Writing from sources:
ethnographic insights into business news production
An executive summary
Part I – Introduction: News cultures in flux
Based on a 6-month ethnographic study of business journalists at a Belgian quality newspaper, the account presented in this book describes journalism as a social practice. This is an approach that banks on the idea that social practices are never random actions but rather constitutive of and constituted by sociocultural knowledge that specifies how forms of symbolic capital are valorized in particular domains of social life. The study is motivated by the disruptive changes that internet technologies have brought about in the global news industry and by public and academic concerns about the quality, responsibility and future of journalism.
Part II – Findings
De Standaard as a field of production
Chapter 2 reveals how the spatiotemporal routines (the story meetings in their various constellations); the textual artefacts of newswork (source texts, story budgets, newsroom diary); and the sociotechnical roles news producers occupy (desk chief, editor, reporter, editor-in-chief, etc.) provide the institutional texture from which news discourse emerges through time and space. News production is theorized as an inherently intertextual process of recursive social action built around the inception, conceptualization and inscription of news. This crucially involves text-talk-text sequences (modal shifts) that funnel news discourse across communicative modes and settings (meetings, phonecalls, computer screens, face-to-face interaction) and that take shape in an upward institutional trajectory of textual mediation.
Next, an analysis of routine and non-routine newswork during story meetings shows how social relations in the productive system mediate news production and that these meetings are best described as arenas of struggle. Struggle not just over the meaning of texts but also over symbolic capital such status, identity, audience concerns, expertise and the like.
Journalism as materiality
Chapter 3 shows how the materiality of writing (a) on an editorial platform and (b) from source texts impacts the digital writing process of a story about Russian gas exports to France. Drawing on the reporter’s self-reflective comments and keystroke logging data, four distinct phases in the writing process were discerned: a sourcing phase for managing information, namely the gathering, reading, ordering and trimming of multilingual corporate PR and press agency materials; a header phase in which the reporter composes a lead paragraph and a headline that conform to the material space constraints imposed by the story template; a composition phase in which the reporter formulates the body paragraphs of his text drawing on a press release, a news wire story and his own domain knowledge; and a revision phase in which the assigned character space is ‘filled out’ and a number of lexical, orthographic, numerical and grammatical edits are made.
The analysis also demonstrates the time and effort it costs the reporter to continually revise the headline and lead until he has versions that are within the space constraints imposed by the article template. Lastly, by scrutinizing agency in the immediate situation, the chapter documents how a reporter establishes authority through the allocation of authorship and how he draws mainly on a press release but bylines a wire story.
Journalism as literacy
Chapter 4 examines the newsroom micro-trajectory of a story about government funding of biotechnology and nanotechnology research. It is argued that journalism can be productively described as a literacy event comprising three distinct episodes of textual mediation: story inception, negotiation and inscription. These episodes involve various literacy practices: taking notes during a telephone conversation, re-animating those notes during a story meeting, writing from source documents (reading-to-write) and filling out the assigned text box (reading-to-revise).
Drawing on observational, textual, screen video and keystroke logging data, I then argue that this case study illustrates an indexical order of newswork. The reporter’s performance at the story meeting suggests a first-order indexicality of journalistic agency as having been there operating against a second-order indexicality of journalistic agency as having read this. Traces of this indexical order were also found in the writing process: the reporter in question draws on two preformulated news sources (a government press release and the notes of a powerpoint presentation) through which he at least creates the impression of having attended the press conference.
Journalism as transparency
Chapter 5 traces a line from a global pseudo-event of a product launch to a glocalized news story. By teasing out the added value of the reporter’s mediating labor from the interview and logging data, it is shown how source opacity of print journalism – as opposed to the source transparency advocated by online journalism – blurs the journalistic value that the reporter adds to the story, in casu cutting through corporate spin by weaving in a critique of the company’s underlying market strategy and by checking the factual accuracy of the product specifications listed. It is argued that these practices should be read against a professional vision which prioritizes authorial neutrality, reliability and objectivity.
Part III – Conclusions
Journalism as practice
The sixth and final chapter opens with a summary of the ethnographic account presented in Part II and then addresses the ‘So what?’ question by considering the validity of my account, the reliability of its analytical procedures and the generalizability of its theoretical statements. These concerns are addressed from the perspective of linguistic ethnography, the approach to language and communication adopted in this book. I proceed by detailing the scientific practices of theoretical inquiry, methodological coordination and empirical operationalization that I hold myself accountable to and outline a number of theoretical implication for media discourse, newsroom ethnography and journalism studies. In conclusion, I briefly address the issue of analytical complexity and outline a possible avenue for further research.