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 January, 2009

The Problem With “Cloud Journalism” May Be Earth-Bound Institutions

Posted by chanders on January 17, 2009

I wanted to write a post responding to Lisa Williams’ excellent post, “Journalism in the Cloud.” After a long period of doctoral research, I’ve come to fairly similar conclusions about the future shape of journalism. Where Lisa and I may differ (somewhat) is in our level of optimism that this potential future will give us the kind of journalism democracy needs.

Lisa helpfully focuses our attention on what I have called the three dimensions of newswork: the micro-sphere (news about our friends, and our block in the neighborhood), the middle sphere (the daily, usually regional, institutions and processes of the world) and the upper sphere (coverage of events, big things like mayoral races and political protests.) I’m most worried about the middle sphere.

Williams’ writes:

I think sites like GlobalPost, Spot.us and many others I could name are the first inklings of “journalism in the cloud”.   Just as many tech outfits have figured out that it’s too expensive to have too many fixed assets, many news outlets are faced with the fact that they can’t support the same number of foreign correspondents or beat reporters.  The fundamental experiment that these sites are running, each with their own protocol, is this:  How can we make journalism happen where it’s needed, when it’s needed, and then redeploy elsewhere when things change?

Along with the examples Lisa gives of this new cloud journalism (GlobalPostSpot.us, OffTheBus, Placeblogger) a few of the others I talk about in my own research include: Philly Indymedia’s “swarm” coverage of the 2000 Republican National Convention, and the Philadelphia Daily News and WHYY project 2005-2007 “The Next Mayor.” You could even add the Twitter “Mass Observation” project I talked about the other day to the list. And while I draw on network metaphors rather than cloud metaphors in my own work, I think Lisa and I are talking, more or less about the same thing. The results of these cloud projects can be powerful, inspiring, and when done right, mark a wonder advance over the more traditional practices of professional journalism.

The problem, however, is this: the powerful institutions of the world are bureaucracies– they are earthly institutions, slow, grinding, daily, regimented, hierarchical. Cloud journalism is none of those things. Indeed, to me, the entire notion of the beat system stems from a realization in early journalistic institutions that covering bureaucracies seemed to require creating bureaucracies, whether in management, organization, professionalism, or beats.

Journalism may survive the death of its institutions, but the institutions that journalism used to cover aren’t going anywhere (hype about “Obama 2.o” aside). The advantage of thinking in terms of networks rather than clouds is that we can also think in terms of fragile networks, and ponder how this fragility can affect the work that journalists used to do.

I agree with Lisa, and others, that this is probably where journalism is headed. But all of us are making a wager — a very uncertain one, and one with the highest of stakes– that clouds and fragile networks can cover earth-bound, “iron cage” institutions. The question of how we can manage to do this is the key question for journalism reformers in the years to come.


Posted in Personal Musings | 6 Comments »

Finally, a Creative Use For Twitter

Posted by chanders on January 16, 2009

All about the “January 20th Mass Observation Project.”

I’m a Twitter user, but I have to admit that I find all the oooh-ing and ahhh-ing about how Twitter will impact the “Future of Journalism,” to be a little bit irritating. If we’re going to be stuck developing a cool new Social Media technology every few years or so, are we doomed to repeat the breathless pontification about “what this means for news” every few years or so, too?

So far, much of the conversation has revolved around the fact that– as in the case of the Mumbai terrorist attacks or yesterday’s US Airways crash into the Hudson River— Twitter has allowed folks to spread what I call “news objects” about the event (pictures, facts, first-hand observations) to their social networks faster than the news, and without the intermediation of the actual news organizations.  But as my friend Amy Quinn, the Citizen Mom, noted yesterday, “The first photo of plane crash came from iPhone to Twitter. That doesn’t mean it’s the future of news, it’s the future of tipsterism … We need to stop assuming that b/c breaking news hits Twitter 1st it means news outlets aren’t working it. Hits police scanner first too.” This lead me to reply that this was one possible answer to Jay Rosen’s question about what people used Twitter for; that they used it as a sort of “open-source” police scanner.

None of this, however, seems all that interesting, and anyway, we’ve been talking about it for years. This, however, is interesting:

We are “Mass Observing” Barack Obama’s inauguration. The Mass Observation movement was founded by a group of 1930s’ British intellectuals intent on observing the minutiae of society. They believed the most revealing way to document an event was to report the peripheral activities, rather than the main event. The Mass Observers carried out their greatest project on May 12th, 1937, when they dispatched more than 200 observers throughout London to monitor the events surrounding the coronation of King George VI. Here are the notes of an observer in Central London:

9:45 a.m. Some scavengers removed dung. People tittered. A group of seventeen-year-old boys gossiped about Princess Juliana: ‘When I was in Paris she was there. Everyone liked her.’ They criticized the ugly decorations of Selfridge’s and other buildings, and discussed their careers. The crowd seemed apathetic, and I felt so too.

This is the brainstorm of some folks with “January 20th” (that’s their website). And they’ll be aggregating all the participant observations though– you guessed it– Twitter (that’s their Twitter feed). What do I like about it? I like the combination of ambition and the focus on “peripheral practices.” I like the deliberate anachronism and references to the past (the Mass Observation movement). And I like how it reminds me of some techniques that NYC Indymedia pioneered during the RNC in 2004. Anyway, I may actually even participate in the project, which is unusual for me these days. If you’re interested, here’s how to get involved.

Update: It appears that website organizers aren’t JUST looking for 140 character observations through Twitter, and I wanted to make that clear. Here’s what they say:

Most observers will likely choose to take notes on a note pad. We ask that you transcribe your own notes, making sure to record everything you jotted in your pad, and then send the notes in the body of the email or as a word document to observations@januarythe20th.com. In order to make organizing observations easier for us please note your observation location in as much detail as possible in the subject of your email to us. For example:

From: you@gmail.com
To: observations@januarythe20th.com
Subject: McDonalds, Food Court, Galleria Mall, White Plains, NY

Brief observations are encouraged too, and can be sent to the above email or via Twitter (www.twitter.com), our username is januarythe20th. “

Posted in Personal Musings | 1 Comment »

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.

Posted in Personal Musings | 3 Comments »

The Future of Journalism in 560 Words (Four Tweets)

Posted by chanders on January 4, 2009

  • Successful journalism is social; the powerful institutions they watch are bureaucracies. What to do?
  • Social movements are social, like media, and they watch powerful institutions the same way journalism should and used to.
  • Therefore, a successful– and moral– future journalism will be place-based aggregations of the struggles of relevant social movements.
  • And objectivity will not be an attitude of disinterest, but an “objectfulness”– a gathering together of objects (once called “reporting.”)

Lord, vacation is grand. Thanks, Will Bunch, for the brain spark, and tune into Twitter for all the fun.

Posted in Personal Musings | Leave a Comment »