The role of digital journalism in journalism education

What is the role of digital journalism in journalism education?

It is an important question, and it is one that I have discussed and thought about more than usually since yesterday. The occasion is an opinion piece by Signe Okkels on Journalisten.dk (the trade journal for Danish journalists) where she critiques the journalism study programs in Denmark for not taking the digital dimension serious even though the digital is probably here to stay. Okkels studied journalism at Roskilde University and her point of comparison is a nine-months program at University of Southern California. Her conclusion:

“The level of Danish journalism education must simply be improved, and that calls for a different prioritization of and attitude toward digital journalism.” (translated by me)

It would be easy to just dismiss the critique as anecdotal (“well, that’s just her experience”) and off the mark (what does Okkels know about the other journalism educations in Denmark, including the one I work at?). But I actually think that, to some degree, she has a point – and her piece certainly struck a chord among people in the news industry:

The people tweeting here are obviously ones who pay more attention to the digital and will likely place more emphasis on it than your average editor or journalist (for one thing, they discuss this matter on Twitter…). But that does not disqualify their points of view. On the contrary: they work with the tensions and conflicts that surround the digital in newsrooms on an everyday basis. They know what this is about. For that reason alone, it would be wrong for journalism educators to just discard Okkels’ piece.

I agree with much of what Okkels and her tweeting supporters say. At the journalism study programs, we can do better in integrating digital with everything we do. Or rather, we should stop treating digital as a distinct category and instead teach our students to work with writing, audio, and visuals across all media. Instead of teaching “television and radio”, we should teach “moving images and sound”. We should teach our students about emerging business models, social media skills, WordPress, scraping, and the basic principles of coding as integral parts of the existing curriculum. In many instances, we should get rid of the “digital” prefix – nobody talks about “analogue” or “electronic” journalism, right?

But the thing is – and this is where I respectfully disagree with Okkels’ assessment of current journalism education in Denmark – that we already do much of this. At least at the Centre for Journalism at SDU where I work; what the other institutions do, I cannot speak for. We do not do it all the time, and we do not do it everywhere. But in our “old” MA program, my “J-Lab” course on media innovation and concept development in a transformed media environment is now mandatory. And on the new MA program, which just started on September 1, digital is one of the three cornerstones: the students must make their own websites and publish on it, they learn to write and produce audio and video for whatever platform they choose, and they will spend half a year on a “digital project” in collaboration with media organizations. It is our explicit ambition that these students excel at being digital journalists when they graduate.

I do not mean to be self-congratulatory, because we are not there (wherever that may be) yet. Could we move faster? Yes. Should we move faster? Yes, I think so. Should we be more agile and adapt to changes faster than we do? Yes, of course.

It is one thing that universities are slow organizations with above-average institutional inertia. But Magnus Bjerg from Danish TV 2 raises an important issue in his tweet as does Pernille Holbøll from free daily MetroXpress: not very many students are actually all that interested in the digital. Their observation corresponds with my own experiences from teaching our students and what I hear from colleagues on other Danish universities. Sure, digital is fine and all, but what really matters is getting your byline on the front-page of the printed newspaper or in the evening news. In that context, it is sometimes uphill for educators who actually want to push things in a digital direction (but we can, of course, be better – I am not making excuses). That is also a serious challenge for the news organizations now and in years to come, no doubt about that.

I cannot help thinking that all of this connects somehow to another issue that journalism education at universities must deal with: the theory vs. practice issue. While most professors, themselves socialized in an academic system, are interested in giving their students as much knowledge as possible, most students are interested in practicing journalism and learning the tricks of the trade. They do, after all, study journalism in order to become journalists.

But as Kurt Lewin put it, “There is nothing so practical as a good theory.” A theoretical perspective can inform practice and distinguish the reflexive practitioner from the one who is just doing a job. I strongly believe that in times of rapid and profound contingency changes, practitioners are better off with more theoretical knowledge, not less. And I do not necessarily see a conflict between the theory and practice when they can be mutually informing.

You can, with all due respect, always learn to make a timeline with Timeline.js and embed it on your site, but seeing through the communicative structures of the hybrid media system is not necessarily something you can just do just as good without being familiar with Chadwick’s scholarship.

One example (anecdotal, I am afraid): in most of my under-graduate courses, I at some point present Habermas’ theory of the public sphere to the students. Even though I am quite explicit about my reasons for doing so, I cannot escape the feeling that only the smartest of the students actually grasp why this is important (it proposes one very influential framework for understanding journalism’s raison-d’être), and even they would rather be out there interviewing sources for their next piece of journalism… It will sometimes (often?) be years, before they get the “oh, that’s what he was talking about” moment.

The challenge is that theory is abstract, insights come slowly, and this type of knowledge often exists as a reservoir of understandings that help inform what one does but not always in an explicit or obvious way. Practical skills are concrete, they can be acquired on a basic level fast(er), and they are part of everyday professional life. I understand why students (and their employers-to-be) do not always appreciate the need for and relevance of theory here and now when they could improve their practical skills. (By the way, the tension is of course not new. In 1958, it was what kept the conflict going between Doris Day and Clark Gable in the movie Teacher’s Pet.)

But I think it will be a slippery slope to just focus more on the practical skills, even though they are in high demand, at the expense of the theoretical dimension. Rather, I think we need to re-calibrate the journalism study programs in line with what I have mentioned above. I think we are doing the right thing with our new MA program. And I think we as researchers and educators at journalism study programs could be better in articulating why theoretical approaches can be useful for the students and the news industry. American scholars like Nikki Usher and Mark Coddington are extremely good at this; we can learn from them.

The critique from Okkels and others has two dimensions, one that has to do with what we do (where I actually think we might be a little more digital than we are given credit for) and one that has to do with our pace of adapting (where I think we could be better). Within the structural framework of universities, we – and again, I cannot speak for other than myself and my closest colleagues – try to work with these issues in a way that does not compromise scholarly quality; as C.W. Anderson has argued, one of the unique features of academia is that we actually have time and are expected to think hard about our objects of study, which takes a lot of time. Sometimes the slow approach is the best way to generate new insight, even though it obviously clashes with rapid and radical transformations that take place here and now. I do not mention this as an excuse, rather as an explanation. And it does not exempt us from being digital enough in our teaching. We can do more in that area.

If I should wish for something in return, it would be that our students embrace the digital more than they do today. It is, in all likelihood, where many of them will spend their entire career, but it is all too rare that a critique such as Okkels’ is put forth.

Full disclosure: The Danish community of journalism educators is small, and the circle of people teaching and researching digital journalism is even smaller. For this reason, I know the people Okkels critiques and even consider many of them good friends. I hope this has not clouded my judgment on this matter.

Update, September 15, 2015: The discussion has continued today, and I have added the tweet by Pernille Holbøll above. Furthermore, Filip Wallberg and Mads-Jakob Vad Kristensen have contributed to the discussion on their respective blogs; their basic argument is that starting one’s own medium should be mandatory for all journalism students.

My PhD dissertation available now

Just a public service announcement: I have now made my PhD dissertation News on the Web: instantaneity, multimodality, interactivity, and hypertextuality on Danish news websites available here on my website. As most of it is already published and the data aren’t getting any younger, there really is no point in not having it out there.

A large part of the dissertation consists of research articles, and most of those are now published in academic journals (in more or less revised versions):

Furthermore, parts of the theoretical introduction is commissioned as a book chapter for publication next year. I’ll post more on that here on the blog later.

If you want the printed-book version, it is for sale at Publikom at the price of 172.50 DKK (approx. 32 Euros/31 USD). For some reason, they haven’t added the dissertation to their online catalogue even though they sell it, so you’ll have to send them en email.

New publication: terrorism in real-time

As I hinted in an earlier blog post, I’ve had an important publication coming up.

Now, I’m happy to be able to announce that “Terrorisme i realtid: 22. juli 2011 i danske og norske netaviser” [Terrorism in real-time: July 22, 2011, on Danish and Norwegian news websites] has just been published in academic journal Norsk Medietidsskrift. It’s the second research article of my PhD dissertation on news on the web.

Here’s the abstract:

In cases of emergent crises, news media undertake an important societal function by providing the public with timely and correct information. Using the terrorist attack in Norway on July 22, 2011, as case, this article analyzes how Danish and Norwegian news websites cover emergent crisis in real-time. First, the article analyzes whether this coverage made use of the affordances of news websites (instantaneity, multimodality, interactivity, and hypertextuality). Second, it analyzes the accuracy of the coverage. The conclusion is that the real-time coverage both used the affordances and was accurate, suggesting that digital journalism managed to undertake its societal function during the terrorist attack.

The article is in Danish, but an early, English version can be mail available upon request.

From journalism to paparazzi reality

New post on MediaWatch (in Danish and behind paywall):

Fra journalistik til Paparazzi-reality

Ekstra Bladets nye web-tv-format ‘Paparazzi’ er endnu et eksempel på, at aviserne går ud over kerneydelserne for at hente læsere. Og kommercielt rummer 24-timers kendis-format interessante perspektiver.

Ekstra Bladets nye tv-satsning ’Paparazzi’ er et web-tv-format, hvor en kendt person i 24 timer følges af et kamerahold, hvis optagelser streames live på Eb.dk.

Det er altså et format, der lokker med at give et blik ind i den ægte privatsfære bag facaden. Som sådan har det meget til fælles med populære reality-formater på de kommercielle tv-kanaler – ikke mindst ’Haps! Du er fanget’ på Kanal 4 og Kanal 5, hvor værtinden Annette Heick lænkede sig sammen med andre kendte og fulgte dem i tykt og tyndt. Første afsnit af ’Paparazzi’ er næsten reality i anden potens; første “offer” er nemlig – meget symptomatisk – Mascha Vang, der i sin tid blev kendt ved at deltage i 1. sæson af ’Paradise  Hotel’.

Det er på flere måder interessant, at Ekstra Bladet producerer et format som ‘Paparazzi’. Helt overordnet er det et tydeligt eksempel på, hvordan nyhedsorganisationer i disse år bevæger sig væk fra kerneydelsen og begynder at varetage medieproduktion i bredere forstand. Tiden, hvor en redaktion blot lavede dagens avis, og så var det det, er endegyldigt forbi.

Vi har i mange år set nyhedsorganisationer sprede deres aktiviteter bredt – ofte ud over områder, der ikke er strengt nyhedsrelaterede, men fungerer som annonce- eller trafikheste. JP/Politikens Hus har således andele i Bilzonen og har netop opkøbt hele Jobzonen, mens Berlingske Medias driver Sweetdeal, hvor kunderne kan få rabat på alt fra hårkure til kroophold.

Men det er alligevel noget nyt, at en avisredaktion udvides med en decideret underholdningsgren, som ’Paparazzi’ synes at være udtryk for.

Udvidelsen synes at give særligt god mening i et kommercielt perspektiv. Selvom produktionen af ’Paparazzi’ sandsynligvis er relativt bekostelig, er den for det første med til at cementere Eb.dk’s førerposition inden for dansk  web-tv. Flere mediebureauer forventer, at netop web-tv fremover vil blive et fremtrædende element på netaviserne, og at det er her, annoncemidlerne i vid udstrækning kommer til at ligge.

I en branding-sammenhæng er det næppe helt tosset at satse på web-tv, der kan trække et større publikum til siden. Ifølge Ekstra Bladet selv har premiere-udgaven således været i kontakt med brugere over 250.000 gange, hvilket må siges at være ganske pænt.

For det andet kan de 24 timers optagelse klippes op og pakkes til en lang række mindre artikler, der hver især kan generere trafik på netavisen. Vel at mærke trafik, hvor publikum bliver længere på siden end ellers. Der er altså tale om en form for økonomisk ræsonabel synergi-strategi, hvor det samme indhold kan genbruges og præsenteres flere gange i forskellige indpakninger.

Og for det tredje sender Ekstra Bladet med et tiltag som ’Paparazzi’ et klart signal til de andre aktører inden for kendis-/sladder-mediemarkedet om, at det ikke er et område, man har tænkt sig at overlade til de kulørte ugeblade (der dog ligesom de trykte aviser taber læsere såvel som oplag) og blogs.

Det kan måske være nødvendigt med et sådan signal i en tid, hvor blogs i hvert fald internationalt synes toneangivende og stjæle sladdertrafik fra de etablerede medier, og hvor Danmarks førende sladderblad ’Se og Hør’ opruster digitalt med Ekstra Bladets tidligere redaktionschef Niels Pinborg som ny mand i chefstolen.

Can Bezos save The Washington Post?

New post on MediaWatch (in Danish and behind paywall):

Kan ny Washington Post-ejer redde overskuddet – og journalistikken?

Jeff Bezos’ opkøb af avisen The Washington Post rummer et stort forretningsmæssigt og publicistisk potentiale for avisen, skriver ph.d. Aske Kammer.

Gårsdagens helt store samtaleemne i mediebranchen og blandt analytikere var uden tvivl, at internetboghandlen Amazons grundlægger Jeffrey Bezos havde købt en af amerikansk journalistiks mest legendariske organisationer, avisen The Washington Post.

Avisen er, som blandt andre magasinet The Atlantic meget fint beskriver det, en institution i amerikansk og international presse – for ikke at nævne det amerikanske demokrati. Nu ejes den af en af it-økonomiens centrale skikkelser, og det er måske slet ikke så dumt.

At en mand som Bezos køber den hæderkronede, men økonomisk pressede avis, har overrasket. Med Amazon har Bezos skabt sig en formue på digitalt salg (han vurderes at være god for 25 mia. dollar), men bortset fra et større indskud i Business Insider tidligere på året han har ingen baggrund i nyhedsbranchen og ingen erfaring med journalistisk produktion.

På den måde minder hans opkøb af The Washington Post på overfladen om den danske it-iværksætter Morten Lunds engagement i gratisavisen Nyhedsavisen i 2007-2008, selvom skalaen naturligvis er en helt anden.

Lunds aviseventyr kostede ham efter sigende godt 100 mio. kr. og fik ham i sidste ende erklæret konkurs (efter avisen var gået samme vej).

Men ligeså uventet, Bezos’ opkøb af Washington Post var, lige så kommercielt fornuftigt kan det meget vel vise sig at være –  ikke mindst for avisen, der som alle andre aviser kæmper med at flytte omsætningen fra print til digitale produkter.

Overtagelsen kan få vidtrækkende konsekvenser for både The Washington Posts forretning og journalistik.

Det nok mest interessante punkt ved overtagelsen findes i mødet mellem det gamle avismedie og den nye it-/tech-økonomi, som vil blive fulgt nøje på direktionsgange både herhjemme og internationalt.

Avisbranchen har haft notorisk svært ved at omstille sig og finde en forretningsmodel, der for alvor kan fungere i en digital sammenhæng. Washington Post har i høj grad forholdt sig afventende og har først i juni i år indført en betalingsmur – længe efter mastodonter som Financial Times, Wall Street Journal og New York Times tog skridtet.

Mena avisens nye ejer, Bezos, står omvendt bag et foretagende, der i høj grad har været proaktiv på det digitale område og formået at gøre e-handel til en lukrativ forretning.

En af nøglerne til Amazons efterhånden bragende succes er evnen til at kunne målrette varer til kunderne. På baggrund af enorme datamængder om købsmønstre og avancerede algoritmer, er Amazon i stand til altid at anbefale en række bøger, som andre, hvis indkøbsliste ligner din, også har købt – og derved øge sandsynligheden for, at du også køber disse bøger.

Der kan sandsynligvis være en gevinst i at bruge en variation af denne form for effektiv data mining og kundeorientering i The Washington Posts online forretning.

Dermed ikke sagt, at erfaringer fra bogsalg uden videre kan overføres til journalistik. Der er en verden til forskel på at sælge bøger, som potentielt kan have et meget langt liv på markedet, og at sælge nyheder, hvis friskhed forgår anderledes hurtigt. Jane Austens bøger sælges stadig i store oplag, men gårsdagens nyheder er svære at tjene noget som helst på.

Både på The Washington Post og i avisbranchen generelt har den undersøgende journalistik åbenlyst lidt under fraværet af bæredygtige forretningsmodeller, hvor hurtige og billige nyheder er blevet en udbredt fremgangsmåde.

Hvis Bezos’ åbne brev til The Washington Posts ansatte står til troende, vil der imidlertid under hans ejerskab være ressourcer til både at sætte tempoet ned, når det er nødvendigt for at få den rigtige historie på den rigtige måde, og til at ”følge historien uanset omkostningerne”.

Det ligner en trosbekendelse til klassiske publicistiske dyder, som avisens journalister nu får rum til at efterleve.

Ifølge både The Washington Posts lange (og behørigt positive) portræt af sin nye ejer og andre kilder besidder Bezos en række karaktertræk, som for mig at se kan understøtte netop dette fokus på journalistisk revitalisering: Han er tålmodig og tænker langsigtet strategisk. Og han er tilsyneladende ikke bange for at køre med underskud i en længere periode, hvis det på længere sigt kan føre organisationen og forretningen det rigtige sted hen.

På dette punkt adskiller han sig fra en række af de holding-selskaber og kapital- og investeringsfonde, der de seneste par årtier har købt sig ind i nyhedsbranchen (blandt andet herhjemme ved først Orklas og siden Mecoms opkøb af Berlingske) for at få fingrene i de tocifrede afkastsgrader, som finanskrisen og den generelle flugt fra printmedier imidlertid efterhånden har gjort kål på.

På dette punkt adskiller Bezos’ ejerskab sig dog ikke i udgangspunktet fra det familieejerskab, The Washington Post har været under i fire generationer. Men man kan forestille sig, at Bezos måske vil være bedre end familien Graham til at forstå og imødekomme de udfordringer, der kan være ved at agere på et digitalt marked.

På den måde kan Bezos’ opkøb af The Washington Post give anledning til forsigtig optimisme for, at avisen gennem en kombination af avisbranchens publicistiske idealer og en it-milliardærs evne til at skrue en velfungerende digital forretningsmodel sammen kan blive et pejlemærke for en kriseramt nyhedsindustri.

Video on journalistic audience participation

How can members of the audience contribute to the production of online news? In two new videos (which are in Danish) called Digital kildeinddragelse, the online editor of Danish newspaper Information, Nicolai Thyssen, and I give some answers to that question.

My video is a part of a “digital summer school” about digital journalism offered by the Centre for Journalism at the University of Southern Denmark. It is part of the 4th in a series of seven lessons, all of which are available on the website of the course – and they are all free to access!

The basic argument I present in the video is from one of the research articles of my PhD dissertation: audience participation in the production of online news can be divided into four different types. 1) Information privision. 2) Collaboration, where members of audiences conduct journalistic work. 3) Conversation, where there is a more social interplay between journalists and readers. 4) Meta-communication, where audiences focus on the very production of the news, highlighting issues of transparency, etc. That article is currently in review in both a Danish and an English version.

Update December 20, 2014: The article, which I essentially present in this video, was published last year in Nordicom Review, “Audience Participation in the Production of Online News. Towards a Typology” (open access).

Update September 15, 2019: The video used to be here, but I removed it for performance and privacy issues. Follow the link just above to see the video.

Reuniting with the research family

I’m in the airport – Arlanda, Stockholm. I’m on my way home from the last seminar of the Nordic Research Network in Journalism Studies, which has existed for almost four years and consists of journalism researchers from the Nordic and Baltic countries. The network is headed by Professor Sigurd Allern and is funded by Nordforsk, whose grant is, however, expiring.

The network has arranged seven seminars of which I’d already participated in three, and they have always been of very high value for me. I always learn a lot, often get inspiration for ways to improve and tweak my own research, and have more than once gotten a little intimidated by just how smart some of my colleagues are. This fourth seminar was no exception. The presentations in Stockholm were generally of a high quality, but I’ll highlight only the ones that made the most impression on me and that stand the clearest for me now as I’m waiting for my plane, writing this blog post:

  • Nina Kvalheim (Bergen University) presented interesting new data on what characterizes the content of one news website before and after its introduction of a paywall.
  • Helle Sjøvaag (Bergen University) addressed the issue of journalistic autonomy. I cannot recapitulate her exact point here, but her presentation certainly provided food for thought.
  • Magnus Danielson (Stockholm University) addressed the element of shame in a Swedish journalistic television program. His point was that the shaming of “the bad guys” both serves as a journalistic tool and has a certain guilty-pleasure appeal to the audiences.
  • Jens Barland (Gjøvik University College) outlined why and how corporate media may get to think of journalism as a means to attract eyeballs to their other online services (e.g., micro-banking) rather than an end in itself.

I presented a paper with the title ”Types of reader participation in the production of online news”, which is an English version of one of the articles from my dissertation, News on the Web: instantaneity, multimodality, interactivity, and hypertextuality on Danish news websites. I’ll let others judge whether the presentation was successful and just mention that I got some really useful feedback from appointed opponent Christian Christensen.

Stockholm trees

In some way, I come full circle with this seminar, which took place only a couple of weeks after the defense of my dissertation. The very first international seminar I attended as a researcher, only three months into my PhD project, was one arranged by this network, namely the Oslo seminar in April, 2010. This seminar was also were I first presented a paper for an academic audience and had to face and deal with the critique from peers in front of that kind of audience; I must admit, that was quite a nerve-wrecking experience for me as a new member of the academic society (at least until I got to actually present – of course it went okay once I got started). And as a matter of fact, my papers in Oslo, 2010, and Stockholm, 2013, actually also drew upon some of the same empirical material. I wouldn’t go as far as saying I had a feeling of déjà-vu, but there are certainly parallels at play here.

This seminar, however, was the last one within the Nordic Research Network of Journalism Studies.

One of the most valuable assets of the research network has been that many other scholars in the beginning of their academic careers have participated in it. So, I’ve met a lot of interesting people who not only work with related research interests but also deal with the same issues of professional insecurity and the challenges of dissertation writing. I guess it’s always nice to know you’re not the only one with that kind of uncertainties, and sometimes people in the same position as yourself are better to talk to about that than senior researchers with permanent employment who may not quite remember what it was like.

Among the other participants in the research network, I’ve made some very good friends and established a large number of important professional connections. There is a very large number of persons who I hope to see again soon and cooperate with.

For me, the Nordic Research Network in Journalism Studies and the members of it have constituted one recurring and important point of orientation throughout my PhD work. In addition to the Oslo seminar and, of course, this final Stockholm seminar, I’ve participated in the seminars in Copenhagen (2010) and Bergen (2011). Especially the last two seminars have reminded me of some kind of family reunion – you meet some people who you really like but who you don’t talk to quite as often as you’d like to. And as you know most of the people in advance, you don’t have to put a lot of resources into getting to know new people but can focus on what’s important.

A lot of other good things could be said about the Nordic Research Network in Journalism Studies. But now, my plane is ready for departure, and it’s time to go.

Defending my PhD tomorrow

Tomorrow, I’ll publicly defend my PhD dissertation News on the Web: instantaneity, multimodality, interactivity, and hypertextuality on Danish news websites. The defense will take place in auditorium 22.0.11 at the Southern Campus of the University of Copenhagen, and I think it’s going to be quite interesting; at least, it will be very satisfying for me. The dissertation is the result of three years of work, and even though I still think the subject – digital journalism and how it’s changing, transforming, and maintaining institutional arrangements – is highly interesting and relevant, it will be good to achieve closure on this project. I need to move forward to something new (but, of course, related) in terms of research work, and the defense marks the first step in such a transition.

I’ll provide a write-up of the defense in a later post. With this one, I actually just wanted to invite everybody to the defense (it is public, after all, and I’d like the results of my work to reach as many people as possible), to show a picture of the dissertation fresh from the press, and to publish the following summary of my work. The summary is taken from the dissertation, and it goes through the main points of it very briefly.

Compared to traditional news media, news websites hold a unique set of affordances in relation to news workers, namely instantaneity, multimodality, interactivity, and hypertextuality. This constellation of affordances constitutes a particular condition for the production and presentation of news. This dissertation is an enquiry into how institutional actors (news workers) appropriate these potentials afforded by new, digital technology (news websites).

The enquiry is conducted with an integration of quantitative and qualitative methods, and the analyses generally support the hypothesis that news workers working on Danish news websites do, indeed, make use of the four affordances, and that they do so in ways so that they maintain journalistic control in the process. The analyses include a content analysis of formal features on 93 Danish news websites, a qualitative case study of real-time coverage of emergent crisis, and a theory-building case study of audience participation in news production for news web-sites. The dissertation propose mediatization theory as a means for contextualizing the current developments within the institution of journalism, arguing that it is an institution which is accommodating the logics and formats of the media institution – but not without some resistance from its actors.

The dissertation consists of introductory chapters (Introduction, Terminology, Theoretical framework, and Research design), four research articles, and a concluding chapter, which outlines the conclusion, identifies the most important contributions to existing knowledge, and points to future research in continuation of this dissertation. Except for one of the four research articles, this dissertation is written in English; the research article in question is Danish-language.

If you want to read the entire dissertation, drop me an email and I’ll forward it to you.

My review of Networked published

As I announced in an earlier post, I would write a proper review of Adrienne Russell‘s latest book Networked. A Contemporary History of News in Transition (Polity, 2011). Now, the review is published in the new issue of Danish journal MedieKultur. Journal of media and communication. The review is available here – but make sure to read the rest of this great issue as well; it has articles by, among others, Kirsten Frandsen and Anne Mette Thorhauge which seem particularly interesting.

If you’re in a hurry, here comes the closing remarks of the review:

“the book is not always successful in resisting the temptation of choosing those examples that fit the overall argument and leaving aside those that could instead have challenged it and pushed it further. I may be more conservatively inclined than the author, but it seems to me that she overestimates how ordinary people are currently helping journalism and simultaneously underestimates the continued importance of the institution.

That said, throughout the book Russell does make a strong argument for the potential advantages of having different publics participate in news-making. Even though Networked could have benefitted from a more rigorous definition of journalism and more nuances in its unfavorable judgment of the contemporary workings of the news industry, the book deserves to be recommended for its rich evidence of what the public can do (and often actually does) for journalism. As such, in spite of my complaints, this book is a good place for journalism students, researchers, and practitioners to turn if they wish to know how ordinary people with digital technology can change journalism and challenge a conservative news industry.” (pp. 146-149)

Great hourly archive of online news front pages

Researchers of online news and journalism (such as myself) face a serious problem when it comes to our empirical domain: because websites can be continuously updated and the front pages of news websites rarely stay unchanged for longer periods of time, our object of study is transient. When a news website is updated, the old version from before the update is practically gone and cannot be studied.

It goes without saying that the methodological consequences are serious. How do you study an object that no longer exists (or is close to impossible to recreate)? How do you deal with your object of study vanishing into thin air? Existing archiving websites such as the Internet Archive: Wayback Machine and netarkivet.dk do a great job at saving copies of websites for future use and are valuable resources for researchers, but for various reasons I find their usefulness limited. Today, however, an article on Journalisten.dk made me aware of a website that may help dealing with this issue, even if it doesn’t solve the problem.

The website is www.PastPages.org, and it captures the front pages of 67 news websites every hour (the captures are available as image files in the .png format). The websites PastPages is currently capturing are primarily from the US but there are also front pages from Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Egypt, France, Germany, Great Britain, India, Israel, Japan, Mexico, Norway, Qatar, Russia, South Africa, South Korea, Spain, Sweden, and Turkey. We still wait for Danish news websites to enter the sample, however…

I think this website can be an extremely helpful resource for both myself and everybody else who works with online journalism. The access to the front-page captures is easy and free, everybody can do it without any bureaucratic ado, and the logics and schedule of the data collection are transparent and easily understandable. The most obvious limitation to the website is that it only captures front pages but not articles. This choice put some limitations on what you can do with the material on the PastPages, but for future studies of how frames and news agendas change and of the forms of online news, it has the potential of becoming a key resource for researchers and students.

PastPages is still a quite new site, and its future value depends entirely on its continued existence and capturing of enough material to reach a critical mass suitable for studies. You can support PastPages financially here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/651552740/keep-pastpages-alive (the fundraising campaign closes on July 6, 2012). I consider the $20 I donated a good investment in both my own research and, more importantly, the preservation of today’s news for tomorrow.

Conferencing in Porto

I have just returned from Porto in Portugal, where I attended the III International Conference on Media and Communication: “Media and Journalism in an evolving ecosystem”. For me personally, this was a very special conference from the beginning as it was the first time I was to present a paper at an international conference (though I have done it before on research seminars, etc.). The title of my paper was “News Websites’ Real-Time Coverage of Emergent Crisis: a Scandinavian study”, the presentation went well, and I will write more about the study later as it will be part of my PhD dissertation.

Let me turn to the conference and jump straight to the conclusion: this was a very good conference, one of the best I’ve been to. It was well-organized, all the papers were of a high quality, and the social events in between the academic parts were spectacular.

First, the organization. Even though the organizers could consider making the final program available a little earlier for the fourth iteration of the International Conference on Media and Communication, everything in Porto worked smoothly. They even got the Portuguese secretary of state at the opening ceremony! Great job by Professor Rui Novais and his team.

Second, the academic content. Of the 16 paper presentations, there was not one presentation that did not give me something to think about, be inspired by, or use in my own research. It would be too much to go through all the interesting points here, so I’ll just remark that I’ve got quite a number of new ideas to pursue in my future research, and that I’ve met a lot of intelligent and interesting scholars to collaborate with.

The conference had four keynote speakers: Dan Hallin gave a rich and inspiring account of how journalism is moving from its modernism into post-modernism with a move towards de-professionalization and opinionated, entertainment-oriented content (I must, however, admit that this talk reminded me very much of his keynote in Bergen last November); Mark Deuze presented his view on journalistic work in a society where media constitute an integral part of all social activity, arguing that journalists need to “brand” themselves through e.g. social media (that this keynote was presented at a video conference just added some kind of meta layer to his very talk); Elizabeth Grabe provided an inspirational approach to analyzing image bites in political coverage, providing a methodological framework for rigorously analyzing images quantitatively; and Robert Entman convincingly showed how scandal journalism works in relation to the American presidency and argued that media need to calibrate their journalistic coverage according to the seriousness of the political misconduct.

Third, the organizers had also gone to great length to make this a conference to remember for the social events. Chris Paterson from Leeds University said that in Britain, a lunch break would usually be 20 minutes long and have the worst food in town, and in Denmark it’s quite the same (even though we usually stretch the break to be 40 minutes); but in Porto, the lunch breaks were two hours of dining at great restaurants (one of them under the Portuguese sun in the restaurant’s garden). On the second day of the conference, the lavish lunch was even followed by a guided tour around town and a boat ride on the river Duoro. This was a great success, and everybody enjoyed that the organizers had also scheduled activities outside of the conference rooms. I think this photo, which was taken by Tiago Oliveira right after the boat ride, epitomizes the overall feeling at the conference:

Life can be sweet, even when you’re conferencing.

Research seminar: “New Media – New Journalism?”

Between a very productive writing retreat in Bologna (got home yesterday) and my stay at New York University Steinhardt (will leave Sunday), I had found the time to present a paper at the research seminar “New Media – New Journalism?” on the university today.

Our special guest star was associate professor Adrienne Russell from the University of Denver who has just published the book Networked. A Contemporary History of News in Transition. Her book describes how non-organizational actors influence newsmaking processes. The central concept is “networked journalism”, i.e.

“journalism that sees publics acting as creators, investigators, reactors, (re)makers, and (re)distribution of news and where all variety of media, amateurs, and professional, corporate and independent products and interests intersect at a new level” (p. 1).

I think the book is good and I would highly recommend it to anyone who wants to get a grip of one of the most important developments of contemporary journalism, namely the increased role of who Jay Rosen famously refered to as the “people formerly known as the audience“. For an academic book, Networked is very well-written, and it contains a number of great examples of “best practice” of user participation; Russell’s comparison of the coverage of the Gulf War (1991 – covered by traditional mass media) and the Iraq War (2003 – covered by networked journalism) is particularly enlightening and illustrative of the changes she deals with. Nevertheless, I do have some reservations with regard to both her strong faith in the power and quality of the publics’ contributions to newsmaking and to her dismissal of the value of established media organizations; I think she might overestimate how ordinary people help journalism and simultaneously underestimate the continued importance of institutions. I’ll write a proper review of the book later.

Apart from mrs. Russell, my good colleague Mette Mortensen gave a presentation on the impact and consequences of ordinary people’s use of digital technology to disseminate images and video clips from unfolding events where no journalists are. And I presented a conceptual clarification of “participation” and a tentative typology of reader participation in online news production; this typology is the pivotal point in my contribution to a forthcoming book about social news-production (to be published this Fall).

I think it was a good seminar with though-provoking presentations by my fellow researchers and interesting discussions, so I’m glad I took the time for it. Next: MCC, NYU.

Different news websites, different agendas

Every once in a while, you hear people complain that while printed newspapers shapen their profiles and address certain segments and target audiences, you cannot tell the difference between news websites because most of the content comes from the same wire services. It’s all the same, the argument goes. But is it really so?

The short answer is: no. As this small analysis of the agendas on five Danish news websites show, there are noteworthy differences in the priorities, selections, and presentations of news across different kinds of news websites. Using the free and highly recommendable online service Wordle, I have created word clouds of the most frequent words on the front pages this morning. I have done my best to weed out words such as “read”, “more”, “about”, “this”, and “that”; what I’m interested in is what keywords dominate the content on different kinds of news websites. This quick-and-dirty analysis is not academic work but I think it gives a quite good idea of how the agenda differs. (You can enlarge the word clouds below by clicking on them.)

The tabloid: Ekstra Bladet. This is the most popular news website in Denmark with approximately 1.5 m unique visitors each month. The tabloid newspaper has the reputation of being the “badboy” of Danish news, and in its own self-perception, Ekstra Bladet is the newspaper that dares speak truth to power. This Friday morning, however, it seemed that the badboy inclinations manifested themselves in carnal rather than anti-establishment interests as “bryster” [‘breasts’] is the most frequent word while the second most used is “Side” – as in “Side 9-pigen”, the Danish equivalent of the girls on Page Three…

The broadsheet: Politiken. This newspaper is primarily read by people from the capital and it puts special priority on culture and lifestyle issues. This identity is reflected in “København” [‘Copenhagen’] and “kultur” [‘culture’] being two of the most frequent words, and the website doesn’t appear to have a lot of content for Danes outside the largest cities. – Note: The word “storkreds” [something like ‘big constituency’] features so prominently because numerous links to a database contained that word and I missed it when discarding noise.

The specialist newspaper: Information. Information is the most high-brow newspaper in Denmark, and I think it’s fair to say that it’s also the most leftist in terms of political bias (except of course of the fullblooded political papers such as Arbejderen [‘The Worker’]). The social engagement and opposition to system domestication of the lifeworld is clear from the word cloud of the news website: “svage” [‘weaks’] and ACTA (the now infamous Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement) are the most used key words, both implying content concerned with the fairness and political structuring of modern democracy.

The local newspaper: Kjerteminde Avis. When the printed newspaper closed by the end of 2010 after no less than 131 years of publication, the editors and journalists continued their work on this news website. Last week, I interviewed the editor-in-chief Allan Aistrup who told me that the mission of the website is exclusively to serve the public of Kerteminde municipality (approximately 24,000 citizens) through nothing but local news; this is clearly reflected in their word cloud where “Kerteminde”, “Langeskov” (another big city in the municipality), and “kommune” [‘municipality’] are among the most frequent words.

The public service broadcaster: DR Nyheder. As a public service broadcaster, DR has to serve all segments and cover all subjects – they cannot just stick to breasts or Kerteminde. It’s probably for this reason there isn’t really any patterns in the keywords of this news website which on the contrary seems to cover a large number of issues somewhat equally. The most used word, however, is “kulde” [‘cold’], and the sudden drop in Danish temperatures considered it’s no surprise that this issue is on the agenda. As such, the most interesting finding from this website is that there isn’t a clear profile to identify.

Keeping in mind the very limited empirical grounding of this analysis, we can make two observations on the basis of the word clouds. First: next time someone brushes news websites aside claiming it’s all the same rubbish, one can argue that while a part of the content is indeed rubbish (as it is in printed newspapers and on the radio and television) it’s certainly not all the same. Second: the content of news websites of course reflects their institutional backdrop and its identification of its target audience. The news websites and their selection of content are also a product of media professionals aiming at certain segments rather than the entire population.

Pastry, a lamp, and little Holger – 2011 on news websites

New Year’s Eve is always a good opportunity to look back at the old year and evaluate – accordingly, lists of the best and the worst, the most memorable, popular, forgetable, admirable, embarrasing, etc., of year X constitute a popular genre in the last days of the year.

On news websites, this kind of evaluating lists often appear in the shape of articles about the most-read articles of the year that passed. And for a researcher on web-based news and journalism – such as me – these lists provide an interesting overview of what people actually read when they go online for news. That being said, I must stress the un-academic nature of the following reflections on readership on Danish news websites: the sampling is close to random as I have looked only at the top lists on the Danish news websites that I found searching for “mest læste i 2011” (‘most read in 2011’) and “mest læste 2011” (‘most read 2011’) on Google; the analysis is descriptive and explorative at best; the statistical significance is not calculated (and probably non-existing)! Nevertheless, the lists of most-read articles do give an indication about the patterns of online readership.

On Politiken, the online editor claims that “There is a clear tendency that the readers click on to the more serious news” (my translation). Even though there are indications of this pattern on Politiken’s websites, it is certainly a qualified truth when you look across the different news websites. It is true, that many of the most popular events in terms of readership on news websites were of a serious kind: the Arab Spring, the benchmarking of public schools in Denmark, the terrorist attack in Norway, the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan, and especially the election of a new parlament and appointment of a new government in Denmark were events that readers were very interested in. Those events are all the kind of hard news that journalists, scholars, and concerned citizens agree are important for a functioning public sphere and society.

The most popular event, however, seems to be the disappearence of the little boy Holger which generated numerous articles on the news websites. Readers followed this story intensely and many – among them one of TV 2’s reporters who started crying – must have felt sheer relief when the red-haired boy was finally found and returned to his parents; the articles about the happy ending of the searching were among the most-read on many news websites. The Holger story was only the most prominent example of soft news reaching a large audience.

The 2011 readership of Danish news websites, however, also substantiated and confirmed some of the prejudices about content of online news and the people that reads it. Stories about sex and nudity (quite often with pictures…), celebrities (e.g. the deaths of Amy Winehouse and Danish singer Flemming Bamse Jørgensen), and quirky, uncommon events were popular everywhere. And on Politiken, the most-read article was about TV-gardener Søren Ryge and the best pretzel-shaped pastry in the world; it appears that the turn towards more serious news still has at least some way to go…

When it comes to the websites of local news media, it is clear that the local stories constitute the most popular content. The most-read article from Dagbladet Ringkjøbing-Skjern was, for example, the exciting though very short piece “Lampe revet af væg” (‘Lamp torn of wall’); likewise, in Esbjerg Ugeavis the ultimative click generator of 2011 was about three local pranksters, and almost the entire Top 10 list consists of local news. The same pattern occurs on DR P4 Trekanten where an article about the European Union was among the most-read – but of course with a local angle (about gingerbread). And on the website of Fyens Stiftstidende – Fyens Amts Avis, articles about the sudden illness and death of a prominent local politician constituted seven of the 27 most-read articles.

Departing from the broad overview, I will end this account of the year with an honourable mention of the headline on the front page of a news website in 2011 that I liked the most: “Denne tablet spiser æbler til morgenmad” (‘This tablet computer eats apples for breakfast’) on Ekstra Bladet – about a tablet computer that was apparently way better than Apple’s iPad.

Sources: using Google, I found the following lists of most-read articles:

Did I miss out any mainstream news websites? Add them in the comment field below and I will take a look at them later.

Until then: Happy New Year!

Update January 2, 2012: I’ve found some more lists. Apart from the lists of Børsen and Kristeligt Dagblad which reflect their specialist character (related to respectively financial and religious matters), the news lists generally support the agenda I have outlined above:

Update Feburary 3, 2012: Some of the webpage are now offline. I’ve removed the link but kept the titles for the sake of documentation.

Guest lecture in Aarhus

Home again after two days in primarily Aarhus. My good friend and former colleague Camilla Dindler had invited me to give a guest lecture on online journalism on her MA course “Politisk kommunikation” [Political Communication] at Media Studies, Aarhus University. It was a good opportunity to take a step back and consider the fundamental questions in connection with my research; accordingly, I called the lecture “Hvad er egentlig det nye ved online nyheder?” [So what’s actually new about online news?] and tried to answer that over my two hours with circa 25 students and Camilla. My take on it was – and is – that the novelty about web-based news (which is my slightly more focused area of interest) is four medium-specific potentials, namely instantaneity, interactivity, multimodality, and hypertextuality. I explained these potentials and presented examples of their use on Danish news websites, and in the end I argued that the news organizations’ attention to these potentials could represent a mediatization of journalism, i.e. an institutional adaptation of journalism to the formats and logics of the medium. This perspective is a new one in my research project but I think I will incorporate it futher from here on as it makes good sense and opens a more theoretical framework for understanding what’s new about web-based news and journalism.

When in Aarhus, I had the chance to meet with associate professor Niels Brügger who shared some of his experience and extensive knowledge of the practicalities of website analysis. His inputs and insights will definitely prove useful in connection with my large-scale content analysis of Danish news websites next February (more on that in a later post). I also interviewed an editor from Aarhus Stiftstidende and got to see family members again. All in all, the trip to Aarhus was fruitful.

“Journalistic Reorientations” master class and conference

I’ve never been to Bergen, Norway, before but these days I’m visiting for a research seminar in the splendid Nordic Research Network in Journalism Studies. Bergen is a really nice town (and contrary to popular beliefs, it doesn’t rain that much), the arrangement is great as always, and I get to meet a lot of both old and new friends with the same professional interests as me. Keynote speeches on the conference are by Dan Hallin (Communications, UCSD) and Natalie Fenton (Media and Communications, Goldsmiths). The title of the conference is “Journalistic Reorientations” as it’s arranged in coorperation with Martin Eide’s Norwegian research network of the same name, and it’s highly relevant for my research as it’s about how news and journalism are changing these years. So I get a lot of inspiration for further research and interesting studies to do – and am among the people to perhaps do them with.

Before the conference, we junior researchers had the opportunity to participate in a master class with paper presentations. I presented my paper “News from the Frontline” about ekstrabladet.dk’s real-time coverage of the COP15 demonstrations and got constructive feedback from both senior researchers (a special thank you to my respondent Dag Elgesam) and fellow PhD fellows; over the next couple of weeks, I’ll work on improving the paper and then submit it for publication. The master class also featured a very interesting keynote speech by Rodney Benson on how ownership matters in connection with journalism; I’ll be following Rod for a couple of months next spring when I go to the Department of Media, Culture, and Communication at New York University Steinhardt as a visiting fellow (as described in an earlier post). It’s nice to meet Rod again, and it’ll be great to spend some time at “his” university next year.