Nieman Foundation at Harvard
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Sept. 17, 2010, 1 p.m.

Yeah, but what does it mean for journalism? A visual rhetoric guide

It’s become something of a Twitter joke. A new gadget appears, or a dramatic development takes place on the world stage, and the cry goes up: But what does it mean for journalism? I’m guilty of it myself. And a lot of the time, it’s a meaningful question to ask; we are in the future-of-journalism business, after all. What would we spend our day doing if not inquiring about what it — all of it– means for journalism.

That said, I wanted to try a little experiment. And so using Wordle, some time-delimited Google searches, and quick-and-dirty cutting and pasting, I decided to take a look at how the conversation about “what it means for journalism” might have changed, or not changed, since 2008.

The results are below. But first, a little bit about what I did. I plugged a few searches into Google, namely “what” AND “future of journalism.” I time-delimited the search, looking only for results from 2008, then only from 2009, then only 2010. I scraped the text from all my results, and dropped them into OpenOffice. I then deleted all mentions of “journalism,” “media,” and “news,” figuring they’d be the most common and least interesting answers, and wanting to weigh the words without them included in Wordle. And here’s what I got.

2008 [full-size version here]: Words that jump out: “public,” “interest,” “material,” “interactivity,” “information.” The combination of “public” and “interest” are the most interesting to me here. It was an election, after all, perhaps there was a bit more discussion of that amorphous body we call “the public,” and how it relates to changes in journalism. There’s a little about journalists, though not as much as we’ll see in 2009.

2009 [full size]: “Public” has disappeared, as has “information.” It’s been replaced by “people,” “journalist,” “online,” “world,” “web,” “paper,” and “think.” There’s some question about medium at play here; this was the year of “what comes after newspapers die,” after all. I have to admit I was a little surprised there weren’t more words having to do with “morbidity” here, stuff like “death,” “dying,” “disappearing, or “crisis.” But I think the focus on “journalist” here reflects the industry crisis in its own way — as in, what about all those people losing their jobs?

2010 [full size]: Now here’s the “what does it mean for journalism” conversation I remember — iPad and WikiLeaks. Will either of them save journalism? We’ll see what the rest of the year brings, but for now, it looks to me like a fairly abstract conversation about journalism and the public has been replaced by a debate over particular types of mediums (paper and web), which has itself been supplanted by a focus on particular organizations and devices.

Now, all of this is incredibly crude measurement, and there’s a ton wrong with it. (Let’s just say my methodology wouldn’t pass peer review.) Time-limited Google searching is imperfect, and of course I’ve totally left out stuff like Twitter and Facebook. But I think there’s a germ of potential here for mapping particular forms of dialog around particular key phrases. I’d love to work with any data-happy, data-mining Twitter scholars or smart Google engineers to pursue this line of work further. Drop me a line if you’re interested.

POSTED     Sept. 17, 2010, 1 p.m.
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