Intro to Part I – News cultures in flux

9 05 2009

***This is an outdated version. Please do not cite or reproduce in any way.***

This is the second post in which I test the PhD waters. This time, I’m making a draft version of my introduction available (slightly adapted to a blog friendly format). A complete table of contents can be found here. Any and all comments are welcome. On a regular basis, I will post sections and outtakes until you are bored stiff. I am already way past that stage.

Introduction to Part I: News cultures in flux (version 9 May 2009)

The globalization of journalism is a two-faced Janus. The first face is abuzz with the creative promise and transformative potential of technological innovation. In essence, the development of ‘new media’ technologies such as content management systems, weblogs, feed readers, podcasts, news aggregators and other internet applications has revolutionized journalism and other forms of public communication such as public relations, advertising and politics. This digital revolution has paved the way for new journalistic practices like online and citizen journalism. It has also produced cultural shifts in news production and consumption.

One such important shift is that audiences, i.e. news readers, listeners and viewers, have morphed from voiceless, passive media consumers into rambunctious, active producers (a.k.a. ‘produsers’ or ‘prosumers’). In brief, new media technologies have given audiences a voice. This voice can be heard the world over, in ever increasing co-creative, interactive and networked ways. To my knowledge, New York University’s Jay Rosen was the first to drive this point home. In a now classic 2006 blog post, Rosen wrote that ‘the people formerly known as the audience’:

[have] graduate[d] from wanting media when we want it, to wanting it without the filler, to wanting media to be way better than it is, to publishing and broadcasting ourselves when it meets a need or sounds like fun.

There is a rich and exciting literature on the theory and practice of journalism in this digital revolution (Castells 2001, Deuze 2007, Manovich 2001, Silverstone 2007, Rosen 2001, Lewis et al. 2005, Carey 1989, Shirky 2008) but I will not assess its claims here.

Instead, my concern is with the second Janus face. This face tells a tale of doom and gloom; ‘traditional’ media industries, inter alia news media, publishing companies, movie studios, television and radio stations are struggling with the digital revolution. Their political economy is fraught with declining numbers: circulation, audience figures, advertising revenue, staff count and market capitalization. A cottage industry of websites now tracks media lay-offs, shutdown operations and mergers. Between 2000 and 2006, the iwantmedia.com archive recorded 72,000 job cuts in US media. A twitter account known as ‘themediaisdying‘ has published more than 1,700 updates since its start in November 2008. In 2009, BusinessWeek columnist Jon Pine coined the term shadowmedia, referring to a media industry “created and staffed by those pink-slipped in ’08 and ’09”.

Print journalism in particular has been bleeding red ink as the industry shifts from print to digital. Stateside, this is how the PEW Project for Excellence in Journalism reports on the trend in 3 of their most recent reports on the health and status of American journalism. The cited 2007, 2008 and 2009 chapters on newspapers are available at http://www.stateofthemedia.org:

When online and print readers are combined, the audience for what newspapers produce is higher than ever. But the print newspaper is unquestionably ailing. Circulation is declining. Advertising is flat.

(The State of the News Media 2007)

Newspapers are still far from dead, but the language of the obituary is creeping in. The industry has been in declining health for some time now. It got sicker rather than better in 2007, and 2008 offers no prospect of a quick cure.

(The State of the News Media 2008)

The newspaper industry exited a harrowing 2008 and entered 2009 in something perilously close to free fall.  Perhaps some parachutes will deploy, and maybe some tree limbs will cushion the descent, but for a third consecutive year the bottom is not in sight.

(The State of the News Media 2009)

These statements seem optimistic by many accounts. Indeed, moribund discourses abound about the future of print journalism in a digital world. Summarizing, print journalism is seen as a transitioning medium in search of new business models (Mings & White 2000; Alves 2001; Quinn 2005), one-upped by technological innovations and cultural changes (Pavlik 2000 ; Boczkowski 2004; Matheson 2004; Robinson 2006; Messner & Watson Distaso 2008), challenged by commercial and editorial adjustments (Bruns 2005; Paterson & Domingo 2008; Paulussen & Ugille 2008), criticized for declining quality standards (Ursell 2001; Davies 2008; Lewis, Williams & Franklin 2008b; Lewis, Williams & Franklin 2008a) and decimated by increased industrial concentration, uncertain labor conditions and de-professionalization (Walters, Warren & Dobbie 2006; Deuze 2008b; Deuze 2008a).

I will come back to some of these claims, in particular the issue of quality standards, in the following chapters, but the point I am trying to make here is that, according to Indiana University’s Mark Deuze, these observations force attention to a second cultural shift, one he develops into an epistemological argument:

what industry observers like Rosen tend to omit, underreport, or dismiss is another equally if not more powerful redistribution of power taking place in the contemporary media ecosystem: a sapping of economic and cultural power away from professional journalists by what I like to call The People Formerly known as the Employers. […] this power shift erodes the very foundation of the way we know (and thus interact with) the world, and our ability to truly function in it autonomously, and on our own terms.

(deuze.blogspot.com, 25 October, 2008, emphasis original)

This ‘foundation’ of knowledge refers, first and foremost, to the mediation of social experience through the products of journalistic activity. It is one of the theoretical orthodoxies in journalism studies that news informs us about who we vote for, what we buy, how the race was won, who’s sleeping with whom, why it will rain tomorrow, etc. Put differently, journalism has a license to produce versions of knowledge that frame public understanding of current affairs. In a Foucauldian sense, journalism produces, circulates and thus normalizes ways of speaking about culture, ideology and identity (Spitulnik 1999). Indeed, as John Hartley knows, journalism is “the primary sense-making practice of modernity” (1996 : 12) and given the saturation of (news) media in our everyday lives – newspapers, magazines, television, radio, blogs, social media – it is difficult to disagree with Hartley’s assessment.

Second and equally if not more orthodox, is the related view that print journalism and democracies are inextricably linked. As forums for collective participation, newspapers take pride in the public service they provide: exposing wrong doing, providing unbiased information, mobilizing the public. That print journalism affects public opinion is widely recognized. This idea is for instance articulated in press metaphors such as the ‘fourth estate’ or ‘watchdogs’ of participatory democracies. To give another example, in Belgium, the late evening news on Flemish public television concludes with a preview of next day’s newspaper headlines. Next, in Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, a blogpost that has received 955 comments to date, Clay Shirky (2009) notes that

Print media does much of society’s heavy journalistic lifting, from flooding the zone – covering every angle of a huge story – to the daily grind of attending the City Council meeting, just in case. This coverage creates benefits even for people who aren’t newspaper readers, because the work of print journalists is used by everyone from politicians to district attorneys to talk radio hosts to bloggers.

Last but not least, a recent study by two economists at Princeton University found that the shutdown of a newspaper impacts local political engagement. In their casestudy of the closing of The Cincinnati Post, a small newspaper with a reported daily circulation of 27,000 copies in 2007, Sam Schulhofer-Wohly and Miguel Garrido (2009: 1) show that

the closing of the Post reduced the number of people voting in elections and the number of candidates for city council, city commission and school board in the Kentucky suburbs, and raised incumbent council and commission members’ chances of keeping their jobs.

So then, amid concerns about the future and responsibility of print journalism in a digital world as indicated by the shifts in news consumption (‘the people formerly known as the audience’) and political economy (‘the people formerly known as the employers’) and with so much social, cultural, psychological and political capital at stake, it is imperative that news scholarship takes stock of the practices and routines of contemporary journalism, not only to grasp what can be gained from a move to a fully fledged digital journalism but also to understand what may be lost in the process, how journalism is changing and why.

Drawing on data collected at the economics newsdesk of a Belgian, Dutch-language quality newspaper which I will call The Star, this book sets out to examine the situated practices of print journalists in their roles as knowledge mediators and creators. How do reporters make sense of the various sources, narratives and frames around them and channel these into one final news story? What is the journalist’s role in the representation of events? How are news articles negotiated between reporters, editors and sources? How do technologies of production mediate the newsmaking process? What does the journalist ‘actually’ do while writing?

In what follows, I explain my approach to these questions, first by describing the field of inquiry and the analytical concepts used (1.1), next by outlining my main theoretical alignment (1.2) and methodological orientation (1.3) and then by reflecting on my fieldwork and data collection (1.4). An overview of the book’s content  (1.5) concludes Part I.


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2 responses

10 05 2009
chuckl

you should check out a new report by city of london university about how being an online only newspaper has affected a daily newspaper in Finland, both economically and in their news coverage

10 05 2009
Tom Van Hout

Ooooh, how interesting. Thanks for the comment. I found the paper online, as well as a handy summary article in the Guardian

http://www.city.ac.uk/journalism/people/faculty/thurman_publications.html
http://www.guardian.co.uk/media/2009/apr/16/online-only-newspapers-revenue-fall-taloussanomat

Thanks again,
T.

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