Book: Rebuilding the News

RebuildingCW Anderson’s ethnography 1 explores the struggle of local news organisations during a period of upheaval in the news industry more broadly. It reveals journalistic moments of “confrontation, collaboration and collapse” as newsrooms struggled to move online and manage financial pressure. Like Ryfe’s work, Anderson identifies journalism’s self image as a contributing factor to the failures he outlines.

The book analyses then economic, organisational and cultural factors that shaped the choice news organisation made in their attempt to adapt to new economic and technical realities. In particular, Anderson says “local journalism’s occupational self image, its vision of itself as an autonomous workforce conducting original reporting on behalf of a unitary public, blocked the kind of cross-insitutuional collaboration that might have helped journalism thrive in an era of fractured communication.” [p. 3]

He says local journalism sees itself “as an institutionally grounded profession that empirically informs (and even, perhaps, ‘assembles’) the public”, but that an “unreflective commitment to a particular and historically contingent version of they self-image now undermines … larger democratic aspirations.” [p.3]

Anderson aims to examine how metropolitan journalism is practiced and how economic, cultural and philosophical challenges might impact democracy and public life: “To the degree that journalism has a future, the shape of that future will be determined by journalists themselves as they struggle within a web of institutional, economic, and culture constraints.” [p. 4]

In an effort to understand the news ecosystem, Anderson has used network ethnography, an approach that uses network analysis to determine where to conduct his ethnographic research. In keeping with this, he conceives journalism practice as assemblage: “assemblage of news products, institutions and networks” [p.4]

“Journalism is in the business of drawing together a variety of objects, big and small, social and technological, human and non-human. Through this work, journalists produce a remarkable variety of public-oriented products, from news stories and streams of tweets to entire news organisations.” [p.4]

He identifies four themes among the legacy news organisations he studied:

  1. the fracturing of the idea and image of the public;
  2. journalists often validated themselves and their profession through the act of ‘reporting the news’;
  3. the persistence of an industrial work model;
  4. the “non-diffusion of collaboration”.

“Each of the threads above – the fragmenting of the image local public, the continued centrality of reporting, and the decay of industrial production models – would seem to point to a scenario in which journalistic innovation and cross-organisational collaboration were not only rhetorically praised but also institutionally optimal. In other words, developments in the local Philadelphia news ecosystem seems to be creating a situation in which it made rational sense to “network the news” through institutional collaboration, hypertext linking, and formal and informal partnerships. In the first round of my ethnographic research, such collaboration and innovation not only did not occur; it seemed to be purposefully thwarted. In the second round of my research, from 2009 through 2011, the situation had changed somewhat, and active attempts at building a local news hub and news network are under way. In all, however, these networked developments were slow in coming and did not read on particularly firm ground.” [p. 7]

“… the difficulties in networking the news stem as much from journalistic culture – journalism’s visiou of ‘its’ public and the importance of the act of reporting in the journalistic imaginary – as they do from logistical or transaction-cost difficulties that can be easily remedied through managerial solutions.” [p. 7-8]

“There is little doubt that a multitude of external factors are are impinging on journalism’s traditional, often century-old news routines. At the same time, the dominant feeling I gathered from my research in Philadelphia’s newsrooms was one of business as usual.” [p.57]

Anderson observes the faster pace of online news has forced journalists to adapt, but like other studies, shows that old practices are essentially transposed to new platforms:

“The combination of they shifting notion of news time – a need to break news online ‘like TV people’; the notion of the scoop as a kind of signal flare (often a single piece of information or even a video or photograph); and the desire for multiple, increasingly detailed version of the same story over the course of a day; along wight he emergence elf portable, digital, ‘anytime, anywhere; technology (Blackberries, laptops, wireless broadband) – has created a paradoxical situation in which old journalistic practices are being repurposed for a new media era” [p. 59]

On production, Anderson distinguishes between “first level” news processes, i.e.: turing facts into stories; and “second-level” processes, which involve putting stories together. This latter process is where news construction takes place and it involves editors, designers and web producers. [p.65]

He sees aggregators as second-level news workers: “they are hierarchizers, inter-linkers, bundlers, and illustrators of web content.” … “The primary tasks of the aggregators are thus to build links between independently produced news stories and to rank these bundled news stories according to a rapidly changing sense of their importance, popularity , and newsworthiness.”  [p. 70]

Anderson identifies a trend toward deinstitutionalised content production. At three news websites he studied a substantial portion of content was submitted by producers not affiliated with or paid by the publication. “This changes the primary responsibility of those maintaining the site: their major task is to moderate and filter the content generated from the ends of the network … to move it physically from a second-tier location to a location of greater prominence.” [p. 73]

He notes the porous nature of traditional newswork boundaries, that “a variety of institutional actors traversing the boundaries of blogging, paid reporting, ‘traditional’ journalism, and radical activism. Some professional reporters began their journalism careers as activists with the Philly IMC; some bloggers were once professional reporters employed by large newspapers, and so forth.” However, he also observes that “Alongside this growing institutional hybridity, however, the act of reporting also seemed increasingly to be cited as the ‘jurisdictional core’ of professional news work.” [p. 98]

Anderson outlines an effort to imagine a future news organisation, a ‘norg’, in Philadelphia in 2006. The Norgs Unconference came about from online discussion among journalists about the challenges facing the industry and how to address them. The conference focused on how to “reinvent local news” and included a round of brainstorming, group discussions on what ‘norg’ content and culture should be, its business model and ethical responsibilities. The conference resulted in a 20-point collective statement that emphasized theh disaggregation of news and newsprint, the social and collaborative nature of the web, and the importance of collaboration. A norg, the group decided, was an orgnaisation that supported acts of journalism.

Anderson thinks the conference and associated dialogue were an achievement. They resulted in a “cultural reorientation on the part of the participants, a greater tendency to see media makers less a ‘bloggers’ or ‘journalists’ than as potential contributors to ‘acts of journalism’ [p.116], ongoing discussion and a body of documentation. But he, observes, “the norg group did not succeed in rebuilding Philadelphia journalsim.” [p. 117].

Anderson discusses the practice of linking in the context of collaboration and outlines a fraught process in some newsrooms to integrating the practice. He explains the reasons as:

  1. economic: for-profit organisations thought linking would hurt the bottom line;
  2. organisational: companies are hierarchal, set up to produce news in a silo-like manner and the news routines of professionals and amateurs do not mesh well;
  3. cultural: “reporters and newsroom managers in Philadelphia expressed fear and uncertainty about the veracity, commitment, reliability, and ‘journalistic-ness’ of potential outside partners.” A common attitude was: “The journalists are us.” [p.130]

On business models: “We have now come face to face with one of the great paradoxes of online newswork: the Internet, with its endless need for more anymore content to fill its bottomless pages at faster and faster speeds, has run up against then increasing inability of media organisations to rationalise the production of what content through traditional means – that is, through the payment of wages. We have entered a journalistic moment in which news institutions need more and more material, yet to obtain it, they find themselves ever more dependent on alliances with derationalized, often unpaid news producers.” [p. 147]

Anderson describes a new media an information environment in which everything has changed, but journalism remains the same, ” a story of stasis” [p.159].


  1. Anderson CW. 2013.  Rebuilding the News: Metropolitan Journalism in the Digital Age. Temple University Press. Philadelphia