I am reading some material from the late 1990s about the early days of online journalism research. Specifically, a piece by Pablo J. Boczkowski (who was at MIT and then went to Northwestern, where he is now becoming Director of Northwestern’s Program in Media, Technology & Society). In the Online Journalism Review, back in 2005, a portion of Boczkowski’s final chapter of his then-new book, Digitizing the News, was reprinted. In it he talked about how digital technologies would eventually transform the way that news was produced. He used terms like “co-production.” His ethnography — one of the first for online newsrooms — revealed that:
In the online environment, a greater variety of groups of actors appear to be involved in, and have a more direct impact on, the production process than what is typically accounted for in studies of print and broadcast newsrooms.
Taking a constructivist approach, Boczkowski argued that an increasing number of agents — from computer programmers to advertisers to readers — would require new ways of thinking about journalistic authority, that civic journalism might be rejuvenated, and that citizens’ conversations would be vibrant and active in online public spaces. The public had its chance to redefine news, he suggested.
Since then, so much has happened.
The jury is still out on whether public journalism will be reborn, citizens will be empowered or democracy has been saved. Indeed several scholars have documented the “myth” of interactivity — that is, the reality that though connected people have the opportunity to engage online, very few actually do. As Boczkowski himself writes in this early work, any transformation arises from already entrenched institutions, which shape and modify any potential a new technology might hold.
Yet, who could have foreseen the impact of Twitter and Facebook on news? Social media are just a few avenues for those journalistic transformations to occur. The tools largely dismissed by many as a silly phase have transformed the way some people interact with the news. It boasts 100 million active users and 1 billion tweets every seven days, according to a recent talk by Twitter’s CEO. I know Twitter is my primary (or I should say, my first) source of news these days. And, in my interviews with journalists this past month, reporters talk about Twitter as essential not only to the marketing of their finished stories but also as a key ingredient in their news-gathering process.
But as most technology analysts have mentioned, often the new medium doesn’t transform things in the way it is predicted to, in part because its track must be laid within existing infrastructure. I should note that one reporter I talked to used to frequent Facebook and Twitter for his job and has since backed off, saying his job got too hectic to “play around” in those spaces. I noted the separation of the new technology from the job — a gimmick rather than a utensil in this particular interview.
I think as we move on, reporters like this one will be the anomaly and not the norm. Otherwise the transformations will go forward without the journalists — as settled as they may be in their infrastructure.