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May 10, 2019, 1:13 p.m.

So what is “digital journalism studies,” anyway? Is it its own thing?

A collection of scholars argue that digital journalism studies shouldn’t be considered a subset of journalism studies, but instead a separate field of its own. And they say they’re not just splitting hairs.

One of the primary rituals of any new area of academic inquiry is what’s known as field building: working to establish — through publishing, boundary defining, and a little bravado — that your field should be recognized as its own thing.

The study of governments, for instance, dates back to Machiavelli, Aristotle, and beyond, but the formal field of “political science” wasn’t accepted as a thing distinct from philosophy until the late 1800s; the first political science department was founded at Columbia in 1880. Around the same time, economics became a thing and graduated out of the departments of political economy, history, philosophy, and “moral sciences” in which it had been housed. It took campus-level activism in the 1960s and beyond for many universities to consider African-American studies, women’s studies, or queer studies each a thing. Digital humanities is somewhere along that path to thingness today.

One field that aspires to further building is the study of digital journalism. Structurally, philosophically, paradigmatically: Is “digital journalism” a thing? It’s a question that a new special issue of the journal Digital Journalismsee? there’s a journal! that makes it a field! — very much wants to answer with “yes.”

(Given that a hefty chunk of the journal’s editorial board has written for Nieman Lab over the years, you can probably guess that I agree.)

The issue is a look back at the journal’s content since 2013 and an examination of where the field should go from here. As the journal’s editors (Scott A. Eldridge II, Kristy Hess, Edson C. Tandoc Jr., and Oscar Westlund) put it:

Our central concern is to lay the foundations for Digital Journalism Studies as existing within its own distinctive field, moving beyond its place as a sub-field of journalism studies.

Take that, journalism studies!

So what are those foundations? This is what the editorial team came up with:

Digital Journalism Studies should strive to be an academic field which critically explores, documents, and explains the interplay of digitization and journalism, continuity and change. Digital Journalism Studies should further strive to focus, conceptualize, and theorize tensions, configurations, power imbalances, and the debates these continue to raise for digital journalism and its futures.

If that seems straightforward to you, the issue includes six other potential definitions of the field from other authors, each of which emphasizes slightly different perspectives on the field. Is it mostly a continuation of decades of previous journalism studies, old wine in new sacks? Is it primarily about changing modes of production or about the changing roles of the audience and the impacts digital journalism can have on them? Is it about journalism research done at computational scales with computational tools? What’s its relationship to other fields that research other types of digital media? Is it about the content produced, the networks that distribute it, or the business logics that underlie them all?

The answer’s obviously some version of “all of the above,” but it is interesting to look through each different lens — which you can do in these brief excerpts or in the full articles in the issue that each is taken from.

Here’s Barbie Zelizer:

Digital journalism thus takes its meaning from both practice and rhetoric. Its practice as newsmaking embodies a set of expectations, practices, capabilities and limitations relative to those associated with pre-digital and non-digital forms, reflecting a difference of degree rather than kind. Its rhetoric heralds the hopes and anxieties associated with sustaining the journalistic enterprise as worthwhile. With the digital comprising the figure to journalism’s ground, digital journalism constitutes the most recent of many conduits over time that have allowed us to imagine optimum links between journalism and its publics.

Sue Robinson, Seth Lewis, and Matt Carlson (past Nieman Lab contributors all):

The “digital” is the modes of production that transcend the temporal and spatial constraints of analog media, with their particular physical limitations of production and distribution. Emergent characteristics of digital journalism as reflected in algorithms, automation, networking tools and mass posting, sharing and production with a click of a button bring on transformations that must be theorized holistically, contextually and relationally as part of a subfield of journalism studies called Digital Journalism Studies.

Steen Steensen, Anna M. Grøndahl Larsen, Yngve Benestad Hågvar, and Birgitte Kjos Fonn:

Digital journalism is the transforming social practice of selecting, interpreting, editing and distributing factual information of perceived public interest to various kinds of audiences in specific, but changing genres and formats. As such, digital journalism both shapes and is shaped by new technologies and platforms, and it is marked by an increasingly symbiotic relationship with the audiences. The actors engaged in this social practice are bound by the structures of social institutions publicly recognized as journalistic institutions.

Andrew Duffy and Ang Peng Hwa:

Digital journalism as the way in which journalism embodies the philosophies, norms, practices, values and attitudes of digitization as they relate to society. These include the efficiency of control, storage, retrieval, accessibility and transmission of data; inclusivity, interactivity and collaboration in the propagation of information and opinion; flexibility and innovation in presenting news stories; and state, institutional and individual ownership of data and its implications for privacy and transparency.

Silvio Waisbord:

Digital journalism is the networked production, distribution and consumption of news and information. It is characterized by network settings and practices that expand the opportunities and spaces for news.

And Jean Burgess and Edward Hurcombe:

Those practices of newsgathering, reporting, textual production and ancillary communication that reflect, respond to, and shape the social, cultural and economic logics of the constantly changing digital media environment. To study digital journalism is to study the transformative and isomorphic impacts of digital media technologies and business models on the practice, product and business of journalism, as well as the ways that journalistic discourses, practices and logics in turn shape the cultures and technologies of those digital media platforms through which journalism is practiced, and its products are shared and consumed.

Two scholars of strategic management, writing about the evolution of their own field, once said you could divide field-building activities into three areas: differentiation, mobilization, and legitimacy building. You can see threads of each in this issue.

Here’s the big pitch to assign thingness to digital journalism studies (emphasis mine):

As readily as scholars examine the shifting boundaries of journalism, work prodding the boundaries, the dominant visions, and the agreed sense of belonging which define Digital Journalism Studies can also be addressed. Here, struggles revolve around how best to acknowledge the antecedent legacy of Journalism Studies, while focusing attention on an increasingly distinct sphere of research focused on digital journalism.

Thus, we argue, to position Digital Journalism Studies as a sub-field of Journalism Studies, rather than an emergent field in its own right, limits its value and potential to scholarship not just within media studies and communication, but its wider interdisciplinary reach. It also continues to reinforce a journalism-centric approach when we need to consider the interplay between news, digitization, and the wider social spaces where everyday audiences and media users generate engagement with matters of public interest and the world(s) around them. As new and hybrid practices and organizations emerge, it must be argued that change occurs not just through transformation of existing and established organizations, but also in the founding of new and hybrid organizations that develop their own distinct sets of norms and values. That a bevy of introspective studies, questions, methods, and frameworks have emerged to ask key questions of digital journalism bolsters our view that this is not an area of scholarship nestled within Journalism Studies, but a field with its own core demands and replete with ways of approaching these, including those that have grown out of the work in Journalism Studies.

There is nevertheless a tension in this decision, one which also sits between the ways scholars take on digital journalism as an object of inquiry; this is, we argue, a fruitful tension, within a field which needs to have work that strives towards resolving such strains. Yet we do not, in defining a field, need to resolve this first in order to then proceed. Indeed, just as decades of journalism scholarship left open the question of “what is journalism?” to periodically be explored anew as new understandings emerged and new generations of scholars introduced new perspectives, so too do we see the tensions within Digital Journalism Studies at the core of questions which drive the field. For a field which sees its object of study — digital journalism — defined in part by its technological shifts, and in part by its journalistic legacy, the push and pull between an emphasis on continuity and change, or between digital and journalism, provides a useful way for scholars to consider their work as they grapple with discrete aspects of digital journalism. It also prompts awareness of other forces at play in the field which surrounds them. At the center of innovative work which moves from defining towards understanding, and from identifying towards theorizing, these tensions can be useful — if taken advantage of.

Given that we at Nieman Lab try to draw on this whole mess of traditions in our work — journalism studies, communications theory, political science, psychology, sociology, management, business — I’m amenable to that argument.

This issue focused on the scholarly level, not the pedagogical one. But it’s an interesting thought experiment to imagine what education in digital journalism would look like today if universities considered it distinctive enough to not fall under the journalism rubric.

Imagine if, next to the State U. School of Journalism, there was a separate State U. School of Digital Journalism — built from scratch outside the traditions, curricula, and faculty of j-schools. You wouldn’t have seen, as you did in many j-schools 10 or 15 years ago, “digital” tacked on unartfully to some existing “print” or “broadcast” track. You wouldn’t have seen faculties whose members, for all their many merits, had little to no actual experience in Internet journalism. You’d probably see more campuses where a student-run news site is as honored a place to learn as the student newspaper. You might not have seen as many journalism graduates who are disproportionately trained for jobs that are going out of existence. And you might have seen a better (and earlier) integration of disparate backgrounds and perspectives — from computer science, from business, from design, from the industry — into what’s taught and what’s learned.

These sorts of internal academic debates may seem like the most hair-splitting navel-gazing. But they can, every once in a while, touch the real world.

Joshua Benton is the senior writer and former director of Nieman Lab. You can reach him via email ( or Twitter DM (@jbenton).
POSTED     May 10, 2019, 1:13 p.m.
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