Over the past few months, I’ve found myself grimly captivated by the North American news media’s account of what it seems to have decided are a series of extinction-level-events. For me, the unfolding story played out as a kind of spectator sport; as I followed print television and radio accounts of the crisis in journalism, I kept a mental scorecard of misperceptions.
I tallied how many times the Internet was blamed in a way that oversimplified complex economic and technological changes. I noted how frequently ‘democracy’ was said to be at stake, or, conversely, how newspapers were said to be failing because they had failed democracy. I counted how often the audience for conventional broadcast media was depicted as not knowing what was good for them, and how often citizen media was vilified as the mob lingering at the borders of the fourth estate.
As time progressed, I also took note of some nationally distinctive aspects of the crisis narrative. In Canada, the CBC’s drastic staff cuts and the CRTC’s hearings on the fate of local commercial broadcasting sometimes shifted the focus away from the death of newspapers and toward a more fraught discussion of the role of government involvement in the mediascape. In the United States, on the other hand, half-serious calls for a government industry bailout were countered by a strong entrepreneurial logic, and conversation drifted towards whether “micropayments” could help the industry by inserting millions of tiny fiscal fingers in a hemorrhaging dike.
Despite these differences, the coverage in both countries seemed, at times, to take on the shape of an endless game of Clue, in which the players were so focused on determining whether Colonel Mustard did it in the library with a wrench that they failed to notice the victim (journalism) was not quite dead – failed to notice, in fact, that the victim itself was running the game, choosing what evidence to emphasize and what to downplay, and ultimately choosing to put the whole inquiry on the back burner even though no clear conclusions had been reached.
Now that the media’s crisis story has fallen off the front pages, I am left wondering how to best situate the whole awkward and navel-gazing episode in terms of ongoing conversations in the discipline of journalism studies. As the scorecard above suggests, both the events of the recent past and their coverage in the media have raised many questions for journalism scholars, questions that can only be answered by placing the recent transformations of the industry in a larger historical, social, economic and political context.
Rather than succumbing to an extinction spasm, mourning the death of my object of study, I am newly struck by the amount of work that needs to be done to in order bring into focus the enormous changes in both the production and consumption of news. And as I’ve taken in both the knee-jerk defensiveness of some industry executives and the understandably grim rhetoric of journalists who see their way of life evaporating, I’ve gained a new appreciation for the ability of journalism scholars to take a step back and establish a critical distance from the current crisis
But if the events of the past few months have suggested how much work remains ahead in the field of journalism studies, they have also suggested the importance of having a sustained conversation among scholars about what is happening in news media, and what, if anything can be done about it. Some of you, of course, have already been part of this conversation, as experts quoted in the media coverage described above. But, as McGill media scholar Will Straw has noted, such media accounts tend to be as ephemeral as they are influential. It is clear that assembled sound bites and pull quotes won’t do the job — that conversation needs to have another forum as well.
At J-Source, we are hoping that conversation – as well as many other conversations about journalism research – can happen here, through articles and comments. It is intended as a place where researchers can exchange ideas, talk about policy, discuss archives, raise questions, organize and discover events, and find out about one another’s work in progress.
More ambitiously, we hope that over time, Researching Journalism will become both a vital resource and a vibrant locus of conversation and debate. To ensure that the conversation develops, we will try to combat parochialism, bringing together researchers from disciplines outside of journalism studies, including communications and media studies, but also history, anthropology, sociology, political science, literature, law, economics – and, in our increasingly digitized media landscape, fields such as computer-mediated communication and usability studies. We also intend to invite those conducting journalism research in the non-profit world and industry to contribute to the discussion.
If you fit any of these descriptions – or even if you have an observer’s interest in journalism research – welcome to Researching Journalism.
Over the next few months, the editors of the site will be adding more content, including bibliographies, web resources, further forum topics, and interviews with j-scholars. So please return to the site if you don’t find a conversation you want to jump in to just yet (and can’t think of one to start). Meanwhile, do send us suggestions on how we might make the community a better resource for everyone. And if you know of someone who might be interested in contributing, please let him or her know about it.
I’m looking forward to meeting all of you online, and to establishing new and productive relationships between journalism scholars around Canada and beyond.
Lisa Lynch is assistant professor of journalism at Concordia University in Montreal. Her work on journalism, culture and technology has appeared in publications ranging from New Literary History to the Arab Studies Journal. She is currently working on a book on new media technologies and journalistic leaking.