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March 23, 2020, 1:38 p.m.

These are the four waves of journalism studies over the past 20 years: the participatory, crisis, platforms, and populist eras

“The economic problem for journalism was not competition, in other words, but surveillance and monopoly.”

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It was about 20 years ago that the academic field of “journalism studies” came into rough early shape. Sure, there were people who studied journalism long before then — but for the most part, they were doing so from the intellectual home of another field. They were sociologists, economists, political scientists, communications scholars, or part of some other academic sub-brand — who chose to study some element of journalism.

It was in 2000 that the International Communications Association created a Journalism Studies division and two journals were founded, Journalism: Theory, Practice, and Criticism and Journalism Studies

It has also been 20 years since the founding of the Italian journal Comunicazione politica (Political Communication, if it wasn’t obvious). To mark the twin anniversaries, the journal is out with a new special issue in which it asked a variety of scholars one question: “What does it mean, from your scholarly viewpoint, to study political communication today?”

I want to highlight one of their responses, this paper by C.W. Anderson, a past Nieman Lab contributor and now professor of media and communication at the University of Leeds. In it, Chris tries to sum up the past 20 years of journalism studies along two axes, one time-based and one geographic.

It serves, for me at least, as a very nice intellectual overview of what People Who Talk About Journalism — both pure academics and those of us at sites like Nieman Lab — have been yammering on about for all this time.

Most interesting to me is the time axis: “Since the late 1990s, I would argue that we have actually seen at least four ‘eras’ come and go as online journalism, and the larger culture in which it is embedded, have evolved.”

  • The participatory era. “The early years of the internet were marked by an excitement that the relatively low costs of digital content production, combined with the ease through which such content could be distributed, would mark of flourishing of creative practices more generally.”

    Think Clay Shirky, Henry Jenkins, Yochai Benkler — mashups on the rise, new networks always being born, the Internet as a tool for media democratization. Their ideas “combined legal, economic, and socio-cultural strands of scholarship to sketch a 21st-century information utopia in which a relatively bottom up stream of digital content circulated relatively friction free, could be combined with other cultural products, and would be enabled by a relatively permissive copyright regime.”

    It’s a pretty American idea — the ever-widening marketplace of ideas, “in which the more ideas in circulation at any one time, the greater the likelihood that truth would emerge from an open and transparent clash of perspectives.”

    The core scholarly and popular concerns during the participatory era might be summed up by a question which was once meant seriously and now has become something of a joke in media sociology circles: “Is blogging journalism?” This question, though now rather silly, gets at a fundamental intellectual preoccupation of the participatory era. In a world where everyone can, at least in theory, contribute bits of factual media content to the public realm, what separates professional journalism (with its low barriers to entry, lack of mechanisms of occupational exclusion, and seemingly simple forms of work and content production) from the fact-generating activities of ordinary people?

  • The crisis era. Nearly every anguished discussion of “Are bloggers journalists????” took place in an environment where the traditional business of professional journalism was in a state of financial collapse, especially during the global financial crisis. “Once again, the dominant discourse about these developments in the journalism studies field were American. In the United States, between 2003 and 2015, news print advertising revenue plummeted by more than 50%. Newsroom employment, likewise, was down by 30% during the same time, dropping to a level not seen since 1978.”

    The American economic crisis in journalistic production, finally, drew intellectual sustenance from the explosion of participatory media that began a decade before.

    If part of the destruction of the traditional business model for journalism was the dramatic crash of the value of display advertising due to an unlimited supply of digital inventory — as theorists like Shirky argued — then the blame for this could in part be lain at the feet of the thousands of media makers that populated this new digital space. While the primary impact of the radical media makers discussed in the previous section was psychological, cultural, and professional, in other words, there was a powerful line of argument that drew additional economic consequences from these professional shifts.

    As we will see, however, this was an incorrect argument. The most important culprits in the collapse of the newsroom business model were not increased competition, but rather the efficiency of hyper-personalized digital advertising and the concentrated market power of digital platforms.

    The economic problem for journalism was not competition, in other words, but surveillance and monopoly.

  • The platform era. Okay, so we’ve gone from “random bloggers are a threat to journalists’ sense of authority” to “digital media is a threat news organizations’ business models” to “FACEBOOOOOOK! [shakes fist at the sky].” The web had opened up an entirely new universe of information sources — blogs, digital-native publishers, and so on — but consumption of news was still heavily driven by a reader’s initiative. Say, typing nytimes.com into her web browser and seeing what stories editors have decided to highlight.

    It took social media platforms inserting themselves in that directing-audience-attention layer to launch a new era, in which the real threat was not the individual citizen opining online, but the Silicon Valley megacorporations that has used the aggregation of all that opining to bring a new degree of market power to what had, not that many years before, been hyped as a definitionally “open” medium.

    I think the shift from talking about the blogosphere as an economic and professional threat to journalism to talking about Facebook as a similar threat marks an evolution from an academic perspective on digital news that thinks primarily in competition/speech/free-market terms to one that thinks in terms of institutional power and monopoly.

    As I noted above, this marks the emergence of a more genuinely “European” (or at least non-American) view on the relationship between digital news and political communication. This evolution also sheds light on some deep ideological blind spots embedded in the first wave of theorizing about the crisis in journalism, one which relates, again, to its American roots.

    The original perspective saw the economic crisis in news as caused by an explosion in content supply and a corresponding collapse in the value of display advertising generated by digital overabundance. From this point of view, the decline in the economic fortunes of old media organizations could be seen as the revenge of the free-market on hidebound news monopolies, even if the public utility of these monopolies could still be justified in normative terms. Both advertisers and readers now had their choice of news.

    If our attention shifts to platforms, however, what we see is the replacement of one (local) quasi-monopoly by another (global) monopoly — from the one newspaper town to Facebook. The first perspective fits well with the libertarian and law and economics perspective of much writing about the early internet. The second point of view does not.

  • The populist era. This final era is tied intimately to the rise of candidates like Donald Trump in the United States and nationalist/quasi-nationalist movements like Brexit. This has meant for some a revived interest in news organizations’ role as institutions setting boundaries around the least-generous aspects of human behavior — as well as those platforms’ roles in promoting them.

    How are populist political actors using the affordances of social media and platforms to shift the meanings of, and the participants in, electoral politics? Are state actors, disguised as ordinary citizen journalists or professional news reporters, hijacking the public discourse for nefarious purposes?

    These concerns also tie into the renewed focus on digital platforms like Facebook, and demonstrates just how much the debate over the future of journalism has changed over the past ten years. From a somewhat abstract debate about the who counts as a journalist online and offline, the surge of so-called “fake news” has injected concerns about national security, cyberspying, enemy propaganda, and the toxic power of trolls into arguments about the boundaries of the journalism profession.

    This wave has also led to an inversion of the “formerly utopian journalism scenarios” of the participatory era; the “are being stood on their head under the pressure of the populist and right-wing wave sweeping the nations of the liberal west.”

I’ll leave Anderson’s geographic lens for the interested reader; it looks at the jockeying between different academic approaches in both the United States and elsewhere.

(It also features this very good footnote: “I realize that an American scholar dividing a field of scholarship into the ‘American’ side and the ‘rest of the world’ is poor form…In this I can only plead realpolitik: the dominance of American scholarship in political communication, political science, and journalism studies is an empirical fact, even if it is not a normative ideal.”)

You can also check out the rest of the special issue; pre-prints are available ungated for some unspecified period of time. The other articles:

  • “Political Communication Today: The Perspective of a Political Scientist Who Studies Public Opinion and Electoral Behavior,” Hanspeter Kriesi
  • “Interrogating the analytical value of ‘media system’ for comparative political communication,” Silvio Waisbord
  • “Three Consequences of Big Data on the Practices and Scholarships of Political Communication,” Fabio Giglietto
  • “Cognitive and Psychosocial Factors in Online Political Communication,” Patrizia Catellani
  • “Political Discourse A Perspective from Italian Linguistics,” Stefano Ondelli
  • “What Can Semiotics Do for Political Communication?,” Giovanna Cosenza
  • “Reflecting on New Media, Post-Truth and Affect through the Lenses of Cultural, Literary and Discourse Studies,” Lidia De Michelis
  • “Popular Culture and Political Communication,” John Street

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Illustration of waves by Mario De Meyer used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     March 23, 2020, 1:38 p.m.
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