J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

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

Archive for December, 2008

What Counts as Authority Online?

Posted by chanders on December 28, 2008

A discussion of whether or not Twitter feed should be sorted by authority– defined originally as the number of followers someone has– has turned into an interesting discussion of what authority means in the digital world. This is a topic that I have a particular interest in (see here, here, and here) and so I wanted to follow up one of my earlier comments with a more extended discussion of what counts as authority online.

Most of the discussion about measuring authority on Twitter centers around what an accurate measure of “Twitter authority” might be. I feel like the comment that best sums the discussion up is this one: “I think everyone is missing the forest for the trees. It is not about defining authority, but about creating a tool that allows users to filter data in ways that are meaningful to them. At it’s core this is a data analysis issue.” In other words, what authority means in this context is relatively unproblematic, and all need is a better “tool” that allows people to filter data in ways that are meaningful to them. I’ve found that this sort of tool-centric attitude is unfortunately pervasive on the web, not surprisingly, as it is full of very smart people who feel like we can solve our problems by building better digital tools.  Unfortunately, ideas about power and authority are probably some of the most complex and misused / misunderstood concepts in all of social “science” (indeed, Quentin Skinner’s recent book on Hobbes and changing definitions of liberty just goes to show how long this debate has been going on, and how little of it has been settled). For me, an understanding of authority revolves, first, on distinguishing between power and authority, and second, understanding how we arrive at a definition of the right or legitimacy that is inherent to concepts of authority.

Let’s focus the discussion a little bit and look at questions of media power.

Media power (the power of the media) can be defined as:

“the multi-dimensional capacity to control the symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed.”

I’ve found that a really useful definition for media authority (especially, though not only, occupational media authority is):

“the right to control the symbolic process whereby reality is produced, maintained, repaired, and transformed (from James Carey); the right to intervene in the course of events, to influence the actions of others and indeed create events, by means of the production and transmission of symbolic forms (from John B. Thompson).”

Thus,  inherent to questions of authority are questions of right. Power can be based on force, or on right, and if its based on right, we call it authority. Right involves some notion of power’s “legitimate exercise.” In other words, most of us would agree that both the state and an armed highway robber have the power to take my money, but only the state has the authority to take my money in the form of taxes. The question then, is, where does the RIGHT inherent to authority come from?

Authority ultimately stems from three sources: the regular performance of a particular activity, a knowledge claim about what you need to know in order to do that activity properly, and a social definition about what the proper discharge of that activity actually is. All three of these actions kind of meet together in a big circle, and that’s what I think creates authority. In other words, understanding how Twitter authority can be defined is more than simply a question of filtering and designing the proper tools. Its a question of a) knowing what Twitter is “for,” b) claiming that you know how to Twitter in the ways that it is meant to be used, c) and then demonstrating your proper knowledge of how Twitter should be used through regular work.

The problem is that all three of these definitions build off each other. For instance, there is no proper use of Twitter in and of itself. The proper use of Twitter is not inherent to the nature of Twitter. People like Jay Rosen think that Twitter should be used as a way to share good links and focus a conversation. Other people might think that Twitter is a way to sell soap. One of these definitions eventually becomes the “proper” way to use Twitter (maybe), and the people with the most Twitter authority are the people who either share links or sell soap properly– ie. who can demonstrate an expertise in Twittering (selling soap or sharing links).

Now, how do we come to a social understanding of the “proper” way to use Twitter? Through the act of twittering! See what I mean, its all a big loop (these loop is called, in sociological literature, a jurisdictional claim.) We can apply a similar thought pattern to blogging, to journalism, or the internet in general. Journalistic authority can be seen as a jurisdictional claim: a claim to know how to “do journalism,” to do it regularly, and to do it in a manner that is seen by society as properly “journalistic.”

I suppose the point of all this is just to encourage people to keep in mind that authority is a complicated topic, that having authority is different from having power, and that who has authority is defined, in large part, by the ability to claim expertise or knowledge of the proper way to do something, a claim that is ultimately ratified through work, as is our understanding of what proper work is in the first place.


Posted in Fieldwork, Personal Musings | 2 Comments »

Training Citizen Journalists in Oakland

Posted by chanders on December 16, 2008

As you might guess from the title of this blog, I think this is a big deal … and long overdue (ht/ Buzzmachine).

For some of my links and previous discussion of this topic, see:

Posted in Indypendent Journalism Workshop, Personal Musings, Syllabi (Indy), Syllabi (The Stuff You Pay For) | Leave a Comment »

Using PBwiki as a Way to Create a Living Dissertation

Posted by chanders on December 16, 2008

I recently just started a PBwiki, http://networkingthenews.pbwiki.com/, as an experiment in creating a “living dissertation.” Nobody reading this can read the wiki, except for the front page, until and unless I give them permission (see the logic of this below). But here’s the introductory page that tries to explain my thought process:

The Rationale for this PBwiki

This is my dissertation, provisionally entitled Networking the News: Work, Knowledge and Occupational Authority in the New Metropolitan Journalism.

I’ve been experimenting with different ways of getting subject feedback, including sending out emails with different sections of chapters attached, and keeping a blog. So far, though, actual feedback has been minimal, although the blog has been a useful way to engage with my academic peers. I thought I would try posting rough drafts here, on a password protected pbwiki, and invite relevant people to contribute to the wiki and add feedback.

If this mini-experiment is successful, I thought this might be a good way to eventually “self-publish” the dissertation in a way that made sense, and didn’t undermine its validity as a document that was eventually publishable by a traditional academic publisher (still the currency of success in academia). Basically, the document would be subject to increasing levels of “openness”– first, I would open it to the subjects of the research, then, open it to the relevant, interested peer-communities (members of the Philly NORGS group, for instance). Finally, at some point, it would be open to everyone, and would hopefully serve as a “living document,” capable of being added to or modified, theoretically forever.

The bottom line is this: I’m studying the news industry, which is changing (some might say disintegrating) faster than can be documented using normal “academic” procedures. And I’m not willing to wait around for my book to get published in order to share what I want to share.

Here’s an example of what I mean: I just finished a large chunk of Chapter Two, which I want to give the people I interviewed a chance to provide feedback on. Once I post a draft of the section of the chapter, I’ll send email invitations to everyone who I think should provide feedback. Over time, this level of access will gradually expand.

What do people think about this experiment? I’d be curious to know if anyone in the blogosphere has tried anything similar.

Posted in Personal Musings | 1 Comment »

Pulitzer Rules Board: Fail. Sam Zell: Epic Fail (Updated)

Posted by chanders on December 8, 2008

Is it just me, or do the Pulitzer Prize board’s new rules only demonstrate that they a) are still behind the times and b) don’t really get it?

Oh well. Perhaps they are worried that, by award time, there will be no newspapers left.

Update: OK, in fairness to the Pulitzer Board, I’ve since gone over and looked at their actual rule page and the accompanying Q and A. The Editor and Publisher story is a bit muddled, and I am a little less concerned now that I’ve read the official rules themselves.

That said, I still think the major problem is the Committee’s focus on media type (especially their distinction between magazine and newspaper reporting, for instance); to wit: “Consistent with its historic focus on daily and weekly newspapers, the Board will continue to exclude entries from printed magazines and broadcast media and their respective Web sites.” It seems like the Pulitzer Committee’s focus is– rightly– on original reporting. So why not make that the focus, rather than on frequency of publication?

I also understand that the Committee might be worried about the real administrative hassle which might arise from throwing the gates entirely open. Here’s a thought– why not create a special category for “best crowsourced /crowdfunded / citizen reporting,” and then let the judges include the crowd themselves? Outsource part of the judging to “the denizens of the web,” and let them pick a prize. It would be an interesting experiment, anyway.

Crazy, I know. When that happens, the barbarians will truly have stormed the gates.

Posted in Personal Musings | Tagged: , , | 1 Comment »

Officially Outdated

Posted by chanders on December 4, 2008

With the online debut of New York Times “Extra” , that beautiful study I did of newspapers (not) linking out is now a historical study of past journalistic reluctance to link to other publications.

“In the old days, son, they did it this way!”

Oh well. Call me a historian of ancient media practices.

Posted in Personal Musings | Tagged: , | 3 Comments »

A News Work Challenge For Jeff Jarvis and Dave Winer

Posted by chanders on December 2, 2008

[UPDATE: Scott Rosenberg writes in the comments section: “the question facing us is not, how would such a story “get constructed”, or how would you organize the work to produce such a story, in some future where we didn’t have a newspaper to produce it. The question is, how would readers become as well informed about the events surrounding the nursing home settlement as they were in the universe that included the newspaper story?” I agree that this is the real, or ultimate question– i.e., it’s the whole point of all the other conversations, right? I think it’s a fair rephrasing. Blame my own grapple with it– even now– on problems inherent to the academic bracketing of big questions. These are the kind of things that new professors or grad. students save for their “last chapter” where they are temporarily allowed to “think big.” That’s a whole other post, though … and that’s why I’m grateful for the blogosphere, too.]

Finally, an intelligent debate in the blogosphere about the future of news work.

After the sad parody of a 1950’s Shachtmanite debate that was the Jarvis-Rosenbaum smackdown a few weeks ago, we’ve actually got a meaningful discussion about who, or what, will do the work needed to “make journalism,” or the 21st century equivalent of it … in a world where newspapers and existing news institutions are disappearing daily.

I’ve always had a problem with the way that most discussions about the future of journalism tend to get framed online: first, they refuse to break journalism, reporting, editing, etc. down to their basic functions. Second, they refuse to discuss the way that this work will get done in the future, and are often content to wax philosophical. Fortunately, both Jeff Jarvis and Dave Winer do both those things in their recent back and forth about news work: in a nutshell, Winer seems to be arguing that we can dispense with the middle man (currently, journalists and formal news institutions) between “news facts” and audiences, while Jarvis argues a more complicated architecture is needed in order to make the news. The fact that both of them come to such different conclusions is a testament to just how much is at stake in this particular  debate.

One thing I still have a problem 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, and produce news seriously. I then described that work in some detail– perhaps even to the point of absurdity (as you’ll see below).  So I want to issue a friendly challenge to Dave and Jeff; in fact, I want to turn Dave’s case study idea around and ask him and Jeff to take the first stab at it. In short, one of the things I did this summer was document extensively how a news story actually gets constructed: where the facts exist, who did the work to “get” them, and how they actually got put together.

Below, you’ll see an incredibly banal story broken down this way– where the facts came from and how they got put together. You’ll see that it was an actual story that got reported by the Philadelphia Daily News; though I’ve changed the names of the reporters for the sake of anonymity (if such a thing exists on the web). In any case, Dave, Jeff, and anyone else who wants to play along, the challenge is this: take the following story, and decide how it would get constructed using the news model you’ve proposed. What would you leave in and take out, and how would you organize the work needed to get what you want? What follows is an actual excerpt from a very rough draft of my dissertation, and the break down of the story is below the digital fold. I apologize for the awkward way thus is laid out, but I couldn’t figure out how to insert a table into the latest version of WordPress.

A few more notes: first of al, I think this is a pretty easy case. I also don’t think it’s very profound, but I do think it’s the bread and butter of what most news orgs. do every day. When you’re completing the challenge at home, please consider the trade-offs that are involved in your decision; for example, it’s an easy argument that the D.A. in the below story should just post the settlement agreement online, but what do you give up, if anything, if that’s the only way you propose news could be disseminated in the future. Finally, I’ll weigh in with my own thoughts on this in a later post.

OK, here we go. Remember to click below the fold for the acutal story:

On June 10, 2008, a local district attorney held a press conference announcing a settlement in a case against Rosalind Lavin, the wealthy manager of area nursing homes repeatedly cited for substandard conditions and the abusive treatment of patients. Under the terms of the settlement, all the “managed care” homes owned by Lavin were immediately shut down except for one (and this home’s closure was pending.) Although stories about the nursing home patients– “deranged and sick looking people wandering the streets”– had appeared earlier in a weekly neighborhood paper, the press conference initiated the first reporting by the Philadelphia Daily News on the story. A city editor, in fact, was convinced the managed care homes story “was a page one contender.” (fieldnotes, 6/10/2008). Along with R1 (the reporter who originally attended the press conference announcing the settlement, called a “presser” by members of the Daily News staff), a second and eventually a third reporter were added in an attempt to fully report the news. Documents—either stories in the local paper that had already reported the story, or the settlement agreement– might detail the charges and provide names of nursing home victims who could be interviewed. The direct observation of the one nursing home that remained open could add descriptive details. Additional and extensive information about the nursing home owner was available from an online database, called Autotracker, which a Daily News editor had access to. Over the course of June 10, R1’s initial information was supplemented by the work of R2, who traveled to the location of one of the managed care homes, R3, who worked the phones in an attempt to contact victims, and a city editor who used Autotracker to uncover additional facts. By the evening deadline, the story was complete and would lead the next days Daily News.
The following chart is a breakdown of the “fact objects” gathered together in the managed care homes story, along with the reporters involved in collecting them:

Read the rest of this entry »

Posted in Fieldwork, Personal Musings | 3 Comments »