Meet The Citizen

Meet The Citizen: part of the buzz in the new media space

On the eve of the News News conference, Simon Mann takes some time out from editing The Citizen to discuss how the new online publication is faring.

Q: Please describe The Citizen in 50 words or less to someone who has never met it.

The Citizen is an online news site published by Melbourne University’s Centre for Advancing Journalism. We publish chiefly the work of students in the Master of Journalism program as well research findings and commentary that flows from the Centre. But we are also interested in exploring opportunities to work with industry professionals and citizen journalists.
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Q: How long have you been editing The Citizen now? Can you tell us a bit about the transition from The Age – what have you noticed that’s different and the same about your work?

I joined the Centre late last year. We planned and built the site, and launched The Citizen at the end of April. It has been a fascinating transition for me personally, from the mainstream to the fringe. There’s a lot of buzz in the new media space, but not many bucks. The clearest difference is the availability of resources. The MSM might be contracting, but it still has incredible grunt, much more than anything in new media — yet. The thing that remains the same is the effort it takes to produce good journalism.

Q: What is the most important thing you have learnt from this new role?

Well, I guess it is an extension of that last point. The more I practise journalism, whether editing or reporting, the more I understand that there are very few stories that are black and white. They are nearly all shades of grey and it takes enormous effort to find the truth. Good journalism is labour intensive: that’s a really challenging notion in such financially straitened times.

Q: Can you give us an overview of the stories published so far – how many, and covering what areas mainly?

The interests of our students have driven themes, so the site is eclectic in its taste. There has been a public interest bent: The Citizen has examined how state parliament deals with petitions, reported on city council plans for more CC-TV cameras and looked at changes to Australia’s counter-terror laws. Media is a central theme, too: one of our students surveyed the national press gallery on political bias, and the site has published pieces on political bloggers and how regional media is confronting the digital revolution.

Our audience is building, slowly. But so far, the site has had more than 60,000 page views, and several of our stories have been co-published or re-published with other media sites.

Q: What are the three stories that stand out to you, and why?

Well, three of our stories that were published elsewhere included: Henry Belot’s look at how social media is likely to impact on Indonesia’s presidential election next year, Hugh McMaster’s scoop that Melbourne city loop passengers would get access at last to mobile phone coverage and Aliyah Stotyn’s cautionary tale about a young man who was charged by police over a Facebook party prank. All three were the result of a bit of digging and their publication elsewhere was reward for effort.

Q: Can you explain the concept behind The Citizen’s front page?

The display boxes are a bit of fun. The Citizen’s home page is a kind of ‘window on the world’. We just felt it was a slightly more contemporary way of showing what’s inside. The colour around each box indicates its genre — news, features, analysis etc. And clicking on the tags above the masthead collapses and rebuilds the boxes according to theme.

Q: What difference is The Citizen making?

Well, our goals have always been relatively modest. Our intention is simply to produce good journalism, as a means of contributing to public knowledge and debate at a time when more traditional sources of journalism are under financial strain. As we build momentum we hope to try a few different things and just ‘have a go’.

Q: Where do you see journalism heading? Where will it be produced, and by whom, how will it be the same or different to the journalism that you’ve known over the past 30-years?

Already, journalism is splitting into a range of niche publications, increasingly online-only ones. Some will be fast and furious, tending more towards quick analysis and commentary; also, sites that are info-rich, ‘how-to’ sites etc. And there is a far greater engagement with the audience which is increasingly empowered. Where that all leads is anyone’s guess. I still think there will be a market for story-telling and for journalism that is underpinned by solid research, but whether it will be self-sustaining is another matter. I suspect more and more that it will need to be funded by philanthropy and publicly spirited individuals.

Q: What are your main sources of news today versus five years ago? And how have these changed?

They remain much the same as always — daily newspapers/news sites — but they have been enhanced and expanded by the ease with which digital allows you to look farther afield. So, as well as The Age, The Australian, the Fin Review and The Herald-Sun, there’s Business Spectator and Crikey and the Monthly and the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times and the Times and and and . . . Of course, a big change has been the move for groups other than traditional news groups to enter the news space. To wit, the AFL, which has emerged as a major player in football reporting. Charles Happell took a look at the issue for us on The Citizen, a story that attracted big traffic.

Q: Are there any policy changes you’d like to see to ensure better support and sustainability for public interest journalism?

There has obviously been a bit of talk around tax deductibility for not-for-profit websites. I’m not sure exactly how that would work or, at least, how eligibility would be decided and how sites could avoid being captured by the interests of their donors. Lots of things to consider but certainly worth exploring.

Q: What’s your vision for The Citizen in 2023?

Oh, is that a typo? Given the pace of change in new media, that seems light years away!

Q: What session are you most looking forward to at the New News conference?

Too many interesting sessions from which to choose: lots of smart people discussing lots of interesting things. I’d be happy to get to any or all.