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March 18, 2019, 5:30 a.m.

Is the business model for American national news “Trump plus rolling scandals”? And is that sustainable?

An interview with researcher C.W. Anderson: “You do have to wonder how long we can keep up before people have a nervous breakdown.”

Editor’s note: Nearly a decade ago, freshly minted Ph.D. in hand, C.W. Anderson wrote his first Nieman Lab post. Today, several books and tens of thousands of tweets later, he’s a professor of media and communication at the University of Leeds. Last fall, he published his latest book, an examination of the history of data journalism that goes back to the 19th century.

Lívia Vieira, a Brazilian journalism researcher and professor, recently interviewed Chris for the Brazilian media publication Farol Jornalismo, and I’m happy to present a lightly edited English-language version of it. They discuss, among other things, the role metrics play in contemporary newsrooms, the state of “post-industrial journalism,” and paths to take in doing academic research on journalism. (You can find the Portuguese version here.)

Lívia Vieira: Your Ph.D. dissertation is remarkable, because almost 10 years ago, you were observing what you called the culture of the click. Since then, publishers are relying even more on audience metrics, especially quantitative ones — even though we now know many of those metrics are fake or not very reliable. Do you think metrics are playing the right role in editorial decisions?

C.W. Anderson: It’s interesting, because one of the things that I learned in classes at Columbia was that “journalists don’t care about their audience.” This was sort of the intellectual wisdom in sociology classes at Columbia: Journalists were a professional community that did not care about its audience. And so the minute I got into a newsroom, I literally see people with [analytics] spreadsheets in their hands, running across the newsroom, waving them in the air. It just really surprised me what was happening and how what I learned was wrong.

So the question now, I guess, is: Has it gone too far? Are journalists too dependent on clicks, or too dependent on metrics, so that they make too many of their decisions because of them? I think it’s important that journalists know what their audience wants and what their audience needs in order to be informed. Any journalist who would claim that they don’t need to know what their audience wants to read is deluding themselves.

But I do think that journalism as a professional category needs to make decisions for itself about what it thinks is important. That’s what makes a professional community: It’s a group of people who have a certain amount of expertise and then can decide for themselves what the important thing is. Journalism as a professional community is highly threatened — and that’s a problem, because it’s important for journalists to be professionals.

So I don’t think clicks and metrics alone are terrible for journalism. But I do think that insofar as they contribute to a larger deprofessionalization of this very important occupation, they can be part of a bad trend. The short answer would be: Journalists need to know what their audience thinks, but they shouldn’t become slaves to what their audience thinks. And they need to continue thinking for themselves about what their audience needs.

Vieira: Do you think we still live in this “culture of the click,” or have most newsrooms already learned that clicks and pageviews don’t explain everything?

Anderson: I think you have a real gap between the elite news organizations and everyone else. I have a Ph.D. student who worked at News Corp for a while in Australia. And to hear her tell it, they were utterly governed by clicks, completely governed by news metrics.

If you talk to people at The New York Times or The Guardian, they will tell you, ‘No, we aren’t like that at all — we use metrics as one of many other things and we certainly aren’t living in this culture of the click.” But many of the more local and more commercial news organizations are absolutely still more governed by reader metrics. I think of the average British tabloid: I would be very surprised if they did not still have largely clickbait view. That’s different than at elite news organizations — which tend to be the kind of news organizations that academics study.

The other thing I will say is: Journalists at these elite news organizations are trained to say the right things about metrics if you ask them. They’re trained to say very smart things. So you can interview someone and they can explain to you at length about, “Oh, well, we’re not governed by these things.” But I don’t think we have had enough ethnography of how this all works — apart from your own work, Caitlin Petre’s work, a few other people who have really done ethnographies of this stuff. And I think when you actually watch what journalists do, it may be different than what they say.

Vieira: You describe yourself as an ethnographer who studies the news. What does an ethnographer bring to studying journalism?

Anderson: I think the goal of ethnography is to understand how journalists understand their lives and their jobs, understand what is happening to them. So I’d make a difference between understanding what is happening to journalists and understanding what journalists think is happening to journalists.

For an ethnographer, the key thing is to always get what the person thinks is happening to them — what they think the Internet is doing, what they think technology is doing, what they think metrics are doing. It is in some ways, for an ethnographer, as important if not more important than what those things are actually doing in reality.

So to me, ethnography is to some degree always going to be concerned with what we might call the hermeneutical aspects of research — which is understanding how people make sense of the world. It’s not necessarily understanding the world, but it is understanding how people make sense of the world. Because ethnography allows you to spend a lot of time with people and allows you to watch what they do, not simply listen to what they say, it provides a unique access to the culture of a particular place. That’s the main value-added that ethnography brings.

Anderson: Yes, the idea was that — as somebody who studies things, spaces, places, and professions that have changed very quickly — I thought of my looking at my work 10 years later. Was it still relevant, was it still valid? So I thought: What if we combined ethnography and history — not history as in 100 years ago, but history as in 10 years ago? Because the way newsrooms were in 2009 is very different than the way they are in 2019.

The idea was: What if we combined a historical perspective with an ethnographic perspective? So we can watch how the path of the newsroom or the path of the journalism profession changes as it passes through time.

Vieira: Adding in that history is a huge challenge. How do you do it? Is it something you do during the interviews, the observations, or do you research in advance?

Anderson: I think it’s all those things. So one of the things that I did in the dissertation, in Rebuilding the News, I spent a lot of time on archive.org, the collection of past versions of websites. I could see how they looked in 2005 and go back. I spent a lot of time investigating it before I got there, so I could at least start to get a sense of how have these things changed over time.

The thing about digital technology is that what happened five years ago is already history. We need to be very conscious of that and always remember that our present orientation needs to be leavened to some degree by looking at the historical time period.

Vieira: Is that what you do in your new book, Apostles of Certainty: Data Journalism and the Politics of Doubt?

Anderson: That’s exactly what I try to do. In the new book, I really wanted to go all out on history. “Data journalism” is a thing that everyone is talking about, a really hot topic. The book ends with an ethnographic chapter, but everything before that is historical, in the sense that I was trying to understand: Did something like data journalism exist a hundred years ago? And if so, what was it like? How was it different or similar to now? How has the idea of what data journalism is or the culture of data journalism changed over time?

Vieira: And what did you discover?

Anderson: I discovered that data journalism now, in 2019, is more like it was in 1899 than it was in 1970.

So in some ways, certain aspects of data journalism are more like they were a hundred years ago that might they were 50 years ago. Because our understanding of data has changed and our understanding of what we mean by data has changed. The idea of “big data” has led to a lot of changes. So that was one of the main things I learned, which is that in some ways we’re kind of going back to the past to understand the present.

[From the book’s description: “In this book, C.W. Anderson traces the genealogy of data journalism and its material and technological underpinnings, arguing that the use of data in news reporting is inevitably intertwined with national politics, the evolution of computable databases, and the history of professional scientific fields. It is impossible to understand journalistic uses of data, Anderson argues, without understanding the oft-contentious relationship between social science and journalism. It is also impossible to disentangle empirical forms of public truth-telling without first understanding the remarkably persistent Progressive belief that the publication of empirically verifiable information will lead to a more just and prosperous world. Anderson considers various types of evidence (documents, interviews, informational graphics, surveys, databases, variables, and algorithms) and the ways these objects have been used through four different eras in American journalism (the Progressive Era, the interpretive journalism movement of the 1930s, the invention of so-called ‘precision journalism,’ and today’s computational journalistic moment) to pinpoint what counts as empirical knowledge in news reporting. Ultimately the book shows how the changes in these specifically journalistic understandings of evidence can help us think through the current ‘digital data moment’ in ways that go beyond simply journalism.” —Ed.]

Vieira: In 2012, you wrote, with Emily Bell and Clay Shirky, the report Post-Industrial Journalism: Adapting to the Present. Do you still agree with this concept of post-industrial journalism?

[The term “post-industrial journalism” was coined by Doc Searls to describe journalism that is “no longer organized around the norms of proximity to the machinery of production.” —Ed.]

Anderson: The short answer is yes, I do. The idea when we wrote the report was that post-industrial journalism is a very unsettled, chaotic state of affairs — unlike industrial journalism which was relatively stable, the ways to do it were relatively set. And I do think that post-industrial journalism will eventually be just like old journalism, which is that it will stabilize. We won’t be in a state of chaos forever.

Eventually new structures, new routines, new professional codes, new organizational practices will solidify. I don’t think there’s anything inherent to the Internet that means that we’re going to be living in a state of chaos forever.

That said, though, if you ask me a year ago what I thought the new model would be, I probably would have told you BuzzFeed or Vice. And they just have had tremendous difficulties. So maybe it will be chaos for longer than I thought, because it did seem to me two or three years ago that we were starting to see some stability.

Vieira: What about the membership model, like The Correspondent?

Anderson: Jay Rosen certainly done a tremendous job in bringing that project along and turning it into a really viable way to do journalism. It’s interesting because they haven’t actually produced any journalism yet. And Jay said this — he said “we are the most successful membership-based journalism website that has never actually produced an article.” They’ve had a lot of success so far, but I do think that eventually, they have to do the journalism — and, you know, doing journalism is tricky. To some degree, it’s easier to want to support something when you don’t know what it’s going to do. The tricky thing for The Correspondent will be their ability to keep those subscribers. Hopefully they will — we’ll see. So as to whether they are a model, I think it’s too soon to tell.

Vieira: America is a different market than the Netherlands [where The Correspondent started].

Anderson: Yes, absolutely — it’s a bigger market. The trouble in America, though, is that journalism traditionally in the U.S. has been very local, because America is so big and because of the federal nature of America as well.  So journalism has been local, and there’s no business model for local in the U.S. — I mean there just doesn’t seem to be one. So the question in the U.S. is what’s going to happen to that local journalism? Is national journalism just Trump all the time, plus sort of the latest political scandal that blows up and becomes news for 48 hours?

So right now, the business model of news in the U.S. seems to be Trump plus rolling political scandals. Is that sustainable or will everyone just lose their minds? A lot of the content has similar rhythms, which is “one stupid thing that Trump said today,” “what is Bob Mueller doing.” That doesn’t mean it’s not important — but you do have to wonder how long we can keep up before people have a nervous breakdown.

Vieira: In Brazil, we’re facing the same thing now with our new president. Bolsonaro also posts on Twitter all the time and he doesn’t like to talk to the press. What can Brazil learn from American journalism regarding to this issue?

Anderson: I think it’s very hard for the press in the U.S. to know what to do when it becomes the target of a particular type of political attack. Trump has made the American press his enemy. I suspect the new Brazilian president will do the same, or has already done the same. The question is: How do you respond?

This is something that Jay Rosen has also talked about a lot. Do you respond by saying: “No, we’re not the enemy, we are just objective journalists doing our job” — which I think is the wrong choice? Or do you say: “To the degree that you, as the president, are against basic liberal democratic ideals, we are your enemy”? That’s a different way of saying we’re going to take sides. That’s different from saying that the press is going to support Democrats, or support liberals, or support the Worker’s Party.

What you can say, as the press, is: “We’re in favor of truth. We’re in favor of kindness. We’re in favor of reasonable conversation, the ability to disagree. We are against racism. We’re against dictatorships.” To me, that’s different than saying that “we’re in favor of this particular political party.” That’s saying that we’re on the side of certain ideals, and to the degree that we have a leadership that violates those ideals, then we are its enemy. I think that is something that the Brazilian press can learn from the U.S. press.

Vieira: I’ve seen you and other researchers on Twitter discussing academic careers, about the number of papers in journals that universities require and how is it possible to build a healthy and at the same time a productive career. Do you think we should publish less?

Anderson: That’s a great question. What I would say to an early career researcher is this.

In the end, the most important thing is that you have a big question. A big question that is going to take you a few decades to answer. If you have a big question, then it becomes less important whether you write a lot or a little — or if sometimes you blog, you tweet or you write books or academic papers — because it’s all geared towards answering the big question.

A lot of the time scholars don’t have a big question. They’re not trained to have a big question. They’re trained to have smaller questions. When you have smaller questions, then all you can do is publish. The way that you show that you’re valuable and that you’re worthy is by publishing a lot. If you have a big question, you will publish the right amount to be successful, no matter how much you publish. If you have a big question and you’re always trying to answer it in different ways, different formats, and different methods, you will always publish exactly the right amount. You won’t have to worry about meeting a quota. In the end, it’s all about the question, a big one that will take you a long time to figure out. I’ve had a big question since I started.

Vieira: And what is your big question?

Anderson: My big question is: How do we know what we know in order to operate as democratic citizens? And what do different types of professions tell us what we know and how do they tell us what we know in different ways? So that’s my big question. How do we know what we know — which is not to say “is there a reality” or “does reality exist,” but to say: How do different types of institutions and different people who need to operate in a liberal democratic way, how do they interact? And journalism is one of those institutions. But so is academia, and so are your neighbors, and your social networks. So I think that journalism is really important — but one thing about my research is that journalism has never been the only focus. And I think that’s a problem for journalism researchers: I think that sometimes journalism researchers care too much about journalism.

Image of Donald Trump talking to media in Mesa, Arizona, in December 2015 based on a photo by Gage Skidmore used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 18, 2019, 5:30 a.m.
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