Do alternative news sites present a serious challenge to the mainstream global news agenda?
The Internet has made information and communication much more accessible to people all over the world (Boyd-Barrett 2000, p. 302). This has led to the growth of alternative websites, including anarchist publications, platforms for social movements and even pop culture ezines and fan sites (Atton 2007a). Alternative news sites can now provide consumers from all over the world with a perspective usually absent from mainstream media coverage, but how much of a challenge does this pose to the mainstream global news agenda?
In this essay I argue that alternative news sites do not present a serious challenge to the mainstream global news agenda. By drawing from existing literature and specific examples of alternative news sites, I first define alternative media (what is and what is not considered as alternative), before going on to examine how mainstream agenda-setting can disadvantage alternative news sites. I then look at how alternative media is able to make an impact in more localised contexts, but not in terms of global news. I also examine other limitations of alternative media, such as the lack of funding and resources. Finally, I will highlight examples of the mainstream media co-opting alternative media forms without significant change to the content of their global news coverage, thus concluding that although alternative media has had an impact on the media landscape, it is not enough for them to present a serious challenge to the mainstream global agenda.
What is alternative media?
Before looking into the impact of alternative media on the global news agenda it is important to be able to define what should be considered as ‘alternative’, and what distinguishes it from mainstream media. Existing literature defines alternative media as something that exists outside of the mainstream, not just in terms of content but also in terms of production. Alternative media is usually seen as more accessible and participatory than the mainstream (Coyer and Dowmunt 2007, p. 1), which is why it is sometimes described as “participatory journalism” (Allan 2006). Yet there are many more ways to consider alternative media: as ‘community media’ or ‘civil society media’, or something that is ‘radical’ (Coyer and Dowmunt 2007, Bailey et al. 2008). According to Kate Coyer and Tony Dowmunt (2007), alternative media refers to “the media produced by the socially, culturally and politically excluded”, thus framing alternative media as something counter-hegemonic.
Chris Atton (2002a) gives a detailed description of the characteristics generally found within alternative media: its content should be politically, socially or culturally radical and have strong ‘aesthestics’ in the use of visual presentation. It should also make use of new technology and alternative methods of distribution, embrace anti-copyright principles, transform both social and communication structures by de-professionalising journalism and publishing and create “horizontal linkages” (ibid, p. 27). Although these characteristics may not be found in every instance of alternative media, it allows us to examine the way alternative media functions. This is a major factor in determining the impact of alternative media, allowing it to pursue aims and achieve goals that are different and often even directly opposed to the mainstream.
The global news agenda and the agenda-setters
In finding out if alternative news sites present a serious challenge to the mainstream global news agenda, one must address critically examine ways in which a mainstream global news agenda can be affected. Due to limitations on time and resources, organisations come up with methods to select their global news and tend to prioritise certain issues or nations above others (Golan 2006). Here I argue that the ways in which a mainstream media news organisation’s news agenda is set tend to exclude alternative media, therefore limiting the amount of impact alternative news sites can have on the global news agenda.
Dan Berkowitz (1992, p. 81) argues that rather than thinking about the creation of a news agenda, it would be more useful to examine why certain people or groups have the ability to influence the news agenda, saying that “news sources exert a stronger influence over the news agenda than do journalists.” He further identifies policymakers as a particular group that is able to influence the agenda, explaining that mainstream journalism’s dedication to the principle of objectivity encourages journalists to utilise sources they can pass off as “objective” (ibid).
However, policymakers and news sources are not the only ones who influence the mainstream media’s news agenda. It has been suggested that the news agenda can also be affected by “inter-media agenda setting”, and that a small number of elite media organisations can have the potential to affect the news agendas of other media organisations (Golan 2006).
The news values of mainstream media outlets have also been examined, and certain considerations, such as “unambiguity”, “cultural proximity” and the “reference to elite nations”, among others, have been highlighted (Galtung and Ruge 1965). These values affect the likelihood of a story getting picked up by the mainstream media.
Looking at these factors, one can see how alternative media could be disadvantaged. The contributors of alternative news sites may not be seen as “objective” news sources for journalists of mainstream media outlets, and may also find it difficult to enter the elite circle of media organisations that influence one another’s global news agendas. The stories carried by alternative media platforms also may not make it into the mainstream news agenda due to the inability to fulfil the various foreign news values held by mainstream outlets.
We can turn to the example of Indymedia, which gained attention as a reaction to the mainstream media’s coverage of the 1999 ‘battle of Seattle’. While the mainstream media chose to focus on the sometimes-violent conflict between the protesters and the police, activists and citizen journalists from the Independent Media Centre published stories drawing attention to the issues that motivated activists, giving their own account of what was happening in the streets of Seattle (Platon and Deuze 2003, Allan 2006, Atton 2007b).
Indymedia has now grown, with Independent Media Centres set up in every continent of the world published in multiple languages. The structure of the platform is also different from that of the mainstream media. As observed by Stuart Allan (2006, p. 125-126):
Its organisational structure is decentralised in that it is composed of autonomous collectives, all of which share available resources. No attempt has been made, nor would it be feasible in any case, to simply reproduce the structures of mainstream news organisations.
A mainstream organisations’ processes has been widely viewed as “monolithic and inflexible”, making it difficult for “unofficial” voices to be heard (Atton 2002b). On the other hand, Indymedia operates on a system of open publishing, where anyone can publish a piece by clicking on the ‘submit’ button on the homepage (Platon and Deuze 2003, p. 339). The collective involved in running the website reserve the right to monitor and remove posts, but these posts are still available in a separate page under the heading of ‘hidden stories’ so that all voices still have a space for expression (Atton 2007b, p. 75).
This open-publishing format used by Indymedia maintains a high level of accessibility for all readers and contributors – it “allows independent journalists and publications to publish the news they gather instantaneously on a globally accessible website” (Platon and Deuze 2003, p. 338).
This works both ways: it gives people access to a platform to publish their stories and air their views, and also gives the platform access to on-the-ground stories. As Chris Atton (2007b, p. 75) points out, “[t]he reporters’ active, lived presence within events, while no guarantor of impartiality, enables the production of news that tells other stories from those reported in the mainstream.” By opening up a platform for activists and ‘native reporters’, Indymedia is able to provide consumers stories, angles and perspectives that the more rigid nature of the mainstream news production process cannot, thus challenging the hegemony of the mainstream narrative of events.
However, Indymedia’s impact on the global news agenda has been fairly limited. Looking at the ways in which the mainstream global news agenda is set, one can suggest that this is due to the fact that mainstream media journalists do not see Indymedia’s contributors as “objective” (Berkowitz 1992) – in fact, many of Indymedia’s contributors eschew objectivity and identify themselves as activists (Platon and Deuze 2003). As an alternative media platform standing against the values of capitalism, Indymedia also finds itself outside of the ‘elite’ circle of media outlets, and are therefore unable to take part in inter-media agenda-setting when it comes to mainstream global news. Furthermore, stories highlighted by Indymedia may relate to long-term, complex issues, making it difficult to fulfil the news value of “unambiguity” – the ability to tell the story in a simple and clear way – which mainstream media outlets look out for in potential stories (Galtung and Ruge 1965). Chris Atton (2007b, p. 76) also points out that the mainstream media tends to find it difficult to “explore the more abstract, political goals of networks such as Indymedia”, and would therefore prefer to refer to personal blogs which allow them to build “human-interest stories” to suit their content.
The literature highlighted above points us towards the conclusion that it is extremely difficult for alternative media to have much influence on the mainstream global news agenda. Citizen journalists and activists are not often seen as ‘objective’, and alternative media outlets are unable to join in the elite circle of media organisations that influence one another. They are often also unable to satisfy the news value considerations of global mainstream media organisations, thus limiting the ability of alternative news sites to challenge and make an impact on the global news agenda.
More local than global
Alternative news sites have been able to make an impact on communities by allowing ordinary citizens an outlet and platform to express their views. However, I will now argue that it is much more difficult for them to go global and challenge the mainstream news agenda.
The relative accessibility of alternative news sites has fostered a far more participatory environment, allowing citizens to tell their own stories as ‘citizen journalists’ rather than relying on the ‘authoritative’ voice of the trained professional from the mainstream media. Jay Rosen (2006), in referring to “the people formerly known as the audience”, argues that there has been a shift in terms of both production and power. He notes that the audience is no longer passive, and are now capable of choosing, creating and publishing their own content.
This has led Jo Bardoel and Mark Deuze (2001) to assert that the Internet has begun to erode national boundaries, blurring the lines between local and global news. However, observation of various alternative news sites suggest otherwise.
This can be seen in alternative news site OhmyNews and its attempted forays beyond South Korea. The site was launched in South Korea in February 2000 as a challenge to the elite media environment (Kim and Hamilton 2006), where three major conservative newspapers commanded about 80 per cent of daily circulation (Gillmor 2004, p. 128). In a country with one of the highest rates of Internet connectivity in the world, OhmyNews’ caught on quickly, attracting large numbers of contributors and visitors alike in its first two years (Joyce 2007). The website grew to great prominence in South Korea, challenging not only the mainstream media but also influencing political activism and even a presidential election (ibid).
Despite its national success, OhmyNews International did not fare well. Launched in 2004, it failed to attract as high a number of contributors as its South Korean counterpart (Joyce 2007). The news site was shut down in 2010, although it still remains online as an inactive news archive (Oliver 2010).
The scale and scope of global news was a challenge that OhmyNews International could not overcome. The website admitted in a post announcing its closure that it became “increasingly difficult to cover stories consistently” as contributors sent in submissions from all over the world, which not only made it difficult for their small pool of editors to vet, but also caused the website a lack of “specific focus” (OhmyNews International 2010).
This suggests that the scale and scope of global news reporting can be overwhelming for independently-run alternative news sites with a relatively small amount of resources (as compared to a transnational mainstream media organisation), making it difficult for alternative media to continue running to a standard high enough to present a credible challenge to the mainstream global news agenda.
The example of OhmyNews demonstrates that although alternative media can have a significant impact in terms of the coverage and perspectives they provide, this may be more suitable for local contexts or specific communities. When it comes to global news, however, alternative news sites may not be able to manage operations in a way that would rival mainstream outlets. Therefore, it is very difficult for alternative news sites to challenge the mainstream global news agenda by setting up competing platforms.
The battle for resources
On top of the difficulties of appealing to a global audience, alternative news sites also have to deal with a lack of resources to run its operations. As Kate Coyer and Tony Dowmunt (2007, p. 1) pointed out, one of the challenges that alternative media has to face is the fact that it has to exist and compete in the same market place as mainstream commercial media which has to “deliver audiences to the advertisers who fund them and make them profitable.” This section will argue that the difficulties of finding a sustainable business model prevents alternative news sites from posing any serious challenge to resource-rich mainstream media in terms of setting the global news agenda.
OhmyNews is once again a good example; despite its prominence in South Korea, OhmyNews’ efforts to expand have so far been unsuccessful. As reported in The Japan Times, OhmyNews Japan struggled to attract contributors (McNicol 2007), and closed in 2008 despite having had an $11 million investment from Japanese media giant Softbank when it first launched (Joyce 2007, Moon 2009).
This was a problem that OhmyNews International also found difficult to solve. Although the website claimed that their mission and values were more important than their revenue (Woyke 2009b), it ultimately found itself in the very dilemma explained by Eun-Gyoo Kim and James W. Hamilton (2006, p. 543):
“…don’t sell out your audience and ideals but get used to being irrelevant, or support your organization by whatever means necessary for maximum effect but run the risk of reinforcing the very system you hope to overcome…”
By sticking to its original mission OhmyNews International made “substantial” investments in areas such as video and training (Woyke 2009a, 2009b), but struggled to find a sustainable business model to cover costs and keep itself alive (Moon 2009). In 2009 Forbes reported that OhmyNews had “slipped into the red in 2008 and still struggles financially” (Woyke 2009a, para. 4) before it shut down in 2010 (Oliver 2010).
Oliver Boyd-Barrett (2000) points out that although the Internet has made it cheaper to produce and distribute content, this in itself cannot be a guarantee of success. In fact, he argues that the lower cost of production could actually lead to an increase in competition due to a greater number of producers, thus making it even more difficult for alternative platforms (ibid, p. 303).
This highlights the limitations of alternative news sites, where the lack of resources – both in terms of manpower and funding – makes it difficult to find a sustainable way to maintain the platform’s core values and goals while generating enough funding to survive. It is thus difficult for alternative news sites to have an impact on the mainstream global news agenda.
Co-opting the alternative
The mainstream media has also begun to co-opt and adapt alternative media methods to its own online platforms (Hermida 2009) in an effort to elbow its way into the space occupied by alternative news sites. This section explains that while the mainstream media have admitted the usefulness and capabilities of alternative media by adopting some of its forms, little has changed in terms of content, showing that alternative news sites have not been able to affect the setting of the global news agenda.
In his report on OhmyNews Japan, McNicol (2007, para. 14) points out that it can be very difficult for alternative news sites to gain prominence in a market where “the mainstream media have already stolen some of its thunder.” In this comment he is referring to the ways mainstream media has managed to co-opt some alternative media forms to compete with alternative news sites. This challenge is acknowledged by OhmyNews International’s former communications director Jean K. Min, who said, “We keep trying to come up with something exciting, but nothing really seems new in this fast-changing environment” (Woyke 2009a).
One such example is BBC News. In an effort to increase accountability to its audience, the BBC added blogging to its online platform, co-opting an alternative media (Hermida 2009). However, Alfred Hermida (2009) has noted that while the BBC had adopted an alternative media form, there has been little effect on its content. The BBC’s blogs still strongly adhere to its editorial values of impartiality and objectivity, and do not carry stories ‘alternative’ to the BBC’s usual content, but “primarily news commentary by correspondents who expound on stories they are working on for broadcast and publish material that would not fit within the constraints of established media formats” (ibid, p. 277). We can then see that although the mainstream media has co-opted alternative media forms to mitigate the impact of alternative news sites, this has had little impact on its news agenda.
Alternative news sites have made an impact on the media landscape, offering savvy consumers – “the people formerly known as the audience” (Rosen 2006) – more options in terms of where they want to get their news, and also allowing them to create their own news.
However, alternative news sites are limited by their independent and participatory nature. Examples like Indymedia and OhmyNews demonstrate that although it is possible to make a huge impact on particular communities with localised stories, it is much more difficult to take on the global news agenda as put forth by the mainstream media. Without the funding and manpower to cope with large amounts of contributions and the day-to-day costs of running a global news site, alternative news sites struggle to sustain themselves, much less pose a serious threat to the mainstream media.
In this essay I have examined the ways in which a mainstream global news agenda can be set, looking into factors – such as news sources, inter-media agenda-setting and foreign news values – that influence an organisation’s news agenda. I then pointed out the limitations of alternative news sites in terms of their ability to cope with large-scale coverage of global news, as well as their lack of resources. I have also addressed the issue of mainstream media adopting alternative media forms such as blogging while not adopting alternative perspectives, concluding that despite their impact on the media landscape, alternative news sites are still limited in a number of ways and do not present a serious challenge to the mainstream global news agenda.