Annotation – Reshaping the public radio newsroom for the digital future, by Nikki Usher

Inside view of the NPR newsroom

Published in 2012 based on field research conducted by Nikki Usher from 2008 to 2010, this paper presents an account of NPR’s response to a rapidly changing digital media environment. As audiences increasingly looked to the web for news, management at NPR understood a need for fundamental change in its operations and identity, from an organization focused entirely on news production for radio broadcast, to a digital media company producing multimedia for online distribution along with traditional NPR broadcast content. 

Usher observed the early years of this transition by attending two strategic planning workshops organized for NPR by the Knight Foundation, from interviews with NPR executives and staff, and from further meetings at NPR. She recounts the initial failed efforts toward digital transformation as NPR CEO Ken Stern attempted a “top-down” approach to managing change. This was followed by a more successful change strategy under new CEO Vivian Schiller, whereby “NPR created the conditions of ambiguity that allowed for innovation to take place” (p.1).

A strategy based on conditions of ambiguity might seem like no strategy at all. But Usher cites other contemporaneous research on change management in organizations during times of rapid change and uncertainty which concludes that success is dependent on accepting ambiguity, and embracing flexibility in development of new digital products and workflows.… Read the rest “Annotation – Reshaping the public radio newsroom for the digital future, by Nikki Usher”

Annotation – Marketplace public radio and new routines reconsidered: Between structures and agents, by Nikki Usher

Diagram of an abstract structure

In this paper Nikki Usher frames her five-month ethnographic study of the public radio program Marketplace within sociologist Anthony Giddens’ theory of structuration and agency. The article begins with a brief review of previous newsroom social research, which generally concludes that organization patterns and the strictures of professional journalism are generally impervious to individual change agents, i.e. journalists working within them. While Usher identifies limiting structures in news production at Marketplace, they find evidence for individual agency yielding structural change, and that “agents are most able to change structure when they can introduce new routines into newswork via new technology” (p.808). They conclude that while journalists are indeed constrained by newsroom structures, they have more agency than they have generally been credited with. 

Usher identifies constraints familiar to most anyone working in news, namely time and organizational identity, as the most important limiting structures at Marketplace. Time is an especially important limiting factor in radio, both in terms of meeting deadlines to air, and time limits for each story or program segment. Other structural factors they identify are audience demands, editorial hierarchy, limitations to specific beats, pressures from sources, and uniform presentation of story content. Unique to Marketplace is the structure referred to by staff as “Marketplacey” identity and story style, which in my experience is similar in character to the vision statements and self-definitions of many other public radio programs.… Read the rest “Annotation – Marketplace public radio and new routines reconsidered: Between structures and agents, by Nikki Usher”

Annotation – Going Web-First at The Christian Science Monitor: A Three-Part Study of Change, by Nikki Usher

Christian Science Monitor front door

In 2009 the Christian Science Monitor was among the daily newspapers ceasing print publication in favor of web-only distribution. This paper presents ethnographic research on that transition by former journalist and current associate professor of Communication Studies at the University of San Diego Nikki Usher. Usher observed editorial operations and interviewed news staff at the Monitor during three periods between February 2009 and February 2010: before the transition to web-only, after the transition but before adopting a new content management system, and after CMS implementation. Their goal was to understand the meaning of the change to Monitor’s journalists and its impact on their organizational and journalistic values. 

Usher begins with a useful literature review concerning the impact and challenges of implementing new technology in organizations, traditional newswork prior to the internet, and change processes in news organizations during their adoption of internet-based technologies. The studies they cite would be of considerable value in understanding how web-only news publishing has reconfigured journalistic identity and authority. 

Prior to the transition to web-only publishing, the Monitor’s news staff expressed concerns about how it would alter the Monitor’s values and “humanitarian viewpoint” (p.1903). The print version had long been known for in-depth coverage of international news presented in some analytical depth.… Read the rest “Annotation – Going Web-First at The Christian Science Monitor: A Three-Part Study of Change, by Nikki Usher”

Annotation – Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society, Manuel Castells

Drawing of a large network

Sociologist Manuel Castells is the best-known proponent of the “network society” as a social theory in the age of the internet. In the network society, politics, economics, and cultures are strongly shaped by electronic information systems characterized as decentralized, adaptable, and non-hierarchical. Castells’ claim is that this is a “new society” and that “the prevalence of networks redefines social structure in our societies” (Castells, 2000). Castells’ network society can be seen as a sharp historical discontinuity. But he argues against narratives of historical fate or technological determinism, as he explains that what happens in the network society is determined by the age-old struggle between institutionalized power and counter-power expressed by social movements. Network technology simply restructures the space where that struggle plays out.

In his article Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society, Castells focuses on what he terms “mass self-communication,” a new mode of communication made possible by horizontal (i.e. many to many) networks. He acknowledges that while there have always been networks in human culture, in the network society they now constitute a “global web of horizontal communication networks that include multimodal exchange of interactive messages from many to many both synchronous and asynchronous.” Media remains the primary space where power is decided, but insurgent political actors and social movements are able to intervene more decisively in the “new communication space” made possible by horizontal networks.… Read the rest “Annotation – Communication, Power and Counter-power in the Network Society, Manuel Castells”

Annotation – New Media, 1740–1915

Doyer Street, Chinatown, N.Y.C. New York state 19th Century

I teach a class entitled “New Media” at Illinois Wesleyan University, which the course description (distressingly) suggests is about social media. Social media might qualify as new media, depending on the cultural situation and time frame. That is precisely the focus of New Media, 1740–1915, edited by Lisa Gitelman and Geoffrey B. Pingree (2003, MIT Press), which begins with the observation that “all media were once new media” (p.vii). The book presents a collection of historical essays on specific forms of media that were new in their times, and importantly, placing them in the corresponding social context.

While the essays describe the technologies, sometimes in some detail, they are more about “the social drama in which the technologies are used ‘to negotiate power, authority, representation, and knowledge’” (p.93). Some of these new media failed to catch on, or made a brief appearance only to find they failed the negotiation. But as always, media technologies aren’t just technologies; they are embedded in and interact with cultural practices, and the way they are used shapes and is shaped by both their affordances and the social imperatives of their users.

Thus we have the zograscope, perhaps the first device able to create the three-dimensional perceptual experience known as stereopsis from a single two-dimensional image.… Read the rest “Annotation – New Media, 1740–1915”

Annotation – Period, Theme Event: Locating Information History in History, by Alistair Black & Bonnie Mak

A sample of Linear B script, the earliest Greek writing, 1450 BC

My bookshelves are increasingly overstuffed with histories of information technologies. As a broadcast journalist and technology nerd who survived the digital transition, my scholarly interests have been shaped by the transformative years of the early internet, the emergence of the prematurely-heralded “Web 2.0,” the rising dominance of Big Tech, surveillance capitalism, and of course today’s social media and epistemological crisis. On one shelf I have Howard Rheingold’s Tools for Thought (Rheingold 1985), Stewart Brand’s The Media Lab: Inventing the Future at MIT (1988), Being Digital (Negroponte 1995), What Will Be (Dertouzos 1998), and The Cluetrain Manifesto (Levine & Locke et al. 1999). On the “more scholarly” side of the shelf, I have Janet Abbate’s Inventing the Internet (Abbate 2000) along with Ceruzzi’s A History of Modern Computing (Ceruzzi 2000), and for my inner librarian there’s  also A History of Online Information Services, 1963-1976 (Bourne & Hahn 2003). In my Books for True Nerds section, there’s Track Changes: A Literary History of Word Processing (Kirschenbaum 2016), UNIX: A History and a Memoir (Kernighan 2020), and speaking of history, I’ve got Tom Standage’s “steampunk classic” (said the New York Times) The Victorian Internet: The Remarkable Story of the Telegraph and the Nineteenth Century’s On-line Pioneers (Standage 2014), plus his earlier book The Turk: The Life and Times of the Famous Eighteenth-Century Chess-Playing Machine (Standage 2002).… Read the rest “Annotation – Period, Theme Event: Locating Information History in History, by Alistair Black & Bonnie Mak”

Annotation – News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?

Map of news deserts in the United States

The decline of local news in the United States isn’t news to me. For years I’ve been following the long-term downward trends in the quantity, quality, and viability of news organizations, employment, and output as a journalist, and more recently in my academic research. This report, authored by Penelope Muse Abernathy and published in 2020 by the Hussman School of Journalism and Media at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, presents abundant evidence that those long-term trends have accelerated since 2004. And the authors state that economic and social disruption from the COVID-19 pandemic, beginning in 2020, have “greatly accelerated” the crisis of local news.

Ambitious in its scope (and length), the report begins with key facts about the decline of the local news landscape since 2004, derived from extensive research and a large database of news organizations created and updated by the Hussman School at UNC. For example:

  • Since 2004 about one-fourth of all U.S. daily and weekly newspapers have closed (some 2,100).
  • About one-half of local journalists lost their jobs.
  • Most of the shuttered daily newspapers served minority and/or impoverished communities.
  • Many of the surviving local news organizations are “ghosts” of their former selves, employing fewer and fewer reporters and editorial staff. 
Read the rest “Annotation – News Deserts and Ghost Newspapers: Will Local News Survive?”

Social Theory & Local News

I like to play with metaphors while reflecting on ideas and theories. A good metaphor gives me a starting point in struggling to understand a theory, and contrasting it with other theories. If we image social and critical theories as colors, it might help to visualize how a given theory mixes with others, overlapping at the edges to produce new colors, new theories.

But really, that’s a terrible metaphor so I won’t be using it here.

What I will do is review a set of sources of theoretical explication and argument. But “review” I mean, first, to annotate them, and second to record my reflections about them. I intend to connect some dots if I can find them. For example, how does Anthony Giddens’ structuration theory relate to Manuel Castells’ conception of the network society? How does Christian Fuchs’ critique of Marx, Habermas, and Adorno relate to Nancy Fraser’s account of today’s capitalist structures of exploitation and expropriation? Etcetera.

In other words, this is a deeply nerdy project.

But let’s get real: None of these theoretical concerns mean much unless we bring in this thing called the real world of time, space, people, and action, which (theoretically speaking) I think actually exists.… Read the rest “Social Theory & Local News”