Catching up on another ill-fated pledge to keep this thing more up-to-date…
Recapping what has been a busy year, one filled with the usual mix of things … some interesting guest lecture-type gigs, a few conferences, a set of ‘lecture tours’ at the World Press Photo exhibition in town, a new research project last Spring bringing together interviews and participant research … here’s the recap of 2018 in terms of research publications and output.
Overall and going forward, I keep trying to explore the things that intrigue me about digital journalism and, in particular, examining what is happening on the edges of the journalistic field. This is something that continues to fascinate me, makes the work interesting, and which continues to present interesting challenges. In the year ahead, I hope to grapple with a few of these particular challenges more thoroughly (I am particularly interested in considering what gaps I’m stepping over, and where ideas I’ve started to explore – or notions I’ve introduced – could be developed more fully, and to start revisiting some of the incremental conclusions I’ve posited in the past few years).
On my way towards doing so, here’s what I’ve been up to…
Below is a brief reaction to this, which happens to have happened to a friend and former colleague of mine who was secretly filmed by James O’Keefe’s ‘Project Veritas’, a conservative activist site which acts through loathsome hits on those they disagree with by manipulating bits of secreted video and audio to serve specific political ends. This is the first in what I hope are semi-regular reactions to news events where I gather my thoughts on things.
First, some back story. Dan Lamothe and I have known each other a long time – not quite 17 years, I’d reckon. We’ve sat on both sides of editorial decision-making hierarchies long ago while at the MassachusettsDaily Collegian when we were students at UMass, and we did not always agree with each other’s decisions (but here’s the thing, we didn’t have to – you can respect decisions you wouldn’t have made, and even at times political choices you wouldn’t have made) and we both worked our way through what it is to be a journalist, and what journalism may be, and what challenges confront journalism. When we were but young ambitious types, Dan and I at different moments were responsible for the editorial ‘voice’ of our University’s newspaper, and not to spoil anything about how the world works, but there too we often didn’t agree, and there too didn’t have to – I suspect if we dug back through our clip files we’d even disagree with ourselves; welcome to the human condition. When I was managing editor, Dan ably ran a news desk where he could focus on gathering, verifying, and sharing fact-based information with our public in their interest, and that allowed me to make the call on editorial voice, and how to maintain the news/opinion distinction in the paper overall. Later, Dan was Managing Editor and I ran the photo desk. And so, we reversed those roles. Our and our colleagues’ public was, most of the time, the tens of thousands of university students, and the surrounding towns in the Pioneer Valley who also had access to our paper (then, printed daily and also published online). Sometimes, our public became huge – particularly when an opinion piece caught attention online, or when we had to report on a story or topic prone to moral outrage – and we found ourselves in front of cameras or reporters describing and defending and defining what we do. We dealt with our share of controversies then, though I suspect never would have anticipated what we’ve seen in the years since as far as journalism and its controversies.
In the roughly 13 years since Dan and I left UMass, our paths have diverged and converged at different moments. We both covered the eastern bit of Western Massachusetts around the same time, we both spent reporting time in DC – though at different times and covering different beats – and while he continues to perform journalistic roles ably, I have gone on to a career studying journalism. Where we might converge at this moment is that many are invited to judge how well we do what we do, which, of course, only intensifies when that can be bounced around the internet.
This is a way to suggest that I don’t think this current moment is new to the patterns of news and journalism and information which can be shared, examined, critiqued, and sometimes attacked, online or off-, nor are they new to Dan or many in the journalistic field. They are, however, increasingly a reality of our media spaces, and for that we need to unpack their complexities.
Since then, it has been a busy year – between teaching on new courses, and working with new colleagues, I’ve also had a number of projects come to a head. Hopefully this post is a useful ‘re-set’ and will allow me to do better keeping this site up to date.
Online Journalism from the Periphery looks at how a range of new media actors, communicating online, have challenged us to think differently about the journalistic field. Emerging from the disruption of digital technology, these new actors have been met with resistance by an existing core of journalism, who perceive them as part of a ‘digital threat’ and dismiss their claims of journalistic belonging. As a result, cracks are appearing in the conceptual foundations of what journalism is and should be.
Applying field theory as a conceptual lens, Scott Eldridge guides the reader through the intricacies of these tensions at both the core and periphery. By first unpacking definitions of journalism as a social and cultural construction, this book explores how these are dominated by narratives which have reinforced a limited set of expectations about its purpose and reach. The book goes on to examine how these narratives have been significantly undermined by the output of major new media players, including Gawker, reddit, Breitbart, and WikiLeaks. Online Journalism from the Periphery argues for a broadening of ideas around what constitutes journalism in the modern world, concluding with alternative approaches to evaluating the contributions of emerging media heavy-weights to society and to journalism.
My latest publication, in the journal Digital Journalism, focuses again on questions of journalistic identity and how identity is ‘performed’ in public-facing discourses within news texts, but adapts analytical approaches from structural narrative and literary analysis in an effort to make sense of some of these dynamics through a structural approach that explores semiotics and semantic constructions of identity and newswork. Here is the abstract:
Exploring constructions of journalistic identity in a digital age has been a lively area of scholarship as the field of digital journalism studies has grown. Yet despite many approaches to understanding digital change, key avenues for understanding changing constructions of identity remain underexplored. This paper addresses a conceptual void in research literature by employing semiotic and semantic approaches to analyse performances of journalistic identity in narratives of newswork facilitated by and focused on digital megaleaks. It seeks to aid understanding of the way narratives describe changing practices of newsgathering, and how journalists position themselves within these hybrid traditional/digital stories. Findings show news narratives reinforce the primacy of journalists within traditional boundaries of a journalistic field, and articulate a preferred imagination of journalistic identity. Methodologically, this paper shows how semantic and semiotic approaches lend themselves to studying narratives of newswork within journalistic metadiscourses to understand journalistic identity at the nexus of traditional and digital dynamics. The resultant portrait of journalistic identity channels a socio-historic, romantic notion of the journalist as “the shadowy figure always to be found on the edges of the century’s great events”, updated to accommodate modern, digital dynamics.
It’s an alternative way to build understanding of journalistic identity construction, for sure, and I think it opens new avenues for analysis and in its alternative approaches it, perhaps, points to new ways of sense making, particularly for complex news stories where multiple actors are in focus and when both the ‘news’ and the ‘journalism’ are part of the public conversation. I chose for this piece to apply analysis narratives of newswork in coverage of WikiLeaks and in coverage of the NSA leaks and Edward Snowden in elite newspapers (The New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post) to look at the performance of newswork when at its most prominent. Atypical stories, yes, but in their novelty these offer outsized opportunities for exploring the way journalists narrate their newswork and construct journalistic identity in a way that invokes traditional dynamics amid uniquely digital dynamics. An Author Manuscript version can be found in via the publications link above, or here.
There’s a new article in Journalism Studies titled “Normative Expectations“. My colleague John Steel and I wrote this to document our findings from the first phase of an ongoing research project looking at normativity and local journalism. For this project, we worked with members of two community groups in Sheffield.
Our starting point was an un-directed conversation about what people think about news and information.
We wanted to challenge a prevalent starting point in journalism studies of how journalism positions itself in society, often around lofty and idealised roles – the ‘Fourth Estate’. By seeing what members of our community groups raised when they discussed news and information without any prompting of ‘normative’ values, we were able to develop a more nuanced understanding of their perception of journalism’s role in society. This allowed us to see how members of our community discussed their own views on journalism, and whether this reflects assumptions of what journalism should do for the public, as well as whether they feel journalism does fulfill these roles. Importantly, we asked whether they would change or alter the journalism and news they engage with.
This study was a good starting point to revisit our own normative expectations of journalism, and those community members we worked with have quite different expectations of news and journalism that what is included in the idealised language of journalism as the ‘Fourth Estate’. While we found a lowered expectation in terms of the idealised status of journalists and news, we also found that the combination of commercial, sensational, and more serious news offered a good mix of what people wanted. We also found people think about news in different ways – a conversation at the pub or with a neighbour around the corner can be an important source of news and information.
A second piece for The Conversation on an attempt by Reddit to create a more gate-kept, edited news site called ‘Upvoted’. (Published here in full under the Creative Commons license it was originally published under).
Reddit’s move toward respectability means leaving behind some of what made it great
The “front page of the internet”, Reddit, itself has a new front page: Upvoted. This standalone news site offers content drawn from Reddit posts – a “Redditorial” process – rather than the free-for-all that gave Reddit its reputation as “the dark, unruly id of the internet.”
Upvoted looks slicker and cleaner than the basic, text-heavy Reddit, and re-purposes the same content with more pastiche. The offer is a more agreeable and, to critics and supporters alike, more marketable alternative to the original site.
But despite its name it doesn’t include Reddit’s upvoting feature, where website’s users can vote up posts and comments they like, and it has all but removed comments – the interactivity that Reddit was founded on. Instead comments are relegated to parallel threads in the /r/upvoted subreddit folder on the original site.
This seems a strange move for Reddit, which owes so much of its identity to community engagement. The more you look at Upvoted the more it appears to be a reaction to the “dark, unruly” side of Reddit – a chance to show a “normal” face to the world. Yet without the chaotic mix of worthwhile and cringeworthy content, it doesn’t look like Reddit, feel like Reddit, or (for better or worse) sound like Reddit.
Many commentators have wondered what it is, and why. “Is this Reddit in a Buzzfeed-like package to reach a broader audience?” asks asks one poster on Reddit, while another asks on /r/upvoted: “How is Upvoted at all different from [now defunct] Digg?”. Even though Upvoted comments come via Reddit, is Upvoted really a betrayal of Reddit’s values? I’d argue we need to look at Upvoted not as an abandonment of Reddit but as a natural response to tackling “the comment problem” – a problem that many websites face in this new, interactive web filled with community-created content.
The comment conundrum
In trying to separate the best of its content from the worst Reddit’s management are trying to balance the need to promote content and innovation, attract web traffic, lure advertisers and maintain its thriving community, while trying not to repeat the events of earlier this year when relations between its community moderators and management resulted in a strike. Not an easy balance.
For all the ways digital media have made the web an exciting space, comment sections can quickly remind us that it’s not always comfortable. To its credit, the negotiation between Reddit as a community platform and Upvoted as a slick new site is playing out openly. At the /r/upvoted subreddit, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian is responding to concerns: “Every article on Upvoted.com has a comment thread on Reddit (r/upvoted)”, he wrote. Is Upvoted just a Buzzfeed mimic? “We’re aiming higher when it comes to things like crediting OP [Original Posters] and adding value,” he responded, defending the core focus on Reddit content and its community’s voices.
Digital media – websites, blogs, sites like Reddit – are often written about as if separate from the rest of the media, offering counter-narratives. But as they become increasingly critical and established players they cannot be isolated. Those operating online are at their best when they challenge the ways we think about media and public discourse, or when they provide online spaces that are part of a new, vibrant digital public sphere. However, digital media can struggle to retain audiences when they are seen as going too far, or when trying to build their profile through controversy.
At its best, Reddit is a platform for many voices that can direct us to online content we’d never otherwise see. At its worst it’s an absolute horror, something that we turn away from, which makes it vulnerable to criticism around issues of civility and acceptability.
So is Upvoted an awkward reaction to a particular problem, or is it tackling the challenge of balancing community and content? Measured against the raucous Reddit people have come to know, it seems to be the former. However, if we realise that Reddit emerged as a space where restrictions are anathema and from which it is trying to evolve and change, then perhaps Upvoted is a natural addition to Reddit’s platform – one that responds to the challenges and pressures that larger audiences and attention brings.
On the shock resignation of Peter Oborne, and the blurred lines between editorial and usiness interests at The Daily Telegraph. (Published here in full, under The Conversation‘s creative commons license):
What Peter Oborne’s resignation forces us to confront about journalism
As news of Peter Oborne’s resignation from The Daily Telegraph went scattering around the internet and as further coverage came in interviews and articles that evening and the following morning, it became clear that a story of very traditional dynamics of journalism was unfolding.
Oborne resigned because he was fed up with stories being pulled offline and criticism of advertisers was being relegated to small corners of inside pages at the paper. For Oborne, a boundary had been crossed and the journalistic ideals he subscribed to had been broken.
But one has to ask if it is only because it is a story coming from a storied and traditional newspaper and a well-regarded journalist that we are even hearing about it.
What Oborne’s letter shows is an unravelling of an agreed-upon set of rules that journalists and journalism and particularly newspapers adhere to. These rules are what allow newspapers to balance the profit-making demands with its public interest ideals. By abiding with them, both the business of running a paper and the editorial decisions that fill its pages could be managed. Clearly for Oborne, the business leaders at the Telegraph had failed to adhere to that division – and his frustration over that failure is apparent.
His is not a unique case, of course, as both overt influence by corporate owners and more passive influence has “chilled” critical journalism time and time again. However the blending of corporate and editorial interests has become an ever-present concern, particularly as revenue from print advertising has dwindled and newspapers have sought new ways to secure both revenue and readers.
You only need to look to the news earlier this year, that The New York Times was adding to its in-house design staff to create native advertising and content, for a similar story of the blurring of distinctions between what is journalism and what is advertising.
As with Tuesday’s expose from Oborne, that the New York Times would consider such a move was met with surprise. With both the Telegraph and the New York Times, the idea that such legacy media brands would consider crossing this sacred line leads to a great deal of uneasiness over the extent to which newspapers would accede to advertiser demands, and questions over what audiences and readers can trust from these brands.
Which returns us to the worrying thought that we might only be hearing about these instances of corporate pressure and editorial influence because they are happening at legacy institutions in traditional news environments.
For as much as we can suggest that what Peter Oborne wrote in his resignation letter might be commonplace, we also only know of the instances he describes. Contrasting the minimal space for critical stories in the inside pages of the Telegraph with front-page splashes and major investigations in competing newspapers is tangible. It can be measured in ink and inches.
When protests in Hong Kong secured the attention of leader articles and front pages in a range of British newspapers and the Telegraph’s coverage was tepid, as Oborne alleges, that can be explored by looking at an array of newspapers in any newsagents. When UK newspapers were decrying China’s refusal to grant British MPs access to Hong Kong and the Telegraph was mum (setting aside space for the Chinese ambassador ahead of a “lucrative” supplemental section China Watch) we can see that. In traditional terms, these can all be compared.
What’s more damning and more worrisome is that Oborne can point to articles critical of HSBC and published on the Telegraph’s website being deleted. Without his tell-all resignation, we might never be aware of such stories. It is perhaps ironic that it was Buzzfeed that ran the deleted stories on its site.
It was also Buzzfeed, the site that built its online presence on the very blend of native advertising and original content under discussion here, that reminds us of the futility of suppressing news when there are so many online possibilities. And it is Buzzfeed, and sites like it, that force us to ask whether the boundaries between the advertising and the editorial still exist, and where are they drawn online.
What should make Peter Oborne’s resignation a shock and a media scandal is not only the violation of a particular set of journalism’s ideals and paradigms. It is that it introduces obvious questions we have no way to reasonably answer. How often this is happening elsewhere? How do we measure the “tweaks” and “edits” and “changes” happening online at the behest of advertisers or under corporate pressure? And how do journalists, who have built their reputations on the boundaries between advertising and editorial, now repair the paradigms that Oborne’s letter reveals as broken?