Saturday, February 16, 2013

Pablo Boczkowski, Digitizing the News

Pablo Boczkowski, a sociologist by training and media scholar by effort,  positions his project as existing in a third group of science, technology & society studies. He is not concerned with the lifecycle of the technology, with the relevant social groups (or users), but he is instead looking at the documented engagement that users had with the technologies. Rather than a story of techne, he is interested in telling a story of praxis. Such an ambition is often more useful to scholars who want to get at the core of an innovation’s story and, should the opportunity arise for the work to fall into the public’s hands, allows for a more relatable and engaging narrative.

A key concept for Boczkowski and others in his research/philosophic tradition is “appropriation.” For Boczkowski, he is interested in how appropriated new technological possibilities for improving or otherwise enhancing their product or craft.

Boczkowski points toward, but does not explore, the question of the newspaper industry’s economic profitability philosophy. The profit margins required by the industry are marked higher than almost any other industry in the capitalist world.

Of particular interest are the “history, locality, and process in the emergence of a new medium (4).” Newspapers provide an excellent subject for his case studies, not only because they provide clear examples of those three elements, but because the newspaper figures so integrally into the American story.

Boczkowski’s epochal summary of the newspaper organization’s foray into the online realm points toward the overall sense that media companies, at least a generation ago, were heading down a road of innovation despite not knowing where the milestones lay. Boczkowski’s exploring-settling-hedging model might be applicable to most any industry that has gone through rapid changes guided by the kinds of innovations that altered – though not fundamentally – the way work was conducted. Boczkowski characterizes newspapers as falling somewhere between the “late majority” and “laggards” categories of the innovation adoption curve. He refers to the ways that newspapers moved from isolated news services of their own design, maintenance or control to becoming part of the larger media landscape, though only after purely online or otherwise new media entities began to populate the Web (173).
The case studies revealed to Boczkowski three overarching situations, which he describes on page 174 and are extend here: the relationships between the online and print newsrooms (which we could call creation); the vision of the intended user of certain content (reception); and the character of newsroom practices to reproduce editorial gatekeeping (maintenance) or enact alternatives (rejection).

Of particular note here is the division between the journalistic work undertaken by the online and print staffs. Those unfamiliar with newsrooms forget or may not be aware that, in the late 90s when Boczkowski did the fieldwork, there were many organizations with the ability to keep separate newsrooms – a practice that continued, at least until recently in places like the Capital Times in Madison, according to research conducted by Sue Robinson. Now, of course, newsrooms are struggling to support even basic desks and the idea of separating the tasks is infeasible from almost any standpoint, be it financial, social, technical or managerial.

The kinds of best practices that at least the three cases in the book employed – appealing to a wide variety of users in much the same spirit as the print-based product – seem to have also disappeared from the modern news organization. Highly technical, intricate orchestrations of code dominate the websites of even the most traditional of newspapers – mostly done to increase the “value-added position” of the entity.

Boczkowski uses the term “information flows” to describe the newfound potential of online newspapers to engage and interact with their publics (175). The discussion plays off of the buzzphrase of “user-generated content,” yet another one of the “value additives” touted by media organizations as they strive to maintain relevancy with the changing demography of the Internet. Boczkowski also characterizes the editorial gatekeeping function of the newspapers to be problematic if not detrimental to the opportunities afforded by the Internet.

The three case studies (all of which have since been subsumed by larger entities – in fact by the main site for the newspapers from which they tried to distance themselves – but the Boczkowski’s study maintains relevance if only because it highlights patterns, failures and achievements in the innovation process that can be applied to most any technology in most any industry. Rather than being atypical cases, they are in fact examples of normalization in online newswork that points to the truth that the major print institutions will find a way to survive – if not by individual innovative responses to changing environments then by sheer force of evolutionary will. 

Boczkowski asserts that the print to digital move in newswork is a "fundamental" one (187) and that the shift is one of totality. The largest online news organizations are the largest print/broadcast organizations. I disagree. 

As Boczkowski borrows from Patrice Flichy, (181), technology most often moves borders and makes them applicable to other situations rather than removing them.  The same has been true for online journalism and, likely, will remain a permanent fixture in the future. Digitalized news, after all, is still news. 

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