J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

“If tools could make anyone who picked them up an expert, they’d be valuable indeed.” Plato, The Republic

“The Documents Book”: First Stab at Some First Lines

Posted by chanders on January 4, 2013

I’ve had a little time over the break to get some drafts of the first pages of what I’m calling the “documents book” down on paper. I have no idea if this will stick, and indeed, I feel like I’ve written up more “first pages” of this project than I can count. Nevertheless, I last looked at it two days ago, and looked at it again this morning, and it seemed good enough to put out there. 

Fragments of this project can be currently found: posted here in March 2011 as a little research manifesto, on my first post at the Culture Digitally blog, titled “The Materiality of Algorithms,”  in a talk at the Mary Junck research colloquium  at UNC this past spring, in this call for an ICA preconference on the “Objects of Journalism,” (coming to an ICA near you!), and scattered across some Nieman Lab blog posts (like this one on Wikileaks). I also think the new book will be deeply indebted to, and in dialog with, the forthcoming (and now untitled) volume on the intersection between science and technology studies & media studies, edited by Pablo Boczkowski, Kristen Foot, and Tarleton Gillespie.  

I am hoping the new year will allow me to concentrate my energies on this a little more, and start to move this project forward in both theoretical and empirical directions.

Journalism is an epistemology with a particular, and highly unusual, embedded ontology. In slightly less portentous language, journalism is a method of assembling and analyzing evidence, a method with particular notions about what kinds of evidence are legitimate, and whose evidentiary analyses are affected by the larger social and technical systems in which these evidentiary forms are embedded. Or finally: journalism is a social system with a particular and peculiar relationship to things. In this sense, it is not reducible to organizational procedures, political and economic systems, or ideological power games. It is a particular culture (or rather, cultures) of truth building, a culture with both symbolic and material dimensions, a culture that both grapples with things themselves, as well as with its own internal beliefs what particular things matter, and why.

It is the contention of this book that the universe of evidentiary objects with with journalism interacts is now experiencing its own “big bang.” The relatively stable system of sources from which journalism had had to draw over the past five decades is, like all digitally grounded communicative forms, experiencing a massive influx of  new participants: crowds, social media systems, dig data sets, algorithms, hyperlinks, user metrics, and countless others. In the pages that follow I want to historicize these contemporary developments by tracing the cultural history of three deeply interrelated journalistic objects: documents, data, and algorithmic processes. How have journalists thought about documentary evidence— literally, about paper— and what role have documents played in their reporting practices? In what ways do these documents become data, and how does the transmutation of documents to data affect the manner by which these paper forms are assessed? What role, finally, do emerging algorithmic processes play in the analysis of documents and data, and how does the very materiality of algorithmic evidence affect journalistic fact-building?

This book argues, in short, that we can only understand 21st century journalism by looking at the objects with which it interacts, that this interaction is necessarily both cultural and material, and that these shifting paradigms of interactivity must be analyzed as taking place within history, that is, over time. Theoretically, it tries to integrate several decades of research in science and technology studies with both the cultural history of journalistic reporting and the sociology of journalistic source procedures, and draws inspiration from the emerging field of paperwork studies. Methodologically it is both historical and ethnographic. The early chapters, dealing with journalistic work in and before the early 20th century, are necessarily based on archival research, while the later chapters draw on independently gathered oral histories and the ethnographic analysis of recent journalistic software projects, including Document Cloud and the Overview Project. Given this diverse range of methodologies and theoretical sources of inspiration, this project is necessarily, and appropriately, unified by its object– the journalistic document and the role it has played in the construction of reportorial truth.

In the remainder of this introductory chapter, I want to further elaborate some of the thoughts only telegraphically sketched above. Our entry into the subject begins by stepping through the portal of journalism studies, looking at the literature on both journalistic evidence and journalistic objects, particularly the holy trinity of sources, documents, and direct observations. I also briefly examine the literature on the sociology of journalistic sourcing, arguing that there is a gap between the more historical and cultural analyses of journalistic evidence and the more finely grained discussions of the procedures through which journalists establish a hierarchy, routinized pattern of sources. I argue in the second section that both science and technology studies (particularly the early, empirical work of Bruno Latour) and the emerging field of paperwork studies might help us fill this gap between history and sociology, and indeed, I propose such a procedure in this book. The introduction concludes with an outline of both the structure of the argument and the actual narrative breakdown of the empirical chapters that follow.


Posted in Personal Musings | 3 Comments »

A Few Thoughts on Twitter

Posted by chanders on January 27, 2012

Much like Dave Winer, I found myself getting tripped up by the 140-character limit when trying to discuss the obviously complicated issue of Twitter’s new “filtering” policy. So I decided to follow his lead and sketch my thoughts out a little more precisely.

1. I actually have no problem with what Twitter did. Indeed, given the constraints they were under, this is probably the best possible policy they could come up with (as Zeynep Tufekci argues well here). But, it’s foolish to imagine that this decision will not have particular (and possibly bad) consequences.

2. The biggest possible consequence will be that it is easier now for despotic regimes to view Twitter censorship decisions through the lens of Western values and U.S. foreign policy, and to argue to their populations that this is the case. Take this comment by Jillian C. York to get an idea of what I mean:

It seems that Twitter’s goal is to minimize censorship globally while adhering to local laws when necessary. In other words, I highly doubt they’ll start censoring tweets in Turkey, but given a court order from the UK, they might.

Well, why? I mean, what’s the difference? The only distinction I can see is if someone argues that either (a) the legal apparatus of Turkey is illegitimate, or (b) their culturally-laden speech-values do not align with ours. Ambiguity, in this case, allows repressive governments to treat Twitter like they’ve treated it all along: as an arm of Western imperialism. This time, though, they’re in a stronger position to make the argument.

3. While I don’t judge Twitter for their new policy, I do find their moralistic posturing irritating and hypocritical. I mean, come on; to announce, under a banner headline, that “tweets must still flow” and then go on to say that they won’t flow quite like they used to (one year and one day after the Egyptian uprising) is obnoxious. Its obvious that Twitter acumulated a great deal of cultural capital amongst Silicon Valley’s libertarian digerati  for their stand throughout most of 2011, both in regard to the Wikileaks subpoenas and the Arab Spring uprisings. But: non-market values are, in the long run, incompatible with the logic of the market, and what Twitter is trying to do now is reconcile what it believes with what the market needs it to do. Bottom line: I don’t believe that companies has “values” in any meaningful sense, and this is where I disagree most with smart folks like Alex Howard.

4. And the @eff is just weak. As I noted earlier, what is the point of the EFF if they are just going to discuss this change in terms of “realpolitik” and “conformity to actually existing laws.” I mean, what’s the point of a transnational NGO if they don’t spend all of their time saying things like “laws be dammed! We have principles gosh darn it, and we are going to stand by them!!” Human Rights Watch does this sort of thing all the time, which is one of the things about them that is simultaneously so inspiring and annoying. I can go to the US State Department for realpolitik.

So, to sum up:

  • Twitter is a company, so stop with the Hamlet-esque moralizing.
  • For better or worse, Twitter has made it easier for foreign governments to dismiss what it does, if, ineed, it does something that foreign government don’t like.
  • And hey, EFF: lame.

Posted in Personal Musings | 2 Comments »

Abstract for An As Yet Unwritten Paper: “What if Journalists Have Always Been Post-Human?”

Posted by chanders on December 19, 2011

“What if Journalists Have Always Been Post-Human? The Non-Human Turn in the Social Sciences & the Analysis of News Practices.”

 Abstract submitted to The Nonhuman Turn in 21st Century Studies (May 3-5. 2012. Milwaukee, Wisconsin)
 C.W. Anderson

ABSTRACT: The most controversial– and thus perhaps the most useful– aspect of an Actor-Network Theory (ANT) approach to the study of science and technology is that ANT simultaneously acts as (1) a theory of knowledge, (2) a metaphysics, and (3) an empirical method. The central claim of theorists working in the ANT tradition, in other words, is that any analysis of the institutional production of knowledge requires certain ontological commitments and particular methodological approaches. While the underlying unity of this multi-dimensional argument is what renders ANT so powerful, it also opens it up to critique from those who disagree with any of these three central claims. It also invites derision from those social scientists who might prefer letting philosophers deal with metaphysical issues. That the ambitions of ANT now go far beyond the domain of science and technology studies should be obvious from its’ founders recent empirical work, including Latour’s analysis of religion and law, Callon’s studies of economics, and Law’s meta-theorization of research methods. All of these studies, in other words, examine the institutional production of socially ratified knowledge from an idiosyncratic perspective

In this paper I argue that the application of Actor-Network theory to journalism and news can not only provide new insights on journalism, but also sheds new light on the complexities of Actor-Network Theory itself. Unlike science, religion, economics, or even law, journalistic knowledge is a proudly mundane knowledge system, a knowledge produced rapidly, by poorly positioned professionals, often at the demand of a variety of economic and political interests. Journalism has been deeply affected by recent developments in digital economics and culture. Finally, few professionals have been as self-reflexive as journalists when it comes to openly talking about the manner in which their epistemological labor been has affected by emerging material practices. To the degree that ANT can help frame these developments, but also insofar as its’ epistemological, ontological, and methodological commitments must be adjusted in order to think about the production of journalistic knowledge, we can gain new insights into the non-human turn within the social sciences.

The paper proceeds in three parts. In the first part, I review some of the “post-science” scholarship produced by ANTs most prominent theorists: Latour’s The Making of the Law and Jubiler ou Les Tourments de la Parole Religieuse, Callon’s Laws of the Markets, and Law’s “Seeing Like a Survey.”  In the second part, I apply these analyses of non-scientific knowledge objects to specifically journalistic objects (news interviews, documents, and reportorial observation, as well as to less-studied news objects like the hyperlink, the algorithm, and the public forum.) In the final part of the paper, I reflect on what an actor-network approach to journalism might teach us about the project of ANT itself.

Posted in Personal Musings | 2 Comments »

Networking the News: Basic Timline

Posted by chanders on October 5, 2011

Quick update: this timeline is more of a timeline of “characters in the book” than it is a definitive history of every event in Philly journalism in the last 20yrs. That might help explain the somewhat idiosyncratic inclusion or exclusion of events. In the end, the book is part history but also part ethnography, which means it is as much about access to people as it is “history.”

Just finished a basic timeline I’ll be using as I wrap up my edits on Networking the News, my book on local news in Philadelphia in the digital age.  Please feel free to weigh in with corrections, additions, or general thoughts about things I got wrong / missed / got right.


News Events in Philadelphia

News Events Nationally


  • The Philadelphia Evening Bulletin closes, part of a wave of consolidation in the news industry. Philadelphia now has two daily newspapers owned by a single national chain, Knight-Ridder
  • The New York Times reports on threats to turn Philadelphia into a “one newspaper town” by closing the tabloid Philadelphia Daily News. Various iterations of this threat are repeated, under different circumstances, over the next fifteen years.
  • Phillylife.com – an entertainment only version of the Philadelphia newspapers—is launched. It is later renamed Philadelphiaonline.com.
  • The City Paper, a local alt-weekly, launches “City Paper City Net.” Modeled after Prodigy and AOL, the site supplies news, email, usenet, and BBS access


  • The website GrooveLingo is launched by a self-described “bored college student.” The website is designed to cover the Philadelphia music scene.
  • The New York Times goes online.
  • Philadelphiaonline.com launches “Blackhawk Down,” a massive experiment in collaborative, long-form, digital storytelling.


  • Philadelphiaonline.com is renamed Philly.com. It also begins using a content management system (CMS) for the first time, replacing its earlier flat file system.
  • In December, Karl Martino launches the “collaborative blog” Phillyfuture.com. Originally hosted at http://editthispage.com, the site invites Philadelphians to register as either editors or contributors.


  • Blogger is released by PyraLabs. The software is designed to make online self-publishing – later known as “blogging” easy and ubiquitous.
  • The first “Independent Media Center” opens its doors in Seattle. The IMC is founded to provide grassroots coverage of demonstrations against the World Trade Organization. It is one of the first digital media websites to emphasize participant-powered journalistic coverage of breaking news.
  • The Philadelphia Independent Media Center, a branch of the larger IMC network, opens in the summer to cover the Republican National Convention in Philadelphia.


  • Knight-Ridder centralizes control of its local newspaper properties through Knight Ridder Digital, which launches with 33 websites. As part of this change, operations and website management are consolidated.
  • Knight-Ridder also begins to rethink the role of its online local media properties, attempting to brand them as local “portals” which contain not only news, but are gateways to an entire geographical region.
  • The dot-com “bubble” bursts.
  • Philly.com redesigns its website, with a look and a CMS that is now part of a Knight-Ridder standard.
  • The small, personal blog Metecat is founded by a web developer who has dabbled in programming. The site is entitrely personal and covers topics like the best lobster rolls and craft beer.
  • A technology staffer with the Philadelphia Daily News travels to San Jose to hear a lecture by Dan Gilmor. He returns to Philadelphia and advocates that the papers should embrace “blogging.” Later that year, the first Daily News blog, “Barks Bytes” launches.  It covers the Philadelphia Eagles, but is discontinued after the season ends.


  • Former full-time journalist and freelancer Amy Z. Quinn launches the blog “Tales of a Feminist Housewife.” In 2005 the blog is renamed “Citizen Mom” and becomes one of the more important blogs in Philadelphia.
  • Joey Sweeney, sometime music critic with local alternative weeklies The City Paper and Philadelphia Weekly launches Philebrity, a website designed to integrate an alt-weekly attitude with an interative digital presence.
  • A staffer with the Reading Eagles launches “Berks Phillies Fans,” a website chronicling the Philadelphia Phillies. The author originally sees it as a way to make group emails about the trails of the baseball team more public and permanent. The site is later renamed Beerleaguer.
  • The Philadelphia Daily News launches a special blog, “Campaign Extra,” which covers the 2004 Presidential Race. In 2005 the blog is renamed Attytood and is maintained by Will Bunch.
  • Karl Martino re-launches Philly Future, moving away from the idea of a “group blog” and towards a site which is powered by RSS feeds aggregating the best content of other local blogs.
  • Philly.com and the Philadelphia Daily News launch “The Next Mayor,” an attempt to combine public and networked journalism to report on the Mayors race online.


  • Knight-Ridder, owner of the Philadelphia newspapers, announces it is breaking up and selling its assets.


  • A variety of Philadelphia journalists gather for the first and only “NORGs” conference, to discuss building a networked news organization in the city.
  • The Pew Foundation discusses launching a website nicknamed “The Phly,” which would rely heavily on user-generated content and citizen journalism. The site is never launched.


  • The Philadelphia Inquirer begins to staff a “breaking news desk.”
  • The author begins his longest period of ethnographic fieldwork in Philadelphia.
  • Pew once again considers launching a journalism project in Philadelphia, under the informal moniker of “The Y-Factor.” The initiative would be  large-scale: a staff of nearly 60 reporters, editorial desks, 6 or 7 verticals, an embrace of “citizen journalism,” and an initial cost of between $4 and $5 million dollars. Once again the site is never launched.


  • Newspapers, in part due to pressures from the solidifying digital information environment and in part due to the onset of the Great Recession, suffer one of their worst financial years on record.


  • Philaelphia Media Holdings files for bankruptcy.
  • Three young journalism entrepreneurs, graduates of Temple University, found Technically Philly, designed to actively chronicle Philadelphia’s start-up scene.


  • The Philadelphia newspapers are auctioned off as a part of bankruptcy proceedings. Attempts by the current owners to retain control of the properties fails, and the papers are now controlled by a consortium of banks and hedge funds.
  • The local public radio station WHYY launches Newsworks, a local news website combining original digital reporting, aggregation, and content from the radio news team.
  • The William Penn Foundation commissions a report on the Philadelphia Media Ecosystem, and draws up plans to create a “network news” hub online.
  • The Philadelphia Daily News begins staffing a breaking news desk.
  • The new CEO of the Philadelphia Media Network, which owns the local newspapers, announces a number of new initiatives including launching a startup incubator at the newspapers and placing some paper content behind a partial paywall
  • The Philadelphia newspapers begin to sell digital subscriptions as part of an all-inclusive tablet.


Posted in Personal Musings | 3 Comments »

A Few Thoughts on Occupy Wall Street

Posted by chanders on October 4, 2011

UPDATE: Apologies to Micah Sifry for my previous misspelling of his name. The perils of posts written in a hurry. The fact remains, however, that his previous post on Occupy Wall Street both gets the history totally wrong and bears little resemblance to any sort of on-the-ground reality.

Consider me now amongst the many protest-voyeurs who passed through Zuccotti Park for a few hours yesterday, looked around, and now feels inclined to wax speculative on What It All Means.

Yah. I’m That Guy now.

Some background: for about seven years, from 2001-2008, I devoted a substantial portion of my life to doing digital media work for various lefty causes, most of whom were affiliated with this weird intersection of anti-globalization movement / institutional NYC left / mass of anti-war-anti-Bush folks that existed between 2001 and 2005 or so. A lot of them are chronicled on this blog. Between 2001 and 2005, the energy was in the movement, the protests themselves; between 2005 and 2008 we worked mostly on digital media infrastructure building. One of the things we tried, just to name one example, was creating an “Indymedia blogwire” that would integrate local blogs into the NYC Indymedia website without totally eliminating the “post-to-the-site open newswire” concepts which we’d begun in 1999. There were a lot of things like this we tossed against the wall; some worked and some didn’t.

In 2008, for various reasons – graduating, finding a job, increasing “personality conflicts” with some of the Dudes who dominated the NYC Indymedia scene at the time (and still, it must be said, dominate a certain segment of that universe), and an increasing sense of my natural liberal-bourgeoisness– I largely left that kind of work behind. I wanted to focus more on taking what I’d learned in the previous seven years and using it to help journalists figure out how to reinvent their profession for the digital age. Rather than changing the world by building a “blog-wire,” I wanted to help my students figure out what the fuck was going on in this new world they’d been dropped into.

Still, the biggest reasons for moving onto other things was a general sense that whatever political stirrings had started in 1999 in Seattle were definitely dead. The movements that our media work was supposed to be supporting seemed to have shrunk down to the hardest of the hardcore; either process-obsessed anarchists or that type of New Yorker who, through a combination of rent-stabilized housing and family money manages to devote a life to “paid activism.”

Which all begs the question: why does what’s going on with Occupy Wall Street seem so exciting?

Not knowing, or not caring about, the history I just outlined can lead smart people to write all sorts of silly things in response to this question. One example of a particularly silly thing comes from Micah Sifry, who constructs and entire genealogy of the Occupy Wall Street movement that begins (of course) with the “netroots” in 2003. Writes Sifry:

In America we’re now entering into a third wave of movement politics (the first being the rise of the “netroots” within the Democratic party after its leadership collapse between 2000-2003; and the second being the rise of the Tea Party after the conservative losses of 2006 and 2008).

Anybody with half a sense of history knows this is pure and simple nonsense; the folks in Zuccotti Park have little to do with Howard Dean, or the movement he inspired. They are, if anything, the return of a “first wave” of digital-movement politics, one which flourished briefly between 1999 and 2001– but in general, it’s probably more honest to admit that dividing these things up into “waves” is just silly (the Indymedia folks, for instance, emerged in part out of the ‘zine / Punk Planet subculture, which had been around since at least the 1980s … and so on …)

Sifry’s genealogical purpose, it seems, is to find a way to wrap every social protest up into some sort of notion of a technological-political sublime:

America is about to experience the same youth-driven, hyper-networked wave of grassroots protests against economic inequality and political oligarchy that have been rocking countries as disparate as Tunisia, Egypt, Israel, Greece and Spain. The occupation of the Wisconsin state legislature last winter was a harbinger, but now all kinds of previously disconnected individuals, loosely centered on a core of beautiful-style troublemakers and inspired by events and methods honed overseas, are linking up and showing up to occupy symbolically important centers…

But still, we haven’t answered the question: why does what’s going on with Occupy Wall Street seem so exciting?

The reason that I’m most interested in has to do with the structure of the media ecosystem. Not the fact that suddenly “here comes everybody” (this was true in 1999, or at least true in 2005); rather, technological tools that used to be confined to the activist ghetto have now become mainstream. Something like Twitter, after all, existed in 2004. But then it was called TXTMob, and the traditional media didn’t use it the way they use Twitter now. The media silos have opened up to a variety of inputs that simply didn’t exist in 2004. This, in turn, changes the dynamics of movement legitimation in all sorts of interesting ways.

Yes, this is half a thought. Or more like a fifth of a thought. Blogging- land of unfinished thoughts.

Of course, none of this has anything to do with whether or not the Occupy Wall Streeters will be as successful as, say, the Tea Party. Sociologist Doug McAdam might tell us– probably not, and I tend to think he’s right.

Then again, the folks in  Zuccotti Park have already surprised me once. I’d love for them to surprise me again.

Posted in Personal Musings | 7 Comments »

Moving from a Distributed Assignment Desk to a Mid-Range News Story (Thoughts About Andy Carvin’s Work)

Posted by chanders on May 1, 2011

I feel like the brilliant Andy Carvin (@acarvin) needs a helper. Or at least someone to take his distributed assignment desk aggregation and move them to what I might call a “mid-range” news story (not a finished, final product, but something in between tweet verification and the final story). Sometimes, the current process seems too fragmented for me to follow it easily when I’m not paying rapt attention. 

As part of as yet unpublished academic paper (hey! any body have any journals I might send this too?) I have written about this very process a it was practiced by Indymedia in 2004. The following paragraphs may help flesh out what I mean by “mid-range news story):

Indymedia Journalism and the Aggregation of News Objects 

For RNC-IMC organizers, assembling location-based infrastructures was clearly subordinate to the production of journalism. Spaces were built in order to make journalism possible. But what kind of journalism?  How did the RNC-IMC coordinate its network of decentralized citizen reporters, both organizationally and with regard to the production of news content? What was the relationship between physical space and editorial practices? Following our discussion of the process by which the Indymedia newsroom was built with an analysis of the means by which the organization coordinated its network of citizen reporters and the production of news drives home the point that the assemblage of news is socio-material. Indymedia did not just build a newsroom– it built the news, every single hour, of every single day, during the Republican National Convention protests. It did so by coordinating both people and technologies. ‘Building the news,’ now takes on a double meaning: it refers to the process by which institutions build spaces, and also to the process by which they build news outputs within those spaces.

(the different parts of the IMC website in 2004. Note how the facts move across the site, from least to most verified)

During earlier periods of protest coverage, Indymedia’s citizen journalism methods were deceptively simple. ‘I’m pretty sure we distributed a high volume of paper cards [to would-be protesters], saying ‘call this phone number’’ If you have information about something that happened at the protest. ‘And so we had people sitting by the phone typing up reports that would come in over the phone,’ and entering them into our website’s breaking and open newswire (interview, 3/19/2010). Only in retrospect does this method seem intuitive; the near-instantaneous transmission of news online is a recent (though now ubiquitous) phenomenon ,never mind the collection and distribution of that news by volunteers and, in many case, by strangers.

Information provided by protester-journalists was materially inscribed[i] on the http://nyc.indymedia.org website in a fashion that allowed for the visual display of facts and stories in a hierarchy of both importance and verifiability. On the far right side of the website was column labeled ‘Open Newswire,’ which consisted of reverse chronological order news and opinion submissions from anyone who had a story or news item to share. At the top of the center of the website, in a red-bordered box labeled ‘Critical Mass Arrests and Other Updates’ were a series of time-stamped updates on the protests as they unfolded. While both the ‘open newswire’ and the ‘breaking newswire’ contained bits and pieces of news, they also differed in significant ways. The open newswire was  ‘open, ‘ as the name implies, to anyone and everyone who had something to say, with content ranging from video, audio, and pictures of demonstrations to political rants to comments from  ‘trolls. ‘ The breaking newswire, on the other hand, was directly controlled by editors affiliated with RNC IMC, usually located in a room at the convergence space called the dispatch center, which itself was equipped with a series of telephones and computers. Its updates were far terser than the content posted to the open newswire. These updates contained no multimedia, and directly related to the unfolding protests. Most importantly, perhaps, they drew directly on the user-generated content provided by citizen journalists, all the while subjecting this content to an initially ad-hoc (but eventually systemic) process of editorial fact checking and verification:

 ‘When we got information you can’t totally trust or is conflicting with other information then you make some calls. You call back people that called before and say, ‘Where are you now? What are you seeing now? This is something we’ve heard.’ ‘ … Part of it was verifying and part of it was asking ‘how important is this?’ and ‘is this news?’ It’s, like, this is a big news story, then you want to get it to all of your outlets as fast as possible. Obviously you want it verified, but if you’ve got verified information and it’s of journalistic importance, you want to tweet it because it gets on the website as fast as possible. What I just called Tweeting, we didn’t have that then, we used to call it breaking news or breaking updates. We’d put it in the center column in the breaking news box. (interview, 3/19/2010).

Moving news from the right-hand column to the breaking news box in the center column signaled an increase in that news item’s importance, veracity, or relevance, a hypothesis further confirmed by the existence of a third category of Indymedia content, called the  ‘center column feature. ‘ (fieldwork, 2001-2008). The top feature in Fig. 4, located below the breaking news box, is an example of this particular piece of editorial content. Headlined  ‘First Notes on the Critical Mass, ‘ and authored by  ‘NYC IMC, ‘ the post went on to report:  ‘the first wave of posts on tonight’s Critical Mass have come in. The ride was New York’s largest critical mass, with well over 5,000 bikes. Gathering at Union Square in the middle of Manhattan at 7 p.m. and departing at 7:30, oil-free transportation stretched across all horizons around Union Square… ‘ (NYC Indymedia, 2004) The center column feature obviously marked an editorial consolidation, overview, and summary of already reported news content located on the open and breaking newswires; in this case, information about a particular bicycle protest called  ‘Critical Mass ‘. It also demonstrated an additional layer of verification on the part of editors, who were once again responsible for the decision to write and place an aggregated feature in the center column. The changing hierarchy of news objects within the Indymedia reporting infrastructure was thus inscribed directly on the RNC-IMC website itself. News reports and  ‘journalistic objects ‘ moved from the scene of the protests, to a phone, to the web, to the breaking or open newswire, and, occasionally, to the editor-controlled center column, in a pyramiding system of increasing veracity.

While the process by which website editors and citizen journalists worked together to report news was somewhat formalized by the summer of 2004, an additional journalistic feature of the RNC IMC— reporting on the protests via the utilization of real-time radio updates—was new, and directly related to the previously analyzed infrastructure of the RNC convergence space. As one Indymedia volunteer recalled, the fact that the  ‘breaking news team ‘ was physically located in a dispatch room directly across the hallway from the room in which the IMC was recording its live radio show allowed for online breaking news and radio programming to be fused in a new way (interview, 3/19/2010).  During earlier protests, Indymedia radio programming was primarily confined to after the fact interviews with eyewitnesses and protest organizers (fieldwork, 2001-2002). During the actual protests themselves, on the scene reports were mostly confine to text updates on the website. At the Republican Convention, the architectural layout of the convergence space helped facilitate breaking radio updates in real time (fieldwork, 8/2004). As one volunteer remembered:

Indymedia had, as long as I had known, done an audio web stream. But, as far as I knew, there’s never been an integration of [the radio stream with breaking news on the website]. I don’t know when the moment was when we decided to do that, but I think it was the moment when we saw the physical setup of the space. It was like,  ‘Well, radio is going to go in there and dispatch on the room right next to it. ‘ Oh, then I think it was also the Merlin phone system, which allowed us to rollover calls. I asked [another volunteer], ‘Wait. Does this mean we can take our phone and put somebody on hold here, then they can pick it up… ‘ You know, making it so our callers could get on the radio — people were like,  ‘Well, wait, so we can take a call in dispatch, put them on hold and then they can pick a call over at radio? ‘ … So seeing the physical setup and having the phone capability and knowing enough about radio allowed us to really merge breaking news and the radio (interview, 3/19/2010).

Volunteers with the breaking news team could verify the newsworthiness of updates from the street and prepare callers who had important information to share for inclusion on the radio show. Because of their proximity to the radio room, they could easily communicate with members of the radio team to prepare them for incoming calls. And the utilization of the  ‘Merlin ‘ phone system would allow for the rollover and transfer of calls from the dispatch room to the radio show, which would summarize and contextualize the situation for listeners. There was a relationship, in short, between the editorial processes of the RNC media center and the idiosyncratic infrastructures within which it was embedded.

Of course, analyzing the production of news during the 2004 Republican National Convention as the production of media frames is not excluded by the method of analysis utilized above. Indeed, one of the most useful aspects of a research focus on journalistic assemblage is the manner in which it can be used to compliment an analysis of media frames. What I hope the discussion above demonstrates, however, is that focusing on the socio-material processes by which the news is built is a distinctly different endeavor than focusing on the construction of media frames. It asks different questions and delivers different results. The next section will further  elaborate this difference between framing, assemblage, and coordination.

[i] Here, I draw on Actor-Network Theory, particularly Latour and Woolgar’s notion of the inscription device.  ‘Particular significance can be attached to the operation of an apparatus which provides some sort of written output … inscription devices transform pieces of matter into written documents. ‘ (B. Latour and Woolgar 1986)

Posted in Agenda | 4 Comments »

The Things That Tell Us What’s True (a Little Research Manifesto)

Posted by chanders on March 11, 2011

In late February, I had the chance to present the results of nearly a decade’s worth of research on local news at Phiji, the Philadelphia Initiative for Journalistic Innovation, at Temple University. Of all the talks I’ve given, this was probably the one that was the most rewarding. Despite its national implications, the story I tell in Networking the News is ultimately a local story about a particular place, at a particular time. So there was nothing more gratifying than getting a chance to share what I found, with the folks who knew and cared about it the most.

I also feel like the talk at Phiji represented something of an ending, for me. During my time researching local journalism in the digital age, I’ve produced two published papers (with a third on the way), a stack of paper that is roughly book-shaped, and a bunch of more or less understandable blog posts. And I think that I’ve said more or less what I have to say about how local newswork is changing in the web era. Now, life isn’t quite that simple, of course. For one thing, there’s still that outstanding book manuscript that hopefully will grow up to be a book someday (and if you know anything about academic publishing, you know that the process takes a long time). So there will be revisions to make, and probably talks to give, on Networking the News. Plus, let’s face it, I know a lot about local news and a lot about Philadelphia, and I doubt I’ll ever completely be able to stop myself from babbling about this stuff when people ask me about it. Nor would I want to stop thinking about it completely, even if it was possible.  There’s a chance I may get to write a future book on journalism and politics, which will certainly involve me going back and thinking about the ideas on Networking the News. And if I ever get the chance to do any funded research, I’m sure that I’ll be bringing a lot of the lessons I learned in Philadelphia back into the picture.

But, in the past year or so, I have felt my brain being drawn more and more to other research topics and areas, and I think it’s time to start making room in my head for them.

So what the heck might those topics and areas be, besides the stuff on politics and journalism discussed above?

The two big conclusions from my Philadelphia research have become increasingly easy to summarize as I’ve written and rewritten them over the past few years. They are not earth-shakingly profound, though I do think they have the advantage of both (a) being true and (b) being grounded in real empirical research.

I’ve concluded that journalism as an occupation has rested its institutional authority on:

  1. The fact that it does “original reporting.”
  2. The fact that it justifies this original reporting in the name of the unified public.

Obviously, both the act of reporting and the notion of the unitary public have changed significantly over the past decade. The web has deeply problematized the notion of the unitary public.  Reporting not only faces an onslaught of business-model related economic pressures, but the methodological options for conducting original reporting have broadened significantly. Links are only one of many “uncertain objects of evidence” that journalists can either choose to use, or not use, or not use, as they craft their stories. And the notion of the news story itself is changing as well. Algorithms, massive datasets, variables, hyperlinks, and aggregators are only some of the “news objects” now affecting the core journalistic process of reporting.

So I think that when we ask “what’s the future of journalism?” what we’re really asking is this: reporting is a particular (and actually rather odd) form of empirical social investigation. So what is the relationship between news reporting and other forms of empirical social investigation, both historically and today? How are the relationships between different forms of empirical social investigation changing in the current era of digitization?

Here’s what I mean. For the journalist, a stack of leaked documents carries a certain ontological weight. It is a particular socio-technical “assemblage” that, subject to proper verification, has become a conventional object of journalistic evidence. Why? How did leaked documents become accepted as a common currency of journalistic truth? What were the technological, social, cultural, professional, occupational, and political circumstances that created a universe of leaked documents in the first place, and why did journalists start to use them as the “particles” out of which they built their stories? And does a cache of digital documents (a la Wikileaks) mean something different than an analog file stored in a desk drawer somewhere? Why? Or perhaps even more interestingly, why not?

Here’s what I mean: why are interviewing, observing, and reading documents so easy for journalists, while linking is so “hard?”

So basically, I’m interested in the manner that different practices of empirical social investigation are illuminated (1) through an analysis of the shifting ontological status of journalistic objects, and (2) by comparing reporting to other empirical research practices in their historical, cultural, and technological contexts.

That’s a small topic, for sure (hah!). I figure this will take a while. But there are a lot of different ways to cut into a big idea like this. Here’s a running list of a few of them, and I’d love to hear other ideas you might have for how to approach the topic in the comments.

All this is a long way of saying that I’ll be giving 10 minute talk at NYU tomorrow about the 1907-08 Pittsburgh Survey and the original intersection between investigative journalism, sociology, and social reform. I’ve never spoken to historians before, I don’t have a presentation yet, and I am fairly worried I am going to make a fool of myself. Like my colleague Jay Rosen, who is down at South by Southwest, I too plan on starting my talk with a quote from the famous muckraker Lincoln Steffens. This is the quote I’ll be using:

“What reporters know and don’t report is news– not from the newspaper point of view, but from the sociologists and novelists.” (Lincoln Steffens, 1931)

Posted in Indypendent Journalism Workshop, Personal Musings | 2 Comments »

“Why J-School is Too Important to be Left to the Journalists.”

Posted by chanders on January 19, 2011

Among the many things that make Dave Cohn awesome is the fact that he decided to revive the long-beloved Carnival of Journalism. The topic for this round is: what is the role of the University / Journalism School in helping to sustain a healthy information ecosystem.

I knew I didn’t have a whole lot of time this month to participate, so I was just going to bow out … but then I stumbled across this little talk I gave in the Summer of 2009 about this very topic. I still pretty much agree with everything I’ve written here, so I figured, why not update this and submit it to this to this months carnival?

So I hope this is a useful contribution — Enjoy.

Media Literacy and the “New” Journalism Education
Or, “Why J-School is Too Important to be Left to the Journalists”

C.W. Anderson

Every year, the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism administers a “current affairs” test, which they say will test the “writing skill and general knowledge of current events.” It’s administered to every student applying to the school Why? Such a test seems trivial; it seems like giving a Jeopardy quiz to students who will be entering an Ivy League grad school.

My best guess is that this is test that determines whether you have an “ambient awareness” of the news. In other words, are you the kind of person who regularly consumes news content? Why might this matter? Just as you almost certainly can’t become a film director without watching film or a writer without reading literature, the most fundamental basic step to being a journalist is reading journalism. To be a good journalist, in short, being a news junkie helps.

In 2009, 2011 if I suddenly became god—if I were running the Columbia admissions program– what would I add to the current affairs test? I’d add something testing your “ambient awareness” of social media. Just as you could not be a journalist in 1989 without reading journalism, I’d argue that you can’t be a journalist in 2011 2009 without producing, or at least consuming, social media, understanding how it works, what it can and cant do, what the current debates are about it, etc.

I admit that I haven’t thought much about what the questions would be on a test like this, but they might include:

(1) compare and contrast the use of twitter to talk about Michael Jackson vs the use of twitter to talk about Iran.
(2) What are some of the implications of the new Google operating system for social media, if any?
(3) What are some hey differences between Facebook and Myspace?

I think a test like this would, in large degree, put the rather silly debate about teaching fundamentals vs teaching “new technologies” on the level it belongs. On a low level. “Ambient knowledge” and acculturation to new media would be required before you get in to J-School, not after. Obviously, this test shouldn’t make or break your j-school application. There are a lot of things that are actually more important … but this could be one component.
Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Personal Musings | 11 Comments »

From weak to strong news networks: Downie, Jarvis, & Technically Philly

Posted by chanders on October 31, 2009

… Having spent more than three years doing dissertation research on the changing journalistic ecosystem in Philadelphia, I was excited to see Technically Philly get a great write up last week. And having spent the past six months as a research assistant with the Downie-Schudson report on reconstructing American journalism, I see a connection between Technically Philly, CUNY’s New Business Models For News, and the report. The nub of the connection has to do with building stronger news networks and deciding on the network ties we allow ourselves to utilize when we build them… [Read More at the Nieman Lab]

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Truth-seeking professionals and the public: Why is journalism unique?

Posted by chanders on September 30, 2009

… So an interesting way to approach the question of journalistic use of Twitter might be to consider: Why am I, a professor of journalism, encouraged to blog, tweet, and engage in public dialog about journalism, but still trusted to speak the “truth,” while journalists are not? Why am I not required to “relinquish some of the personal privileges of private citizens” in order to do my job well? Why am I allowed to get up in front of a classroom everyday and teach youngsters how to “do journalism,” while journalists themselves have to give up some of the personal privileges of private citizens? What is it about journalistic professionalism that demands the monk-like embrace of personal rectitude? … [Read More at the Nieman Lab]

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