A Manifesto of Failure for Digital Journalism (from Remaking the News)

The following is an excerpt from an essay appearing in Pablo J. Boczkowski’s and C. W. Anderson’s new collected volume, “Remaking the News: Essays on the Future of Journalism Scholarship in the Digital Age”  from the MIT Press.


This chapter argues for the need to pay attention to failure in the study of digital journalism. The field of journalism studies has frequently focused on new technology over old; on success to the detriment of failure; on innovation over resistance to change, and on the cutting edge over the conservative. Yet such an emphasis may not be consistent with understanding the plethora of actual practices, and may therefore constitute an epistemological blind spot. On the basis of insights from work done within and outside the discipline, the chapter seeks to set out a research agenda based on taking failure seriously. Such a research agenda, the chapter argues, needs to pay attention to power relations within and between news organizations, and the ways in which particular – and often less privileged – forms of news practice might be more likely to fail.

“Studying up” and the excitement of the new

Our understanding of practices of digital journalism should be viewed within the context of scholarly work in journalism studies, and the forms of knowledge it has produced. Journalism studies has tended to privilege “studying up” or engaging in “elite research,” (Conti and O’Neil, 2007) by paying a disproportionate amount of attention to elite and successful individuals, news organizations and journalistic practices within them (see Wahl-Jorgensen, 2009).

The practice of studying up in journalism, while not uniform or uncontested, has profoundly shaped what types of professional practice are best documented and which are neglected – and therefore, on the knowledge produced within the discipline. Studies have tended to focus on work in large, elite, and often national television and newspaper newsrooms. The classic UK and US studies of journalism practices (e.g. Gans, 1980; Tuchman, 1978; Schlesinger, 1978) took place at national or metropolitan broadcasters and newspapers. The emphasis on the routines, cultures, practices and processes of elite, well-resourced national newsrooms might serve to ignore those of less glamorous, successful and innovative journalistic workplaces which are nevertheless dominant in terms of both the number of newsworkers employed by such organizations, the quantity of content output, and the audiences for their output. The scholarly neglect of a majority of the occupation it proclaims to study is particularly problematic because the practices and resources of journalists, and their ability to adapt to changing circumstances, vary hugely depending on economic, political, technological, and social conditions. It means that we have gathered an impressive body of evidence about particular privileged forms of practice, while neglecting others (see also Wahl-Jorgensen, 2009).

Excitement about new technologies

The trend of studying up has taken a particular twist in the digital era: Research on digital journalism often appears to be pervaded by an infatuation with the possibilities of technological change brought about by the convergent media ecology. In his foundational exploration of processes of online news innovation, Boczkowski (2004), writing more than a decade ago, pointed to “(1) the predominance of accounts that concentrate on the effects of technological change and pay much less attention to the processes generating them and (2) the pervasiveness of analyses that underscore the revolutionary characters of online technologies and the web and overlook the more evolutionary ways in which people often incorporate new artifacts into their lives” (Boczkowski, 2004, p. 2). This long-standing set of preoccupations has translated, on the one hand, into research which focuses on the successful adaptation to change which often (but not always) takes place at resourceful and already-privileged news organizations. On the other hand, scholars have also turned their attention to the perceived empowerment of the audience in the face of a profound renegotiation of their relationship to news producers.

What unites this work, despite the diversity in the objects of study, theoretical frameworks and methodological approaches, is an interest in the cutting-edge, successful and ground-breaking. Implicit in this writing is a normative optimism regarding the future of journalism as an institution, as well as the forms of citizenship as facilitated in and through engagement with new technologies. It should be stressed that this orientation is not unique to the study of journalism, but has rather been a long-standing feature of writing about media. Writers have heralded the emergence of new technologies from the telegraph to Twitter, which have frequently been seen as offering solutions to social, economic, and political problems (Carey and Quirk, 1970; Standage, 1998). It is characteristic of a broader technological utopianism which has also characterized social scientific engagement with technological change in general (Kasson, 1991). Similarly, the emphasis on the success of relatively privileged and successful groups, organizations and practices is reproduced across a variety of disciplines. The field of media studies has tended to focus on successful or “cult” media texts to the detriment of unsuccessful texts (Wahl-Jorgensen, 2014).

The work published in key journals devoted to work in digital journalism demonstrates these trends: Most of this work is focused on technological innovations and how they are being adopted by innovative news organizations, journalists, and audiences. For example, Twitter – as a tool for both professional and amateur journalists – dominates contemporary scholarship about online journalism, with the most widely cited contributions examining journalists’ use of the social media platform as a reporting tool (Vis, 2013); the normalization of Twitter amongst journalists (Lasorsa et al., 2012), and its role as a form of ambient journalism (Hermida, 2010). Other emerging technologies that have been widely charted include live-blogging, mobile news and videojournalism, as well as the role of a broader range of social media in publishing and sharing information for both citizens and journalists – including YouTube, Facebook, and Instagram. Such work views technological change as providing both a challenge and a set of resources for journalists and audiences. As such, it is more likely to offer an analysis of how to use them to enhance professional practice than thinking about the ways in which particular corners of the profession may be structurally inhibited from taking advantage of new opportunities, and how they may exacerbate already existing inequalities, to mention just a few research questions which have rarely been pursued.

Central to this body of work, and its preoccupation with new technologies, is an interest in the ability of these technologies to bring about a better future both for journalism and for its audience. However, the sheer volume and dominance of work which takes an optimistic view of the potential of technological change may be limiting our ability to see underlying problems in several ways. First of all, such work frequently sidesteps the well-documented and profound crisis in the business model and long-term survival prospects for the profession. Secondly, it embodies the view that the history of technological change invariably involves a progression towards a brighter future for journalism. This suggests an adherence to a version of what James Carey (1974) has referred to as a Whig interpretation of journalism history (Butterfield, 1965; Carey, 1974). For Butterfield (1965), critiquing what he perceived as a profound epistemological problem in history-writing, a Whig interpretation of history implied the production of knowledge about particular aspects of the past to emphasize a positive view or ratification of the present based on stories of success, and on that basis project optimism about the future. Along those lines, Butterfield (1965, p. 1) pointed to the tendency “in many historians to write on the side of Protestants and Whigs, to praise revolutions provided they have been successful, to emphasize certain principles of progress in the past and to produce a story which is the ratification if not the glorification of the present.” What we might call the Whig interpretation of the history of digital journalism examines particular aspects of technological change to propose an exciting present, projecting it into a bright future, even if this vision often flies in the face of more troubling evidence. It does so through the same means as the Whig interpretation of history that Butterfield critiqued: The selective emphasis on studying particular objects and practices (successful ones) and the neglect of failure.

New technologies and empowerment? From “The People Formerly Known as the Audience” to citizen journalism

The Whig interpretation of digital journalism also underpins a key strain of work on the changing relationship between news organizations and their audiences. One striking feature of this body of work is that it has moved the lens of scholarly scrutiny away from the practices of elite news organizations. Instead, it has turned its attention towards the blurring boundaries between the production and consumption of journalism and its consequences for what is understood by journalism and its role in a democratic society.

For example, recent work in journalism studies has focused on emerging amateur/citizen practices (e.g. Allan and Thorsen, 2009; Allan 2013; Andén-Papadopoulos, 2011). Such work recognizes the ways in which emerging technologies, in concert with the challenging business climate for legacy journalism, might undermine professional practice as the resources and the authority of legacy news organizations are dwindling. Yet it is also discerns emerging approaches to journalistic story-telling which might open up new forms of identification and solidarity (e.g. Wahl-Jorgensen, forthcoming; Chouliaraki and Blaagaard, 2013).

This work does not sit outside or neglect the current challenges to the profession. Rather, much of this research simply – and, many would argue, rightly – assumes that new technologies, like Twitter, are interesting in and of themselves. As such, this work cannot be seen as guilty of technological determinism – and indeed often demonstrates an understanding that the adoption, appropriation and use of particular technologies are contingent on, and interact with, a broader array of political, economic and social circumstances. It reminds us that it is far more useful to see technologies as possessing particular affordances – forms of action it makes possible – and to understand how these affordances might shape their use in interaction with particular sociocultural contexts (Papacharissi, 2014). Nonetheless, scholars representing this more measured approach have tended to strike a cautiously optimistic tone in analyzing how innovation enables new practices and forms of participation. Papacharissi exemplifies this tone in her compelling work, Affective Publics (2014). The book focuses on the role of social media – particularly Twitter – in shaping the affective news streams of social movements that both mobilize and organize the activities and discourses of these movements. Papacharissi (2014) concludes her book as follows:

Structures of feeling open up and sustain discursive spaces where stories can be told. There are particular storytelling practices that become prevalent in the discursive spaces presented by convergent and spreadable media, and these practices invite certain varieties of engagement. Networked framing and networked gatekeeping explain how interconnected people collaboratively curate and co-create narratives (Papacharissi, 2004, kindle location 2669)

The book breaks important ground in analyzing the place of affect in public discourse, demonstrating how new forms of story-telling emerge on the basis of the affordances of social media. Yet it is also symptomatic of the ways in which the focus on technological innovation through amateur practices shifts the attention away from a crisis in news organizations. The preponderance of these more optimistic readings – while both necessary and worthwhile – can make it difficult to see the ways in which journalism is not progressing and is, in fact, in a state of ever-deepening crisis amid signs of systemic failure.

The Whig interpretation of the history of digital journalism has tangible consequences for our knowledge of the profession. The celebration of audience empowerment and engagement neglects the continued importance of legacy media in terms of both the demographics and self-understanding of the profession, and the consumption behavior and preferences of audience members (Blumler and Cushion, 2013).

The emphasis on new technologies and their successful adoption within resource-rich, elite, and empowered organizations, as well as in the newly empowered audience, makes sense given the political economy of and power relations within the academy: Researchers may be more likely to gain cultural capital in the form of institutional approval and prestige, grant money, high-profile publications, and promotions from a study of the successful use of new technologies than from examining more marginalized and failing media practices which might also be more complicated to access and analyze. Yet such complication might be exactly what is necessary given, as Simon Cottle wrote back in 2000, that we cannot “presume a generalized view of ‘journalism’ as an undifferentiated culture or shared professional canon” (Cottle, 2000, p. 24).

This is all the more important because, as a profession and a failure-prone system deeply embedded in social structures, journalism is perhaps more vulnerable and prone to failure than ever before; certainly no less so than other key institutions that have failed in high-profile and devastating ways in recent years, ranging from financial institutions to nuclear power plants. It is not only marginal and poorly resourced organizations and practices which fail – historical events from the sinking of the Titanic to the collapse of Lehman Brothers amply demonstrate this. However, the systematic neglect of such poorly resourced organizations and the ways they fall has led to an important gap in our knowledge of journalism. Our lack of attention to concrete manifestations of the diversity of practices constitutes an epistemological blind spot or a way in which the dominant paradigm of the discipline – one underpinned by an understandable excitement with the potential of new technologies – might have steered us down a blind alley in the landscape of knowledge production. This, in turn, hints at a broader need for a reflexive turn across humanities and social sciences to consider how our dominant paradigms, produced by the power relations of the institutions and societies in which we are so firmly embedded, might be rendering invisible the problems that should, in fact, be at the top of our agendas. In aid of such a reflexive turn, I would here make the plea for the importance of bringing the study of the varied facets of journalism’s failure to the forefront.

Conclusion: Failure is inevitable

What, then, does the attention to failure and marginalized practices mean for our research? It includes taking a deliberate interest in failures, strugglers, and those who resist innovation and change in organizations, and understand why it is so difficult to change and what that has to do with the power relations that often remain invisible in scholarship. We need to recognize that failure is inevitable, and more likely than success. This is true for any complex social systems, but more so in the case of journalism.

How, then, does such a preoccupation shape the kinds of questions we should ask and what kinds of methodologies we should deploy? First of all, it means that we should identify the news organizations that are struggling, and view them as worthy of study. Secondly, it means understanding the place of these news organizations within local and geographically bounded ecologies which are, at the same time, tied into larger national and global contexts. This might entail the use of methods including those of political economy, network analysis, and historiography – methods providing us with a bigger picture that enables us to situate the practices of particular institutions within a larger system. Thirdly, drawing on the insights of complexity theory, it means using ethnographic methods of mapping the lived experience of journalists and other newsworkers at all levels of the organization, paying attention to the concrete textures of individual practices and accounts, but also understanding how these are produced by power relations and institutional cultures.

Finally, attention to failure also means an increased reflexivity around the power relations and political economy in shaping the object of our study as well as scholarly work itself. It entails a renewed commitment to the margins of media practice, and to seeing and understanding failure as well as success.