Wednesday, 15 July 2009

Time to take stock

Exactly half way through my sabbatical - eight weeks gone and eight weeks to go, so time to take stock. What have I learned about my research area? And just as important, what have I learned about the process of research? Part of the purpose of writing this blog was to explore what it feels like to be a full-time researcher for four months, probably the longest time I'll ever have free of other work commitments during my academic career.

From the beginning, I vowed to treat research as work and study from 9-5. and this, give or take a few childcare and school emergencies and holidays, is what I've done. It's worked well because if you don't have a work structure, you have to create one. Or at least I do.

Annoyingly, I've discovered that I find it very difficult to simply sit and read and take notes all day, although that's what I tell everyone I'm doing. So I've taken to breaking down reading tasks into small chunks so that I can tell myself that I've achieved something at the end of the day. Maybe there are people whose concentration span is so impressive that they can sit in the library the whole day and continue to engage with ideas and debates but I'm not one of them.

What I hadn't built into my study plan was time to engage with social media, especially Twitter. But it soon became obvious that this had to be a core part of my research. The only way to understand how journalists were using social media in their jobs was to sign up and follow people to see what they were doing. This led me to some excellent online blogs including the Online Journalism Blog, Teaching Online Journalism and and further insight into what's going on in online journalism.

The process of writing my own blog is an important way for me to clarify research ideas as I go along but I also blog about issues like phone hacking, identifying bloggers and coverage of Michael Jackson's death on Twitter, which are significant developments in new media. And blogging and tweeting are good for breaking up reading time, although sometimes I have to turn off my PC to force myself back to print. Otherwise I'd spend all day online, curtains closed, like an internet-obsessed teenager.

And what has emerged so far from my reading? Unsurprisingly, the main message is that the journalism industry is in the grip of huge upheaval technologically and culturally and the idea that journalists control news input and output is, if not dead, strongly challenged. The question: "What is news?" can no longer be answered with "What journalists say it is". Boundaries between roles in the newsroom are blurring as reporters find themselves subbing their own copy or shooting video. The buzzword is convergence although no-one seems to be able to agree on what this means. Is it the process of making journalists file to both web and paper in the newsroom (although some people refer to this as integration)? Or should convergence be more widely defined as the whole process of the changing relationship between journalist and journalist, journalist and reader, journalist and sources, journalist and media?

At the same time, some researchers are finding that under the surface, less has changed, with journalists still in editorial control in moderating blogs and comments and making news decisions. Looking at mainstream news websites (the Times, Guardian etc) as I am, what is interesting is possibly how traditionally structured they still are in terms of output. Newsrooms still have routines and deadlines and beats, even if the idea of a single daily deadline is irrelevant in a 24 hour digital newsroom. And power and control (concepts hotly debated by media sociologists) remain centred in and around the same groups and organisations internally and externally. Or do they? The research goes on.

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