David Domingo thinks David M Ryfe’s book “could well be the last of newsroom ethnographies as we know them” . He is probably right, because, as he says, “spending months among journalists to understand their practices, their values, and their aspirations will soon not be enough to analyse the evolution of journalism in the digital public sphere”. 1.
Ryfe’s book, Can Journalism Survive? An Inside Look at American Newsrooms 2 examines journalistic practice in three American newsrooms over a five-year period and found that journalists “have not adapted very well” [p. 3] to changes in their industry. “For the most part, they continue to gather the same sorts of information, from the same sorts of people, and package it in the same news forms they have used for decades” [p. 3]. Boczkowski’s 2004 work found the same trend, and noted that when confronted with change journalists tended to be “reactive, defensive, and pragmatic” [see Boczkowski, 2004, p 48].
Ryfe sees the reasons for this as cultural: “The problem for professional journalism is that is that, since the 1920s, it has been grounded in ideals of detachment, independence and objectivity. Journalists in the profession distinguish themselves precisely by their unwillingness to get too involved. … Online this simply will not do. … If journalists want to survive in the densely clustered world of online interaction, they will have to make personal, even intimate, connections with others.” [p. 10]
“… online, individuals have more freedom to choose and more options from which to choose, and this has dislodged journalism from its primary role as a filter for public information. Also, when exercising their choice, individuals tend to cluster with like-minded others, much as they do in their daily social interactions. … To have a chance of online success, journalists need to exude the same level of knowledge, passion and interest as the hubs that stand between them and everyone else in the cluster.” [p. 10]
Ryfe sees the challenge to journalism as ontological, not technological or economic: “it goes to the heart of what journalism is, what journalists do, and why they do it.” [p.11] He notes the tendency of journalists to “reproduce their shared culture in an unreflective way” [p.15] but also observes that newsrooms are alive with disagreement about stories, treatment, priorities, among other things. “This contentiousness implies that the culture of journalism is not as seamless or uniform as one might suspect. It implies, in other words, that disagreement might be as vital as agreement in reproducing journalism’s culture.” [p.16]
He sees this illustrated in two waves of journalism research. The first, between 1970 and 1980 was characterised by the work of Gans, Tuchman and Sigal and revealed an unreflective journalistic practice. The second wave, in the 80s and 90s included work by Bantz, Eliasoph, Pedelty and Jacobs, and instead showed the constant conflict that is part of daily journalism. “One way to link these two waves of scholarship is to say that journalists engage in a constant process of justification.” [p.16] Disagreement, he suggests, “provides journalists an opportunity to reconfirm the salience of the norms and practices that bind them together.” [p.16]
Ryfe identifies three cultural dynamics that he says inhibit change in journalism [p.25]:
- News production is structured by deeply engrained habits and efforts to change them triggers an identity crisis;
- Journalists are invested in prior successes and they are loathe to give up that investment without a tangible benefit;
- Journalism is defined by “constitutive rules” that structure interactions with sources, editors and readers.
Ryfe recognises that resistance to the internet was greater in the earlier years of his research and that now most journalists recognise that their profession must adapt. Despite this, news production remains unchanged. He attributes this to the constitutive aspect of journalistic culture. [p.25]
Ryfe is perplexed by the apparent contradiction that the status quo remains even though journalists want things to change and thinks the reason is a constitutive rule: “The constitutive rule of journalist-as-filter anchors journalism to tradition simply by defining what counts as an instance of practice.” [p.116]
By way of illustration he outlines the transition at the Gazette in … Under new leadership it began a program of changing reporters into ‘superbloggers’ who would post content on their topics to a blog, from which it would then be selected for the a news website. But as Ryfe observes, despite new role titles there was little fundamental change to what the staff did. “Many took up the new practices but mostly turned them to traditional purposes.” [p.132]
“Lacking any other constitutive rule, Gazette staffers sought to understand superblogging in terms of a traditional gatekeeping conception of journalism, and so kept coming up against ontological bedrock.” [p.128]
He thinks journalism is not dying, but unravelling: “… the boundaries of journalism are blurring. It is increasingly difficult to distinguish the inside from the outside of the field. Many new people and organisations have entered the field, and this, in turn, has made it difficult to tell who a journalist is apart from any other news producer, or to identify standards of ‘good’ journalism that are widely shared (and enforceable). Journalism, put simply, is losing its coherence as a distinctive social field.” [p.140]
Journalism, he says, has come undone, and can be put back together “only if it comes to resonate with other aspects of a networked society – and this depends on whether and the extent to which networks transform other institutions of public life.” [p.140]
“In the future there will still be journalists, and there will still be journalists working in commercially oriented news organisations. But the field is no longer cohesive and integrated, and journalists no longer control its boundaries.” [p.195]