The contingency of academic labor

26 09 2009

There are a number of methodological and theoretical similarities (and differences) between journalism and what I call ‘soft’ science (i.e. mostly qualitative, social science like media anthropology or linguistic ethnography). In essence, journalism and soft science are eclectic sense-making practices that produce accounts which are situated (socially, geographically, topically) and interpretive.

There is another link between news work and academic work: the labor conditions in these two fields are becoming increasingly precarious, contingent or otherwise ‘atypical‘. The arts faculty at my alma mater no longer offers post-doc positions because it simply cannot afford them. External funding, downsizing, increased teaching loads and productivity demands (publish and perish) have become symptomatic of an ongoing trend towards the commercialization and marketization of tertiary education.

I am writing this down not just out of self-indulgent frustration over professional insecurity but because I share Mark Deuze’s concern that if the market orientation of the university

does not come with specific caveats, protections, checks and balances, the university as we know it becomes just another factory workplace – not a place for independent and critical reflection; a place that teaches people to make up their own minds.

This post is loosely based on Michael Bérubé’s feather-ruffling Op-Ed and Mark Deuze’s eloquent rant on the precarity of work in academia.

DiO Workshop day III: final plenaries

18 09 2009

Four, yes four, plenary presentations were scheduled on the Friday afternoon. Two corpus linguistic studies kicked off the written corporate communication theme. Birgitta Meex & Heidi Verplaetse (Lessius/KULeuven) compared German and English corporate mission statements. Berna Hendriks & Margot Van Mulken (University of Nijmegen) then presented an analysis of CEO communication.

The final two presentations were on…journalism. Ha! Martina Temmerman & Els Belsack (Erasmus University College Brussels) talked about positioning and self-representation during televised political interviews. Finally, Ellen Van Praet (Ghent University) and yours truly went the reflective/methodological route. We opted not to present micro data and instead focus on the pros and cons of secondary analysis.

Thank you: Geert, Katja, Craig, Chris, Sylvain, Priscilla and all the delegates for coming out. Hope to see you again at a DiO event.

How contemporary journalism works

7 09 2009

A number of forward-thinking journalists in Germany have issued a manifesto. I am reproducing an abbreviated version. The original version (in German) is available at

  1. The internet is different.
  2. The internet is a pocket-sized media empire.
  3. The internet is society is the internet.
  4. Internet freedom is inalienable.
  5. The internet is the triumph of information.
  6. The internet is changing improving journalism.
  7. The network requires networking.
  8. Links bring value, quotes are a form of recognition.
  9. The internet is the new home for political discussion.
  10. The new freedom of the press is freedom of opinion.
  11. More is more – there’s no such thing as too much information.
  12. Tradition is not a business model.
  13. On the internet, copyright becomes a civic duty.
  14. The internet has many currencies
  15. What’s in the network stays in the network.
  16. Quality is the most important quality
  17. All for all.

Translation by Jeff Jarvis with some minor edits by me. Amendments welcome.

  1. Denis Pelli was kind enough to point out that it should be civic duty (not civil)
  2. Tim Schlüter tweeted that the more appropriate gloss for ‘Gesellschaft’ in 3 is ‘society’ (not business).
  3. Jenna L. Brinning, a professional translator, has posted a proper English version of the original manifest.
  4. One of the authors, Janko Roettgers, says the manifesto was written in response to the Hamburg manifesto.
  5. Additional declarations have also been suggested by David Goldenberg

18. A viable Internet depends on media literacy and critical thinking.
19. Anonymity is the enemy of the Internet.

Belgians are of two physical types

29 08 2009

Having tossed me this personal-narrative bone, van Lierde strips down to his swimsuit. The Belgians, it has been said, are of two distinct physical types: the ample, rosy burghers famously depicted by Rubens, and the wraithlike subjects of van Gogh. Stomping around in rubber boots, complacently hosing down the pool deck, Damien van Houck appears pure Rubens. Lean and rope-muscled, his hair a severe black skullcap, van Lierde seems van Gogh to the core.

John Brant profiles Luc Van Lierde in Outside Magazine, November 1997.

“Transparency is the new objectivity”

14 08 2009

One of the most intriguing ideas about the digital revolution in journalism is David Weinberger’s claim that

Objectivity is a trust mechanism you rely on when your medium can’t do links. Now our medium can.

Objectivity has always been *the* golden standard for traditional journalism (print, radio, television). Newsroom ethnographers à la Gaye Tuchman argued in the 1970s that journalists rely on notions of objectivity to ward off criticism about the quality and reliability of their work. More recently, media anthropologist Mark Peterson has argued that objectivity is an operational concept that allows journalists to “see things” so they can produce factual, authenticated, balanced and impartial accounts of events in the world.

Now, Weinberger correctly observes that in an era of link economies:

What we used to believe because we thought the author was objective we now believe because we can see through the author’s writings to the sources and values that brought her to that position.

This, the ability to “see through” the author’s claims, values and sources, is what Weinberger means by transparency. It literally says to the reader: this is what I know and here is why, what do you think? Transparency is the way to establish authority in the link age. It is also is the way for journalists to add value to online news.

Tetris, news consumption, data streams

9 08 2009

On the eve of Tetris’ 25th birthday, Max Kalehoff blogged:

One of the most innovative and addictive aspects of Tetris is the perpetual, intensifying stream of bricks the player must align without spaces. In fact, this very element foreshadowed how we now consume most news content and personal status updates on the Web: in reverse chronological streams. Tetris’s layers of bricks fall with greater speed and complexity as you master the ability to arrange them in straight, crumbling rows. That is not unlike news feeds and status updates that funnel into your desktop and mobile interfaces, intensifying as your ability to sort and digest them increases.

Max has a point: while my gaming life never made it past Tetris (bar Street Fighter and Shinobi), “reverse chronological (data) streams” just about sums up how I  consume my Twitter and Facebook news updates.

From the telegraph: The game was created by a 29-year-old Russian programmer called Alexey Pajitnov, who said he knew he had devised a hit game when he could not stop playing it. Now, a quarter of a century later, the game has sold more than 70 million copies around the world and is still going strong

From the Telegraph: "The game was created by a 29-year-old Russian programmer called Alexey Pajitnov, who said he knew he had devised a hit game when he could not stop playing it. Now, a quarter of a century later, the game has sold more than 70 million copies around the world and is still going strong"

Much ado about online churnalism

5 08 2009

If churnalism is the mindless recycling of ready-made source material as news, then I wonder: is blogging newspaper articles churnalism? The Washington Post’s Ian Shapiro seems to think so. His article about a ‘generational consultant’ was blogged by Gawker, the popular Manhattan celeb and media blog. Big deal, right?

In a response to the Gawker story, Ian admits to feeling “flattered” by the Gawker post until he “started thinking about all the labor that went into producing my 1,500-word article”. He goes on to detail his journalistic labors: making phone calls, going places, interviewing and transcribing, adding that

After all the reporting, it took me about a day to write the 1,500-word piece. How long did it take Gawker to rewrite and republish it, cherry-pick the funniest quotes, sell ads against it and ultimately reap 9,500 (and counting) page views?

Basically, what Ian wants, is a piece of the Gawker advertising pie. He reported the story originally, put in the dirty work. All Gawker did was churn his story. While Ian certainly raises a valuable point – where will original reporting come from online? – it is ironic that newspapers are lamenting online churning practices.

News production is a quintessentially intertextual practice. News never comes out the of the blue: it is *always* linked to previous news discourse. If one newspaper breaks a story, rival newspapers are sure to pick it up. No editor-in-chief would charge other newspapers money for that. Granted, there is a clear difference between reporting a story and churning a press release or newswire story, but reproducing content (technically: to ‘recontextualize’; less technically: to ‘tweet’ or to ‘blog’) is common practice in journalism, print or online.

Haque: the revolution is a nichepaper

29 07 2009

In his latest offering, The Nichepaper manifesto, Umair Haque hits the Media 2.0 nail on its head once again. Newspapers are out, nichepapers are in. Nichepapers offer knowledge and insight about one specific topic (cf. Michael Massing). Haque really cuts the mustard when he lists the 8 rules of nichepapers (reproduced here in abbreviated form):

Nichepapers strive to impart meaningful, lasting knowledge;
Nichepapers co-create knowledge through “commentage“, i.e. the art of curating comments to have a dialogue with the audience;
Nichepapers develop topics — instead of telling quickly-forgotten stories;
Nichepapers strive for scarcity: to develop a perspective, analytical skills, and storytelling capabilities that are inimitable by rivals;
Nichepapers develop topics of conversation, not individual stories, and let them co-evolve with readers;
Nichepapers provoke us to think; they challenge us; they educate us in ways that newspapers stopped doing long ago;
Nichepapers pitch topics and stories to the community, and let the best ones snowball;
Nichepapers aren’t about technology; they are tech-neutral, using whatever works best for a given task.

According to Haque:

The 21st century news organization is a portfolio of the different kinds of nichepapers. An Intelligencer for healthcare, a Pioneer for education, a Chronicle for finance and entertainment — that’s what the future of news looks like.

Okay, where can I sign up? In the meantime, why don’t we try to think of another name for this new(s) game? Nichepaper still has a Media 1.0 ring to it. Any suggestions?

UPDATE: Brilliant follow-up post by Alan Patrick – covering everything from bottleneck resources to HobbyMedia and Social Journalism. Wonderful stuff.

Language and media session @ J21C

17 07 2009

A small but interested turnout at yesterday’s session on language and media at the Journalism in the 21st Century conference at the University of Melbourne (Law Building – fantastic venue for a conference). Nice diversity of papers, great discussion afterwards. Here are a few of my impressions.

1. Van Hout, Tom, Ghent University, Belgium
Quality Churnalism: Ethnographic Insights into Business News Production
Here is my presentation – adapted slightly at the last minute to fit the 15 minute presentation time slot.

2. Burger, Marcel, University of Lausanne, Switzerland
Conflicting Journalistic Styles and Textual Production: The Oral Negotiations Preceding the Inscription of Media

Marcel really impressed the audience with his data. Recurring question during the discussion afterwards: how in the world did you get this sort of access?

3. McKay, Susan & Fitzgerald, Richard, The University of Queensland, Australia
News Language in Contemporary Media Environments

How do broadcast news media target niche audiences? Answer: by converging production formats with consumption formats. The news studio has become a domestic space of consumption, complete with arm chairs, dinner tables and sofas – and the conversationalized register that these settings elicit.

4. Owen, Thomas, Massey University, New Zealand
Representations of Global Governance in Press Coverage of the Access to Medicines Debate

A corpus analytical study of a (quintessentially) globalized public discourse: access to medicines. Thomas is a very talented speaker and his data speak to issues of governance, agency, equality and nation-states.

Two observations:

  • 15 min. presentation time and 5 min of Q&A is really short. I’m much more comfortable in the traditional 20min-10min format.
  • I would like to blog about another presentation I saw, but honestly, it is beyond my descriptive abilities.


SBS Radio and @UOMmedia are providing excellent live coverage of the J21C conference.

Print versus online news consumption

5 07 2009

I’m ranking this quote under “wish I had read this sooner”.

Paper newspapers are hard to hold, hard to fold, hard to move around in (”cont’d on page E35″), smelly, smudgy, static (no video), unlinked, and wasteful. At the moment, the replacement readers are over-priced, under-sized, static, black and white, and barely-linked. But over time that’ll change, and when it does, I don’t think we’ll mourn papers for long.

David Weinberger


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