J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

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A Scholar Stares at the Exploding Newsroom

Posted by chanders on November 6, 2006

What a  coincidence! Just as I was starting to try and get my head around all the issues related to ethnographing the "new newsroom," I read on multiple blogs about the major restructuring that Gannett is undertaking. Jeff Jarvis thinks it’s a great idea and quotes the relevant Wired story this way: "starting Friday, Gannett newsrooms were rechristened “information centers,” and instead of being organized into separate metro, state or sports departments, staff will now work within one of seven desks with names like “data,” “digital” and “community conversation.”"

Other reaction in the blogophere? The go-to place on this story is Wired author Jeff Howe’s blog, crowdsourcing.com. Dan Gilmor, though also enthusiastic, notes, in an understated manner, that "a major part of this initiative is to save money," and Andrew Cline reminds us that "it was Gannett that played a big role in damaging print journalism with the introduction of USA Today–the paper that convinced print it should be like TV," though he adds hopefully that perhaps the crowdsourcing initiative will make up for Gannett’s earlier sins. The best roundup and discussion of the paradoxical financial implications, however, is at Seth Finkelstein’s Infothought blog where he asks:

"Who thinks unpaid (or very poorly paid) easily-replaceable labor is just the greatest thing ever? Who finds that exciting and innovative? There’s not a lot of discussion of that issue."

I set down some of my own thoughts about these complexities and contradictions a few months ago with regard to the Inky/DN sale and I wont repeat them here, as I have other things I want to get to. I’ll just note that, at some point, the cheerleaders for citizen / pro-am / networked / independent / indymedia journalism– and I’m one of them, for the most part– are going to have to start grappling with this stuff. Now seems as good a time as any.

But on to other questions. To start, I’d like to point out the irony that, just as sociologists are starting to revisit the notion of the newsroom ethnography, the very concept of the newsroom is "exploding," as Jeff Jarvis would put it, or at least changing in a fundamental way. So, how do we study the newsroom of the future?

Its useful here to tell a simplified story. In the mid- to late-1970’s, sociologists such as Herb Gans, Gaye Tuchman, and others turned their ethnographic lenses on the American newsroom. The insights gained by Gans and others did much to flesh out the emerging notion of the journalist as a social actor, and have remained the stock in trade source for common concepts about the news media: now boilerplate notions of news routines, journalists "fear of the audience," the importance of peer approval, etc., first made their appearance in books like Deciding What’s News. For the last twenty-five years, though, there has been a relative dearth of ethnographic analyses of the newsroom. (I think. Actually, I’m not entirely sure. From what I’ve seen, there isn’t a main bibliography which lists the major newsroom ethnographies, or quasi-ethnographies since 1970. So its needed, or, if its out there, I need to find it.)

But assuming, for the time being, that the story is one of limited, productive interest, followed by neglect, the last five years have seen a resurgence in the sociology of news more generally, and the newsroom ethnography in particular. Benson’s argument to "bring the sociology of the media back in," Klinenberg’s work on the converged newsroom, and Boczkowski’s examination of multi-media adoption in three newsrooms are all good cases in point.  But it seems that the newsroom has gone beyond being a newsroom, an actual, physical place where the news gets processed, or made, and is now something far more networked, and less bound by physical constraints. So how do we study this? After all, as Bourdieu would note, the gaze of the researcher helps define the identity of what she researches. So how long will academics keep reinforcing the definition of the "newsroom" (and with it, the definition of the journalist it helps support?) But at the same time, how do we  conduct deep, empirical research on unbounded space?

Here’s a clue: "Actor-Networking the News," by Fred Turner. [PDF] And here’s another clue: Chapter 4 of Science in Action, "Insiders Out," by Bruno Latour.

Deciphering these clues, and other alternatives, in a later post.

[For an earlier post hitting on many of these same themes, see ‘Outsiders In’: Yearly Kos, Boundary Lines, and Border Zones]

One Response to “A Scholar Stares at the Exploding Newsroom”

  1. Dalena said

    Please help! I want to do my final year project for anthropology on the ethnography of a newsroom. Your site came up, but i don’t know what you are talking about since I haven’t been following (and am quite bad with computers). Can you recommend some readings – maybe someone else who did the ethnography of a newsroom?

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