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Oct. 4, 2010, 12:30 p.m.

Why diversity turns into conformity in online news: An interview with comm scholar Pablo Boczkowski

If you talk to any of the number of young academics who occasionally contribute to the Lab, it’s likely the name Pablo Boczkowski will come up sooner rather than later. Pablo was one of the first scholars to rejuvenate the hallowed concept of the “newsroom ethnography” for a new generation of scholars examining a new generation of news problems. He has inspired many younger journalism researchers, including me.

Boczkowski was kind enough to take some time to sit down and talk with me about his new book, News at Work: Imitation in an Age of Information Abundance. Since Megan covered the general arguments of News at Work in a previous Lab post, I figure I’ll skip the chit-chat and just let you dive into the (lightly edited) interview. In it, I ask Pablo about, among other things:

  • how newsrooms have changed over the past 15 years
  • the two things he, as a qualitative scholar of news, would want working journalists to know
  • why it’s useful to study news in South America
  • how he thinks his work speaks to debates about the future of journalism

Some of Boczkowski’s most important arguments include:

On what consumers want: “When you sit down and talk to somebody, who is just a regular consumer…it’s very humbling, because you have a sense of, ‘Wow, that’s what people want.’ These statistics about how much time people on news websites, for instance, and what kind of content they use — for the most part, it’s about getting headlines.”

On the importance of the public: “It is impossible to avoid the public anymore. I mean, it’s impossible to avoid listening to the public anymore…The question is what to do when you have to listen to the public. In my own experience, what you hear is not a whole lot that you would like to hear, especially if you have certain ideas about the role of journalism in society, and the importance of that for democracy, and the way the public feels. It’s a little bit depressing. But that is not going to go away because you’ve stopped listening to people.”

On why blogs don’t affect the homogenization of news: “One blog is very different from the next. That is true, but if you look at how the demand for news is organized, the web is a winner-takes-all market. You have the highest concentration of attention of all media markets. The top ten players command not only a high share of attention, but an even higher share of attention than radio or print. What that means is that all these idiosyncratic websites that might give you one perspective that is unique, or might have one part that is not anywhere else, but the likelihood that a large fraction of the audience would actually pay attention to that is minimal. More consumers gravitate towards the top 10 to 20 sites.”

CWA: You began your research in the 1990s with what eventually became Digitizing the News. And the book you’ve written now, News at Work, covers the mid-2000s. I was wondering if you can draw a narrative thread between your first book and your latest one. Can you tell me a story, or is there an arc that ties Digitizing the News into your new book?

PB: The obvious one on the academic side is that Digitizing the News focused on the making of news with a very, very strong sense of technology. Those were the major concerns. This book has a bigger agenda. So while I still pay a lot of attention to the making of news, I also started to branch out into trying to understand what happens with the news when it’s already made — how it is consumed and circulated in society. It’s an extension of the other book towards the realm of news consumption.

The second extension is that while technology still figures in an important place in News at Work, the book also deals with issues of content and meaning.

The third extension of Digitizing the News is the extension of ethnographic space. Digitizing the News, actually, the research for that book started outside of the U.S., but I never included that part. I was also going to do a comparative study at that point. I didn’t get to this because I thought that people were more interested in change and innovation. Over time, my research became more focused on the more interesting comparative dimensions. So still looking at the U.S., but putting the U.S. into perspective and trying to understand what is going on in other parts of the world, because it is interesting in its own right and also because it helps us make sense of what’s going on in the U.S.. That’s why News at Work, in part, takes place in terms of the data and the story outside of the U.S.

Another fourth thread has to do with the fact that Digitizing the News was a book about change and about innovation. It’s also about the impulse to innovate, but the difficulty to do so within established news organizations that are highly traditional. They have been doing certain things for a long time, and it was very hard for them to change from within. News at Work takes place several years — it’s not a decade later, but the following decade.

When a lot of water has gone under the bridge, we start to have a sense of how things have unfolded over 15 years, and how things might unfold over the next so many years. And it tells a story that it’s less about innovation with all its difficulties and possibilities. It’s more about the lack of originality, the lack of change. And not because people want that, but because of the social dynamics and the practical dynamics that have made innovation difficult. It doesn’t matter what you want to call it, but something has made innovation very difficult to emerge.

CWA: You might say the even when innovation has occurred, it has often produced as much imitation as it has diversity. Is that a fair way to summarize it?

PB: Yes. I mean, the unintended consequences of trying to innovate sometimes are that you get a situation which is more conservative than what was going on before. Again, News at Work is really a story about unintended consequences. Digitizing the News is a story about what people tried to do and what happened. News at Work is a story about things that people have not tried to do, have not tried to accomplish, and it happened anyway. Because it happened anyway, and because it happened on the way to doing something else, it was very hard to eradicate because it has not happened by our own will. I think this taps into very deep social tendencies, in general, and particularly in the news industry.

CWA: A lot of the Lab’s readers are working journalists, and they might not pay much attention to the academic study of news. So if you wanted practitioners to take away one or two key points away from News at Work, what would you want them to know? If this is the only time they will hear Pablo Boczkowski talk about this book, what would be the two main takeaways that you would want working journalists to know?

PB: The first thing I’d want them to consider is that, ironically, in the age of the Internet, more news has become less news. So you need to figure how less can become more, instead. To me, it’s evident that the growth and the speed at which information circulates has created some negative consequences for news agencies, negative consequences for consumers, and negative consequences for journalists, because they don’t like how their work is going these days. Nobody has gone into the news profession to replicate other people’s stories and to basically rehash material that already exists.

The question is how to go into that situation so that it is a situation in which less is more. What the research on consumers clearly shows is that, yes, there is some appetite for news headlines and maybe leads, but for the most part, all people really want to read is headlines. And because all people want to read is headlines, you shouldn’t keep rewriting them, rewriting them. You don’t need to rehash them. I am convinced.

You know, I was absolutely humbled and stunned when I started to talk to consumers, the public. To me it was shocking, revealing. When you sit down and talk to somebody, who is just a regular consumer, and you get a sense of what news they like, what they don’t like, what news they want, what they don’t want, etc., it’s very humbling, because you have a sense of, ‘Wow, that’s what people want.’ These statistics about how much time people on news websites, for instance, and what kind of content they use — for the most part, it’s about getting headlines.

You know, it’s not going to make much of a difference if the headline is coming straight from AP or Reuters or if it’s a tweet. I don’t think it’s going to make much difference. One question that I repeatedly ask — it’s not in the books, but it really informed my thinking a lot — a question I routinely ask is imagine instead of having me in front of you, you have the main person of your preferred news site, the manager, the editor. If you would ask for one change on the design of the website, do you know what people said? They wanted an interface like the Google page results.

CWA: So just give them the headlines and a sentence at most.

PB: Exactly.

CWA: They didn’t want video? They didn’t want chats?

PB: No.

CWA: They didn’t want interactivity? They wanted the headlines?

PB: Yes, for the most part.

CWA: That is humbling.

PB: The consumers described their routines. They were strongly organized around the headlines and the navigation of the headline. That coincides with the amount of time people spend on these sites.

CWA: Which is almost no time at all.

PB: Not very high. It’s a fraction of the time they spend on print. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that, that at that time, they are doing other things. They could be in a conference call.

CWA: They are working. They are at work.

PB: Yes. Even in the evening, they’re doing something else. I watch soccer games now with the computer on my lap. I’m sometimes taking soccer stuff from the game on my computer, but that already means that I’m splitting my attention. So if you speak to someone who has to make key editorial decisions, if you spend your time just rehashing what others are doing, you’re spending very valuable resources in creating a product that doesn’t have the value added. It’s not appreciated to the same extent that the resources have invested in them. That doesn’t make much sense. I think it is painful for news organizations to realize that. News has become a commodity.

Spending a lot of resources and trying to make your commodity slightly different from somebody else’s commodity, I don’t think that’s going to work.

CWA: Now, in some newsrooms, to the degree this is known, the reaction has been, “Well, we need new things that will keep them on the site for longer,” right? “We need to have a chat with the editor. We need a slideshow. We need to have the reporters not only typing the story, but getting up in front of the camera. We need to make these print reporters into TV guys who stand up in front of cameras.”

Based on your studies of consumers, do you think that is a losing battle? Do you think that is more what journalists should be doing rather than rewriting headlines? Where would you take that conclusion?

PB: I don’t think making people available for chats or having a great video, given how much time it takes — I don’t think that’s a winning proposition either. I honestly don’t think so. What happens in seven years from now, when journalists start to perfectly understand where the consumer is going — I mean you’ve written about this. Journalists have a set of very mixed emotions. For the most part, they use the data not to inform, like people do in most other industries, but to tweak what they already think and to adapt their thinking. Based on what I see, I don’t think it makes any sense to keep rewriting your competitors’ headlines. It makes sense to place them in a particular way that maybe some of them can be given an editorial perspective and frame. But if it makes more sense than to redeploy all of your resources so that you have more original content, comments, opinions. One often needs to increase the coverage of content that draws a lot of attention, but it also means that changing news values, generally, so journalists don’t want to do that.

It’s also probably time to realize that the level of newsroom employment is way too high for the nature of the market. The other thing for a journalist is — it’s the same way it was humbling for me as a scholar that had me thinking for more than 10 years about journalists and the news and thinking about everything I could think about inside the box of the newsroom, therefore having an impact on society. Then when you start to talk to people, to consumers, to the audience, you realize, ‘Whoops, there is a lot going on.’

Another conclusion is that it is impossible to avoid the public anymore. I mean, it’s impossible to avoid listening to the public anymore. It is absolutely impossible. It’s impossible for scholars. I think it’s impossible for practitioners. The question is what to do when you have to listen to the public. In my own experience, what you hear is not a whole lot that you would like to hear, especially if you have certain ideas about the role of journalism in society, and the importance of that for democracy, and the way the public feels. It’s a little bit depressing. But that is not going to go away because you’ve stopped listening to them.

So what you do with that is a separate story. But it’s absolutely critical to start listening. I think listening to the audience goes far beyond tracking website traffic. The traffic metrics will only tell you a little bit. I did that in the book, looking at what stories sell the most in terms of clicks. But what you get by sitting down and really listening to news consumers, even if it’s a handful of them, is far more important.

Journalism has always been a very insular profession. That cannot be sustained any longer. There is a lot of value that is lost by not listening to the audience. You might not like what you hear. It might be depressing or terrible to hear, but you can’t stop that. It’s not going to go away.

CWA: I’m sure there will be commentators and commentators who hear you saying that there is more media and less news, who are going to say, “Oh, but how can you say that? There are blogs. There is citizen journalism. There’s niche websites popping up all over. How can he say there is less? There is a town that had one news outlet. Now it has 15.” I guess my question would be how would you respond to that sort of criticism?

PB: What I say in the book is that it’s more volume of information and frequency of examination, coupled with decreasing diversity of the content. On the supply side, there may be many, many, many more outlets than before. There is much more media than years ago. They have more options. They have new content all the time. But if you actually analyzed the kind of content that gets supplied, it is incredibly similar from one outlet to the next.

There was that study in Baltimore where they took all the local media in Baltimore across the range of television, radio, blah, blah, blah, for one week. What they found was that 84 percent of the stories that they analyzed had no new content. Some other venue had already covered it the first time when it appeared on the second. That’s 84 percent.

CWA: So even if there were some methodological difficulties in that study, which a few people I know have pointed to, 84 percent is still remarkably high.

PB: It’s huge!

CWA: Even if you allow for some critique like, ‘Well, maybe they didn’t look at enough people,’ 84 percent is still tremendous.

PB: It’s huge. I found the same in my study. On the supply side, you have many more places to get the news, but what you get is the same.

Now, when you say that consumers have blogs and this and that, they are very idiosyncratic. One blog is very different from the next. That is true. But if you look at how the demand for news is organized, the web is a winner takes all market. You have the highest concentration of attention of all media markets. The top ten players command not only a high share of attention, but an even higher share of attention than radio or print.

What that means is that all these idiosyncratic websites that might give you one perspective that is unique, or might have one part that is not anywhere else, but the likelihood that a large fraction of the audience would actually pay attention to that is minimal. More consumers gravitate towards the top 10 to 20 sites.

So, from a practical standpoint, there are outlets out there that have unique information, but do lots of people pay attention to them? No. So in terms of what happens to the supply of news, and what happens with the demand of news, on both sides of the equation, you have is an incredible loss of diversity because the large outlets tend to cover more or less the same stories.

CWA: Through monitoring and imitation.

PB: Exactly. That’s the main theme of the book. When people talk about the web, people talk about what is possible. They assume that what is possible will happen. Because it’s possible, therefore, it’s likely. What the book shows is that there’s a difference between something being possible and something being likely. We have to keep that in mind. There are a lot of things that are possible in life, but there are very few of them that are actually likely to happen. Given the current dynamics, both in terms of how journalists work and what the public does, it is quite unlikely that we will have a very diverse set of facts, even perspectives circulating in society for the average consumer.

I mean, yes, it’s a lot of noise, but there is very little difference in terms of meaning. There is a lot of volume, but it doesn’t make it necessarily very different.

CWA: The bulk of your research for this book takes place in South America. That’s still very unusual in media scholarship. What do you think we can learn by studying journalism outside the United States and the U.K.?

PB: There are several things. I will focus on one. There’s a very, very common explanation for the increase in journalistic similarity, and that explanation has to do with market concentration. We tend to call that the political economy explanation. It doesn’t have that name when journalistic practitioners talk about it, but it’s basically the same story.

The story is basically that this is all a result of the increased pressures of market variables and market logic in the profession. It has a lot to do with media companies operating on the market, and therefore having to compete with entities that are publicly traded across industries that have different logic. So newsroom managers will often say: “It’s not our fault. It’s the market.” It’s not really, “What can we do?” It’s the quarterly earnings or the pressure of the market; therefore, we have to downsize. It serves as a cure-all for the responsibility of the institution that people get news from. You can’t blame them. It’s happening to them.

The interesting case about Argentina is that, while there is a market component, journalists there enjoy a particular labor protection situation, whereby it is very difficult for news organizations for fire journalists. It’s very costly for news organizations to downsize very dramatically.

CWA: Unlike the United States.

PB: Yes. In Argentina, if you were to hire a journalist on a full-time basis, after a month, if you want to get rid of that person, you have to pay a lot of severance. So that’s number one. Number two is that most of the companies in Latin America are not publicly traded companies. They are family-owned enterprises for the most part. The media industry in the U.S. became publicly traded decades ago.

Now, of course, market pressure still exists. If you don’t sell or circulate, financially, there are consequences. It is less direct, especially for short-term dynamics. The cost for the news organization to expand or contract very rapidly is increased. Because those external pressures are mitigated to some extent, it is easier to bring to life what happens inside the newsroom as opposed to outside of it. It’s easier to see how they create a situation increasing monitoring, this increasing imitation, and how that transpired into the news. It happens even when these companies are not publicly traded. That doesn’t mean that in the case of the U.S., the fact that these companies are publicly traded and they shrink the news, it’s not important. Yes, it is, but it means that we have a situation in the U.S which is over-determined. The problems with journalism are not all about the market. It’s not all about debt. It’s not all about downsizing.

CWA: Some of the responsibility for this situation lies with the internal organization and management of newsrooms ultimately.

PB: Exactly. It’s exasperated by external market dynamics, but it’s not really what’s going on outside the organization. That’s a lack of taking responsibility by people inside the organization. That was the big advantage to having studied this outside of the U.S. Inside the U.S., it’s much more difficult.

CWA: In my own research in Philadelphia, the market is such a dominating factor in what I studied, and for other people who are probably doing primarily U.S.-based studies right now. I think it’s become even more difficult in the United States to disentangle the market from it.

PB: I think the consequences are far worse for journalists than for scholars because practitioners over-attribute. They say: “It’s all about the market. There’s nothing we can do. We’re just adapting to the new conditions.” That’s not true. There are lots of things that they are doing deliberately, with unintended consequence, that generate a lot of the outcomes that we see. So that to me was a plus that I had studied this outside of the U.S.

CWA: Obviously, the future-of-journalism stuff has become a major political and issue of public discussion in the United States. There are conferences. There are F.C.C. hearings. This is a public issue now in this country in a way that it has not been for a very long time.

So I guess what I would like to ask is: What would you say to the people who are engaged in this conversation? What can they take from your research? The big question is how to get journalism that is good for democracy. There are lots of ideas about how that type of democracy-building function of journalism can be maintained and strengthened. So, to the degree that you feel comfortable laying in on that debate, based on your own research, what would you say?

PB: That’s an interesting question. In terms of the research for this book in particular, I’ve been to one of these “future of journalism” conferences and I followed the others a little bit. My sense is that the discussion is poorly framed. It is framed in a very traditional way. In a traditional way, I mean framed like how journalism is framed. “We tell the public what the public needs to know. It doesn’t matter what the public wants. It doesn’t matter how the public reacts to it and make meaning out of what we tell them.”

Now, a lot of good has come out of that. But in terms of framed discussion, I think the relationship between journalism and the public has to be reframed. That’s a major element of this book. I made a conscious decision not to stop when I had figured out what was going on in the newsroom, but to then try to understand what happens then. The consequences of imitation shaping the news that we get. What happens? How do people deal with that?

The reason why this is so important is from a business standpoint. There is no business that can survive in a competitive situation, a competitive market, by ignoring the preferences and behavior of the consumer. So journalists could ignore that for decades because it operated, for the most part, in a non-competitive market. But that doesn’t exist anymore. What I hear when I go to “future of journalism” meetings, the discussion is framed entirely normatively: “This is what should happen.”

But, if you want realistic reform and real chances of something happening, you need to have normative conversations with grounded understanding of how people live their everyday lives. My sense that the power of journalism is extremely important for society, but it’s far more important to journalists than what it actually is the public.

A keen journalist really understands what the public does with the stories that they tell. It’s going to be extremely difficult to come up with a realistic reform strategy because these strategies, in my mind, have much less to do with the funding structures for journalism than with understanding how people live their lives and role that information has in the way that people live their lives. So it has to be about journalism and its public. It cannot just be about journalism.

Until we start having a real conversation about the inner workings of journalism, and the way journalistic organizations contribute and continue to contribute to its problems, it will be very difficult to come up with a real, workable solution.

POSTED     Oct. 4, 2010, 12:30 p.m.
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