/radical/alternative Scottish media) have to start doing some of this job ourselves   – at least at a basic level.

This is where the convergence element and joining forces approach become crucial. We do not need to collaborate in order to chase and create news stories. Absolutely not! The new media I have in mind will never produce news as commodity. Instead, we, the true representatives of the radical Scottish media, will be ultimately able to join forces in order to talk, think and come up with new approaches of disseminating news and information, which are appropriate for the type of information disseminated, sustainable for those who produce it, and empowering for the users. To achieve this, we need to undertake important critical discussions. Criticality is a key part of our core processes in order to make informed choices, so that we can achieve the ‘newness’ we desire. Criticality helps us to understand why new media work is not about “chasing news stories”. We are dealing with a paradigm shift. We are trying to reclaim the concept of news item, and the role of news in a reconceptualised society, comprised of individuals who are active creators rather than passive consumers. What an onerous task! However, some of us feel sufficiently robust and inspired to start this common journey as quickly as possible. This is definitely a worthwhile task to join forces for, while we can leave the traditional media to do what they have been always doing, “chase new stories”….  Sometimes, traditional media can even do some of our job by turning some of the topics we are interested in into news stories !! In this respect I felt grateful to the Mirror this morning, when I realised that it produced a resource article for the Anti-Austerity demo in London this Saturday! http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/anti-austerity-protest-time-meeting-points-5892123 . I don’t have to do this work myself then, or anybody else like me. This Anti-Austerity demo has now become the centre of attention, and therefore traditional media are forced to engage with it in multiple ways! It cannot be ignored – what a success!! And as typical producers of commodity, traditional media will do anything they can to show that they have the best product, ie the best news! And as they compete with each other to attract new customers and maintain their old ones, they might produce something that can helps us, does the ground work for us, so that we have time for more sophisticated problems. It is brilliant when the Mirror manages to provide useful information for activists – without even realising it is doing this. It gives me time to write this article, instead of posting information on Facebook.

Having touched upon so many rather complex issues, let’s look once more at the CommonSpace celebration this Saturday! What is this celebration about? And what could it become? Perhaps this is our first opportunity to confirm that we, the true representatives of the new Scottish media, welcome a common critical journey, in which we will discover the best ways for us to join our forces, expertise, skills and interests for the benefit of a radical future in Scotland. We are not interested in chasing news stories together! But we are interested in finding new shared ways to produce and disseminate news information through media which aim to empower users. This celebration hosted by CommonSpace is the most appropriate environment to inaugurate a process of joint reflective discussion and confirm that competition between us is a totally wrong approach.

We would love to share this celebration with our audiences, as we need their opinions, feedback, and suggestions. We need to confirm that our work empowers our audiences, and if it doesn’t, we want to work with them and achieve this purpose as thoroughly as possible, as quickly as possible.

Please join us this Sunday, in the Glasgow School Of Art Student Union, 486 Sauchiehall Street, Glasgow. Tickets available at https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/new-media-new-scotland-commonspace-launch-party-tickets-17285530487

 

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