A Pedagogy of Online News Sociology: Teaching with Making Online News*

Chris Paterson and David Domingo

*Preface of Volume 2, reproduced with permission of the publisher

This second volume of Making Online News updates and extends the unique international collection of online newsroom research provided by the first volume in 2008. Together, we hope for the two books to provide a versatile teaching tool for the ever-increasing number of educators seeking to explain change in journalism and prepare students to be journalists in an environment vastly different from that described by the standard canon of journalism theory and how-to guides. Allowing contemporary research to shape pedagogy is often a challenge, especially in a fast-changing field where comprehensive and authoritative research remains sparse. The challenge is compounded by an ever more pervasive assembly-line approach to journalism education which marginalizes critical reflection and engagement with research. The two volumes of Making Online News take educators and students into over thirty newsrooms around the world in the context of cutting-edge analysis of the changes underway there.

In a review of textbooks on convergent journalism, Gilmour & Quanbeck (2010) shared their frustration that the texts they came across were narrowly focused on technical skills and acritically followed job-market imperatives—typically preaching the mantra that “multiskilled journalists” are what companies need. Over all, what most worried these news production instructors was that many textbooks “ignore the societal obligations of journalism”:

The absence of focus on the democratic principles of journalism in some of the textbooks debases the books. Authors who do not mention or explain to students the democratic principles of journalism or urge students to take up the long-standing democratic principles of journalism merely write a how-to manual. The practice of journalism is more than a formula to be followed. (gilmour & Quanbeck, 2010, p. 338)

In other words, although industry managers occasionally suggest otherwise, the first obligation of journalism educators is to foster intellectual engagement and a deep sense of social responsibility in students of journalism. Both theory and skills classes have to convey these principles. Journalism does not exist in a vacuum, and a young journalist with little concept of journalistic obligation, of the social context of the field, and of the possibilities, limitations, and evolution of the latest forms of journalistic practice, may well do society, and a news organization, more harm than good. Online journalism textbooks tend to focus on the potential storytelling opportunities of the Internet and the practical skills to produce a new kind of news for the web. learning about actual developments in actual newsrooms from a critical perspective is essential, and in this Making Online News can help.

In order to empower future journalists to work in the evolving digital news environment and to make informed decisions to shape news production towards a more socially responsible, relevant, journalism, they need to be aware of the organizational constraints, the dynamics of change, and the redefinition of roles and values happening in newsrooms. The ethnographic research data in the two volumes of Making Online News provide the opportunity to turn hands-on courses into fruitful debates contrasting what students are experimenting with in their online news production labs and the challenges faced by professional journalists in online newsrooms around the world.

In theoretical courses on current trends in (online) journalism, the cases analyzed in the two volumes of Making Online News offer unique starting points to reflect on the convulsive times media face. we believe these books are a good tool to foster the “critical-thinking skills” that gilmour and Quanbeck (2010, p. 339) deemed essential in journalism education. Below educators will find some recommendations on how to use the chapters in the first and second volumes of the book to teach different themes. you may propose that students read all the chapters on a theme and, through class discussion or written work, contrast the perspectives of the different cases; or that students match selected readings for the themes below to supplement your syllabus. we would like to hear about how you use making Online News in your teaching. Please join the conversation with us at www.makingonlinenews.net.

A Suggestion of Clustered Readings from Making Online News Convergence

A good starting point is Paulussen et al. (vol. 2); this is a chapter which offers a thorough literature review of research on the factors shaping organizational change in newsrooms and discusses the theme of collaboration with two cases in Belgium. Colson and Heinderyckx (vol. 1) highlight the tensions that usually arise in the process of convergence between the vision of the management and the perspective of the reporters. Bechmann (vol. 2) provides a critical analysis of the implications of one of the most celebrated elements of newsroom integration, the “superdesk” or multimedia hub, showing that there are other factors defining convergent news production dynamics besides the mere physical proximity of the different teams. For PhD seminars, Singer (vol. 1) offers a thoughtful reflection on the benefit of an ethnographic methodology in convergence research.

Professional Identity

The culture clashes between the print and online journalistic cultures reveal the process of (re)definition of the professional identity of (online) journalists. This can be illustrated by three cases with an international perspective. Cawley (vol. 1) depicts the dynamics of news production in the online newsroom of The Irish Times and how it fits in the established newspaper culture. garcía (vol. 1) explicitly addresses the frustration of the online staff at the Argentinean Clarín as they are treated like “second class” citizens by their print counterparts. Robinson’s (vol. 2) contribution is a fascinating tale of what happens when radical decisions such as stopping the presses and making just online news are taken at a US regional newspaper, The Capital Times.

Online News Values and Formats

The shape of online news is embedded in the practices of newsrooms. Four chapters, in particular, provide a comprehensive picture of how news for the web is defined and produced in actual newsrooms. Both Domingo (chapter 7 in vol. 1) and møller Hartley (vol. 2) discuss the most central product of online newsrooms: breaking news. Domingo focuses on the organizational decisions leading to privileging immediacy as the main news value, while møller Hartley revisits Tuchman’s (1978) typology of news to understand how online newsrooms deal with different kinds of stories. van Dam (vol. 2) describes how two different models of newsroom deal differently with one of the biggest news events: a US presidential campaign. Another perspective which might be included in this thread is Steensen’s (vol. 2) discussion of feature reporting and how genres are shaped in online newsrooms. The decisions regarding what is news and how it is told, as described in these chapters, might usefully shape classroom discussion of the potential features of online storytelling and the factors constraining those features.

News Agency Wires and Online Journalism

Research shows the prominent role of news agency material in online news production. To illustrate this point and the production routines surrounding it, the studies of Domingo (chapter 7 in vol. 1) and Quandt (vol. 1) offer insights on the tasks of journalists and their handling of wire copy. As a complementary perspective, the chapter by Paterson (vol. 2) on the modern evolution of the international news agencies highlights how the material reaching the newsrooms is produced. Firdaus (vol. 2) further shows how marketing logics are at the core of the online activities of national news agencies. These readings offer a starting point to reflect on the homogenization of news in online journalism and perhaps celebrate all the more those online news organizations managing genuinely original reporting and investigation.

Multimedia Production

The chapters dealing with this aspect most explicitly are those of Brannon (vol. 1) and Usher (vol. 2). Both researched online newsrooms among US broadcasters with almost a decade between them, which provides a useful element of historical contrast in reading the chapters. Brannon focuses on the technical and organizational constraints to the development of multimedia storytelling in the early days of Internet news. Usher describes how a very contemporary national radio program is adopting online tools such as blogs and podcasts to support their main activity, while exploring new ways to present their journalism.

Blogs and Journalism

The blurring boundaries between professional journalism and the discussions led by bloggers outside mainstream media have many implications for journalistic identity and the dynamics of news production and diffusion. Bruns (vol. 1) offered a thorough theoretical framework for the emerging rules of a more plural online news arena. lowrey and latta (vol. 1) demonstrated how bloggers tend to replicate routines of professional journalism when they get serious about their postings. And Anderson (vol. 2) bridges the two worlds, the newsroom and the blogosphere, analyzing a local news ecosystem and the attitudes of both journalists and bloggers in this open context, concluding that the newsroom still holds a central position in defining news.

Participatory Journalism

Building a relationship with the active audience—those users that are willing to produce content for professional news websites—has become one of the central strategies of online journalism. williams et al. (vol. 2) discuss the diverse attitudes and management strategies at the BBC, showing how there is not a single solution even within the same institution. Paulussen, Bechmann and Robinson (all in vol. 2) also offer evidence of newsroom strategies for audience participation in portions of their chapters. All of them highlight the resistance of journalists to redefine their identity in the new context and explain how user participation ends up being accommodated into traditional news production practices.

Journalism under Pressure

Several chapters discuss situations where journalism is under more pressure than usual, facing a context of state control of the media. lagerkvist (vol. 1) presents the case of China, mabweazara (vol. 2) introduces Zimbabwe, and Firdaus (vol. 2) discusses malaysia. while each focuses on different aspects of online journalism, they can be discussed together to illustrate how the Internet develops as a space with the potential to challenge authoritarian control as well as the potential to exacerbate the limitations on journalism in such circumstances.

Methodology and Epistemology of Online Journalism Research

All the chapters deal with aspects of ethnographic research design and theoretical frameworks for the analysis of online journalism, but some are very explicit about this and so might form a useful group of readings for graduate research seminars. The introduction by Paterson and the chapter by Singer in the first edition are overviews of the benefits of ethnographic methods in newsroom studies. Puijk (vol. 1) discusses more practical aspects of conducting observation in digital newsrooms. Domingo (chapter 1 in vol. 1) provides an overview of the epistemological principles of online newsroom ethnographies and the traditions that have inspired their theoretical frameworks. Anderson (vol. 2) challenges the definition of the object of study and proposes problematizing the newsroom itself as the scenario of observation, expanding it to the whole news ecosystem to include bloggers and other institutions interacting with the journalists in creating the news.