Guest Editor’s Note: Dr. Jane Singer
For the first time in ISOJ history, in 2017, the ISOJ journal co-editors invited Dr. Jane Singer to be the guest editor of a special themed issue. Dr. Singer identified the special theme, Habits of Thought for this issue. This special themed issue reflects papers that were blind peer – reviewed for the conference and journal that reflected the theme.
This themed issue of #ISOJ is a response to, as well as a test of, two related premises. It is a response to the observation that we know far more about what journalists do differently in a digital age than about how, if at all, they think differently about what they do. And it is a test of the proposition that while “habits of practice”—what journalists do—have obviously changed enormously over the past quarter-century, “habits of thought” have been remarkably resilient (the positive spin) or resistant (the less-positive one) in the face of this transformation.
Observers in the industry and the academy have had a lot to document and assess since the mid-1990s. New technologies, tools and platforms have necessitated sweeping adaptations to how journalists report, write, edit and publish information. New metrics software has put excruciatingly detailed audience data in the middle of story discussions and decisions. And new digital- and data-savvy colleagues have joined the newsroom to carry out seemingly inscrutable activities that they try to explain using equally inscrutable vocabularies. In all these well-documented ways and more besides, the practice of journalism today is undeniably different from 20 or 10 or even five years ago.
In comparison, we know much less about “habits of thought,” the ways in which contemporary journalists think about contemporary journalism—about what it is, what it is not, what it might become and what it should never be. What little we do know suggests that although most journalists have accepted that change is necessary for economic reasons, a majority are considerably less convinced that it is necessary or even desirable for journalistic ones.
As early as the mid-1990s, journalists were articulating concerns about the effects on verification, and therefore credibility, of the ability to publish at the press of the “send” button. Over the years, as digital, social and mobile technologies have dissolved all manner of boundaries around information and its providers, practitioners have steadfastly emphasized their own normative role and responsibilities in reasserting their occupational value. And journalism educators have revamped skills classes but continue to instill news values, ethical principles and concepts about the role of the media in democratic society that would have resonated with our grandparents’ generation of journalists—not necessarily a bad thing, but not particularly reflective of the chaotic and deeply challenging environment that graduates are entering, either.
So I confess that in soliciting manuscripts for this issue, my expectation was I would now be writing an editor’s note describing new evidence for these sorts of old and firmly entrenched mindsets.
I was wrong.
Instead, #ISOJ 2018 offers six engaging and informative takes on ways in which journalists are changing not just their practices but also the mental processes that they bring to the job. Our authors highlight new patterns of thinking about stories and audiences, about the use and the purpose of new forms of data, and about journalists’ own activities now and in the future.
Accommodating these new thought patterns is far from easy. In his opening essay, Nieman Journalism Lab director Josh Benton encapsulates just how ingrained they can and do become, motivating us and shaping our behaviors in ways we may not be able to define or indeed recognize. Even when we know how important it is to change habits that no longer serve their intended purpose, actually doing so can be remarkably difficult. “Figuring out which habits of thought need changing is hard,” he writes. “Actually changing them is harder. But the mandatory prerequisite is identifying them in the first place.”
The articles you are about to read will help.
In “’Don’t Read Me the News, Tell Me the Story,’” Jan Boesman and Irene Costera Meijer explore the nuanced differences between journalists who think of themselves as storytellers and those who see themselves as news makers. Drawing on newsroom observations, content analyses and 148 interviews with journalists in Belgium and the Netherlands, they find that the news makers think about their work in more narrowly prescribed and even predefined ways, while storytellers are more likely to challenge structural conventions and to be more open to serendipitous stories. Both normative and narrative approaches to news also vary, with news makers more concerned with objectivity and storytellers open to literary and even cinematic techniques. More broadly, Boesman and Meijer found variations in how different types of journalists think about both truth and the nature of occupational boundaries. Habits of thought, then, are changing, but not uniformly.
The implications of shifting concepts of journalistic storytelling are further explored in our next article, “Journalists Perceptions of Solutions Journalism and Its Place in the Field,” by Kyser Lough and Karen McIntyre. Although most research into “solutions journalism” has focused on audiences, the authors here explore how journalists think about framing stories around the ways in which people respond to and address social problems. Their in-depth interviews reveal that journalists draw connections with investigative reporting, given the emphasis on deep research and the goal of uncovering something, but also see solutions journalism as a way to engage readers and rebuild trust. Moreover, a focus on solutions begins with the way practitioners conceptualize both story topic and optimal approaches to reporting it. “Journalists started with a thought process shift toward the ‘how’ of a solution,” the authors write, “looking past the issue itself and beginning to understand how to ask questions, seek sources and obtain data” that point toward the resolution to a given problem.
A change in thought processes also underlines the accelerating move toward stories based on open-source data, as investigated by María Florencia Haddad and Elena Brizuela in “The Narratives and Routines of Journalistic Productions Based on Open Data.” Drawing on interviews and a comparative analysis of 20 Argentinian publications, the authors describe a range of diverse narrative types used to create data-based stories, as well as newly emerging cooperative newsroom structures that facilitate their creation. This creation process, they argue, is intertwined with new ways of thinking about both audiences and collaborators, as well as about how to present information in visually compelling ways.
Data of another sort are driving additional changes in both thought and practice in contemporary newsrooms. In “Quality, Quantity and Policy,” Kelsey N. Whipple and Jeremy L. Shermak consider the role of audience metrics in journalists’ evaluations of their own performance and their employer’s digital strategy. Their survey of more than 500 journalists at major U.S. newspapers suggests that management priorities are steering journalists to think more about the number of readers a story attracts but also, more qualitatively, about the impact of a story on the community. However, respondents also expressed concerns about strategic direction, a well as about the influence of audience data on editorial decision-making. In general, American journalists appear worried that their bosses are not thinking clearly enough about the future to position either their newspaper or its employees for long-term success in a digital environment.
Those concerns highlight the precarious nature of contemporary news work in a world of constantly shifting priorities and pressures, and Henrik Örnebring provides a closer look at the “new normal” in “Journalists Thinking about Precarity,” our next chapter. Taking us back across the Atlantic, the author draws on more than 60 interviews in 14 countries to offer insights into how European journalists are thinking about professionalism and professional identity within an environment of decreasing full-time employment opportunities and permanent labor insecurity. He finds that journalists are making sense of precarity by falling back on norms that are fundamentally individualistic in nature; that is, they are “normalizing” the situation by mentally positioning the occupation as a meritocracy, one in which only those who are “really good” can succeed. Such thought patterns, he points out, certainly benefit employers—but not necessarily individual journalists.
In our last research article, though, Jonathan Groves and Carrie Brown take us inside one news organization where journalists have helped chart dramatic change in the form of a range of initiatives stretching across nearly a decade. In “Changing ‘Habits of Thought’”, the authors examine a digital evolution at the Christian Science Monitor that began when a newspaper born a century earlier announced in 2008 that it would drop its daily print edition to go digital-only. Their longitudinal case study identifies the shifting patterns of thought that emerged from what they aptly describe as “the crucible of change” with a recommitment to the Monitor’s core mission and “a refined sense of self.” They conclude that experimentation and innovation are the route to successful transformation, but only if organizational values are clearly defined and widely embraced.
Through this issue of #ISOJ, then, a fascinating and multi-faceted picture emerges of journalists’ thought patterns in response to ongoing change—change in story structures and goals, in the use of data for reporting and for relating to audiences, in the nature of employment and the process of experimentation. Our contributors offer insights into the mental processes of journalists across three continents who, despite their geographical separation, all face a similar need to adapt not only what they do in a digital age but how they think about their stories, their audiences, their role and their work. I hope you will enjoy reading and learning from this important and insightful scholarship every bit as much as I have.