The Rise of Scholarship in the Study of Online News

I participated in a symposium that marked the first quarter century of research on digital journalism. It was organized by Pablo Boczkowski and Chris Anderson and held at Northwestern University on April 11, 2015. Titled “Remaking (Digital) News”, the symposium led me to look back on my career in communication and the progress I’ve observed in the study of journalism, and digital journalism in particular. I wrote a commentary for one section of their forthcoming book (Boczkowski and Anderson forthcoming), but beyond this commentary, I thought it useful to share my thoughts on the rise of scholarly research in the field, if only to provoke some comments and corrections to by perspective from outside the field.

Online Journalism
Online Journalism

Roots of the Study of Digital Journalism

Histories of digital journalism can be traced back long before the web. Pioneering two-way cable communication projects – so called “wired city” – projects in the late 1970s and early 1980s experimented with the delivery of news, such as facsimile delivery of local news, using Japan’s Highly Interactive Optical Visual Information System (Hi-OVIS) in Higashi Ikoma (Kawahata 1987). Trials of videotext, bulletin board services (BBS), and online services sought to deliver the news in new formats. Early work focused on whether anyone would use such services given the prominence of newspapers and magazines.

Later, but ever since the 1980s, in the early years of the Internet – then ARPANET – prominent concerns began to be raised about the potential for online news sources to erode the quality of journalism, such as by distributing rumors rather than verified facts. This potential became epitomized by the Drudge Report. Launched in 1996, as an email-based newsletter, it was the first source of rumors surfacing around President Bill Clinton’s “Monica Lewinsky scandal,” which more mainstream media decided to withhold from publication. [The Drudge Report was posted on January 17, 1998, with the headline “Newsweek Kills Story on White House Intern.”]

Ever since that time, the Internet has often been viewed as a Trojan horse that would lower the quality of journalism by enabling unprofessional bloggers – amateurs with lower standards – to enter the news business (Keen 2007). Research has focused significant attention on that potential, but often found that the new news sources, such as social media, complement rather than substitute for professional journalism, with the sourcing of material moving in both directions (e.g., Newman et al. 2012).

In parallel, since the mid-1970s, the rise of the new media, such as two-way cable, videotext, BBS, and the Internet, has fueled concerns over the potential for new media research, or research on the adoption and use of information and communication technologies. Many believed the new media to be ephemeral novelties, mere fads, but that research on these new media would sidetrack more significant research on mainstream media, and potentially erode the quality of media and communication research. Far from a fad, the new media converged around the Internet to become increasingly central to the media and society, and new media and Internet studies have become burgeoning sources of scholarly research in a wide range of fields, including journalism (Lievrouw and Livingstone 2002; Peng et al. 2013; Dutton 2013; Hartley et al. 2013).

Most concerns were raised about the Internet being a questionable new object of study, but there was similar unease about the Internet and digital media introducing new methodological approaches, such as e-research and digital social research, and about the rise of big data analytics. These new methods were also seen as a potential threat to the quality of scholarship generally – not just journalism research (Dutton and Jeffreys 2010: 343–47). Can the scraping of websites ever replace the use of in-depth interviews and qualitative case studies?

This tradeoff has turned out to be a false choice. It seems clear that a developing strength of the field of digital journalism is its pragmatic approach to methods – what might be called methodological eclecticism. Just as journalistic practices are growing in variety, from traditional interviews to data journalism, the methodological range of scholarship in the area has expanded to encompass approaches ranging from ethnographic research and content analysis to computational analytics and related “big data” approaches to discovery – digital social research.

Global Universities and the Demonstration of Scholarship

Just as journalism was in the center of concerns over studies of, and with, new technologies posing threats to scholarship and practice, the field faced more general trends across universities to become more focused on high-quality scholarship. Across disciplines, since the 1970s, universities have faced pressures to become more competitive in the metrics of scholarship, such as publication in high-quality journals, and good citation counts. Higher education has become more global. The days of local and regional monopolies in attracting students were seen to be declining, not only because of inexpensive travel, but also because of the increasing availability of informative websites that were fast becoming one of the student’s first points of contact with universities. Scholarly rankings were likely to increasingly challenge the role of geographical proximity in student choices of institutions of higher education.

 

All of these pressures have combined since the early 1980s, to move journalism schools, particularly in universities across the United States, to transform themselves from journalism training to placing a greater priority on scholarship, focusing effort on developing journalism research and producing top scholars of journalism to join and complement practicing journalists. Top journalism schools in the United States have long cherished their prize-winning journalists among their faculty. However, while practicing journalists once made up the lion’s share of most journalism faculties, they have given ground over the years to a rising number of academics who view journalism as an object of study rather than their own profession.

There remains strong support for recruiting successful journalists to teach the art and techniques of journalism, but there is growing interest in attracting scholars who also view the practice and role of journalism in society as an object of study from multiple disciplinary perspectives. Scholarship, as opposed to the practical arts, is not new to journalism. A number of major scholars of communication have developed within the field of journalism: scholars like Michael Schudson come to mind. It seems clear that the number of scholarly researchers among the ranks of journalism faculties has risen over the last twenty-five years.

However, as noted above, as this transformation in journalism faculties was developing, the Internet enabled a new technical approach to journalism – online news and digital journalism – that posed another threat to the very practice as well as the study of journalism. In introducing new technologies, such as the Internet and related blogging and social media technologies, digital journalism has bumped up against the traditional journalist’s skills and toolkits. In addition, the study of digital journalism became inherently more multi- or interdisciplinary, by requiring a greater understanding of the production and reception of new media as well as more mainstream journalistic practices. Also, like other interdisciplinary fields, the study of digital journalism has been problem-focused by its very nature, rather than focused on refining particular theoretical frameworks or concepts. As an interdisciplinary field, it was therefore not developing as a mainstream discipline, which also made it more problematic to build its scholarly reputation.

The concurrent rise of Internet studies and interdisciplinary research has helped support the study of digital journalism. The symposium provided many examples of digital journalism drawing theories and methods from a multitude of different fields, underscoring how digital journalism is advancing as a field of study just as the future of online journalism appears to be gaining a certain sense of inevitability, despite continuing concerns over the business models and economic bottom lines of supporting high-quality journalism.

References

Boczkowski, P. J., and Anderson, C.W. (forthcoming), Remaking the News. Book in progress.

Dutton, W. H. (2013) (ed.), The Oxford Handbook of Internet Studies. Oxford, UK: Oxford University Press.

Dutton, W. H., and P. Jeffreys (2010) (eds), World Wide Research: Reshaping the Sciences and Humanities. Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press.

Kawahata, M. (1987), HI-OVIS. In Wired Cities: Shaping the Future of Communications, edited by W. H. Dutton, J. G. Blumler, and K. L. Kraemer, 179–200. Boston, Mass: G. K. Hall.

Hartley, J., J. Burgess, and A. Bruns (2013) (eds), A Companion to New Media Dynamics. Chichester, West Sussex, UK: Blackwell Publishing Ltd.

Keen, A. (2007), The Cult of the Amateur: How Today’s Internet is Killing Our Culture. New York: Doubleday.

Lievrouw, L. A., and S. Livingstone (2002) (eds), Handbook of New Media. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage.

Newman, N., W. H. Dutton, and G. Blank (2012), “Social Media in the Changing Ecology of News: The Fourth and Fifth Estates in Britain,” International Journal of Internet Science, 7(1): 6–22.

Peng, T.Q., L. Zhang, Z.-J. Zhong, and J. Zhu (2013), “Mapping the Landscape of Internet Studies: Text Mining of Social Science Journal Articles 2000–2009,” New Media and Society, 15(5), 644–64.

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