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 May, 2011

Moving from a Distributed Assignment Desk to a Mid-Range News Story (Thoughts About Andy Carvin’s Work)

Posted by chanders on May 1, 2011

I feel like the brilliant Andy Carvin (@acarvin) needs a helper. Or at least someone to take his distributed assignment desk aggregation and move them to what I might call a “mid-range” news story (not a finished, final product, but something in between tweet verification and the final story). Sometimes, the current process seems too fragmented for me to follow it easily when I’m not paying rapt attention. 

As part of as yet unpublished academic paper (hey! any body have any journals I might send this too?) I have written about this very process a it was practiced by Indymedia in 2004. The following paragraphs may help flesh out what I mean by “mid-range news story):

Indymedia Journalism and the Aggregation of News Objects 

For RNC-IMC organizers, assembling location-based infrastructures was clearly subordinate to the production of journalism. Spaces were built in order to make journalism possible. But what kind of journalism?  How did the RNC-IMC coordinate its network of decentralized citizen reporters, both organizationally and with regard to the production of news content? What was the relationship between physical space and editorial practices? Following our discussion of the process by which the Indymedia newsroom was built with an analysis of the means by which the organization coordinated its network of citizen reporters and the production of news drives home the point that the assemblage of news is socio-material. Indymedia did not just build a newsroom– it built the news, every single hour, of every single day, during the Republican National Convention protests. It did so by coordinating both people and technologies. ‘Building the news,’ now takes on a double meaning: it refers to the process by which institutions build spaces, and also to the process by which they build news outputs within those spaces.

(the different parts of the IMC website in 2004. Note how the facts move across the site, from least to most verified)

During earlier periods of protest coverage, Indymedia’s citizen journalism methods were deceptively simple. ‘I’m pretty sure we distributed a high volume of paper cards [to would-be protesters], saying ‘call this phone number’’ If you have information about something that happened at the protest. ‘And so we had people sitting by the phone typing up reports that would come in over the phone,’ and entering them into our website’s breaking and open newswire (interview, 3/19/2010). Only in retrospect does this method seem intuitive; the near-instantaneous transmission of news online is a recent (though now ubiquitous) phenomenon ,never mind the collection and distribution of that news by volunteers and, in many case, by strangers.

Information provided by protester-journalists was materially inscribed[i] on the http://nyc.indymedia.org website in a fashion that allowed for the visual display of facts and stories in a hierarchy of both importance and verifiability. On the far right side of the website was column labeled ‘Open Newswire,’ which consisted of reverse chronological order news and opinion submissions from anyone who had a story or news item to share. At the top of the center of the website, in a red-bordered box labeled ‘Critical Mass Arrests and Other Updates’ were a series of time-stamped updates on the protests as they unfolded. While both the ‘open newswire’ and the ‘breaking newswire’ contained bits and pieces of news, they also differed in significant ways. The open newswire was  ‘open, ‘ as the name implies, to anyone and everyone who had something to say, with content ranging from video, audio, and pictures of demonstrations to political rants to comments from  ‘trolls. ‘ The breaking newswire, on the other hand, was directly controlled by editors affiliated with RNC IMC, usually located in a room at the convergence space called the dispatch center, which itself was equipped with a series of telephones and computers. Its updates were far terser than the content posted to the open newswire. These updates contained no multimedia, and directly related to the unfolding protests. Most importantly, perhaps, they drew directly on the user-generated content provided by citizen journalists, all the while subjecting this content to an initially ad-hoc (but eventually systemic) process of editorial fact checking and verification:

 ‘When we got information you can’t totally trust or is conflicting with other information then you make some calls. You call back people that called before and say, ‘Where are you now? What are you seeing now? This is something we’ve heard.’ ‘ … Part of it was verifying and part of it was asking ‘how important is this?’ and ‘is this news?’ It’s, like, this is a big news story, then you want to get it to all of your outlets as fast as possible. Obviously you want it verified, but if you’ve got verified information and it’s of journalistic importance, you want to tweet it because it gets on the website as fast as possible. What I just called Tweeting, we didn’t have that then, we used to call it breaking news or breaking updates. We’d put it in the center column in the breaking news box. (interview, 3/19/2010).

Moving news from the right-hand column to the breaking news box in the center column signaled an increase in that news item’s importance, veracity, or relevance, a hypothesis further confirmed by the existence of a third category of Indymedia content, called the  ‘center column feature. ‘ (fieldwork, 2001-2008). The top feature in Fig. 4, located below the breaking news box, is an example of this particular piece of editorial content. Headlined  ‘First Notes on the Critical Mass, ‘ and authored by  ‘NYC IMC, ‘ the post went on to report:  ‘the first wave of posts on tonight’s Critical Mass have come in. The ride was New York’s largest critical mass, with well over 5,000 bikes. Gathering at Union Square in the middle of Manhattan at 7 p.m. and departing at 7:30, oil-free transportation stretched across all horizons around Union Square… ‘ (NYC Indymedia, 2004) The center column feature obviously marked an editorial consolidation, overview, and summary of already reported news content located on the open and breaking newswires; in this case, information about a particular bicycle protest called  ‘Critical Mass ‘. It also demonstrated an additional layer of verification on the part of editors, who were once again responsible for the decision to write and place an aggregated feature in the center column. The changing hierarchy of news objects within the Indymedia reporting infrastructure was thus inscribed directly on the RNC-IMC website itself. News reports and  ‘journalistic objects ‘ moved from the scene of the protests, to a phone, to the web, to the breaking or open newswire, and, occasionally, to the editor-controlled center column, in a pyramiding system of increasing veracity.

While the process by which website editors and citizen journalists worked together to report news was somewhat formalized by the summer of 2004, an additional journalistic feature of the RNC IMC— reporting on the protests via the utilization of real-time radio updates—was new, and directly related to the previously analyzed infrastructure of the RNC convergence space. As one Indymedia volunteer recalled, the fact that the  ‘breaking news team ‘ was physically located in a dispatch room directly across the hallway from the room in which the IMC was recording its live radio show allowed for online breaking news and radio programming to be fused in a new way (interview, 3/19/2010).  During earlier protests, Indymedia radio programming was primarily confined to after the fact interviews with eyewitnesses and protest organizers (fieldwork, 2001-2002). During the actual protests themselves, on the scene reports were mostly confine to text updates on the website. At the Republican Convention, the architectural layout of the convergence space helped facilitate breaking radio updates in real time (fieldwork, 8/2004). As one volunteer remembered:

Indymedia had, as long as I had known, done an audio web stream. But, as far as I knew, there’s never been an integration of [the radio stream with breaking news on the website]. I don’t know when the moment was when we decided to do that, but I think it was the moment when we saw the physical setup of the space. It was like,  ‘Well, radio is going to go in there and dispatch on the room right next to it. ‘ Oh, then I think it was also the Merlin phone system, which allowed us to rollover calls. I asked [another volunteer], ‘Wait. Does this mean we can take our phone and put somebody on hold here, then they can pick it up… ‘ You know, making it so our callers could get on the radio — people were like,  ‘Well, wait, so we can take a call in dispatch, put them on hold and then they can pick a call over at radio? ‘ … So seeing the physical setup and having the phone capability and knowing enough about radio allowed us to really merge breaking news and the radio (interview, 3/19/2010).

Volunteers with the breaking news team could verify the newsworthiness of updates from the street and prepare callers who had important information to share for inclusion on the radio show. Because of their proximity to the radio room, they could easily communicate with members of the radio team to prepare them for incoming calls. And the utilization of the  ‘Merlin ‘ phone system would allow for the rollover and transfer of calls from the dispatch room to the radio show, which would summarize and contextualize the situation for listeners. There was a relationship, in short, between the editorial processes of the RNC media center and the idiosyncratic infrastructures within which it was embedded.

Of course, analyzing the production of news during the 2004 Republican National Convention as the production of media frames is not excluded by the method of analysis utilized above. Indeed, one of the most useful aspects of a research focus on journalistic assemblage is the manner in which it can be used to compliment an analysis of media frames. What I hope the discussion above demonstrates, however, is that focusing on the socio-material processes by which the news is built is a distinctly different endeavor than focusing on the construction of media frames. It asks different questions and delivers different results. The next section will further  elaborate this difference between framing, assemblage, and coordination.

[i] Here, I draw on Actor-Network Theory, particularly Latour and Woolgar’s notion of the inscription device.  ‘Particular significance can be attached to the operation of an apparatus which provides some sort of written output … inscription devices transform pieces of matter into written documents. ‘ (B. Latour and Woolgar 1986)

Posted in Agenda | 4 Comments »