In advance of tomorrow’s Bar Camp News Innovation – Philadelphia I wanted to take this opportunity to put the introductory chapter of my dissertation online for public download. Since my entire research project was centered around analyzing changes in news production and news collaboration in Philadelphia, I thought the #bcniphilly would be a good moment to debut the finished product.
I’m expecting that tomorrow is going to be an energized day in which lots of people get really excited about the future of news. Good. The future of news needs a little (ok, a lot) of optimism and excitement. This chapter (and by extension, the entire dissertation) isn’t a downer, per. se., but I think it does document just how hard it is to make the kind of changes in the news production ecosystem that a lot of the participants in BCNIPhilly will be dreaming of. Which, I hope, will only encourage them to discover new ways to make the transformations they seek.
Chapter One is available here as a pdf at the end of this post. Once the dissertation is finally, officially, 100% done (as in “deposited,” which it must be by May 14th so I can graduate) I will be sending out an email to folks so they can get a copy of the whole 350 page monster, assuming that anyone ever would want to read such a thing.
See folks tomorrow at the Bar Camp.
CHAPTER ONE: ANALYZING LOCAL NEWS PRODUCTION IN A PERIOD OF TRANSITION
In August of 2000, a hoary political institution—the Republican National Convention (RNC), assembling in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania—met a new kind of media network. As the national Republican Party descended on the city in the summer of 2000, its delegates were met by hundreds of convention protesters carrying cell phones, video cameras, and old fashioned pencils and paper notebooks, all calling themselves reporters, and all networked into a website that displayed reports from the street protests as news broke. Growing out of the 1999 World Trade Organization protests in Seattle, and expanding to several other American and European cities in the months that followed, these Philadelphia protester-reporters identified themselves as members of Philadelphia Independent Media Center (Philly IMC, or “Indymedia.”) and promised their readers overtly biased political reporting, by amateurs, directly from the scene of anti-RNC protests. As the political protesters clashed with Philadelphia police on the Convention’s second day — “thousands of roving demonstrators and helmeted police faced off in intersections around the city yesterday afternoon,” the Pittsburg Post Gazette wrote, “trading blows at some junctures, while in Center City several delegate hotels locked their doors … as the two sides sparred for control of the streets,” –amateur Indymedia journalists did more than simply comment on the drama as it unfolded. They were instrumental in documenting it online for a mass audience. The Indymedia volunteers were amongst the first group of digital activists to directly pose the question of who counted as a legitimate journalist in an era of low-cost, digital information gathering and distribution.
Six years later, at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, a few of the radical reporters that had first stormed the journalistic barricades during the 2000 Republican Convention sat down with local bloggers, newspaper editors, cable TV executives, and new media thinkers to plot a future for local news coverage. The pace of the changes buffeting journalism, changes that first announced themselves in dramatic fashion during coverage of the 2000 Convention, had only accelerated in the intervening half-decade since the RNC. “Do-it-yourself journalism” was no longer a practice confined to political radicals and occupational anarchists– it had manifested itself as part of a “war-blogging” revolution, a “mommy-blogging” revolution, a YouTube revolution, a MySpace revolution, a Flash Mob revolution, a “hyperlocal citizens’ media” revolution, and in hundreds of other trends that lacked only a catchy moniker. Perhaps more ominously, the first signs of deep economic distress inside the news industry had begun to filter out of Philadelphia; in late 2005 the Knight-Ridder news chain, which owned both daily newspapers in Philadelphia (and had, for decades, posted profited double-digit profit margins) announced it was breaking itself up and selling its multiple media assets. In the face of the citizen media explosion and these distant economic rumblings, the Annenberg meeting was nothing like the 2000 occupational uprising that saw radical journalists eviscerate the “lackeys of the corporate press” and professional journalists snidely dismiss their scruffy, decidedly non-objective challengers. Instead, participants in the oddly titled “Norg’s conference” came together, in their words, “in a spirit of cooperation … to save local news in Philadelphia.” The Norg’s conference was one of the first meetings to explicitly raise the question: could traditional journalists and the new crop of professional-amateur hybrids work together in order to improve local journalism?
On February 22, 2009, three years after the Norg’s conference, a decade after the earliest meetings to plan a “global Indy Media news network,” and twelve years since the first newspapers in Philadelphia went online, the journalistic center finally collapsed. Philadelphia Media Holdings, the local ownership group that had purchased the city’s two leading news institutions—the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News— amid much hope, goodwill, and optimism, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The news was first broken by a local blog, analyzed breathlessly on Twitter, and reported (hours later) in lengthy, accurate depth by the bankrupt newspapers themselves. While both the Daily News and the Inquirer continued their daily print ruins, and while local ownership was quick to insist that the filing was little more than an “organizational restructuring,” it was hard not to see the bankruptcy as one of the closing acts in a twelve year transition from an old to a new media system. Perhaps the citizens of Philadelphia overheard, in these developments, the dying gasp of an old world; perhaps they caught the cries of a new one. Perhaps they barely noticed, or simply shrugged. The bankruptcy of the Philadelphia newspapers was one of the first events to raise the question: would local newspapers—and indeed, institutional news providers or all kinds—survive the combination of digital tsunami and the economic crash? If they didn’t, would it matter?
Whatever the ultimate meaning of the signal moments highlighted above– moments of confrontation, cooperation, and collapse– this dissertation is a chronicle of this time of transition, as filtered through the struggles, joys, and stories of a single city. Historians of early print culture label the period between the invention of the printing press by Guttenberg in 1439 and the year 1500 the incunabula, or “cradle”; a time when metal typography was designed to mimic the calligraphy of script, when monks wheeled printing presses into their scriptoria, and when the Abbot Johannes Trithemius would first valorize the work of hand-copying in his book “De Laude scriptorum” and then rush to have his work printed en masse. Scholars of digital journalism lack a wonderful Latinate word like incunabula. Nevertheless, we may be living in a similar transitory period. Attempts to understand this transition, to “grasp it with both hands,” and then to analyze it in a rigorous, focused, and empirical way take up the bulk of the pages that follow.
To add structure to the admittedly difficult task of compiling a “history of the present,” this dissertation focuses on three primary questions: how is the authority of local journalism changing? How is the work of local journalism changing? Are changes in both the work and authority of journalism leading local journalists to collaborate across institutional boundaries; are changes in work leading to an increased “working together” on the part of various professional groups and institutionalized and deinstitutionalized media makers? Trying to answer these three questions, I argue, will give us an insight into shifts in media production that transcend the specificities of the present age. Scholarship that analyzes moments of “in-between-ness,” periods between the collapse of one system and the emergence of another, is rare. Through an examination of journalist authority, work, and collaboration, this dissertation aims to document one of these liminal historical moments.