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Building the News

Building the News

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Published by Chanders1
This article argues that researchers should adopt an approach to the study of news production and distribution that is both material and discursive. It concludes with some general reflections on what it might mean for media criticism to adopt a focus that sees journalism as constructed, but not socially constructed.
This article argues that researchers should adopt an approach to the study of news production and distribution that is both material and discursive. It concludes with some general reflections on what it might mean for media criticism to adopt a focus that sees journalism as constructed, but not socially constructed.

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Published by: Chanders1 on Jul 23, 2010
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04/12/2014

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 Building the News: Technological, Discursive, and Political Assemblages Inside the Emerging News Ecosystem
ABSTRACT
This article argues that researchers should adopt an approach to the study of news productionand distribution that is both
material 
and
discursive
. I begin with a brief overview of the changesin journalism that prompt my empirical investigation and theoretical reflections, before moving onto a description of the contours of my ethnographic research at the New York City IndependentMedia Center. Focusing on a specific period in Indymedia's history-- the creation and functioningof the 2004 Republican National Convention convergence center in New York-- I discuss threecentral moments that intersect with the material-semiotic perspective I use to frame my research.I analyze the technical and social assemblage of the independent media center, the coordinationand of people, news stories and technologies across the border between the newsroom and the“outside world,” and, finally, the circulation of news objects and activist text-messages in theactivist community. I conclude with some general reflections on the scholarly implications of theRNC IMC, and what it might mean for media criticism to adopt a focus that sees journalism asconstructed, but not
socially 
constructed.This article-- growing out of seven years of participant-observation and ethnographicresearch at one of the earliest online journalism and citizen’s media organizations in the world--argues that researchers should adopt a “material semiotic” approach to the study of newsproduction and distribution. In one sense, it is a pragmatic attempt to think through very realeconomic, social, and technological changes now underway in the field of journalism. But I alsosee it as a contribution to the larger analysis of materiality, discourse, culture, work, knowledge,and authority prompted by digitization and revival of post-Marxist materialist thought (Sennett,2008). It is a small part of the recent attempt to think through “a radical democracy of objects […]of trees, rivers, aircraft, factories, alchemists, armies, and moons” (Harman, 2009), to treat “cloth,circuit boards, or baked fish as objects worth of themselves.” (Sennett, 2008, pg. 7).Certainly, social-science research has not neglected the materialities and technologicalaffordances of media in the quite the same manner as it has scientific (Pickering, 1992), legal(Latour, 2010), or political objects (Marres, 2007). Analyses of newsroom technologies, however,have primarily tended to operate along two broad axes. In some ethnographic and historicalaccounts, a tendency towards determinism on the part of communications scholars and
 
 journalists themselves is contrasted (usually unfavorably) with a more realistic, critical perspectivein which the technologies that shape journalism are seen as constructed and shaped by a widevariety of organizational, social, and human factors. Related to this perspective is a secondargument which contrasts the utopian promises of early new media scholars with more recentempirical findings about the reality of limited technological adoption and slow journalistic change.Neither of these nuanced perspectives on the relationship between the social and the technical,the utopian and the real, is wrong. I have adopted many of these critical perspectives myself, andwill do so again. But neither of them motivate his paper. Rather, following Leonardi and Barley(Leonardi & Barley, 2008), I want to claim that technological versus cultural and utopian versusrealist debates over the transformation of journalism do not exhaust the scope of potentialresearch in the field; the rapid scholarly alteration between two poles does not create an allencompassing circle (Latour, 1993). Rather, a particular argument threads throughout this article:newsroom researchers' early emphasis on journalism as an exercise in the social construction of reality, a perspective that saw the news as the “imperfect reflection” of real world events, hasimprisoned media researchers in a paradigm that was once productive but has, by now, largelyrun out of steam.Because this paper is simultaneously a meta-theoretical discussion, a pragmaticgrappling with recent changes in journalistic production, and a report of empirical findings thatemerge out of a lengthy period of ethnographic research, its' structure is somewhat complex. Ibegin with a brief overview of the changes in journalism that prompted my empirical investigationand theoretical reflections, before moving on to a description of the contours of my ethnographicresearch at the New York City Independent Media Center. Focusing on a specific period inIndymedia's history-- the creation and functioning of the 2004 Republican National Conventionconvergence center in New York-- I discuss three central moments that intersect with thematerial-semiotic perspective I used to frame my research. I conclude with some generalreflections on the implications of a material-semiotic perspective, and what it might mean for media criticism to adopt a focus on what news objects
do
rather than what they
say.
Over thecourse of this research, I was motivated by a desire to grasp the “structure and the drift” (Mills,
 
2000) of the dramatic changes in one of modernity's primary communicative forms: the process,production, and practice of journalism. I mean these observations in that spirit.
The Journalistic Field: Practical Changes and Theoretical Challenges
Four major trends characterize the trajectory of American journalism in the early years of the 21
st
century. Alone, each of these changes alone would engender considerable theoreticalreflection, but in their simultaneity they mark a watershed for both journalistic theory and practice.First, the deep instability in the American news ecosystem, characterized by both the collapse of established news institutions and the emergence of new organizations (Downie & Schudson,2009; The Project For Excellence in Journalism, 2008; V. W. Pickard, Aaron, Craig, & Stearns,Josh, 2009), should draw research attention to the way that seemingly “permanent” organizationsand organizational networks decompose and reassemble. Second, the rise of so-called citizen- journalism, and its accompanying challenges to journalistic authority (Lowrey & Anderson, 2005;Singer, 2003) make it difficult to analyze news production as occurring in either institutions or  journalistic fields (Benson, 2006) rather, we should focus instead on journalistic assemblage andcoordination across permeable boundaries and thick border zones. Third, along with citizen- journalism, hybrid journalistic-partisan communicative organizations have also risen toprominence over the past decade, organizations which include non only ad-hoc blogger networksbut also some of the richest and most popular media organizations in the world (Morris, 2005).Finally, the increasingly central place of aggregative and algorithmic computer-human hybrids inthe news production process (Pasquale, 2009; Shirky, 2009) draws the implications of theprevious changes together into a final point: the process of journalism should best be seen as theunfolding and distribution of a web of material-semiotic hybrids. The products of news, theproducers of news, and the organizers of news are relational entities whose existence issimultaneously social and technical, discursive and objectified, enacted and represented.it is important to keep in mind that, over the course of the ethnographic researchdescribed below, I
did not 
casually observe these changes taking place in journalism, formulate

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