Category Archives: Trivia and impressionism

The question

I was on a dissertation committee yesterday at UNC-Chapel Hill, discussing Dave Bockino’s work on journalism education and journalism students in India and the US (congratulations on the doctoral degree, Dave!).

I didn’t get in my stock question, the one I always ask, so now I’ve copied it out from an old (2010) email to my friend Julia Sonnevend–then my fellow PhD student at Columbia–and here it is:

“OK, so the fact that [X] happens, and that [Y1, Y2, … Yn] can help us conceptualize it is interesting, but what does that mean? What is at stake in making that argument? What do we learn, what should we do differently?”

Fill in X and Y1, Y2 … Yn at your own leisure.

Julia called this “the Rasmus question”(which I’m kinda proud of) because I basically asked it every year at Columbia when we PhD students presented our dissertation projects, but really it is just me channeling the pragmatist philosophy of William James.

No, this won’t be the “Meerkat Election”. Or the “Periscope Election”. It’s digital politics as usual.

No, this won’t be the “Meerkat Election”. Or the “Periscope Election”. And as exciting as these new live streaming social media apps are, they certainly not “taking over” Washington, the Presidential Primary, or the 2016 elections (or any other political scene).

It’s the same old story, and we will hear it again and again over the next year and a half.

Much of the hype emanates from the run-up to the US presidential primaries and general elections and wild extrapolation from a few high profile incidents or particularlly succesful outliers.

  • 2004 was called the “Meetup Election” after Howard Dean’s spectacular primary campaign used the platform as part of its effort to mobilize volunteers and raise money.
  • 2008 was called the “Facebook Election” and the “YouTube Election” as these tools grew in importance and particularly the Obama campaign used them.
  • 2012, of course, was called the “Twitter Election” (by amongst others, a purely disinterested source like the CEO of, well, Twitter) as that was the new tools of the season.
  • And 2016 in addition to having already been dubbed the Meerkat Election will probably also be called the Snapchat election and the Whatsapp election and surely more too.

Much of all this hype is driven by a combination of tech journalists and political reporters with an endless need for new content and always looking for the new thing and self-interested sources like political operatives and tech professionals who have a story to tell. (It turns out that the Smith for President social media director thinks social media may decide the election, and that social media consultant Johnson and social media CEO Williams agree.)

One is tempted to say that much of it is bullshit (in the technical sense of the term as communication designed to impress), as no one seems to care whether it is actually true in any meaningful sense of that word. Thought-provoking that even very self-consicously “serious” news outlets lend their name to this stuff.

It’s all predictable but slightly annoying, as is the tendency of some journalists in other countries to pick up on coverage of US election campaigns and assume that whatever happens (or could/will/may happen there) will eventually also decide the upcoming election in country X.

What is missing from this is the simply but important point made by everyone from serious political professionals like David Plouffe (as he has written, “balanced communications across all mediums is critical in any messaging effort today”) over scholars of political communication and media like Andrew Chadwick to historians of technology like David Edgerton: the interplay between old and new media is not either/or scenario where a succession of new media arrive, displace old media like television and inherited campaign practices like going door-to-door, and proceed to decide the election in a blaze of dazzling technology-driven power. It is an additive process where new forms of campaign communication are gradually added on to existing, well-known ones in the pursuit of victory.

So what we have today is digital politics, yes, because these tools—all these tools, including seemingly old and unsexy “mundane tools” like email, spreadsheets, databases, etc—are increasingly integral to much of what many of us do, especially in high income democracies, and hence also important parts of the political process.

But it is digital politics as usual, as old media and campaign practices remain stubbornly important and central, and elections are still won as much on the basis of policy, personality, performance, and at the mercy of events and conjecture like changes in the economy.

I know saying we have a “complicated” election ahead of us that will be decided by a combination of many different factors and where those involved will rely on a wide range of different forms of communication, most of them fairly well-known and older ones, is not very exciting. But it is the honest-to-God truth of the matter. Calling it the “app-of-the-year election” is not.

Now that is off my chest at least I will have this blog post to point to for the rest of the 2015-2016 election season and probably for the rest of my life.

First month flew by…

It’s been a great first month in my new job as Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

Working with the rest of the team here in Oxford, I’ve—

  • Submitted two major grant applications for really interesting research projects.
  • Developed a tailored executive education program designed especially for a group of high level news executives coming here in February.
  • Formally started my tenure as Editor-in-Chief of the International Journal of Press/Politics, amongst other things announcing our new annual conference (deadline for submission of abstracts March 27) and our new annual best book award (deadline for nominations February 15).
  • Seen the 2015 Reuters Institute Digital News Report survey go into the field in a record number of countries with a revised an expanded set of questions, promising a really interesting cross-national and comparative dataset.

Beyond my own work in research and development, it is just a great privilege to welcome our fantastic group of journalist fellows and visiting fellows to Oxford and to connect and reconnected with friends old and new in Oxford and London.

I’m particularly looking forward to supervising Sumit Pande (Political Editor at CNN-IBN) and his research on the role of digital media in the New Delhi assembly elections, where the Aam Aadmi Party is really shaking things up and were all parties are developing new digital strategies as part of their overall campaign in a context very different from the high income democracies I know best.

Interesting times, all in all.

Goodbye to 2014, good-day to 2015

2014 has been a terrific year for me professionally.

Tomorrow, January 1, I formally take up my new position as Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. I’m really looking forward to this exciting opportunity to work at the interface between academic research, professional journalism, and media management and policy-making.

I also assume my new role as editor in chief of the International Journal of Press/Politics (published by Sage), where I’ll work with the editorial board, Cristian Vaccari (who will serve as book review editor) and the wider scholarly community to develop the journal as the main platform for high-quality international and cross-nationally comparative research focused on the intersection between news media and politics.

Beyond my new job and my new role as editor, I’m also honored have received two major awards in the past year First, the Doris Graber Award given by the American Political Science Association for the best book on political communication published in the last ten years for my book Ground Wars: Personalized Communication in Political Campaigns. Second, the Tietgen Prize given by the Danish Society for Business Education (DSEB) for research in the social sciences and humanities that is practically relevant for the industry it concerns for my research on changes in the news media. I’m humbled and honored to have received this kind of recognition from both academic colleagues and from the professional world I study.

Other highlights have been some terrific conferences and events, including our Editors and CEO workshop in Oxford, a really interesting seminar in Barcelona bringing different perspectives to bear on the challenges facing journalism and perhaps especially the preconference on qualitative political communication research I organized with my wonderful and inspiring colleagues Daniel Kreiss, Dave Karpf, and Matt Powers at ICA in Seattle.

So, good-bye to a terrific year for me professionally—and good day to new exciting challenges in 2015.

Thanks to all my good colleagues and students at Roskilde University

Today, I’m emptying my office at Roskilde University as I prepare to move to Oxford for my new position as Director of Research at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism.

I’m really looking forward to new challenges and opportunities but it is also a strange feeling to leave a place I’ve worked (part-time, full-time, variations thereoff) for four years.

I’d like to thank all my good colleagues and students at Roskilde, I’ve learned a ton from you.

335 books from Jørgen Goul Andersen to Slavoj Žižek ready to go.

335 books from Jørgen Goul Andersen to Slavoj Žižek ready to go.

Who should we invite to the Oxford Editor and CEO Forum next year?

Good company...

Good company…

Re-reading summary notes from the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism’s Oxford Editor and CEO Forum last week. Chatham House Rules etc, so I will just quote the official RISJ post about the event—

Editors in Chief and CEOs from 10 countries for 24 hours of in-depth and off the record discussions on some of the key opportunities and challenges involved in running a news organisation in the 21st century.

The forum included participants from India (the Hindu), Japan (the Asahi Shimbun) and Latin America (La Nacion from Argentina) but with the majority from Europe (the Irish Times, Le Monde, the Neue Zürcher Zeitung, Berlingske, the Huffington Post Italy, the Guardian and the Financial Times.)

Issues covered included the implications for journalism of the Edward Snowden affair, different approaches to paying for news online, the challenges of innovation in legacy news organisations, to the debate around sponsored content and the rules that should surround that.

I thought it was a very good discussion, but we are always looking for ways of improving.

We plan to arrange another Forum next year, so the question really is, who should we invite?

The focus will remain on private sector news organizations and retain at least a partial emphasis on the business of journalism, but as long as it doesn’t bring together people so far apart it reduce the conversation to conflict, it would be good with more disruptors to add to what legacy media bring to the table.

I’m thinking maybe someone from the advertising world, certainly someone from tech, and more pure players.

Email, DM, etc me with ideas—all welcome.

Albion W. Small of the (early) Chicago School on problems facing social science and society

Re-reading secondary literature on the Chicago School of Sociology (not really a school, and not confined to Chicago, but there we are). Stumbled upon a great quote in Ken Plummer’s very good introduction to his four-volume The Chicago School: Critical Assessments.

It is from Albion W. Small, who founded the first department of sociology at Chicago in 1892 and chaired it for more than thirty years. He wrote, in his General Sociology (1905), that the “great problem” facing both social science and the public is:

The production of wealth in prodigious quantities, the machine like integration of the industries, the syndicated control of capital and the syndicated organization of labor, the conjunction of interests in production and the collision of interests in distribution, the widening chasms between luxury and poverty, the security of the economically strong and the insecurity of the economically weak, the domination of politics by pecuniary interests, the growth of capitalistic world politics, the absence of commanding moral authority, the well nigh universal instinct that there is something wrong in our social machinery and that society is gravitating toward a crisis, the thousand and one demands for reform,the futility and fractionality of most ameliorative programs – all these are making men wonder how long we can go in a fashion that no one quite understands and that everyone feels at liberty to condemn (Small, 1905: 119-120).

Ignore “the syndicated organization of labor” (which in the US at least increasingly seems a thing of the past), and add in (a) the move towards a post-traditional society which without having done away with past prejudices seems to have greater emphasis on fluid processes of identity formation and re-negotiation and (b) the proliferation of media and communication infrastructures, as well as the battle to control the right to profit from them and control them, and his manifesto seems to me to captures the analytical and substantial problems of our time as well as any.