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February 07 2011

17:00

YouTube and basketball memories: FreeDarko’s Pasha Malla on fandom, curation, and democratized media

Editor’s Note: Last week, I read The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, the second NBA book produced by the people behind the NBA blog FreeDarko. (The first, The Macrophenomenal Pro Basketball Almanac, was really good too.) If you’re not familiar with FreeDarko, Deadspin founder Will Leitch described its writers as like “overcaffeinated, overeducated philosophy grad students who decided they could learn a lot more from NBA LeaguePass than from their professors. They saw Nietzsche in Zach Randolph, John Coltrane in the triangle offense, Moses in Moses Malone.”

It was the book’s final chapter that got me thinking beyond basketball and to more Lab-like matters. In it, writer Pasha Malla describes how YouTube’s endless seas of NBA clips, old and new, allow fans to recontextualize basketball history, challenging established narratives and creating a space for fans to push their own impressions of events and personalities. That sort of democratizing force has impacts across all media, including for news organizations.

I’m very pleased that the folks behind FreeDarko and the book’s publisher, Bloomsbury USA, have let me reprint that final chapter here. —Josh

As its name suggests, the Shot — Michael Jordan’s series-winning buzzer-beater against the Cavs during the 1989 playoffs — is iconic: “As the ball nestled through the net,” confirms NBA.com, describing an image we all can easily visualize, “Jordan pumped his fists in jubilation, completing a video highlight for the ages.” In time, the endlessly replayed Shot became representative of MJ’s transformation from showman to champion and a metonym for the very idea of legacy — it’s not just how dominantly you play the game, but how you’re remembered.

Yet this version of the Shot is also, to some extent, a fabrication. The original CBS telecast cut immediately (and in retrospect, bafflingly) to the reaction of then Bulls coach Doug Collins; Jordan’s celebratory histrionics only surfaced later, in archival footage. If the NBA is to be believed, the popularized version ranks with the moon landing and JFK assassination among the great live moments in American television history; this redux has become our memory of something most of us, watching Coach Collins tear around our TV screens, never saw.

The Shot was featured among the NBA’s “Where Will Amazing Happen This Year?” spots during the 2009 playoffs — as was a LeBron James dunk, a Manu Ginobili layup, and an alley-oop to Andrei Kirilenko, each slowed down, flipped to black-and-white, and soundtracked like the sad parts from Amélie.

The spots were solemn, bursting with meaning, somehow both stark and expansive, saying nothing and everything about these players and the sport they played. To call the clips highlights would be misleading; apart from Dr. J’s staggering reverse layup, few were aesthetically or athletically “amazing.” Rather, taking the Shot as a blueprint, they served as shorthand for larger narratives — of teams, of individuals, of the game itself. The goal of the campaign was to station these moments firmly, proprietarily, as commercials for an NBA product. As the Association has manipulated the import of Jordan’s ‘89 game winner, so was this a perversion of nostalgia, wrenching moments out of context and playing them back as advertisements — effectively co-opting the personal experience of players and fans to reaffirm and sustain the NBA product. They also presented the potential for posterity as incentive to stay focused for all two and a half months of the playoffs: Don’t change that dial, the ads suggested; you might miss out on what we later decide is history.

Since the whole business self-referentially recognized the league as the locus of “Where Amazing Happens,” subsumed into this corporate agenda was the individual. Consider what the less blatantly commercial focus would have been had the choice of interrogatives been not “where” but “who.” Not only would celebrating the people who made these moments happen have rescued poor Manu and Andrei from the generic, stuff-of-history, NBA-sanctioned Jordan model, but it would have also acknowledged that the Association’s true organ of experience is much more human than what can be captured by a branding strategy.

The WWAHTY? campaign suggested that having experienced these scenes for yourself, awash in your own set of feelings, was secondary to the teleological packaging. But any fan’s enjoyment (or misery, or bafflement, or envy) is always colored by his or her own subjectivity. We bring to professional basketball, and project upon its athletes, our own hopes, desires, fears, anxieties, and (sure, failed) dreams. For the league to try and tell us which moments are definitive and epochal seems not only counterintuitive but ignorant of the two-part engine, far beyond the NBA executive, that drives the game in the first place: players and fans.

But there’s hope, a place where we find individualism — the “who” ignored by the league — rekindled, a place that reemphasizes the relationship between the great (and, occasionally, not-so-great) athletes of the NBA and those who obsess over them, a place that puts the power back in the hands of the people: YouTube.

It’s on YouTube that WWAHTY? has spawned a legion of imitators. In the same style and with the same background music, these homemade approximations reclaim the subjectivity ignored by that thoughtless campaign. Take, for example, DWade3TV’s version, which ends with “Where Will Amazing Happens [sic] This Year?” superimposed in Arial bold italics over Dwyane Wade celebrating a regular-season game winner. Similar DIY spots have been created for Vince Carter, Derrick Rose, Joe Johnson, Allen Iverson, and countless others who didn’t make the “official” cut but who do have legions of slighted fans who in turn have done something about it.

Much like the knock-off “Abibas” high-tops you might find in a Chennai market stall, there’s something wonderfully fallible and defiant about these clips when contrasted with the NBA’s slick production. And while it’s sometimes hard to tell when the irony is intentional and the defiance inadvertent, it mostly doesn’t matter. What’s most important is that YouTube affords fans a venue to curate what they, not the league, consider “Amazing.” Rather than having history defined from on high, this unauthorized alternative of who and what (and where) might be the only venue for this sort of agency. Most important, it serves as an archive of collective memory, a much more comprehensive document of what professional basketball means to its fans than the league’s various CliffsNotes versions.

Basketball is a sport of continuous motion, or unbroken action, of games that must be seen from the start for that final buzzer-beater to make you leap screaming off the couch or hang your head in disgrace and shame. But the era of the highlight, as with all similar packaging of real-world content, forever changed the way the NBA was consumed. SportsCenter, as a convenient example, has since its advent in 1980 made the summary of games a project of fragmentation, and viewers have come to accept this as a means of understanding what happened around the league on any given night. What summarizing games in snippets misses, of course, is all the tension and nuance of the original: We get the final score and the big plays but, regardless how hysterical the accompanying narration, none of the feeling of the game itself. That feeling is, of course, always subjective, and nothing that can be transmitted without the totality of all forty-eight minutes (and all those off-the-clock minutes in between). While it was surely just as emotionally riveting at the time, who besides the odd nostalgic Cavs fan remembers Craig Ehlo’s apparently series-clinching layup only seconds before Michael Jordan made the Shot? (Check it out on YouTube!)

But if fragmentation has become the process by which basketball is replayed, and so remembered, at least on YouTube what the game means to actual human beings, as opposed to the league or the networks, is being restored. Beyond the WWAHTY? rips, here fans celebrate and share not only the amazing, the remarkable, and the sublime, but also the banal and the ridiculous. It’s a long, long season, and maintaining engagement often means having to nerd-out on the details; what’s “Amazing” about the NBA, to many of us, certainly isn’t limited to its career-defining moments. There aren’t many of those, anyway, and the crystal-ball project of trying to identify them as they happen, without the value of hindsight, can be spurious, if not impossible. The Shot, after all, didn’t become the Shot until Michael Jordan the guard became Michael Jordan the ultimate triumphant megastar and the NBA decided it was the birth of a legend.

“Amazing,” for YouTube user marik1234, is “Nate Robinson breaks Jose Calderon’s ankles.” In this seventy-nine-second clip, Robinson sends poor, hapless Calderon flopping to the floor with a ruthless crossover, is fouled on the ensuing drive, and has his shot swatted away. It’s a dead play, without any of the narrative weight we associate with the Shot — and never the stuff, for myriad reasons, of a WWAHTY? commercial. Fifteen years ago it would have been forgotten, lost and deleted from the league’s official record. But marik1234 has ensured that the moment will live on — if not for eternity, at least long enough that a staggering 1.5 million viewers have watched the clip since its posting.

If that number is any indication, YouTube represents a new kind of communal mythmaking, one that resists the great dictatorial hegemony of the NBA administration in favor of something approaching democracy. Like any democracy, it’s flawed (unfettered access can make the site something of a crazy train), but taken as an archive, hoops-on-YouTube offers a much more comprehensive understanding of how the game is played, watched, and remembered than those limited moments sanctioned by the league. And, fittingly, each post mirrors the remarkable self-expression so prevalent in professional basketball: Think what we learn or can at least speculate about marik1234 from his post — every portrait is a portrait of the artist, after all.

There’s an assertion of autobiography, of stamping one’s existence onto the world, in any creative gesture — be it a Nate Robinson crossover or curating (appreciating, recording, editing, posting, sharing) that crossover for mass consumption. YouTube is about fans appreciating the game on their terms: It allows the masses to contribute to the larger narrative of the NBA beyond the league’s savvy marketing and even the players’ own attempts at self-definition. YouTube renders meaningless the whole “this broadcast may not be retransmitted” legalese, a fitting demonstration of the limits of the league’s jurisdiction over personalized experience, as well as how backward it is for a corporation to claim our game as their property. In a culture with increasingly fewer opportunities for the individual to trump the institution, YouTube has become a platform for fans to assert themselves and what they feel to be their personal relationships with the game and its players.

On one hand, YouTube represents an even more radical descent into pastiche, with seemingly random moments and insignificant games elevated to the same level as the ones that really made a difference. But if any official record of NBA games (or careers) is a fall from the paradise of fan subjectivity, then these bits and pieces become — however unwittingly — an attempt to restore the notion of individualized experience. After all, one fan’s insignificance is another’s “Nate Robinson breaks Jose Calderon’s ankles” — or “Nate Robinson breaks Steve Blake’s ankles,” or “Nate Robinson breaks ankles of a boy in an exhibition in Málaga.”

Who knows if YouTube will ever succeed in overthrowing its own ontology — there are scores of old games sitting on there, and none are as often viewed as the so-called mix tapes that abbreviate the careers of Clyde Drexler or Dominique Wilkins into a sequence of money shots, most of them dunks. However, what’s key isn’t that the wholeness of game-as-text be restored, but that the complexity and totality of the game’s emotional truths are creeping back into fandom, and that fans now have a venue to share them.

While, if the Shot is any indication, the NBA’s branding engine seems content to feed us an image we never saw as a way of remembering a moment that only gained significance in retrospect, at least the curations of marik1234 and his thousands of fellow archivists are helping create an alternate, potentially more honest record of the sport as it has always been played and consumed. And if fans continue to corrupt the league’s attempts at memorializing professional basketball — as they have with the WWAHTY? rips — YouTube will not only challenge, but possibly even replace, the “official” document of what moves, frustrates, confuses, and amazes us about the NBA.

Pasha Malla is the author of The Withdrawal Method (stories) and All Our Grandfathers Are Ghosts (poems, sort of). His first novel, People Park, will be published in late 2011.

Reprinted from FreeDarko Presents: The Undisputed Guide to Pro Basketball History, published by Bloomsbury USA.

October 04 2010

16:30

Why diversity turns into conformity in online news: An interview with comm scholar Pablo Boczkowski

If you talk to any of the number of young academics who occasionally contribute to the Lab, it’s likely the name Pablo Boczkowski will come up sooner rather than later. Pablo was one of the first scholars to rejuvenate the hallowed concept of the “newsroom ethnography” for a new generation of scholars examining a new generation of news problems. He has inspired many younger journalism researchers, including me.

Boczkowski was kind enough to take some time to sit down and talk with me about his new book, News at Work: Imitation in an Age of Information Abundance. Since Megan covered the general arguments of News at Work in a previous Lab post, I figure I’ll skip the chit-chat and just let you dive into the (lightly edited) interview. In it, I ask Pablo about, among other things:

  • how newsrooms have changed over the past 15 years
  • the two things he, as a qualitative scholar of news, would want working journalists to know
  • why it’s useful to study news in South America
  • how he thinks his work speaks to debates about the future of journalism

Some of Boczkowski’s most important arguments include:

On what consumers want: “When you sit down and talk to somebody, who is just a regular consumer…it’s very humbling, because you have a sense of, ‘Wow, that’s what people want.’ These statistics about how much time people on news websites, for instance, and what kind of content they use — for the most part, it’s about getting headlines.”

On the importance of the public: “It is impossible to avoid the public anymore. I mean, it’s impossible to avoid listening to the public anymore…The question is what to do when you have to listen to the public. In my own experience, what you hear is not a whole lot that you would like to hear, especially if you have certain ideas about the role of journalism in society, and the importance of that for democracy, and the way the public feels. It’s a little bit depressing. But that is not going to go away because you’ve stopped listening to people.”

On why blogs don’t affect the homogenization of news: “One blog is very different from the next. That is true, but if you look at how the demand for news is organized, the web is a winner-takes-all market. You have the highest concentration of attention of all media markets. The top ten players command not only a high share of attention, but an even higher share of attention than radio or print. What that means is that all these idiosyncratic websites that might give you one perspective that is unique, or might have one part that is not anywhere else, but the likelihood that a large fraction of the audience would actually pay attention to that is minimal. More consumers gravitate towards the top 10 to 20 sites.”

CWA: You began your research in the 1990s with what eventually became Digitizing the News. And the book you’ve written now, News at Work, covers the mid-2000s. I was wondering if you can draw a narrative thread between your first book and your latest one. Can you tell me a story, or is there an arc that ties Digitizing the News into your new book?

PB: The obvious one on the academic side is that Digitizing the News focused on the making of news with a very, very strong sense of technology. Those were the major concerns. This book has a bigger agenda. So while I still pay a lot of attention to the making of news, I also started to branch out into trying to understand what happens with the news when it’s already made — how it is consumed and circulated in society. It’s an extension of the other book towards the realm of news consumption.

The second extension is that while technology still figures in an important place in News at Work, the book also deals with issues of content and meaning.

The third extension of Digitizing the News is the extension of ethnographic space. Digitizing the News, actually, the research for that book started outside of the U.S., but I never included that part. I was also going to do a comparative study at that point. I didn’t get to this because I thought that people were more interested in change and innovation. Over time, my research became more focused on the more interesting comparative dimensions. So still looking at the U.S., but putting the U.S. into perspective and trying to understand what is going on in other parts of the world, because it is interesting in its own right and also because it helps us make sense of what’s going on in the U.S.. That’s why News at Work, in part, takes place in terms of the data and the story outside of the U.S.

Another fourth thread has to do with the fact that Digitizing the News was a book about change and about innovation. It’s also about the impulse to innovate, but the difficulty to do so within established news organizations that are highly traditional. They have been doing certain things for a long time, and it was very hard for them to change from within. News at Work takes place several years — it’s not a decade later, but the following decade.

When a lot of water has gone under the bridge, we start to have a sense of how things have unfolded over 15 years, and how things might unfold over the next so many years. And it tells a story that it’s less about innovation with all its difficulties and possibilities. It’s more about the lack of originality, the lack of change. And not because people want that, but because of the social dynamics and the practical dynamics that have made innovation difficult. It doesn’t matter what you want to call it, but something has made innovation very difficult to emerge.

CWA: You might say the even when innovation has occurred, it has often produced as much imitation as it has diversity. Is that a fair way to summarize it?

PB: Yes. I mean, the unintended consequences of trying to innovate sometimes are that you get a situation which is more conservative than what was going on before. Again, News at Work is really a story about unintended consequences. Digitizing the News is a story about what people tried to do and what happened. News at Work is a story about things that people have not tried to do, have not tried to accomplish, and it happened anyway. Because it happened anyway, and because it happened on the way to doing something else, it was very hard to eradicate because it has not happened by our own will. I think this taps into very deep social tendencies, in general, and particularly in the news industry.

CWA: A lot of the Lab’s readers are working journalists, and they might not pay much attention to the academic study of news. So if you wanted practitioners to take away one or two key points away from News at Work, what would you want them to know? If this is the only time they will hear Pablo Boczkowski talk about this book, what would be the two main takeaways that you would want working journalists to know?

PB: The first thing I’d want them to consider is that, ironically, in the age of the Internet, more news has become less news. So you need to figure how less can become more, instead. To me, it’s evident that the growth and the speed at which information circulates has created some negative consequences for news agencies, negative consequences for consumers, and negative consequences for journalists, because they don’t like how their work is going these days. Nobody has gone into the news profession to replicate other people’s stories and to basically rehash material that already exists.

The question is how to go into that situation so that it is a situation in which less is more. What the research on consumers clearly shows is that, yes, there is some appetite for news headlines and maybe leads, but for the most part, all people really want to read is headlines. And because all people want to read is headlines, you shouldn’t keep rewriting them, rewriting them. You don’t need to rehash them. I am convinced.

You know, I was absolutely humbled and stunned when I started to talk to consumers, the public. To me it was shocking, revealing. When you sit down and talk to somebody, who is just a regular consumer, and you get a sense of what news they like, what they don’t like, what news they want, what they don’t want, etc., it’s very humbling, because you have a sense of, ‘Wow, that’s what people want.’ These statistics about how much time people on news websites, for instance, and what kind of content they use — for the most part, it’s about getting headlines.

You know, it’s not going to make much of a difference if the headline is coming straight from AP or Reuters or if it’s a tweet. I don’t think it’s going to make much difference. One question that I repeatedly ask — it’s not in the books, but it really informed my thinking a lot — a question I routinely ask is imagine instead of having me in front of you, you have the main person of your preferred news site, the manager, the editor. If you would ask for one change on the design of the website, do you know what people said? They wanted an interface like the Google page results.

CWA: So just give them the headlines and a sentence at most.

PB: Exactly.

CWA: They didn’t want video? They didn’t want chats?

PB: No.

CWA: They didn’t want interactivity? They wanted the headlines?

PB: Yes, for the most part.

CWA: That is humbling.

PB: The consumers described their routines. They were strongly organized around the headlines and the navigation of the headline. That coincides with the amount of time people spend on these sites.

CWA: Which is almost no time at all.

PB: Not very high. It’s a fraction of the time they spend on print. And that doesn’t even take into consideration the fact that, that at that time, they are doing other things. They could be in a conference call.

CWA: They are working. They are at work.

PB: Yes. Even in the evening, they’re doing something else. I watch soccer games now with the computer on my lap. I’m sometimes taking soccer stuff from the game on my computer, but that already means that I’m splitting my attention. So if you speak to someone who has to make key editorial decisions, if you spend your time just rehashing what others are doing, you’re spending very valuable resources in creating a product that doesn’t have the value added. It’s not appreciated to the same extent that the resources have invested in them. That doesn’t make much sense. I think it is painful for news organizations to realize that. News has become a commodity.

Spending a lot of resources and trying to make your commodity slightly different from somebody else’s commodity, I don’t think that’s going to work.

CWA: Now, in some newsrooms, to the degree this is known, the reaction has been, “Well, we need new things that will keep them on the site for longer,” right? “We need to have a chat with the editor. We need a slideshow. We need to have the reporters not only typing the story, but getting up in front of the camera. We need to make these print reporters into TV guys who stand up in front of cameras.”

Based on your studies of consumers, do you think that is a losing battle? Do you think that is more what journalists should be doing rather than rewriting headlines? Where would you take that conclusion?

PB: I don’t think making people available for chats or having a great video, given how much time it takes — I don’t think that’s a winning proposition either. I honestly don’t think so. What happens in seven years from now, when journalists start to perfectly understand where the consumer is going — I mean you’ve written about this. Journalists have a set of very mixed emotions. For the most part, they use the data not to inform, like people do in most other industries, but to tweak what they already think and to adapt their thinking. Based on what I see, I don’t think it makes any sense to keep rewriting your competitors’ headlines. It makes sense to place them in a particular way that maybe some of them can be given an editorial perspective and frame. But if it makes more sense than to redeploy all of your resources so that you have more original content, comments, opinions. One often needs to increase the coverage of content that draws a lot of attention, but it also means that changing news values, generally, so journalists don’t want to do that.

It’s also probably time to realize that the level of newsroom employment is way too high for the nature of the market. The other thing for a journalist is — it’s the same way it was humbling for me as a scholar that had me thinking for more than 10 years about journalists and the news and thinking about everything I could think about inside the box of the newsroom, therefore having an impact on society. Then when you start to talk to people, to consumers, to the audience, you realize, ‘Whoops, there is a lot going on.’

Another conclusion is that it is impossible to avoid the public anymore. I mean, it’s impossible to avoid listening to the public anymore. It is absolutely impossible. It’s impossible for scholars. I think it’s impossible for practitioners. The question is what to do when you have to listen to the public. In my own experience, what you hear is not a whole lot that you would like to hear, especially if you have certain ideas about the role of journalism in society, and the importance of that for democracy, and the way the public feels. It’s a little bit depressing. But that is not going to go away because you’ve stopped listening to them.

So what you do with that is a separate story. But it’s absolutely critical to start listening. I think listening to the audience goes far beyond tracking website traffic. The traffic metrics will only tell you a little bit. I did that in the book, looking at what stories sell the most in terms of clicks. But what you get by sitting down and really listening to news consumers, even if it’s a handful of them, is far more important.

Journalism has always been a very insular profession. That cannot be sustained any longer. There is a lot of value that is lost by not listening to the audience. You might not like what you hear. It might be depressing or terrible to hear, but you can’t stop that. It’s not going to go away.

CWA: I’m sure there will be commentators and commentators who hear you saying that there is more media and less news, who are going to say, “Oh, but how can you say that? There are blogs. There is citizen journalism. There’s niche websites popping up all over. How can he say there is less? There is a town that had one news outlet. Now it has 15.” I guess my question would be how would you respond to that sort of criticism?

PB: What I say in the book is that it’s more volume of information and frequency of examination, coupled with decreasing diversity of the content. On the supply side, there may be many, many, many more outlets than before. There is much more media than years ago. They have more options. They have new content all the time. But if you actually analyzed the kind of content that gets supplied, it is incredibly similar from one outlet to the next.

There was that study in Baltimore where they took all the local media in Baltimore across the range of television, radio, blah, blah, blah, for one week. What they found was that 84 percent of the stories that they analyzed had no new content. Some other venue had already covered it the first time when it appeared on the second. That’s 84 percent.

CWA: So even if there were some methodological difficulties in that study, which a few people I know have pointed to, 84 percent is still remarkably high.

PB: It’s huge!

CWA: Even if you allow for some critique like, ‘Well, maybe they didn’t look at enough people,’ 84 percent is still tremendous.

PB: It’s huge. I found the same in my study. On the supply side, you have many more places to get the news, but what you get is the same.

Now, when you say that consumers have blogs and this and that, they are very idiosyncratic. One blog is very different from the next. That is true. But if you look at how the demand for news is organized, the web is a winner takes all market. You have the highest concentration of attention of all media markets. The top ten players command not only a high share of attention, but an even higher share of attention than radio or print.

What that means is that all these idiosyncratic websites that might give you one perspective that is unique, or might have one part that is not anywhere else, but the likelihood that a large fraction of the audience would actually pay attention to that is minimal. More consumers gravitate towards the top 10 to 20 sites.

So, from a practical standpoint, there are outlets out there that have unique information, but do lots of people pay attention to them? No. So in terms of what happens to the supply of news, and what happens with the demand of news, on both sides of the equation, you have is an incredible loss of diversity because the large outlets tend to cover more or less the same stories.

CWA: Through monitoring and imitation.

PB: Exactly. That’s the main theme of the book. When people talk about the web, people talk about what is possible. They assume that what is possible will happen. Because it’s possible, therefore, it’s likely. What the book shows is that there’s a difference between something being possible and something being likely. We have to keep that in mind. There are a lot of things that are possible in life, but there are very few of them that are actually likely to happen. Given the current dynamics, both in terms of how journalists work and what the public does, it is quite unlikely that we will have a very diverse set of facts, even perspectives circulating in society for the average consumer.

I mean, yes, it’s a lot of noise, but there is very little difference in terms of meaning. There is a lot of volume, but it doesn’t make it necessarily very different.

CWA: The bulk of your research for this book takes place in South America. That’s still very unusual in media scholarship. What do you think we can learn by studying journalism outside the United States and the U.K.?

PB: There are several things. I will focus on one. There’s a very, very common explanation for the increase in journalistic similarity, and that explanation has to do with market concentration. We tend to call that the political economy explanation. It doesn’t have that name when journalistic practitioners talk about it, but it’s basically the same story.

The story is basically that this is all a result of the increased pressures of market variables and market logic in the profession. It has a lot to do with media companies operating on the market, and therefore having to compete with entities that are publicly traded across industries that have different logic. So newsroom managers will often say: “It’s not our fault. It’s the market.” It’s not really, “What can we do?” It’s the quarterly earnings or the pressure of the market; therefore, we have to downsize. It serves as a cure-all for the responsibility of the institution that people get news from. You can’t blame them. It’s happening to them.

The interesting case about Argentina is that, while there is a market component, journalists there enjoy a particular labor protection situation, whereby it is very difficult for news organizations for fire journalists. It’s very costly for news organizations to downsize very dramatically.

CWA: Unlike the United States.

PB: Yes. In Argentina, if you were to hire a journalist on a full-time basis, after a month, if you want to get rid of that person, you have to pay a lot of severance. So that’s number one. Number two is that most of the companies in Latin America are not publicly traded companies. They are family-owned enterprises for the most part. The media industry in the U.S. became publicly traded decades ago.

Now, of course, market pressure still exists. If you don’t sell or circulate, financially, there are consequences. It is less direct, especially for short-term dynamics. The cost for the news organization to expand or contract very rapidly is increased. Because those external pressures are mitigated to some extent, it is easier to bring to life what happens inside the newsroom as opposed to outside of it. It’s easier to see how they create a situation increasing monitoring, this increasing imitation, and how that transpired into the news. It happens even when these companies are not publicly traded. That doesn’t mean that in the case of the U.S., the fact that these companies are publicly traded and they shrink the news, it’s not important. Yes, it is, but it means that we have a situation in the U.S which is over-determined. The problems with journalism are not all about the market. It’s not all about debt. It’s not all about downsizing.

CWA: Some of the responsibility for this situation lies with the internal organization and management of newsrooms ultimately.

PB: Exactly. It’s exasperated by external market dynamics, but it’s not really what’s going on outside the organization. That’s a lack of taking responsibility by people inside the organization. That was the big advantage to having studied this outside of the U.S. Inside the U.S., it’s much more difficult.

CWA: In my own research in Philadelphia, the market is such a dominating factor in what I studied, and for other people who are probably doing primarily U.S.-based studies right now. I think it’s become even more difficult in the United States to disentangle the market from it.

PB: I think the consequences are far worse for journalists than for scholars because practitioners over-attribute. They say: “It’s all about the market. There’s nothing we can do. We’re just adapting to the new conditions.” That’s not true. There are lots of things that they are doing deliberately, with unintended consequence, that generate a lot of the outcomes that we see. So that to me was a plus that I had studied this outside of the U.S.

CWA: Obviously, the future-of-journalism stuff has become a major political and issue of public discussion in the United States. There are conferences. There are F.C.C. hearings. This is a public issue now in this country in a way that it has not been for a very long time.

So I guess what I would like to ask is: What would you say to the people who are engaged in this conversation? What can they take from your research? The big question is how to get journalism that is good for democracy. There are lots of ideas about how that type of democracy-building function of journalism can be maintained and strengthened. So, to the degree that you feel comfortable laying in on that debate, based on your own research, what would you say?

PB: That’s an interesting question. In terms of the research for this book in particular, I’ve been to one of these “future of journalism” conferences and I followed the others a little bit. My sense is that the discussion is poorly framed. It is framed in a very traditional way. In a traditional way, I mean framed like how journalism is framed. “We tell the public what the public needs to know. It doesn’t matter what the public wants. It doesn’t matter how the public reacts to it and make meaning out of what we tell them.”

Now, a lot of good has come out of that. But in terms of framed discussion, I think the relationship between journalism and the public has to be reframed. That’s a major element of this book. I made a conscious decision not to stop when I had figured out what was going on in the newsroom, but to then try to understand what happens then. The consequences of imitation shaping the news that we get. What happens? How do people deal with that?

The reason why this is so important is from a business standpoint. There is no business that can survive in a competitive situation, a competitive market, by ignoring the preferences and behavior of the consumer. So journalists could ignore that for decades because it operated, for the most part, in a non-competitive market. But that doesn’t exist anymore. What I hear when I go to “future of journalism” meetings, the discussion is framed entirely normatively: “This is what should happen.”

But, if you want realistic reform and real chances of something happening, you need to have normative conversations with grounded understanding of how people live their everyday lives. My sense that the power of journalism is extremely important for society, but it’s far more important to journalists than what it actually is the public.

A keen journalist really understands what the public does with the stories that they tell. It’s going to be extremely difficult to come up with a realistic reform strategy because these strategies, in my mind, have much less to do with the funding structures for journalism than with understanding how people live their lives and role that information has in the way that people live their lives. So it has to be about journalism and its public. It cannot just be about journalism.

Until we start having a real conversation about the inner workings of journalism, and the way journalistic organizations contribute and continue to contribute to its problems, it will be very difficult to come up with a real, workable solution.

September 28 2010

16:00

“The news we get is McDonald’s”: Communications scholar Pablo Boczkowski on imitation in the news

As journalists, and as users of the web, we have ample opportunity to be creative. There are tons of stories out there — many more than there are, at any moment, journalists to cover them. In fact, the most common worry you hear in our little future-of-news sphere has nothing to do with a dearth of stories…it’s that important stories might go uncovered.

Why, then, is there so much imitation — repetition — redundancy — in our professional media ecosystem?

Pablo Boczkowski, a communications studies professor at Northwestern, has literally written the book on that question. News at Work: Imitation in an Age of Information Abundance explores the matter (more accurately: the problem) of redundancy. And at a talk yesterday at Harvard’s Kennedy School, part of the STS Circle series of interdisciplinary discussion, Boczkowski highlighted one particularly fascinating element of the book: the paradox that an increase in the volume of information available to us is occasioning a decrease in diversity of news’ content. We’re increasingly getting from news organizations, and producing, what Boczkowski calls “homogenized news.”

Boczkowski’s research, I should note, was limited to two mainstream newspapers, Clarín and La Nación — in Argentina. And its content analyses, which examined 927 print and 1,620 online articles, were conducted between 2005 and 2007, as was its ethnographic study of the newsrooms and consumers in question. So, grain of salt, etc.

Still, though, the study and its findings highlight a phenomenon we see implicitly, if anecdotally: a kind of group-think among journalistic brands, imitation and replication. “Pack journalism,” as it were, applied to content itself. As Pew’s State of the News Media report put it in 2006, “The new paradox of journalism is more outlets covering fewer stories.”

Boczkowski attributes this phenomenon to factors both structural and situational. While, in the past, news organizations were, for the most part, aware of their competitors’ stories only after they were published, the web allows news organizations to monitor each others’ content in real time. The increase of their online presence has occasioned a “lifting of the veil of opacity in the social field,” Boczkowski put it; news organizations now have a window into the workings of competitors that is pretty much always open.

And they’ve instituted processes to keep their gaze trained on those competitors. The papers Boczkowski studied have introduced a role in their staffs that they call the “cablera” (loose translation: “the cable guy”): someone who sits in the center of the newsroom, all day (lunch eaten at desk), and whose job it is to monitor the web, radio transcripts, cable feeds, and, of course, competitors’ websites. Constantly. The cablera then sends relevant updates, via IM, to staffers — resulting, Boczkowski said, in a kind of “constant bombardment” on all sides. And staffers, in turn — with the help of the information provided by the cable guy — are expected to produce six to eight stories a day, in addition to updating the existing ones as needed.

It’s an environment, in other words, that lends itself implicitly to story imitation — as, really, a matter of pure pragmatism. Creativity requires time; the brand of “churnalism” (or, more recently, “hamster-wheel journalism“) that the studied papers seem to expect of their reporters, Boczkowski argues, drives content replication — and, thus, homogenization. Add that to the cultural incentives toward imitation — essentially, there’s a downside risk in missing a story that competitors have, without a countervailing risk for being repetitive — and you have an environment the encourages cross-outlet homogeneity. And, conversely, discourages creativity, enterprise, and innovation.

Which is particularly unfortunate, Boczkowski said, because — in addition to the obvious structural problems that encroaching homogenization creates for and among news organizations — audiences want variety. Particularly now, when the web allows readers to create for themselves a self-selected buffet plate of content to consume, redundancy seems…redundant. “You get everything from the same wool,” Vanina, a 40-year-old teacher, lamented to Boczkowski during an interview. She sensed “something monopolistic” in the news, she told him…which led in turn, she said, to a sense of claustrophobia and confinement. As Boczkowski put it yesterday: “The news we get is McDonald’s.” Sure, we might get some local variation among publications…but “the underlying principle, and the underlying food, is more or less the same.”

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