As part of our ongoing collaboration with Nieman Journalism Lab, we’ve rounded up the latest in digital- and media-oriented scholarship — picking highlights from disciplines such as computer science, political science, journalism research and communications. (Note: this article was first published at Nieman Lab, and is now archived here in full.)
It’s back-to-school time, and recently it seems “school” is coming ever-closer to the media. The news that the leading political science blog the Monkey Cage will become part of the Washington Post is the latest sign that academia may play a bigger role in coverage of public affairs.
The hybrid research-communications outfit Futurity — which aggregates university public information articles — continues to build its audience, while startups The Conversation and Footnote, media platforms for academic voices, are pioneering a new template. Of course, more researchers are joining Twitter every month. A new paper in Journalism Studies, “Academic Journalism: A Modest Proposal,” from scholars at CUNY’s Baruch College, looks at the possibility of more direct participation by higher education institutions in the creation of investigative and accountability reporting. And after Labor Day, journalism schools across the country will be churning out greater volumes of community news than ever before, as Knight Foundation, Poynter, and many others encourage change and reform in this general direction.
This latest roundup of digital scholarship highlights a growing number of studies — most brand-new, but a few from earlier this summer — that have strong implications for the news business and the practice of journalism. Papers in this research area can be highly theoretical, so it’s good to see some concrete takeaways offered from academia for a struggling industry.
Are news media missing business and growth opportunities by not offering and utilizing more geolocation functionality in their mobile apps? Weiss analyzes more than 100 native apps from top TV network affiliates and radio stations, as well as other news apps in Apple’s App Store. She combines that content analysis with results from an online survey of young news consumers, who are increasingly likely to employ geolocation “check-ins” and location-based services as part of their mobile experience.
She finds that the “adoption of geo-located news stories is nonexistent among the traditional media examined. Six apps that did offer geo-located news were mainly user-generated apps.” The verdict on news organizations is damning, and the implications are clear: “Legacy news organizations analyzed in this study show that they are failing to keep up with the demand based on what news consumers, particularly young adults, are doing and using on their smartphones. This is supported by the proven hypothesis in this study that found younger adults who use location based services are also likely to consume news on their smartphone.”
It has become conventional wisdom in journalism circles that the loss of the classified ads — a key part of the newspaper “bundle” that became tragically unbundled as the Internet rose — was a devastating blow to local news. How devastating? Seamans and Zhu estimate that Craigslist alone cost the business $5 billion over the period 2000-2007.
Of course, setting aside media hand-wringing, this might also be seen purely as good market efficiency — as $5 billion in net “savings” for classified ad buyers. In any case, the data suggest that “relative to newspapers without classified ad managers, the effect of Craigslist’s entry on newspapers with classified ad managers leads to a decrease of 20.7% in classified-ad rates, an increase of 3.3% in subscription prices, a decrease of 4.4% in circulation…and a decrease of 3.1% in display-ad rates.” (For some contextual perspective, see Pew’s industry-wide figures, which show that total newspaper classified revenue was about $20 billion annually in 2000, around $13 billion in 2007, and today about $4 billion.)
Seamans and Zhu conclude that the findings help “build an understanding of how media platforms respond to shocks from technologically disruptive entrants from different industries. This issue is important because the boundaries between media industries are blurred today, as advertisers can reach relevant consumers through a variety of channels such as TV, the Internet, and mobile devices. Therefore, platforms are likely to be unprepared for competition if they rely on industry boundaries to identify their competitors.”
The paper explores and critiques the so-called “hacks and hackers” movement — the hybrid work being done by journalists and technologists. Lewis and Usher (both frequent Nieman Lab contributors) make a series of observations about different facets of this collaboration, and they review the relevant pre-history. But they focus it all around a note of worry: “Because the focus has been on solving problems for journalism, we feel that less attention has been paid to how the larger culture of how open-source software production might inform journalism’s broader innovation.”
One principle they offer up and explore is “news story as code” — the notion that news might be endlessly annotated and reshaped by the community. Another idea reviewed is “journalism as knowledge management” — the journalist as curator of community contributions. Lewis and Usher assert that all of the collaborations and actors involved to date deserve scrutiny, given the numerous inherent challenges, such as the failure to attract true community participation, the realties that projects need leaders, etc.: “[T]hese problems with open source also point to the need to question its aggressive promotion by the likes of Knight, Mozilla, Google, and other institutions seeking to shape the future of journalism and technology. Issues of power, ideology, and control ought to be part of future studies of this emerging connection between the journalism field, tech communities, and open source.”
The authors conclude: “[W]e should be careful not to fetishize this concept, or any other, as a panacea, particularly at a time when the latest technology invention is too readily seen as the salvation for journalism’s troubled model in the 21st century.”
A paper that blends high theory with empirical, ethnographic research performed in newsrooms and with practitioners of both legacy media and blogs, it attempts to understand the increasingly blurry difference between “original” and aggregated-derivative journalistic work. What actually is “news” these days?
Anderson (a regular Nieman Lab contributor) takes as his starting point ideas from the FCC workshop “The Future of Media and Information Needs of Communities: Serving the Public Interest in the Digital Era” (see the related report). The views of Steve Waldman, Jeff Jarvis, Paul Starr, and other journo-thinker luminaries are all summarized. Ultimately, Anderson tries to reconcile the competing notions and big arguments about news that emerge. If we can’t agree about theory, how about practice? He takes to the streets to do his own journalism and aggregation of the journalists and aggregators. No doubt, the research fieldwork was interesting — “Sitting in a darkened midtown bar that has long been one of the favorite haunts of journalists working for the New York City tabloid New York Post” — and the author sails off among the likes of Huffington Post (12 aggregation sites in all) and select mainstream media institutions.
Based on these interviews and field observations, conducted between 2008 and 2011, Anderson notes: “If we remain on the level of rhetorical conflict, of course, the lines are clear enough, but the minute we descend into the realm of material practice all manner of complications ensue…. [I]t is hard to say which ‘occupational group’ engages in which jurisdictional practices, given the evidence that aggregation is a radically hybrid form of newswork that promiscuously crosses occupational boundaries.”
And Anderson ties it all together with a striking, and very useful, set of fundamental distinctions: “[A]ggregators have accepted the website and the link, and categories of digital evidence more broadly, as valid items which can be rationally processed through the news network. Journalists, on the other hand, remain wedded to analog evidence — quotes, official government sources, first-person observations, analog documents and files — as the primary raw material out of which they build their stories. In part this relates to material practice, but it also relates to journalistic culture. In terms of expertise and authority, it means that aggregators and reporters have, thus far, built themselves distinct news networks, with different black-boxed objects of evidence and different claims about how material interaction with those objects validates their professional authority.”
It is commonly assumed that the rise of digital technology has, along with changing news delivery and presentation, fundamentally overturned longstanding newsgathering habits. Not necessarily true, finds Reich, who analyzes up close the daily work of many mainstream Israeli journalists over a 10-year period, from 2001 to 2011.
He finds that “technology did not play a transformative role in news reporting. Although some of the differences are significant, the general picture suggests a remarkable stability.” The daily task of the reporter, at least in these case studies, has not changed much: “Reliance on social networks and on the Internet as news sources is marginal; social networks contributed 0.4% of the information in news gathering…and Internet use did not exceed 4% throughout the decade. The dominant and most remarkably stable technology (even displaying a slight rise in the news discovery phase) is the telephone.”
Reich notes that the findings are consistent with similar studies about journalistic practice in the U.S. and European contexts. (See, for example, a related 2012 study from the University of Georgia, “New technology, old practices: Examining news websites from a professional perspective.”) The author states that “reporters tend to conservatism, even when expected to display maximal receptivity to innovation — an observation that may disappoint scholars who correctly envisioned the vast potential of new technologies to release journalists from their restricted role as sources’ ‘oral relays’ or help them adapt to changes in news environments.”
As the debate rages over NSA surveillance practices of Internet traffic routed through the United States — and as Silicon Valley worries over its business implications — this paper underscores the dilemmas even for friends and allies. The authors note that a good deal of Canadian Internet traffic passes through U.S. switching centers or carriers, a phenomenon they call “boomerang routing.” In their dataset sample, about one-quarter of the 25,000 traceroutes appear to boomerang through the Unites States. They assert that this means that the traffic is subject to all kinds of U.S. security surveillance laws, in effect negating Canada’s sovereignty over its citizens’ communications and canceling its ability to control the legal norms to which the Canadian citizenry is subjected. Obar and Clement advocate more investment in public Internet infrastructure, particularly the building of more exchange points, and make a call for greater north-of-the-border digital sovereignty. A related paper, “IXmaps — Tracking your personal data through the NSA’s warrantless wiretapping sites,” also authored by Clement at the Universty of Toronto, is worth checking out.
Many newspapers now boast of having much larger total audiences, as new web visitors more than make up for losses in print subscribers. But the numbers about audience “reach” can deceive, Thurman finds, if you take careful stock of the actual amount of time people are spending with news institutions. He analyzes various circulation and Nielsen figures relating to 12 British national newspapers; the analysis breaks down the domestic and overseas audiences. Thurman finds that, as of 2011, a “minimum of 96.7% of the time spent with newspaper brands by their domestic audience was in print.”
Because online visitors typically visit only extremely briefly, even large numbers of site visitors can produce relatively little overall time with the news product. Even The Guardian was seeing only 7 percent of total time spent with their product from online sources. Further, news appears to be losing out in terms of public attention: “Looking at the results between 2007 and 2011 … what is perhaps most concerning for newspaper brands is that for all but one of the titles studied — The Guardian — the total number of minutes spent reading by the aggregated UK print and online readerships has declined. Across the 12 titles the average fall was at least 16.05 percent.”
Still, overseas web visitors were contributing substantially to the overall online time spent with the news entity: For every hour spent by domestic web visitors, 25 more minutes were added by the audience abroad — at least among the five selected publications. The author concedes that the data he analyzes is imperfect (he can’t account for mobile apps, for example), but the takeaway is as follows: “Although some newspapers might take comfort from their increased popularity, because the online visitors who are driving that increase are being relatively frugal with the time they spend with newspapers’ online channels, losses in the time-spent-reading newspapers’ print products have not, with the exception of The Guardian, been offset by gains in online time-spent-reading.”
Tufekci, also an engaged academic commentator on Twitter, has previously studied activism dynamics in Tahrir Square. Her latest study presents case studies in how political activists/citizen journalists — so-called “microcelebrity activists,” which she notes “first came to the forefront of international attention in the Arab Spring” — gain and maintain audiences in social media space, and how this helps define emerging notions about media attention and political power.
She examines in great detail the case of Bahraini activist Zainab Al-Khawaja and finds important differences between the former media world, when legacy media predominated, and our present moment: “Perhaps the most important difference that flows from these cases is that the ‘power-dependency’ relationship between media and the social movement actors has been fundamentally altered,” Tufekci writes. “The microcelebrity activist is not monopolistically dependent on mass media for attention of broader publics. In fact, some activists have follower networks that rival readership of large newspapers. Furthermore, since the immediate follower network also acts as propagator, the reach of these activists can easily be tens of millions of people in just one or two degrees out of their core social media networks — and, of course, this kind of reach often also supports mass media appearances, further increasing visibility.”
The paper takes an empirical look at the evolving two-way street of how news coverage can drive online search — and how online search can also drive media coverage. Ragas and Tran use the Associated Press and Reuters as their representative indicators of news coverage and analyze data from the U.S. Search Intelligence database of Experian Hitwise. The study looks at coverage of President Obama during 2009-2010. Predictably, more AP and Reuters coverage — particularly negative coverage — was associated with more online search around Obama. But, interestingly, Ragas and Tran found that “coverage volume was also influenced by search trends, demonstrating an instance of reverse agenda setting with the media seemingly monitoring and taking cues from Internet users. Moreover, the impact of search salience on media salience occurred relatively quickly (starting within a week), while the media-led influence appeared to accumulate over a five-week span.”
The findings validate greater media investment in monitoring of the digital space — they “lend empirical support to recent observations of journalists monitoring, influencing, and reacting to search trends and the rise of the active audience in web environments.” For communications and journalism scholars, the study is particularly interesting because it shows that the traditional dynamics of media “agenda setting” — telling the public what to think about, and how to think about it — is changing and becoming a more dynamic process.
The study contributes to the growing literature on how news consumption habits, particularly of digital media, may contribute to engagement and participation levels in other parts of democratic life. In general, people who consume news tend to participate in civic affairs more than those citizens who don’t pay much attention. That much should be obvious, and there’s some data to back it up.
But this study — which analyzes 2008-2009 online survey data from 945 participants — finds those who prefer digital media are, on average, more civically active (e.g., volunteering or charity work, attending a public hearing or rally, etc.) in comparison to traditional print news consumers: “And this is the case regardless of whether it refers to online or offline means of participation and beyond the effect of demographic factors, social orientations and people’s levels of news consumption. These results seem to indicate that the Internet may supply a set of characteristics that print journalism may be unable to provide.”
Interesting, but it’s certainly not the last word on the subject, as there is also a competing academic research thread that suggests more digital media choice may actually contribute to participatory inequality. (See, for example, the work of Princeton’s Markus Prior.)
A profitable back-to-school read for incoming college freshman. Despite the laughs the topic might generate — “Awesome selfie with Natty Ice!” — the researchers are dead serious about the public health implications and they focus on the consequences of a widespread problem: The escalation of drinking consumption among late teens who find themselves suddenly free from the shackles of Mom and Dad.
The researchers conduct a comprehensive survey of 338 young persons from two different universities and determine that “over the first year of college, alcohol displays on Facebook dramatically increased in a variety of multimedia formats.” There were significant differences over time between students at the two universities studied, suggesting that it is college-specific norms that “may impact both alcohol behaviors as well as what material is socially acceptable to display on Facebook at that school.”
The researchers propose that “it is worth considering whether universities should play a role in discouraging displayed alcohol content on Facebook by their students. Students may underestimate the potential implications for employment or future educational opportunities that could be impacted by displayed alcohol content on Facebook.”