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Jan. 17, 2013, noon

C.W. Anderson: How journalists’ self-concepts hindered their adaptation to a digital world

In this excerpt from his new book Rebuilding the News, he uses the Philadelphia media ecosystem as a lens on what’s happened to local journalism since 2000.
Editor’s note: CUNY professor and long-time Nieman Lab contributor C.W. Anderson is out with a new book, Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age. It’s an exploration of the evolution of local journalism from print to online, viewed through the lens of the Philadelphia media ecosystem.

I think C.W. (we call him Chris, or @chanders) is one of the brightest young academics studying journalism — look for him soon on an episode of Press Publish — and his work is always worth watching. The subject of his book is, fundamentally, why news organizations responded so poorly to the disruptions of the Internet — or, as he puts it, a “study of the legacy systems that made the news organizations I studied behave in deeply irrational ways.”

Chris and his publisher, Temple University Press, have allowed us to reprint this excerpt from the book’s introductory chapter, “Local Journalism on the Brink,” here.

In August of 2000, a hoary political institution — the Republican National Convention, assembling in Philadelphia — confronted a new kind of media network.

As the national Republican Party descended on the city in the summer of 2000, its delegates were met by hundreds of convention protesters carrying cell phones, videocameras, and old-fashioned pencils and paper notebooks, all calling themselves reporters and all networked into a website that displayed reports from the street protests as news broke. Growing out of the World Trade Organization protests in Seattle in 1999 and expanding to several other American and European cities in the months that followed, these Philadelphia protester-reporters identified themselves as members of the Independent Media Center of Philadelphia (also known as the Philly IMC) and promised their readers overtly biased political reporting, by amateurs, directly from the scene of anti–Republican National Convention protests.

As the political protesters clashed with Philadelphia police on the convention’s second day — “thousands of roving demonstrators and helmeted police faced off in intersections around the city yesterday afternoon,” the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette wrote, “trading blows at some junctures, while in Center City several delegate hotels locked their doors…as the two sides sparred for control of the streets” — amateur Indymedia journalists did more than simply comment on the drama as it unfolded. They were instrumental in documenting it online for a mass audience. These Independent Media Center volunteers were among the first group of digital activists to directly pose the question of who counted as a legitimate journalist in an era of low-cost, digital information gathering and distribution.

Protestors a half-block from city hall at the Republican National Convention, Philadelphia, August 2000. Photo by Brad Kayal/CC.

Six years later, at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania, a few of the radical reporters who had first stormed the journalistic barricades during the Republican Convention in 2000 sat down with local bloggers, newspaper editors, cable television executives, and new-media thinkers to plot a future for local news. The pace of the changes buffeting journalism, changes that first announced themselves in dramatic fashion during coverage of the 2000 convention, had only accelerated in the intervening half decade since the Republican National Convention. “Do-it-yourself journalism” was no longer a practice confined to political radicals and anarchists. It had manifested itself as part of a “war-blogging” revolution, a “mommyblogging” revolution, a YouTube revolution, a MySpace revolution, a flash mob revolution, a “hyperlocal citizens’ media” revolution, and in hundreds of other trends that lacked only a catchy moniker.

Perhaps more ominously, the first signs of deep economic distress inside the news industry had begun to filter out of Philadelphia; in late 2005, the Knight Ridder news chain, which owned both daily newspapers in Philadelphia (and had, for decades, posted double-digit profit margins), announced it was breaking itself up and selling its multiple media assets. In the face of the citizen media explosion and these distant economic rumblings, the Annenberg meeting was nothing like the occupational uprising in 2000 that saw radical journalists eviscerate the “lackeys of the corporate press” and professional journalists snidely dismiss their scruffy, decidedly non-objective challengers. Instead, participants in the oddly titled Norgs [new news organizations] Unconference” came together, in their words, “in a spirit of cooperation…to save local news in Philadelphia.” The Norgs Unconference was one of the first meetings explicitly to raise the question: could traditional journalists and the new breed of professional-amateur hybrids work together to improve local journalism?

On February 22, 2009, three years after the Norgs Conference, a decade after the earliest meetings to plan a global Indymedia news network, and twelve years since the first newspapers in Philadelphia went online, the journalistic center finally collapsed. Philadelphia Media Holdings, the local ownership group that had purchased the city’s two leading news institutions — the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia Daily News — amid much hope, goodwill, and optimism, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy. The news was first broken by a local blog, analyzed breathlessly on Twitter, and reported (hours later) in lengthy, accurate depth by the bankrupt papers themselves. For more than a year, the newspapers labored in a kind of Chapter 11 twilight zone, as local ownership fought a desperate rearguard action to maintain their financial control over their ailing media properties. In April 2010, these efforts were finally thwarted, with the newspapers becoming one of several media outlets across the United States controlled by banks and post-bankruptcy hedge funds.

Yet even as the newspapers labored under the weight of their debts, journalistic networks at the edges of traditional media institutions continued to organize and experiment. The weekend before the bankruptcy auction, technology geeks from across the country descended on Philadelphia to brainstorm the future of news. The very month the newspapers were bought by distant banks, a local foundation announced plans to fund a collaborative news network outside the walls of Philadelphia’s legacy media organizations.

If 2008 was a year of uncertainty for Philadelphia journalism, and 2009 was a year of bankruptcy-addled stasis, 2010 seemed like a moment when innovation and energy would outpace the general economic gloom enveloping the news industry. In 2011, continued hopes for a rebirth — the new Philadelphia Media Network announced new revenue plans and launched an in-house “startup incubator” — sat uneasily alongside fears that large news organizations were incapable of making the kind of transition needed to survive in the digital twenty-first century. These fears — fears that the journey to a new world of local news would fail before it could really even begin — only increased as word arose in early 2012 that the Philadelphia newspapers were again on the verge of being sold.

Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age narrates these journalistic moments of confrontation, collaboration, and collapse, filtering them through the lens of a single American city. Written and researched during a period of tremendous upheaval in the news industry, Rebuilding the News argues that, in the face of the chaos pressing in on them from all sides, local news organizations made particular choices about how best to adapt to emerging economic, social, and technological realities. The book analyzes the economic, organizational, and cultural factors that helped shape and direct these choices. In particular, local journalism’s occupational self-image, its vision of itself as an autonomous workforce conducting original reporting on behalf of a unitary public, blocked the kind of cross-institutional collaboration that might have helped journalism thrive in an era of fractured communication. This failure, in turn, highlights the central normative problem at the heart of this book. Local journalism’s vision of itself — as an institutionally grounded profession that empirically informs (and even, perhaps, “assembles”) the public — is a noble vision of tremendous democratic importance. But the unreflexive commitment to a particular and historically contingent version of this self-image now undermines these larger democratic aspirations. The story of how journalism’s vision of its unified public unraveled, how long taken-for-granted practices of news reporting were suddenly rendered problematic, and how news organizations struggled to rebuild local journalism — to network the news — is the story of this book.

What happened to journalism in the last years of the twentieth century and the first years of the twenty-first? What did it feel like to be a reporter or editor in Philadelphia as newspaper companies were sold, bankruptcies were filed, and an audience that was assumed to be mute and passive suddenly began to talk back? How did these systemic shocks ricochet through the institutions and daily work routines of journalists, bloggers, and media activists? What can these local events in one city teach us about the future of news in general? What do these on-the-ground developments teach us about the fate of journalism, one of America’s most vital democratic institutions? And how does this particular story — the development of a specific media ecosystem at a specific moment in time — intersect with the more theoretical claims made above? As Rebuilding the News unfolds, four major narrative themes emerge that connect this local study to larger questions about the evolution of news and point toward problems and opportunities that will continue to affect the news industry.

First, Rebuilding the News chronicles how journalists’ conception of the local public began to unravel. Second, the book describes the importance of reporting within the journalistic imagination, as well as the ways that bloggers and aggregators challenged this notion of “original reporting.” Third, the book discusses the “non-diffusion” of innovation within news organizations and the non-diffusion of collaboration between news organizations. I take seriously the idea that the future of journalism lies partly in networked collaboration but conclude that the creation of networks is not inherently a networked property. Deinstitutionalized organizations have a complex relationship with institutions; in many ways, they are dependent on the stability and organizational heft of the very institutional structures they scorn. Fourth, and finally, Rebuilding the News describes the slow-motion collapse of the industrial work model on which much of journalistic content production is based, as well as attempts to rebuild that model on firmer ground.

In sum, this book is the study of the legacy systems that made the news organizations I studied behave in deeply irrational ways. It is also a study of the attempts by individuals and organizations to overcome these often debilitating, locked-in processes, usually under situations in which they had few resources and little institutional support. This tension between stasis and change is the driving force behind the narrative that propels this book.

The first thematic development chronicled in this study of the Philadelphia news ecosystem is the fracturing of the idea and image of the metropolitan public. Over the course of my research, I became conscious of the degree to which “the public” occupied a particular pride of place in the journalistic imaginary. Philadelphia journalists were quick to invoke the way their daily newswork informed the local public. On a deeper level, they often talk about the manner in which their newswork called that very public into being. And the importance of this public was not just affirmed by status-conscious traditional journalists at the major Philadelphia newspapers. It was a claim echoed by radical citizen reporters and even by some bloggers.

It was in part this unexpected rhetorical overlap that helped me first recognize the importance of the local public in the journalistic consciousness. One of the arguments of this book is that the idea and the materiality of the local public have come unbundled in the age of the Internet. Over the course of my research, the notion that “the public” was capable of being captured by any single set of work practices or institutions seemed increasingly difficult for many journalists to honestly believe. Nevertheless, it was a belief that many of them continued to voice, often in increasingly desperate tones. This gap between this rhetoric of the local public, informed and embodied by journalism, and the dawning realization that this public was breaking the communicative shell traditionally designed to house it is one of the stories of this book.

A second narrative thread analyzes the work practices of local journalism. Over the course of my time in Philadelphia, I was struck by the degree to which the act of simply “reporting the news” continued to loom large in journalists’ rhetoric about who they were and what they did. When journalists wanted to validate themselves and their profession, they noted that reporting was what distinguished true journalism from other activities. When they wished, on the other hand, to denigrate themselves, many of my informants would sheepishly admit that they “didn’t do reporting,” and were therefore less valuable than “real” journalists.

In reality, however, my research demonstrated that the practice of original reporting was far from being either pure or unproblematic. The kind of work that constituted “original reporting” seemed increasingly difficult for journalists to define. Reporting existed side by side with other forms of newswork such as blogging and aggregation, often within news organizations that heaped rhetorical scorn on these so-called lesser practices. At the same time, these traditional institutions would reappropriate newswork practices such as blogging and news aggregation and shape them to reportorial ends. All of these complexities are described in the pages that follow. For now, I simply want to highlight this important pairing: acts of reporting and images of the public. These linked concepts encapsulate much of the narrative that follows.

A third thread, which is also concerned with newswork practices but from an ecosystemic and institutional perspective, revolves around the strange persistence of the industrial work model of traditional journalism, along with emerging challenges to that model from the edges of journalistic space. In his newsroom ethnographies from the 1970s, Herbert Gans quoted one executive saying that daily news routines are “like screwing nuts on a bolt.” No metaphor that I am aware of better captures the industrial processes most associated with traditional journalism. Indeed, these practices remained dominant in most Philadelphia newsrooms I studied. Reporters and editors still worked to build news stories in an assembly line-like fashion, and news organizations struggled to collaborate with people and groups outside their formal institutional walls.

Around the edges of these industrial-era practices, however, there was increasing decay. Technological artifacts and communications practices pressed in on static workflows. Economic challenges made it harder and harder for news organizations to maintain the staffing levels necessary to manage the complex process of gathering the news. Insurgent news organizations harnessed digital technologies and new employment regimes in ways that allowed them to open up their work routines to outside institutions, volunteers, and loosely affiliated freelancers. The industrial-era ecosystem of news assemblage that I observed in Philadelphia appeared simultaneously solid and on the verge of collapse.

A final theme of this book, then, might be labeled the “non-diffusion of collaboration.” Each of the threads above — the fragmenting of the image local public, the continued centrality of reporting, and the decay of industrial production models — would seem to point to a scenario in which journalistic innovation and cross-organizational collaboration were not only rhetorically praised but also institutionally optimal. In other words, developments in the local Philadelphia news ecosystem seemed to be creating a situation in which it made rational sense to “network the news” through institutional collaboration, hypertext linking, and formal and informal partnerships.

In the first round of my ethnographic research, such collaboration and innovation not only did not occur; it seemed to be purposefully thwarted. In the second round of my research, from 2009 through 2011, the situation had changed somewhat, and active attempts at building a local news hub and news network were underway. In all, however, these networked developments were slow in coming and did not rest on particularly firm ground. Many of them seemed fragile, as if they might disappear at any time. Ultimately, I conclude that the difficulties in networking the news stem as much from journalistic culture — journalism’s vision of “its” public and the importance of the act of reporting in the journalistic imaginary — as they do from logistical or transaction-cost difficulties that can be easily remedied through managerial solutions.

A closed newsstand, corner of Broad and Vine, downtown Philadelphia. Photo by Paul Sableman/CC.

Over the past decade, practices of newsgathering in America have been transformed. Just as the 1830s saw the invention of the penny press and the 1960s saw the rise of an aggressive form of national investigative journalism, the last years of the twentieth century and the early years of the twenty-first century constitutes an equally important moment in the history of news production. During the time period studied here, some news organizations in Philadelphia thrived, while others literally struggled to survive. This book focuses on the slow-motion collapse of a major urban institution — Philadelphia’s local newspapers — and the many attempts to reform and rebuild the larger news ecosystem in which they are embedded.

Rebuilding the News describes the emergence of citizen journalism in Philadelphia in 2000. It describes how the local news “went online” between 1997 and 2010. It describes some attempts at collaboration between journalistic amateurs and their corporate counterparts. It zooms in on local news practices and describes how, exactly, local news gets made in 2010, as well as how that news circulates on- and offline. And it chronicles how Philadelphia’s newspapers slid into bankruptcy and how other institutions, individuals, and journalists struggled to rebuild Philadelphia’s media ecosystem — to “network the news” — at a moment when the odds seemed decidedly against them. The book spends time inside the newsrooms and editorial suites of Philadelphia’s major news organizations. It travels to gentrifying neighborhoods with names such as Fishtown and Northern Liberties to see how ordinary citizens are creating their own, quasi-journalistic practices of digital communication. It looks to Philadelphia’s suburbs to chronicle how a new breed of bloggers is rewiring the production of sports journalism. And it lingers in the neighborhoods of West Philadelphia, where the first citizen journalism organizations rose up in opposition to the “corporate media,” never honestly expecting that, ten years later, the mainstream media organizations would themselves be struggling to survive. These varied thematic threads — of individuals, institutions, collaboration, competition, and collapse — weave the narrative of this book together.

C.W. Anderson is an assistant professor at the City University of New York. Rebuilding the News is out January 18.

POSTED     Jan. 17, 2013, noon
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