Tuesday, 23 June 2009

The gatekeeper lives

One of the themes coming out of recent research is that newsroom practices are not changing as dramatically as some commentators suggest. Yes, journalists are blogging and shooting video and interacting with their readers, who are holding them to account in a way that some journalists find difficult and disconcerting. Yes, the idea that journalists should be able to stick to writing copy for a newspaper is looking increasingly untenable, especially in today's economic climate.

But underneath this flurry of multimedia innovation, old habits die hard. In a recent article in Journalism Studies, Phil Macgregor (2007) looks at the way journalists adjust their work to take account of server data showing how many readers are reading each story, when they're reading it and where the readers are from. Never before have writers had some much information about what readers are actually interested in. This is a huge change from the situation outlined by academics like Schlesinger (1987) and Gans (1980), who found that journalists only had the vaguest idea of who their readers/audiences were.

Now there is no such excuse and Macgregor's interviews with senior journalists reveal that they take server data seriously. But not so seriously that they take down or rewrite pieces that data show are generating little reader interest. There is still, rightly in my view, an in-built resistance to giving way too completely to the audience. Even in a multi-media newsroom, with readers flooding message boards and comment boxes and every story's interest quantifiable by its clicks, journalists consider it's up to them to decide what's news.

As a CNN editor tells Macgregor: "..if I just wanted to chase what people on the internet wanted to click on, I would do stories about soft porn and football and nothing else. We are a news site so we have to be treated as news and we have to cover stories which do not always have mass appeal."

Another piece of research by Alfred Hermida and Neil Thurman (2008) in Journalism Practice, aptly entitled A Clash of Cultures, finds that managers and editors in mainstream UK newsrooms like Times Online and the Telegraph encouraged the growth of user generated content (UGC) like blogs, message boards and comments, partly through fear of being left behind if they didn't. So much for far-sighted innovation.

Editors are also frightened that their "brand" could be tarnished if they allow readers to say what they like, unmoderated (and of course, they could be sued if they carry libellous content). The result? Organisations which want UGC on their sites spend a fortune on moderation, getting their journalists to filter content for its suitability and interest and vet blog comments before they're published.

The journalistic gatekeeper is still alive and well, even in the age of interactivity.

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