J-School: Educating Independent Journalists

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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.

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Posted in Fieldwork, Personal Musings | 2 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:

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Posted in Fieldwork, Personal Musings | 3 Comments »

How Participatory is Local Journalism?

Posted by chanders on November 30, 2008

How “open” is the new local journalism?

I’ve adapted David Domingo’s categorization of the five steps in the journalistic process, and have added a sixth (“networked nature”) in order to try to see how open to user participation different “ideal typical” websites in Philadelphia were. The sites I analyzed included the Philly IMC, Philly Future, and Young Philly Politics, a few major and not so major blogs– Citizen Mom, Philebrity, Beerleaguer, and Mere Cat— and two main pages on Philly.com (the front page and the sports page.)

Basically, Domingo and his co-authors argue that the process of journalism can be broken down into five steps; and under our current professional, institutional media system, professional reporters (or reporters who are specifically affiliated with a news organization, i.e., they can be volunteers, but members of that organization) do the work in all five steps. So …

  • Access / Observation: In journalism, people observe and record events, things. In the modern media system, the people doing that observing and recording were professional reporters. Theoretically, now, anyone can observe and record (open publishing).
  • Selection/ Filtering: There is an endless number of events, so someone must choose what is important enough to highlight or publish. In the modern media system, editors and executives have played that role. Now, in theory, selection and filtering can be a collaborative process (open editing).
  • Processing / Editing: Observed and bundled content can be packaged, bundled, built out. In the old media system, this process was done by professionals. Nowadays, at least in theory, this can be a collaborative process.
  • Distribution: How does this observed, filtered, edited news get distributed? In the old days, it was the responsibility of the news organization and their fleet of delivery trucks. Now, deinstituionalized and networked structures exist that can do all the distribution (from email to rss to digg)
  • Interpretation: This distributed news has always been interpreted by the people reading it. In the old days, though, this interpretation was done outside the news producer, or done on someone Else’s dime- at most, there was a page for letters to the editor. Now, interpretation is capable of being integrated into the heart of news organizations themselves.
  • Network: Finally (and this is my own addition to Domingo’s list) how do news organizations see their place in the news universe? Do they see themselves as networks or as one stop shops? Through the power of RSS, every web site can be as much of an aggregator and curator of content as it can be a producer of it. Are the sites network hubs or do they see production as occurring mainly “in house.”

I’ve rated the 9 sites above in each of these 6 categories, ranging from “closed” (the process is entirely carried out my affiliated members of the organization), “slightly open,” “moderately open,” and “very open” (the process is entirely carried out by non affiliated members, volunteers, or in strong partnership with them.) You can see the full results below the digital fold.

Some general results, though, first. My look at the Philly.com front page confirms what Domingo and other researchers have been finding–

The bottom line is that, overall, online newspapers are eager to open interpretation to the audience, as this is coherent with their definition of the audience as audience. Access, distribution and even processing are open to a lesser extent, but selection is completely closed to participation, as this is the core of the journalistic profession.

Philly.com ranks “Very Open” when it comes to distribution and interpretation — almost all of the energy of their site redesigns have been focused on finding ways for readers to interact with content (comments on all articles, poll questions on every page, “digg” and “buzz up” on all articles, lots of rss feeds) but much lower when it comes to the core journalistic jobs of access, filtering, and editing. These– reporting, editing, and design / production– are still almost entirely in the hands of staffers. The addition of the idea of “network,” and a comparison with Philly.com/sports, shows one way to add more nuance to this analysis. The Philly.com/sports “From the Bleachers” box (an RSS generated blogroll of headlines from sports blogs around the city) is probably the most authentically norg-y aspect of the whole Philly.com site (although Philly.com/politics is pretty norg-y as well,as I noted in an earlier post).

An example of a site designed almost entirely as a network is Philly Future; its life is aggregation.

Why might Philly.com have concentrated on opening up distribution and interpretation? This is only a guess, but I would venture to say that opening up these processes potentially boost site traffic. Having more citizen media of a fire or a car accident on a street does not boost page views. And for a commercial web site, page views are everything.

Indeed, most sites I looked at seem to do one of two sides of the coin well, but not both. Philly IMC, as opposed to Philly.com, has turned many of the core journalistic features over to total amateurs. This doesn’t mean that decision has worked out well, though (see below), and it also seems they’re not nearly as good as Philly.com in giving users ways to interpret and distribute information.

Finally, there’s the irony of blogs. This entire discussion about the future of journalism started with the emergence of blogs, but it seems that blogs are the least open, in terms of reader participation in the core journalistic functions, of any site I looked at. Blogs democratize journalism because anyone can start one; on the other hand, they really are one man or woman shows. Most of them are closed when it comes to observation, filtering, editing, and network functionality. In other words, blogs are only democratic insofar as they link to and communicate with– are in dialog with– other blogs. Otherwise, they are more closed than most of the major newspaper websites, at this point. They are largely unidirectional. This also means that we can underestimate the democratic nature of the web if we only look at blogs.

Some final thoughts: first, a static look at how these sites appear today, in November 2008, only tells the end of the story. To really understand how Philly.com thought about user participation, we have to look at how it evolved between 1995 and 2008. That’s a long time, and we can learn a lot more if we think historically than we can if we just look at the state of the web today.

Second, none of these analyses are final; I’m hoping the people who run the websites will chime in here and tell me what they think of my analysis, especially when I’m wrong.

Finally– none of this is a judgment about the value of openness. It could very well be that having an open journalistic process creates sucky journalism. This analysis isn’t saying that Philly.com is “bad” for not being more open in certain core ways– indeed, they may be a better news site because they are partially closed. Or maybe not.

So, full results below the fold. Enjoy and please chime in.

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Posted in Fieldwork, Personal Musings | 2 Comments »

Repost: Paying For Reporting, Paying For Conversation … a Thought Experiment.

Posted by chanders on October 23, 2008

I’m not attending Jeff Jarvis’ 2008 Networked Journalism Summit, “New Business Models for News.” (I wasn’t invited. Oh well. I am, however, attending a conference on Media Literacy and Civic Education in Philadelphia today, so, all is not lost!). If I was at CUNY today, though, I think I’d probably try to say something like this. (I first posted this in August of this year)

What if newspapers– and other media– paid journalists for reporting, and paid them for being part of a community conversation? How could we turn this basic idea into a business model for news?

During my fieldwork in Philadelphia, I watched the breakdown of the journalist-news organization “contract” merge with the new access of reporters to their web traffic statistics to create a real fear (or maybe, a secret hope amongst the lucky few) that journalism would become piecework. In other words, journalists would start to get paid based on the amount of hits that their articles received. For the record, there’s no word at all of this happening in Philly, or anywhere else, any time soon. In fact, possibly the only person who has put it in those terms is me.

Now, I admit that even the hypothetical idea sounds crazy to people looking in on the news business from the outside, but if this can become a real, subtle fear amongst unionized reporters at a major metropolitan daily, than who can really say what might happen? The fact remains that the news industry is in crisis, and a lot of this crisis if financial. The fact also remains that reporters and editors exposure to web traffic, in real time, is having a major impact on journalism, in a way that’s gone largely unnoticed so far.

But what if, instead of paying journalists based on “hits,” we paid them for what almost everyone agrees is the real value added that reporters bring to the table: i.e., reporting? And what if we paid them for what many people are starting to agree is an equally important part of journalism in the 21st century: being part of a “community conversation”? And finally, what if the payee-payer relationship wasn’t centered on membership in a news institution, but was basically between a news institution and everyone— bloggers, reporters, ordinary people, everybody?

Here’s one way you could monetize those two abstract concepts.

First reporting. What if you paid journalists, per article, based on the number of sources they talked to, documents they examined, and amount direct observation they did? In other words, somebody who talked to one source and then wrote up a story that was mostly opinion would get paid less  than someone who talked to five sources, read 1000 pages of documents, and a person who did a ton of direct observation reporting (say, at a political protest) would get somewhere in the middle? I admit that this is a simplistic version of a more complicated process— would there be a difference between talking to sources on different sides of an issue and sources who all agreed; between a “deep throat” type source and a Scooter Libby; between reading complex documents and cereal boxes … and so on. But, this would be a start, and news organizations could tweak the formula as they saw fit. And maybe they could go so far as giving a “good writing bonus” for reporters that could actually take all those news objects and weave them into a well-written, compelling story.

Now, you’ll notice that this would probably leave out a lot of bloggers and people who don’t report. This is where paying for being part of the “community conversation” comes in. This is a payment system that’s tied to “the market,” like paying based on “hits,” but in what I think is a far more intelligent way. You could pay people based on the number of links they, or their articles, received from Technorati, or on their Technorati authority. So a blogger who was getting a ton of links, or links from other sources who also got a lot of links, would get paid more than someone who got no links at all. And so on.

OK, having completed that mental exercise, I have to admit I’m a little terrified. After all, isn’t this just neoliberalism? Isn’t it still turning journalism into piecework? Isn’t it eliminating things like long term contracts and stable employment, and so forth? Obviously, this notion would still leave a lot of work to be done — perhaps you’d need to combine this with guaranteed employee health care, or there’d be a thresh hold where key members a community of freelancers (which would basically be everyone) would slowly become put on long term contract. And how would copyright work? Wouldn’t this create a hierarchy between news. orgs that could afford to pay and those that couldn’t, and wouldn’t it lead to a decrease in the desire to freely share content online? That seems like a big problem too.

BUT … there’s market based journalism, and then there’s market based journalism. And paying journalists based on web traffic — well, that seems like such a horrible idea that other horrible ideas don’t seem quite as bad.

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

Actor-Network Theory as a Newsroom Method Explained … by a Phillies World Series Slogan

Posted by chanders on October 21, 2008

Prefatory note 1: most of the theory in this blog post has been discussed, in a slightly more serious fashion, by others, and others, and others, and others. I am in their debt.

Prefatory note 2: I am a Cleveland Indians fan.

Tell your average journalist that your research method is going to be one which objects are treated the same as people, you’re likely to be laughed at, at best, or kicked out of your nice little ethnographic perch, at worst.

The only solution, it would seem, is to approach the subject through a prism that nearly all metropolitan reporters can understand: baseball. In this case, through the prism of the National League Champion Philadelphia Philles. Or more specifically, though their  playoff slogan: “why can’t us?” I know, I know, it’s grammatically incorrect. But, as in so many things in Philadelphia, that seems to be exactly the point.

The back story from Philadelphia Inquirer reporter Peter Mucha:

“It began as a caller’s remark just last Thursday. In short order, a local sports blog and one of the nation’s leading sports blogs began singing its praises as a Phillies rally cry. Then, T-shirts and mugs were designed to get out the message, and hundreds of items have already been sold, raising money for charity. Then it spread to radio, Facebook, print and ESPN.

Have folks found the perfect slogan for the Fightin’ Phils?

Even if – or because – it’s ungrammatical.

Judge for yourself: It’s ‘Why Can’t Us?'”

Mucha’s story, which went on to be featured on the front page of Philly.com, noted that it was quite possible that the slogan could become the official Phillies playoff slogan, and quoted local blogger Dan Levy, who hoped that the phrase would get mentioned during the game. Philly.com also asked its readers to weigh in on an online poll, asking “Is ‘Why Can’t Us?’ a great Phillies rally cry?”

Now … a traditional analysis of news production processes, one steeped in several generations of academic social constructionism, would argue that the Philadelphia news media “created” the “Why Can’t Us” meme, and that if it ended up becoming the Phillies World Series slogan this would represent another case of the powerful media creating “reality” out of “nothing.” A slightly more nuanced, technologically hip version of the same argument might make the claim that while blogs play a role in creating social reality, their efforts are meaningless until their work is ratified by the conventional, “mainstream media.” A second, more old-fashioned analysis would conclude that the “Why Can’t Us” slogan wasn’t created by the Philadelphia media at all, it was created by a caller on XM Satellite radio, and anyway, if it became popular that that only showed that it was a great slogan in the first place.  We can see this argument play out, most seriously, in the periodic complaints of losing Presidential candidates who start to blame the media for their flailing campaigns, as well as the push back (usually from the winning side) claiming that the candidate who lost was “inherently flawed.”

This debate, while it might have once been useful, has grown increasingly stale over the past decade. I’ve tried to avoid it entirely by adopting a methodology known within studies of science, technology, and society (STS) as actor-network theory (ANT). I’ve tried not the let ANT dominate my fieldwork in Philadelphia, but have tried to keep it in the back of my head at all times as a form of guidance and corrective. ANT began as a way for anthropologists and sociologists to study the construction of scientific facts inside laboratories. I, and a few others, are starting to try to use ANT as a way to study the construction of news facts inside newsrooms.

Here are some of the main tenets of Actor-Network theory, adopted for use with news media production:

  • ANT places objects and subjects, things and people, on the same ontological level. In other words, it gives objects agency. These entities are called “actants.”
  • ANT refuses to draw lines between insiders and outsiders; it embraces the instability and uncertainty of group boundaries.
  • News facts ultimately amount nothing more than an assembled network of actants (subjects and objects). The longer the news network, the more powerful the news fact becomes. Additionally, it helps to have “hard” actants, ie, “objects,” on the side of your network.
  • ANT– as noted above– tries to dispense with the tired debate between social constructionists and social realists

I admit that this is all pretty abstract. So let’s apply these insights to the Peter Mucha story “Is ‘Why Can’t Us?’ new Phils rally cry?”

  • ANT places objects and subjects, things and people, on the same ontological level.

Here’s a list of some of the things a traditional media analysis of the above story might consider:

The Philadelphia Inquirer / Philly.com and maybe … Marty from Delaware.

Now here’s a list of some of the things an ANT analysis would include in its analysis:

Peter Mucha /  The Philadelphia Inquirer / Philly.com / Marty from Delaware / Sports Center /XM Satellite Radio / Dan Levy / The 700 Level  / Deadspin / T-shirts/ mugs / 609Design Shop / Cafe Press / hoodies / a dog T-shirt / an infant bodysuit / a large mug / Philebrity / Facebook / The news article “Is ‘Why Can’t Us?’ new Phils rally cry?” / The website “http://www.philly.com/philly/hp/news_update/20081021_Is_Why_Cant_Us__new_Phillies_rally_cry_.html”

  • ANT embraces the instability and uncertainty of group boundaries.

Would you include blogs, Facebook, and Sports Center in your media analysis? How could you not? Rather than attempting to answer the question of “who counts as a journalist,” an ANT inspired analysis can simply turn our attention to the manner in which various journalistic actants interact, network, and define themselves in practice. And all this only starts to matter when you conclude that …

  • News facts ultimately amount nothing more than an assembled network of actants (subjects and objects).

How did “Why Can’t Us” become a powerful contender for the “official” world series slogan? After all, it’s nothing more than, as John Durham Peters might put it, “words spoken into the air.” In this case, however, the sign “why can’t us” “enrolled” XM Satellite Radio into its network, along with the blogger Dan Levy, his blog The 700 Level , the bigger blog Deadspin (and by bigger here we simply mean “an object with a bigger network”), Sports Center, and quite importantly a series of “hard” objects like mugs and dog t-shirts. The blog website CafePress, not a journalistic blog at all, then provides “instant attachment” (thanks Lucas!) to the various objects not networked into what was just a breath of air, “why can’t us.”

The Philadelphia Inquirer, then, takes a set of already solid news facts (called in ANT, “black boxes”) — the slogan, the blog posts about the slogan, the people talking about the slogan, the merchandise– and performs its own act of enrollment, adding its own interviews and sets of weblinks to the mix, and creating  a “news story” out of a series of formerly disparate objects. This story, “Is ‘Why Can’t Us?’ new Phils rally cry?” or more accurately, “http://www.philly.com/philly/hp/news_update/20081021_Is_Why_Cant_Us__new_Phillies_rally_cry_.html” has now become its own object, and is ready to be enrolled in any number of additional networks. Furthermore, the slogan itself has gained an additional ally, the Philadelphia Inquirer.

  • Finally, ANT tries to dispense with the tired debate between social constructionists and social realists.

Looking at the work it took to assemble the news story discussed above, can anyone doubt that the story was “constructed”?? Can anyone who has witnessed the painstaking labor carried out by reporters, as they write a news story, have any doubt that reporters “construct” the news? And yet, this should not be seen as a criticism that the above story is “false,” or that it is  “only social in nature” or “nothing more than rhetoric.” The story above is, indeed, about words, ideas, and slogans …  but it is also about slogans that have become “hard,” through XM radio, and have been hardened again, through weblogs. It is a story about mugs and doggie t-shirts. And the story itself, eventually, becomes an “object,” made out of a bunch of other objects, which can then be enrolled in all manner of networks.

As a concluding note: perhaps “Why Can’t Us” won’t be the Phillies slogan after all. A new set of actors– the average local reading public– has started to weigh in about the choice on Philly.com, and their reaction has been highly negative. Will they create an actor network strong enough to halt the momentum towards “Why Can’t Us”? Only time will tell.

Posted in Fieldwork | Tagged: , , , | 17 Comments »

Philly.com’s Convention Coverage and the Ethic of the Link

Posted by chanders on September 2, 2008

\After spending the last couple weeks retracing the past, reading gloomy financial reports and crunching truly depressing employment numbers (with more bad news possibly on the way) it was good to get back to looking at the present and what will hopefully be Philly journalism’s bright future. One of the things I’ve been interested in during my research has been what Jay Rosen, Jeff Jarvis, and many others call the “ethic of the link.” The answer to this simple question– how often do newspapers and other online websites link off their domain name– can give you a number of insights into how various online content providers view their journalistic roles. Does a website see itself as a hub, a filter, or a network?  Or, is it trying to be a “one stop shopping center”? Is it afraid of its autonomous online audience? Or, does it trust them?

In short: how is a website’s “vision of its users and vision of its producers” inscribed in its online architecture?

The conventional wisdom about linking out –“that in general there is a strong relationship between news websites linking out and getting links in return”– was recently been subjected to a fairly rigorous quantitative analysis, complete with an impressive looking formula.  The result? The conventional wisdom is more or less right on. Links out – links in.

Not surprisingly, it’s taken many newspapers a long time to come to terms with this counter-intuitive idea. A topic I’m examining during my research is: how do old media companies work to build  “news networks” during their coverage of special, one-time events …  events like a mayoral race, a political protest, or a national party convention?

One of the ways to build a news network, of course, is to link to other websites. During the second day of the Democratic National Convention in Denver, I took screencaps of the Philly.com “Politics” page, and compared it with the politics pages of three other websites — the New York Times and the Washington Post, as well as the more local Newsday.com. In many ways, I thought Newsday was the best comparison with Philly.com because the Newsday website was often invoked in Philadelphia as a potential model for or competitor to the Philadelphia website.

We can see where both Philly.com and Newsday Politics linked out on this page, with both sections highlighted in yellow. You can also see where the Times and the WaPo linked out after the jump.

Perhaps surprisingly, a basic visual analysis shows Philly.com to be the closest thing to an online political hub of any of the four sites. The Times and the Post barely link to anything off their domain name. Newsday links to other websites, but they are either to their own internal blogs or to “The Swamp,” a political blog published by the Tribune Company that is distributed to all Tribune Compay papers (Newsday included). Philly.com not only links out, but does so in key real estate areas (in the center of the website, as opposed to the bottom of the site like the Times).

Why might Philly.com have been so comfortable with linking out? It is tempting to say that they did so because of their inability to match the Times and the Post pound for pound in terms of the scale of coverage. As large, national papers, both the Times and the Post have the resources to “flood the political convention zone”; Philly.com, a much smaller site, lacks these resources. Indeed, some of its original content consisted of reporters sitting at home, watching the conventions on TV!

That said, this isn’t necessarily bad. Indeed, as many media critics have pointed out, is there really anything to be gained by wall to wall convention coverage? Possibly not. Indeed, because of its willingness to share its link traffic, Philly.com most likely reaped a marginal level of return traffic at the very least. And journalistically, it pointed its readers to (at least in theory) “the best the web had to offer” in terms of political analysis.

It’s also worth asking: what will Newsday.com do once it is no longer officially owned by Tribune? Will it continue to link to “The Swamp” I can’t say for sure, but my guess would be probably not. Indeed, the way Newsday.com has structured it’s links section strikes me as the product of a top-down decision– “link only to company blogs, dammit!” This is all only a guess, though. It will be worth seeing that happens once the sale has a chance to affect the site.

Of course, really understanding how a Philly.com acts as a hub would require a more extensive investigation. I’m planning on conducting a content analysis of the linking patterns of various webpages over the days and months ahead.

Posted in Fieldwork | 19 Comments »

Philly Newspapers Under Knight-Ridder: Beyond the Numbers

Posted by chanders on August 21, 2008

Philly.com in 2000, before the KRD centralization.

Philly.com in 2000, before the KRD centralization.

A couple of good questions about my previous post in the comments. A Cassel argues “KR’s managers were hardly geniuses, but blaming them for the disaster that’s overtaken their former empire is like blaming the lifeguards on Sri Lankan beaches for the tsunami deaths. What happened was, and is, bigger than all of us.” Paul B adds that “Your argument that the decline of the Philadelphia newspapers was due in large part to chain ownership is unconvincing. There are enough non-chain newspapers out there (Washington DC, St Petersburg, Buffalo come to mind) that would make it possible to analyze if being part of a major chain affected financial performance during the past few years.”

Let me say first off: I’m not an expert on newspaper finances or ownership economics. Nor am I an expert on Philly newspapers under the Knight-Ridder regime. Probably a lot of people reading this post know a lot more about this than I do (especially ex-PNI employees) so if you have insights, please continue to share them! If I’m an expert in anything, it’s in journalistic work and the relationship between the work of institutionalized (read: ‘professional’) and non-institutionalized (read: ‘blogger’) journalists.

That said — my fieldwork this summer and some basic poking around has convinced me that there were two aspects to the end of the K-R tenure that were particularly disastrous in Philly, and probably elsewhere. The first problematic aspect of the public / chain ownership model? The relentless focus on the quarterly bottom-line to the exclusion of a long term plan.  In October 2000 the New York Times wrote this:

“By almost any business measure, the Knight Ridder newspapers in Philadelphia would be deemed a success. Since 1995, profit margins at The Philadelphia Inquirer and The Philadelphia Daily News have more than doubled, reaching close to 19 percent after years of single-digit doldrums. Good? Absolutely. Good enough? Not for long. For 2001, the target margin is 21 percent. And now there is talk about 5 percent budget cuts at the papers, if not more. Anxiety is as plentiful as oxygen in The Inquirer’s newsroom.”

And regardless of the merits of those strategies, they just didn’t seem to me to promote a long-term plan for dealing with profound and fundamental change.

The Project for Excellence in Journalism 2007 report on the “State of the Media” summed it up this way:

Now, there has been a new turn in the debates over ownership. Starting in 2005 and accelerating in 2006, there have begun to be questions not only from journalists but now from corporate managers and investors about whether the dominant model of media ownership, the public corporation, is still preferred. And the questions are no longer simply moral ones … The one thing that can be said with certainty — to a much greater degree than was true a few years ago — is that the notion that a diverse public corporation is best suited to have the wherewithal, resources and experience to manage the future of media is no longer gospel. The concept of the media conglomerate, in that sense, has been put into play.

Second problematic aspect? I have two words for you. Or maybe four. Market Leader. Doesn’t ring a bell? How about this one– Real Cities. Now, I really don’t have an interest in revisiting the Knight Ridder Digital battles of 2002, and from what I can tell there was a lot of ink spilled on this in the professional press at the time (they’re still fighting about it on Romensko!) But from everything I’ve seen this summer, the move to standardize the local web site design and management in San Jose, while there may have been a business logic to it,  was an absolute disaster in terms of promoting and encouraging the kind of journalistic work that newspapers needed to do to make the transition online. Without going into a lot of detail here, I have pretty good ethnographic evidence that the Philly.com, Inquirer, and even the very small Daily News online staff were doing things on the web in 1999 that they are just now starting to do again in 2008. In an online journalism world where the local initiative is king and where you need a small, flexible staff that can operate quickly, with a high degree of independence … well, the years 2001-2005 are lost years as best as I can tell.

Let’s end with a riddle. How did Philly.com do this in 1997, and what happened between then and now?

Posted in Fieldwork, Personal Musings | 1 Comment »

Philly Newspapers Under Knight-Ridder: By the Numbers

Posted by chanders on August 19, 2008

UPDATE (8/21/2008): I’ve added a second post, “Philly Newspapers Under Knight-Ridder: Beyond the Numbers,” that tries to make the case for the relationship between the Internet, public chain ownership, and the current state of journalism. Prime evidence? Philly.com’s series, “Blackhawk Down,” published online in 1997. The prime culprit? The Real Cities initiative.

I’m starting the next chapter in my dissertation, the one that’s mostly economic. One of my major findings while I was at the Inquirer, Daily News, and Philly.com relates to the “precarity” of most of current journalistic work– what Wikipedia defines as “a condition of existence without predictability or security, affecting material or psychological welfare. The term has been specifically applied to either intermittent work or, more generally, a confluence of intermittent work and precarious existence.” Many employees, both at the Philadelphia newspapers but also obviously bloggers and freelance writers as well, expressed feelings like: how empty their newsrooms were, fears that they could be laid off at any moment, worries that “some guy in Bangkok could do the job that I do.”

One of the things I’m trying to document early on is the actual economic state of the newspaper industry in Philadelphia. The above graphic represents a polynomial trend line of Philly newspaper revenues, circulation, and employment figures, from 1984 until 2005/6 (when the papers were bought by Brian Tierney and Philadelphia Media Holdings). As Microsoft puts it, “a polynomial trend line is a curved line that is used when data fluctuates. It is useful, for example, for analyzing gains and losses over a large data set.”

The above data– which is not that easy to come by–  is obtained from two places. The circulation and revenue figures are part of a dataset compiled by researchers at the Columbia Institute for Tele-Information (CITI) for an upcoming book by Prof. Eli Noam, Media Ownership and Concentration in America. The employment numbers are very rough estimates compiled through publicly reported information in major newspapers; for example, when Knight-Ridder cut newspaper staff by 10%. For at least a decade, between 1984 and 1995, I have very few numbers. These numbers are ESTIMATES, at best. They might, in fact, be totally wrong. I want to emphasize that no one at Knight-Ridder or PMH has given me access to any of this data …  it’s entirely obtained from outside sources. That’s why I represented the numbers as a trend line, rather than as a strict year-by-year graph. (I obviously scaled the data so it could all be one one graph. A circulation of 400,000 equals, on this chart, a staff of 400). I also want to note  that the data only covers Philly newspapers under Knight-Ridder, not under it’s current ownership (though there’s plenty of bad news there, too).

That said, the numbers are obtained from documentary sources, and I’ll stand behind them until I hear otherwise. What does this show? A few broad trends are pretty obvious. First, employment at the Inquirer boomed throughout the 1980s and 1990s (hard on the death of the afternoon daily the Philadelphia Bulletin) even as circulation numbers began a slow decline. Then, in 2000, employment began to plummet (in 8 years, the newsroom at the Inky was half the size it was in 2000). Circulation and employment numbers at the Daily News, on the other hand, saw more of a gradual but steady decrease throught this time period, until they stabilized in 2005/6.

Revenues, on the other hand, tell a different story. It’s pretty clear that, throughout the course of this dataset, profit margins at PNI (the name for the Philly subdivision under Knight-Ridder) were anywhere between 9% (in 1995) and as high as the upper teens to low 20%’s by the early 2000’s. So … even while circulation and staff were dropping, and even as the challenge posed by the world wide web loomed on the horizon, profits got bigger and bigger. This, to me, is the real tragedy of public chain ownership of local newspapers in the 1990’s. Not the decline in journalistic quality, which was arguably real (to a degree) or the effects of media concentration (whose ultimate effects are still unclear), but a failure to plan ahead and prepare for a Internet future that a lot of people knew was coming. They were so focused on the quarterly bottom line that they failed to realize that the long-term bottom line was where they were really at risk. The choice wouldn’t be between 9% and 29% proift margins, but would be between profits and no profits at all.

Posted in Fieldwork | 15 Comments »

Adding Nuance to the Journalist / Blogger Relationship

Posted by chanders on August 18, 2008

I’ve finished the first (very rough) draft of a chapter for my dissertation. Actually, it probably won’t be a chapter– probably, it will be an appendix. But it still feels like an accomplishment of some sort.

Here’s an abstract. If anyone would like to see the whole thing, feel free to email me.

In most of the writing about the relationship between journalism and blogging, one fact has become something of a commonplace.  Journalists report,  bloggers comment on that original reporting. Blogs are, in the words of Robert Niles, a “parasitic medium.” (Niles 2007) As Murley and Roberts document [pdf], bloggers in 2006 engaged in original reporting in only 6 percent of the time, and this number fell to five percent when only “political bloggers” were included in their sample.

If we examine this relationship from the within the newsroom, however, a slightly different story emerges. Based on my research in Philadelphia this summer, I argue that the diffusion of a story– centered around the  arrest of four Philadelphia homeowners– shows us that, while the causal arrow between journalist = reporting and blogger = commentary is generally accurate, the actual process is far more complex than often acknowledged.

In this paper, I offer what I believe to be the first newsroom-based account of the manner in which a news story “diffuses” across a variety of digital media spheres. Over the two week period around which this paper revolves, I watched how a simple story about the arrest and detention of four Philadelphia homeowners moved from activist websites, to the alternative press, to the inner pages of the Philadelphia Daily News, the city’s daily tabloid newspaper, to major national blogs and—almost, but not quite—to the front cover of the aforementioned tabloid. My methods during this time period can be placed into three general categories—primitive “network analysis” (i.e., using the online search engine Technorati and newspapers’ own web statistics to document how stories about the arrests linked to other stories); second, qualitative content analysis of the ways these different stories were framed; and finally, observation of the meetings and decision-making processes of journalists and bloggers themselves, often in real time.

My central findings can be summarized as follows: an activist-journalism site broke the Francisville story, but this fact only problematives the notion of “breaking news” in an era of omnipresent media. Contending activist groups used journalistic criteria to draw boundary lines between them. An alt-weekly and a daily tabloid were the key media during the diffusion of the story. Blogs add context and reframing to reported stories, often by linking back to their own previous coverage. Individual journalistic authority often matters as much, if not more, than institutional authority. Bridge bloggers played a major role in moving the arrest story from local to national blogs. Institutional journalistic culture can play a key role in the diffusion of a news item. The concept of the “freelancer” further calls into question the division between blogger and journalist.

NB: Niles writes in the comments below that he’s actually argued the opposite– that blogs are NOT a parasitic medium.  That’s correct, and my statement above was a misrepresntation of his more complex argument, which you can read in full here.

Posted in Fieldwork | Tagged: , , , , , | 4 Comments »

“About Me” Page Updated

Posted by chanders on August 12, 2008

I’ve now updated the “about me” page on this blog to include my CV and academic bio given that I’m now officially looking for a job. Will the narcissism ever end?

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