What I Mean When I Talk About News Networks
Posted by chanders on January 8, 2009
When I write, I like to describe reporting as a rather primitive process of “networking the news,” the gathering together of news objects and the crafting of them into largely standardized news stories. Using this basic assemblage of news facts and arrangement of news stories as a model for exploring the shifting nature of journalistic work, I’ve emphasized that the movement of news objects across the news network is never a frictionless activity; rather, it is always a process of constant mutation. That said, I also want to formalize and extend these simple news networks, moving beyond the basic process of the gathering and transformation of news objects and towards an exploration how different organizations and institutions engaged in the news networking process are themselves assembled into longer networks. In other words, I’m moving one step beyond describing the assemblage of news stories and towards describing the assemblage of the particular institutions and organizations engaged in the news-networking process.
To better understand the notion of a news network, it might be useful to compare this idea to the concept of a news silo. In a news silo, all aspects of the news work process would be under the organizational control and branding umbrella of a centralized institution. The most extreme example of this notion of the news silo can be seen in Herb Gans’ description of news organizations as “assembly lines managed by decision makers with quasi-military roles … as one executive producer put it: ‘The daily routine is like screwing nuts on a bolt.’”
In a news network, on the other hand, various aspects of the news work process would be carried out and managed by separate organizations. Through either the visible inscription process afforded by the world wide web (linking out) or though a formal to semi-formal series of work distribution processes and institutional collaboration, a news network would, as pithily summarized by Jeff Jarvis, “do what it does best, and link to the rest.” Rather than a newspaper “city desk” in which a set of reporters working on particular beats would submit news content to editors, who would publish that content in a particular newspaper or a website, a “networked” city desk would supplement its own paid stable of reporters by excerpting and linking to amateur bloggers, citizen journalists, and even the content of competitor news organizations.
It is important to emphasize that these two models are ideal types; indeed, we shoud wonder, from a historical perspective, whether anything like a “news silo” has ever actually existed. News organizations, by their very nature, are characterized by a high degree of permeability and by the fundamental need to share and transmit information, even if the dominant news model for much of the modern era has stressed the “scoop” and the unique contribution of individual reporters or organizations to the fact gathering process. In managerial terms, even the most silo-esque news institutions have traditionally relied on a stable of paid freelancers, syndicated columnists, and other, more deinstitutionalized news workers. Nevertheless, the concept of the networked news organization has become one of the dominant images of the online news era.
I already mentioned the fact that supposedly “instantaneous” digital news networks are characterized by a fundamental tendency towards object mutation; in news assemblage terms, the fiber optic cable connecting Philly.com and the Philadelphia Inquirer might stretch for a million miles. In a similar vein, longer news chains—chains of news institutions and organizations that themselves are “networking the news”– must be seen as an fractured, tenuous, potentially pulverized, fragile accomplishments. Look at Philadelphia Media Holdings: the Daily News, the Inquirer, and Philly.com are united by bonds of ownership, geography, and personnel; their network, however, is something of an accomplishment, ratified and remade daily: the end outcome of an extraordinary effort.
So, I’m thinking about news networks … why they succeed, and why they fail.