Monday, October 24, 2005

Reading :: Digitizing the News

Originally posted: Mon, 24 Oct 2005 10:28:55

Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers

by Pablo J. Boczkowski

Digitizing the News is an interesting account of how newspapers have attempted to move online. Boczkowski's first three chapters give us necessary background, while the next three describe case studies conducted at three newspapers conducting online experiments in the late 1990s. Towards the end of the last case study we find out that one of his informants and mentors was Jeff Jarvis ? which may give you an idea of Boczkowski's take on these online experiments.

Boczkowski first gives us a history of newspapers' online experiments, starting with Videotex in the early 1980s and moving up to the late 1990s. Papers originally saw online media as a way to repurpose content. But then papers began to recombine content by customizing general products (ex: delivering particular kinds of stories to particular readers); providing vertical information streams on one subject (ex: city guides); providing a network of content across locales (ex:; and providing archives of past stories. Finally, they moved to recreating, providing content developed primarily or exclusively for the site; this involves making the byproducts of newswriting available, but it also means opening ways for users to generate content. This involves unbundling a unitary media artifact (p.64).

The last part ? the ability of users to generate content ? is the kicker, of course. As Boczkowski says, newspapers are used to generating a unidirectional information flow. But with user-authored content, suddenly there can be a multiplicity of information flows, often poorly integrated (p.96). As Boczkowski explores in the last case study, these user-authored flows hae traditionally been placed under heavy editorial control, but an explosion in user-authored flows has made that control untenable (p.152). Boczkowski talks about "gate-opening" (as opposed to gatekeeping). "Workers thus open up the online paper to contributors, turning it into a space for knowledge creation and circulation. ... The shift from traditional gatekeeping to newsroom routines centered on the facilitation and circulation of knowledge produced by a vast and heterogeneous network of users-turned-producers" (p.158). In dailies,

the editorial function has been constituted as mediation work, the product defined as a unidirectional flow of generalized content, and readers inscribed as content consumers rather than producers. To manage such a production system, dailies, like many firms since the nineteenth century, have become organizational hierarchies with centralized authority and relations of dependence among the various levels. (p.164)

Yes, and this organization has outlasted the print media whose characteristics helped to shape it. Boczkowski urges a different approach, which he calls "distrubuted construction":

the thrust of distributed construction is that, given certain conditions, content production in new media does not happen inside a firm's newsroom but results from the interactions with users. ... distributed construction illuminates new engagements between media organizations and consumers who contribute to the production process while making a living some other way. (p.166)

Boczkowski gets the term "distributed construction" from "distributed cognition." Unfortunately, this is characteristic of his analysis: in later chapters he draws from distributed cognition as well as from actor-network theory and articulation work, but doesn't seem to delve deeply or gain many insights from them. That surprises me, since Trevor Pinch served as his dissertation advisor.

Nevertheless, the book is worth reading, especially for people who are interested in new media.

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