Yahoo! Here comes the new news

November 30, 2013

It’s been an interesting week in the new business, both globally and here in Australia.

At home some new start-ups, including another import from the UK. This time it’s the Daily Mail announcing an Australian edition. One Twitterati quipped that this would at least provide some much-needed competition in the right-wing junk journalism stakes currently dominated by The Australian.

But on the downside, one or two less happy stories of ailing start-ups and mooted closures.

On the world stage, it seems that Yahoo’s new business model is taking shape, following the surprise announcement that the NASDAQ-listed search and mobile App tech-giant has hired a group of well-known and high-profile journalists and editors to staff its own news portal.

The key hire is the award-winning and sometimes controversial Katie Couric, who will leave the American ABC network to join Yahoo. According to Yahoo, Couric will host a monthly interview program on the portal, but few details are available beyond that.

But why would a second-ranked search engine and internet portal want to buy into news and serious journalism?

The investment in Katie Couric and senior reporters from The New York Times signals that Yahoo wants to move into Web TV and take on the the giants of American network and cable television, and perhaps even Netflix, which is rumoured to also be looking at an Australian launch next year.

In recent months Yahoo, which is valued at around US$35 billion, has made a series of takeovers, mainly of Internet start-ups like the picture-blogging site Tumblr. But analysts think that it is still figuring out how to turn a profit from these acquisitions.

Tellingly, Yahoo’s share of online advertising (about 7%) is still behind Facebook (8%).

Recruiting Couric to be the new face of Yahoo’s news operation is an attempt to get a stock market bounce and attract eyeballs, which in turn should attract advertisers.

The key question though is where will those eyeballs be? In recent statements Yahoo CEO, Marissa Mayer, has said the company’s future is in mobile delivery.

However, mobile is “the right path” to be on according to Mayer, rather than an instant boost to advertising revenues. Digital plays take a while to turn from money sinks into profit centres.

Australia: following the leader?

Australia is following the bigger US and UK markets in seeing a wave of new start-up news providers both entering and leaving the market, which is creating both excitement and apprehension among journalists looking for new opportunities and among news consumers looking for something a bit more palatable.

Here at home this week, a new news start-up arrived and one recent entrant is in difficulties. In the past ten days or so, three new news publishers have announced their arrival in the Australian news market.

The biggest fish to enter the Australian news pond, since The Guardian six months ago, is the British-based conservative tabloid, The Daily Mail. Just this week it announced the imminent arrival of dailymail.com.au. It is a joint venture with Nine Entertainment, the Mail’s online arm dmg media and mi9 (a digital spin-off from the Nine group). There’s been very little said so far about who will head up the Australian operation, but its reported that up to 50 editorial positions will be created.

Two smaller and homegrown publications are launching into the Australian market; The New Daily and The Saturday Paper. The Saturday Paper will feature long-form journalism and will be published by Morry Schwartz (pubisher of The Monthly). Schwartz hopes it will be profitable with an initial printed circulation of between 80,000 and 100,000.

The New Daily recently launched entirely online and is financed by three major players in the Australian superannuation industry. The managing editor is former Fairfax and News Limited editor, Bruce Guthrie. The New Daily is running an advertising model and, like the imported Daily Mail, is not going behind a paywall. The New Daily’s backers hope it will be profitable within three to five years.

On the downside, Politifact, a fact-checking and independent journalism venture founded by former Fairfax editor Peter Fray has announced severe downsizing and possible closure as the sponsors who came on board during the 2013 federal election wind-down their commitment to the project. Politifact was based on an American model that calls out politicians for mis-statements and gives them a “truth-o-meter” rating. If it sounds like a gimmick, maybe it was, as the site only lasted seven months in Australia. Politifact is currently running on a skeleton staff and seeking new sources of funding.

The digital dilemma: How to make money from content

The question of how profits can be made from online news has several answers, but none yet a proven winner.

A recent American news start up NSFW Corp, which billed itself as “The Economist written by the Daily Show”, has this week closed its print edition and folded its digital business into another company, which is, itself, still reliant on angel investors from Silicon Valley.

And here lies the dilemma for the big global brands like Yahoo and The Daily Mail and for the more modest local start-ups, particularly those with a focus on serious journalism. NSFW Corp attempted to combine serious with hip and ironic, but that hasn’t worked out and perhaps the market for serious journalism is not where we think it should be.

On top of that uncertainty, the process for monetising the digital click-stream, whether on the desktop or via mobile devices, is still a large known unknown.

Television still dominates the global advertising market, while print advertising is in decline. On the other side of the ledger, digital revenues are not yet strong enough to support a reliable profit stream. NSFW Corp was offering a niche product and it was behind a paywall; not quite the same as ad-supported content, but another example of trial and serious error when it comes to financially-modelling new news.

Yahoo has a model that relies on volume-selling online and mobile advertising, but at a fraction of the price that print or broadcasting can command. The difficulty is that when you do this, the slice of total revenue you take from the cake has to be substantially bigger than your rivals if you are to survive and make a profit.

So far, no one has come up with a content formula that stacks the eyeballs high enough to satisfy all comers; with or without a paywall. The booking agents currently have the upper hand in setting prices for online advertising.

Over at Yahoo, Marissa Mayer is a smart CEO, she has a strong track record in the digital economy (she was formerly at Google) and her sense is that this expanding digital giant will eventually make money from its investment in Couric and news content. However, it is not a given that her vision will succeed.

There are nervous investors, from Nasdaq to Australian superannuation schemes, that hope she’s right about Yahoo, because their fortunes will also hang on the uncertain success of this bold experiment and others like it.

[This is a slightly longer and edited version of a piece I wrote for The Conversation, published 30 November 2013]


Student journalists are not “journalists”, they are students

November 10, 2013

A few days ago, my English colleague Paul Bradshaw wrote a piece “There’s no such thing as a ‘student journalist’” on his Online Journalism blog. He argues that there should be no distinction between journalists or students of journalism (presumably training to be employed as journalists after graduation) because they are both publishers of information and the students carry out the actions of journalists — they are effectively “doing” journalism — while they learn the skills, technologies and attitudes of the profession.

Students are experiencing first hand the culture of journalism, the experience of journalism and the social consequences of what they do. Paul writes:

There is no such thing as a ‘student journalist’.

Students of journalism no longer practise their work in the seclusion of a classroom. They do not write solely for lecturers, or even for each other.

Any student on a course with some awareness of the modern media world publishes their own blogs; their student media is accessible around the world. They contribute to networks, and build communities.

Even if their course provides no opportunities to do any of these things, they will have Twitter accounts, or Facebook accounts.

All of which means that they are publishers.

I don’t disagree with this in principle. Certainly any journalism course worthy of the name would be requiring students to participate in what I like to call “live fire” news exercises. These are usually done under close supervision. However, writing a blog as part of coursework (and for many students it is an onerous requirement of their study, rather than something they enjoy or immediately see the benefits of) is not journalism. Blogging is not journalism and I thought that debate was settled years ago.

Nor does publishing (in a very loose sense of the word) to Twitter and Facebook constitute an act of journalism, nor does it make reporters out of students.

Sure, every university student has a Facebook presence and some, but not all (and perhaps not even a majority) have a Twitter account, and even fewer are blogging with any regularity, if at all. Despite the hype, the digital natives continue to be social users of social media and rarely do their tweets or Facebooking or other encounters with social media (Instagram, etc) reach what we might call acceptable professional levels. (See for example, Hirst, M., & Treadwell, G. (2011). ‘Blogs bother me’: Social media, journalism and the curriculum. Journalism Practice, 5(4), 446-461. doi: 10.1080/17512786.2011.555367, the pre-publication version is available here).

So, on a purely practical level — that is the stage of professionalism achieved and achievable in the three years of an undergraduate degree — most of our journalism students are not operating as professional, or what I might describe as “real” journalists. Another practical point that we have to consider: not everyone in a journalism course wants to be a journalist and, even among those who do want to be, not all of them will make it for a variety of reasons.

Therefore, our role as journalism educators is more than producing the next generation of newsroom fodder, or even the next Pulitzer prize winner. It is a broader academic role: that of critic and theorist as well as cadet wrangler on behalf of News Corp or whomever the employer is likely to be.

The newsroom is a classroom; the classroom is a newsroom

For 20 years I have operated my journalism courses according to the principle that the classroom is a newsroom, but also that the newsroom is still a classroom. I believe that this is an important point to make in this current debate because, at the end of the day, we owe it to our students to recognise their status as students first and foremost.

To assume that we can (and should) treat them like fully-fledged working reporters does them a disservice and it could also be dangerous for them and for us. I do not want to seem like an old fogey, or as someone who thinks that the average 18-year-old is not mature enough to be treated like an adult. Of course they are and they deserve respect from their teachers and from members of the public that they interact with when we send them out into the world beyond the campus to practice their journalism.

And that word practice is the key. It is practice, to do something repeatedly in order to gain the skill; rather than practice as the performance of the work of a trade or profession that students are engaged in.

In my view, if we do not acknowledge the student status of our students (no, that’s not a tautology), we are not being diligent in our duty of care (the pastoral role of all teachers at all levels) to ensure that we “first do no harm”. Yes, we have to, as Paul rightly points out, engage our students in the daily routines and socialisation of newsroom practice and we have to move beyond the newsroom model too; but in doing so, we have to be constantly mindful that our pupils must be kept safe.

It is true that often the best way to learn is by failure — trial and error — and getting your hands dirty in real journalism exercises is valuable and effective pedagogy, but our students also need to know that the consequences of their failures are not catastrophic.

I have no problem with most of Paul’s points. Putting students in touch with local news outlets which might take their work is a key part of their learning experience. That is also why we offer internships and other work-experience opportunities. At my university we even give it a fancy name “work-integrated learning” and the acronym WIL. It is integrated into everything we do.

The same logic motivates us (journalism academics) to provide students with in-house publication outlets, from newsprint, through collaborations with local community radio and television stations and, increasingly, an online presence edited by tutors, or “journalists-in-residence”.

I think the danger in Paul’s assertion that there are no student journalists is that it might encourage us to forget that we are no longer in the news business. We are, first and foremost, in the education business. The job of the journalism academic (at least in the teaching side) is to educate, not to chase the news.

We can sometimes forget this and can get caught up in the day-to-day excitement of the hunt for news and chasing the story of the day.

But my advice for journalism academics who think this is the main game is simple: Go back to the newsroom.

It is not our job any more to get the “scoop”, we should not be thinking that the best way to influence the news process is to become part of it again from the sanctuary of the ivory tower. Sure, we need to act as editor, sub-editor and mentor to the student journalists in our classrooms,  but we should do this from the perspective of teaching and learning, not from the view of an editor whose job is to rundown the news and satisfy the public demand for information.

Any publication that arises from the work our students do while learning journalism is secondary to the real goal which has to be ensuring that the student experience of journalism education is a good one; that the learning outcomes are met; that the assignments are suitable to the level of study and that the students do not leave our institutions scarred for life because of a bad situation that could have and should have been managed more effectively.

One final point, which is also a comment on Paul’s reference to the “teaching hospital” model of journalism education which is based on the premise that university journalism programs should be covering local communities as a matter of course and as a priority at the top of the list of all the things they should be doing.

The key argument in favour of this is not one of pedagogy but of pragmatism. The reasoning advanced by supporters of this model is that the mainstream media is failing both in terms of garnering and holding public trust and also in terms of business modelling.

This is no doubt true and has been for a while. I wrote extensively on these issues in my 2011 book News 2.0 and I gave it the subtitle “Can journalism survive the Internet?” However, it is not, in my view, the fundamental role of the j-school to substitute for a strong news media outside the campus.

Maybe our graduates can be part of the solution to the declining popularity and profitability of the news industry, but not while they are students. To expect that of them is to place too much pressure on their shoulders at a time when they should be engaged with learning and critique.


One tweet does not a revolution make: Technological determinism, media and social change

May 11, 2013

This is my recently published piece on technological determinism and revolution – case study of the Arab Spring.

Reprinted from Global Media Journal

Abstract

This paper discusses the problematic influence of technological determinism in popular news media coverage and analysis of the Arab Spring events of 2010-11.

The purpose is to develop insights into how and why elements of a ‘soft’ technological determinism inflect both journalistic practice and news discourse in relation to the Arab Spring. In particular it discusses how the ‘bias of convenience’ and a journalistic obsession with the ‘continuous present’ connect with this determinist inflection to create a potential distortion in the journalists’ ‘first rough draft’ of history in relation to significant and complex events such as social revolution.

Debates about the significance of social media and communications technologies more broadly in generating mass outbursts of protest and even violence have raged in the popular news media for the past decade at least. A wave of interest in ‘theories’ about how and why new services like Facebook and Twitter may create or enable mass protest was generated by the revolutionary events in Iran following the June 2009 elections (Hirst, 2011). Many of the arguments then and now, in coverage of the Arab Spring, are suggestive of a form of technological determinism that is coupled with other underlying and little-investigated assumptions inherent in most forms of news practice and discourse.

The question of the influence of technological determinism within journalism studies is a far from settled debate and this paper follows Mosco’s argument and suggests that the idea of a social media revolution is a myth of the ‘digital sublime’ (Mosco, 2004). At best social media is a new battleground in the struggle for information control. At worst it can blind activists and commentators to reality (Morozov, 2011).

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From “hate media” to another fine mess: How media reform got derailed

March 13, 2013

Don Pedro of Aragon: “Officers, what offence have these men done?”

Dogberry: “Marry, sir, they have committed false report; moreover, they have spoken untruths; secondarily, they are slanders; sixth and lastly, they have belied a lady; thirdly, they have verified unjust things; and, to conclude, they are lying knaves.”

William Shakespeare, Much Ado About Nothing Act 5:Scene 1

May 19, 2011: On a mild mid-autumn day in Canberra, Greens leader Bob Brown held a fairly standard media conference to discuss climate change, emissions trading schemes and the carbon tax. During the Q&A session Brown mentioned The Australian and questioned why it was editorially opposed to making the big polluters pay. The following exchange took place:

Brown:The Australian has a position of opposing such action. My question to you is ‘Why is that?’”

Reporter: “As they said the other day, when you’re on this side, you ask the questions.”

Brown: “No. I’m just wondering why the hate media, it’s got a negative front page from top to bottom today; why it can’t be more responsible and constructive.” [Interjection]

Brown: “Let me finish. I’m just asking why you can’t be more constructive.”

Actually, that’s a fair question. The Australian would rather parade the ill-thought opinions of buffoons like Lord Monkton that get to grips with climate science. The science doesn’t suit the business interests of The Australian’s real clients.

On that now fateful May day Bob Brown made the point that the maturity of the climate change debate in Australia is questionable:

Brown: “The Murdoch media has a great deal of responsibility to take for debasing that maturity which is informed by scientific opinion from right around the world.”

Brown’s comments were reasonable, but challenging the collective wisdom of the Murdoch press is never a good idea; it is at its most effective, ferocious, vicious and unforgiving when it is under attack.

Pack instincts kick in and that is what Bob Brown was facing that day on the lawns of the parliamentary courtyard. He was having a go at the coverage of climate change in the press and argued that The Australian’s reporting was “not balanced”, it was “opinionated” and “it’s not news”.

This was inflammatory stuff; several reporters snarled and barked back. Brown responded with a comment that really goes to the heart of this whole matter:

Brown: “You don’t like it when we take you on. Don’t be so tetchy, just measure up to your own rules.”

Unfortunately, but not surprisingly, it was the “hate media” grab – shorn of context – that made the headlines and the first (extremely rough) draft of history.

This was the genesis of calls for a public inquiry into media standards in Australia, but it was only the beginning.

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The compact comes of ‘Age’, but the real fight for Fairfax is scooping digital eyeballs

March 8, 2013

Fairfax launched its new compact size in a week where Victorian politics dominated the national agenda, making it a very good time to consider just how Melbourne’s former broadsheet, The Age, fared with its now similarly sized competitor, the Herald Sun.

The re-launch of The Age as a compact was never about being the biggest selling newspaper in Melbourne. There’s no way The Age can compete with the genuinely tabloid Herald Sun.

The Herald Sun is a modern giant among Australian newspapers: its audited Monday to Saturday circulation hovers around the 450,000 mark. That adds up to more than a million readers every weekday.

The Age sells roughly one-third: Monday to Friday (157,000) and about half (227,000) on Saturday. Readership is about half too: 566,000 Monday—Friday and 720,000 on Saturdays, according to Audit Bureau figures.

So the driver of this week’s move was re-attaching Age readers who’ve let their subscription lapse, or who hated the unwieldy broadsheet.

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Compacts v Tabloids: The only game in town is the back page

March 5, 2013

As of yesterday [Monday 4 March 2013] we are in a weird scenario: Rupert Murdoch’s The Australian is the only broadsheet daily newspaper left in Australia. Think about this for a minute.

Yes, shocking, I know.

All of the other Australian dailies are tabloids. Or, if you prefer the Fairfax Media spin, most of the others are tabloids and two of them are ‘compacts.

The compacts are the former broadsheets: The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (published in Melbourne).

The last broadsheet to tabloid conversion was when Brisbane’s Courier-Mail made the switch in 2005. Today the Courier-Mail is indistinguishable from its News Limited stablemates in Sydney, Melbourne and Adelaide. The Courier-Mail embraced the whole essence of becoming a tabloid. It has adopted the big double-deck headline technique with a large photo-splash and it has eagerly turned itself to tabloid news values as well.

But this is something that Fairfax Media says it won’t do; at least not yet. While it is clearly competing head-to-head with News Limited in Sydney and Melbourne, Fairfax honchos have said repeatedly–and whenever asked about it this week– that The Age and the SMH will not become tabloids, driven by celebrity, gossip and the sort of low-level moral-panic inducing campaigning journalism that characterises all the Murdoch mastheads.

Advertiser 5 March Courier Mail 5 March

Daily Tele 5 March

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Judging a book by its cover: Did The Age get it right on day one?

March 4, 2013

The first thing I noticed this morning at my newsagent in Melbourne’s leafy eastern suburbs is that the pile of Herald-Suns is twice as high as the pile of The Age. So the first comparison is easy.

Even in this relatively affluent suburb, the newsagent expects to sell more Herald-Suns than copies of The Age.

The second comparison is also easy and perhaps explains the first: the Herald-Sun is $1.20 and The Age is $2.00. Price-conscious newspaper buyers will probably prefer the cheaper product.

The canny Herald-Sun buyer also gets more bang for their buck-twenty. The Murdoch ‘tabloid’ has 80 pages and the Fairfax Media ‘compact’ has 72, plus a 16 page insert that is numbered differently.

But how do you tell a tabloid from a compact? It’s not that easy because technically they are the same size: 30X40 centimetres.

Perhaps it’s in the layout and use of colour on the front page.

Herald Sun4 March The Age

The Age has retained its signature royal blue, but the masthead is superimposed reverse in white on blue. The Herald-Sun uses a verdant green and a superimpose/reverse white, but it’s masthead block is deeper coming 14 centimetres down the page. The Age masthead is a shallow nine centimetres.

The Herald-Sun also uses its masthead to promote a “Superstar Footy DVD” give-away and incorporates action pics of two AFL stars who I don’t recognize, but who I’m sure would be very familiar to Aussie Rules fans.

As you would expect the Herald-Sun has a brighter more ‘tabloid’ front page with a bold headline in four centimeter solid capital letters: “SECRET TAPES BOMBSHELL”        . Over the top of that is a white-on-red banner also in heavy caps: “POLICE CRISIS ROCKS GOVERNMENT”. Just below the headline is a series of three ‘pointers’ also in block caps: “KEY STAFFER PAID $22,500”; “JOB HELP AT ODDS WITH PREMIER”; “BAILLIEU ADVISTER SLAMS DEJPUTY PREMIER”.

The kicker is that readers are invited to “Now listen to the recordings heraldsun.com.au”

The copy itself, across five columns is about 350 words and the story is continued across four pages (4-7) inside.

At the bottom of the page there’s three ‘skybox’ promos for contents inside the paper. This is a great tabloid front page and if you were buying the paper on its shelf-appeal, you would probably go for The Herald-Sun.

By contrast The Age seems dull, if worthy. Read the rest of this entry »


Down the memory hole part 1: Repeat a lie long enough someone will believe it

July 25, 2012

The Armstrong Delusion

I’m not sure if you’ve noticed because they’ve been quite subtle, but whoever writes editorials for The Australian doesn’t like the idea that there should be some responsibility and accountability in the news media — particularly when it comes to News Limited papers.

I have collected more than a dozen editorials from The Australian that relate to media regulation, the Finkelstein and Convergence Review recommendations and the war on free speech that is currently crushing the news media. I have a pile of op-ed pieces 20 centimetres high and I’m slowly piecing together the story of the memory hole and the big lie.

It is impossible to include everything in one post because it is necessary to constantly check the facts. Big lies work through repetition and by relying on the assumption that no one will check the history and correct the record.

But I am working on a book about journalism ethics at the moment and a second one on freedom of speech so this is a research exercise. I am happy to share as I go along.

The memory hole is the device used in Orwell’s 1984. Winston Smith is obliged to correct (redact and edit) editions of The Times on behalf of the Inner Party. Whenever he corrects a piece of copy — usually because of some previous lie that now needs to be altered — the old story and all his working notes are sent to a furnace in the vast apparatus of the state. The offending materials are dispatched down the memory hole.

In the walls of the cubicle there were three orifices. To the right of the speakwrite, a small pneumatic tube for written messages, to the left, a larger one for newspapers; and in the side wall, within easy reach of Winston’s arm, a large oblong slit protected by a wire grating. This last was for the disposal of waste paper. Similar slits existed in thousands or tens of thousands throughout the building, not only in every room but at short intervals in every corridor. For some reason they were nicknamed memory holes. When one knew that any document was due for destruction, or even when one saw a scrap of waste paper lying about, it was an automatic action to lift the flap of the nearest memory hole and drop it in, whereupon it would be whirled away on a current of warm air to the enormous furnaces which were hidden somewhere in the recesses of the building.

George Orwell, 1984

The Australian and its free speech absolutist supporters are relying on the memory hole to erase any idea that there might be some value in media accountability and light touch regulation.

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Rupert Rinehart: Australia’s new fair and balanced (free) news media

June 24, 2012

Let’s drop the pretence that there is freedom of the press in Australia.

Let’s also recognise that the Rupert Rinehart media future is anti-democratic and a threat to our collective rights as citizens to have freedom of speech and freedom of expression.

Make no mistake, the Rupert Rinehart media want it all for themselves. Their freedom of the press comes at the expense of our freedom of thought and our freedom of action.

It is a nonsense to pretend that a Gina Rinehart controlled Fairfax represents the exercise of free speech just as it is bullshit to argue that New Limited is a paradigm example of freedom of expression in action.

Tx: Road less travelled – click for link

Murdoch sets the tone at News Limited and it is he alone who has freedom of speech across his newspaper titles. His minions either carry out his wishes or find themselves another job.

If Rinehart gets her way – and she will – then it is she who will set the editorial tone across the Fairfax titles. Her interest in Fairfax is not commercial, its political. The idea that she is a white knight who will turn around the fortunes of the failing company is a fairy tale.

‘What’s the problem?’ the free speech fundamentalists will ask. They will answer for themselves. The owner of the business, or in Gina’s case, the major shareholder, has the right to set the editorial line.

‘After all, it is their paper to command.’ The fundamentalists will then cross their arms with a smug smile of the self-satisfying undergraduate mass debater plastered across their chops.

Unfortunately, this argument is jibber jabber of the worst order.

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Scooped: The politics and power of journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand

February 7, 2012

Hot off the press

Scooped is finally available. You can order online from Exisle Books

This book is the first new text on New Zealand journalism in ten years. Scooped is an edited collection of essays canvassing the politics and power of journalism and the news media in New Zealand today.

Scooped: The Politics and Power of Journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand critically examines some of the most pressing economic, political, social and cultural issues facing journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. Approaching journalism as a field of cultural production, the book brings together contributions from a diverse list of academics and journalists, and interrogates the commonsense assumptions that typically structure public discussion of journalism in Aotearoa New Zealand. Rather than simply treating power as something others have, and politics as something that the media simply covers, the book situates journalism itself as a site of power and cultural politics. Lamenting the often antagonistic relationship between journalism and academia, the book offers a vision of a critically engaged journalism studies that should be of interest to academics, students, journalists and general readers.

 

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