J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

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

Blogging My Fieldwork

Posted by chanders on July 9, 2008

Take recent burblings in the blogosphere. Add in a couple of really smart posts about the relationship between ethnographic fieldwork, keeping a journal, and keeping a blog. Multiply by a desire on my part to start getting feedback on my own fieldwork in Philadelphia, and factor in the understanding that the academic publishing cycle is in no way compatible with the changes currently buffeting the world of journalism. What do you get? Possibly, a return to active blogging, a practice foresaken since I started teaching in earnest back in 2007. We’ll see.

My own interest in local news seems prescient, as all sorts of metro daily business models are crumbling, both in Philadelphia and elsewhere. So there’s been a surge of interest in the metro newspaper in the journalistic blogosphere, with two of the best posts coming from Jay Rosen (“Big Daddy Newspaper Has Gone and Left Journalism,”) and Jeff Jarvis (“Newsroom economics: Where would you put your money in a newsroom?”) I’m hoping that some of my own on the ground work this summer can contribute to the conversation.

The problem, of course, is that none of this will be done for close to a year — and that’s not even counting the extra 2-5 years it will take to turn my dissertation into a publishable book. I know that on some level, the work I’m doing in Philadelphia amounts to a history of a particular moment in journalism at a particular time– that hopefully, it will be read by people who want to learn “what things were like ‘back then'”– but that doesn’t make it any easier to feel relevant sometimes.

As always, C. Wright Mills to the rescue. “On Intellectual Craftsmanship,” the most brilliant methodological appendix ever written, is full of insights into how to organize your files, keep a journal, and generally keep your mind fresh while you’re engaging in the lonely process of scholarship. Rex over at Savage Minds had the brilliant idea of taking the places where Mills writes journal and file and replacing them with website and blog. So you get something like this:

By keeping an adequate blog and thus developing self-reflective habits, you learn how to keep your inner world awake. Whenever you feel strongly about events or ideas you must try not to let them pass from your mind, but instead to formulate them on your blog and in so doing draw out their implications, show yourself either how foolish these feelings or ideas are, or how they might be articulated into productive shape.

All in all, I’ve been developing a fairly self-reflexive approach to my ethnographic work in Philadelphia anyway. My plan was to share by written memos or parts of chapters with my key research informants, both for ethical and reflexive reasons, so they can play a part in shaping my final results (this is an approach emphasized by both Pablo Boczkowski in Digitizing the News and Bruno Latour in Reassembling the Social but it’s been a mainstay of most Anthropology and qualitiative sociology for a long time. So possibly the next step is to start putting some of the more comprehensive parts of my field notes online, telling everyone about them, and letting them comment on them at will.

My only real concern at this point is ethical– many of my informants have basically given me permission to quote  them by name, and it’s clear that I will be allowed to use the names of the organizations I’m examining. BUT … putting something up on a blog is a lot different than publishing it years from now in an unread doctoral thesis. I’ve gotten amazing access, and I don’t want to rock the boat.

What do people think? Right now, my going plan is to not quote or mention anyone by name, but beyond that, just go ahead and put relevant things up here. Is that enough? I’m curious to hear people’s feedback.

Wait a second … I just realized that many of you may not have any idea what my “fieldwork” is, who I am, or what the hell I’m doing in Philadelphia! That, at least, I can tell you about, along with some other bits and pieces of things. So, stay tuned for some upcoming posts.


6 Responses to “Blogging My Fieldwork”

  1. Ben Peters said

    Great. I for one look forward to participating in, or at least being able to observe as, your evolving thoughts. The idea of a feedback loop in research is especially important, it seems to me, when the subject one is studying–something like the changing interrelationships between journalism and online media–itself a feedback loop.

    Oh, and if you do end up posting infrequently, I’ll stop checking. So if you do and then post something spectacular or important, please let me, for one, know by email.

  2. Jonah said

    Bring it on, Chris. The world is looking forward to your preliminary thoughts, and doesn’t want to wait for the book (never mind the movie).

    Make your publishing policy explicit. Mask all identities and remove obviously identifying facts – or, maybe even better, make up fictitious names so people can follow narratives across posts.

    Then, just be clear that you will immediately pull down any content that anyone is uncomfortable with.

    If you want to be extra careful, set up a robots.txt file to prevent search engines from indexing your site, but at the expense of serendipitous discovery.



  3. […] with, though, is that the discussion is still too abstract. If there’s anything useful I did this summer during my dissertation fieldwork, I feel it was taking the daily work needed to report, edit, produce, and converse about seriously, […]

  4. […] 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 […]

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