Political Journalism in Transition—new book officially out

Political Journalism in Transition—Western Europe in a Comparative Perspective, a new book I’ve edited with Raymond Kuhn, is now officially out in the Reuters Institute book series published by I.B. Tauris.

Pol JourThe book is what it says on the tin—it takes stock of how political journalism operates today and how it has changed over the last decade in a range of different Western European countries.

The first chapter and index is available here, the book is for sale on Amazon here.

We are lucky to have in the book both great country case studies and a number of chapters dealing with cross-cutting themes.

In our introduction, Raymond and I make clear that there are several examples of both change and continuity in political journalism that are similar across most of Western Europe.

Continuity includes the enduring centrality of legacy media organizations like newspapers and broadcasters both in terms of (1) news production and (2) news dissemination, across both digital and non-digital platforms, as well as (3) the “legitimist” vision of political journalism which generally operates within a sphere of “legitimate controversy” that is marked out by electoral politics (and sometimes does not even fully include all of electoral politics as when elected representative of far-right and far-left populist parties are treated quite differently from more “mainstream” politicians).

Changes common across Western Europe includes an (1) accelerated news cycle (driven by 24-hour rolling television and increasingly social media), (2) a shifting balance of power between a reduced number of journalists producing more content for more platforms and an (3) increased number of communication professionals servicing top political actors, and of course the increased importance of digital media.

But though these are clear, shared trends, there are also pronounced, consequential, and enduring national differences, as shown by the countries analyzed in the book, where we have chapters on the specificities of political journalism in France (Raymond), Italy (Alessio Cornia), Germany (Carsten Reinemann and Philip Baugut), Denmark (Mark Blach-Ørsten), and the UK (Aeron Davis).

In terms of cross-cutting themes, we cover changes in coverage of the European Union (Oliver Baisnee), the role of public service broadcasting (Stephen Cushion), differences and similarities between political journalism in the United States and Western Europe (myself), long-term trends in political reporting (Andrea Umbricht and Frank Esser) as well as the evolution of international news coverage (Kevin Williams).

Throughout the book, we show that political journalism in Western Europe is characterized by similarity and differences as well as change and continuity, and most of our authors argue there is no underlying convergence on one “Western European” model of political journalism. Of the countries we cover, especially Italy continues to stand out from Northern Europe, but differences between the UK and for examples Germany and Denmark are also pronounced.

We hope the book will be useful for scholars and students interested in Western Europe in particular, but also more generally for an international audience interested in cross-national and cross-regional differences and similarities in the workings of political journalism, and in how it is changing in part due to internal professional dynamics, but also in response to changes in the media industry more broadly, and changes in our political systems.

Most people still ignore most politicians online…

The great open access journal International Journal of Communication just published a paper I’ve written with Cristian Vaccari called “Do People “Like” Politicians on Facebook? Not Really. Large-Scale Direct Candidate-to-Voter Online Communication as an Outlier Phenomenon”.

In the paper, we analyze the presence of 224 major-party candidates for the House of Representatives across the 112 most competitive districts in the 2010 U.S. Congressional Elections across Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, and their campaign websites and find that attention is highly concentrated with just a few candidates attracting vastly more supporters, followers, video views, and website visitors than everyone else.

Though a few politicians stand out, the median candidates count their followers etc in the hundreds or at best the low thousands. It is a hit economy out there, and most politicians are not a hit with the wider population, at least in the U.S. (I’ve blogged about this data before, and TechPresident wrote a bit about it back in 2010—the article had a tortured review process, so it has taken a bit of time to get this simple but I think pretty important argument out there in its final form.)

Are our findings still relevant three years after the data was gathered, three years in which the spread of smartphones and tablets and the growing popularity of new social media have changed the web?

I very much thing so—the four basic patterns we identify seems stable. They are:

(1) limited reach in terms of the number of people who follow most campaigns on various platforms; (2) high levels of concentration of attention across all platforms, with a few politicians drawing many people, and most drawing few; (3) considerable correlations between visibility on each platform, where candidates who do well on one also tend to do well on the others; and (4) noticeable growth in the total number of people following candidates in the course of the campaign period without any change in the overall pattern of highly skewed distributions.

Data from our follow-up work on 2012 confirm all four basic patterns (here for a first cut of that data), and several of them are familiar from earlier work by Matt Hindman and others on “web 1.0” online politics.

As we write in the paper,

The few candidates with significant online audiences are not as much ahead of the curve as they are on top of the curve. If the limited number of politicians in our sample who attracted a lot of attention were distinguished by being early adopters of particular platforms, perhaps others could do likewise and achieve similar results. But with adoption rates of the four platforms considered here ranging between 91% and 100% among candidates [in 2010], and large parts of the adult population already using them regularly [again, in 2010], the highly uneven distributions are clearly not the outcome of uneven levels of use.

Ultimately, the online environment, partially discounting online marketing, is a pull environment in which people opt in and self-select. And at least in the U.S., interest in politics is limited and unevenly distributed, trust and confidence in politicians is limited, and while many people talk about politics online, most people do not connect with most politicians online.

It is an open question how relevant these findings are in countries where more people are more interested in politics (many countries have far higher turnout than the U.S.) and have more faith in politicians and the political process (as in some Northern European countries, for example). (On the other hand, they may be even more true in countries with lower levels of engagement and trust, or in supra-national political systems like the E.U., where very few European-level politicians have build significant popular followings online.)

But at least in the U.S., what we wrote in conclusion about our 2010 data still seems accurate to me–

As long as competition for attention is so fierce and levels of interest so low and uneven, only a few politicians will attract large online audiences that allow them to communicate directly to the electorate to any significant degree via various social networking sites. The rest will have to find other ways, including both traditional means, such as direct mail, field operations, and television advertising, as well as new forms of push marketing online. The topology we have mapped here is one dominated by a few exceptional outliers who attract tens of thousands of supporters and viewers, but where the great majority of candidates—even in well-funded, competitive, high-stakes contests—labor in relative obscurity online.

Frozen media policies during a time of media change—new paper out

This year, we mark the twentieth anniverary after the Mosaic browser and affordable dial-up connections began to make the internet accessible for ordinary people, disrupting almost every aspect of the media business along the way as much of the population in high-income democracies started going online, moved from modems to broadband, from desk tops to lap tops, went from phones to mobile phones to smart phones, and as their TV was digitized and later connected.

And yet, despite all these changes in the media—and close to twenty years of media analysts arguing that they in turn necessitate changes in how media are regulated and underpinned—many areas of media policy remain essentially unchanged, especially when it comes to the forms of direct and indirect public support for media, including news media.

Across otherwise quite different countries including Finland, Germany and the United States, countries with different media systems and political systems, we have generally seen little reform of media policies, in particular those policies more important to democracy than to commerce (broadband policy and transition to digital television has been high on the agenda in many countries). The media industries are in upheaval. Media policies are being tweaked.

In a paper just published in Global Media and Communication (abstract below, full article here), I try to explain why many media policies seem “frozen” during a time of media change, looking at six high income democracies (Finland, France, Germany, Italy, the UK and the US) and drawing on interviews with media managers, media regulators, and media policymakers in each country.

I point to three factors that cut across all six countries and are likely relevant in many other places too.

I call them “the devil that don’t care”, “the devil you know”, and “the devil you don’t know.”

  1. “The devil that don’t care.”—a relative lack of interest in media policy from many leading politicians. The top people have a lot on their plate during a time of economic crisis, war, and all the rest, and changes in the media business has mostly not been put on their agenda.a
  2. “The devil you know.” The role of industry incumbents who are, whether in public service media or in the private sector, (predictably and understandably) keen to protect their existing privileges and who fear that any reform will leave them worse off. In some cases, this is close to “regulatory capture”, but in every case, incumbents can at least oppose reform proposals that hurt their interests.
  3. “The devil you don’t know.” Real, substantial uncertainty about what reform would look like and how it could be made both effective and governable. Anyone who talks to media regulators and serious media policy scholars recognize this. It is a lot easier to call for reform than to specify which reforms are simultaneously politically legitimate, cost-effective (especially during a time of austerity and budget-cuts), and ensure accountability.

The lack of high-level interest, the incumbents protecting their own interests, and the lack of clear blueprints and best practices for what could be done all help explain why media policies remain “frozen” in many respects in many countries.

Of course, the absence of major reform combined with major changes in the media industry means that many media policies are increasingly subject to what political scientists call “policy drift”, a process by which the operations and effectiveness of policies change not because of deliberate reform, but because of changing conditions on the ground.

The changes in our media are not going away. They are in fact likely to accelerate. And while we can understand why our media policies do not always change at the same pace, that does not mean change is not necessary. We need 21st century media policies for 21st century media. (See? I told you it was easier to call for reform that to specify what reform should look like more concretely.)

a) With regards to the first factor: France under Sarkozy was a partial exception to this (and has seen some changes in media support arrangements during his presidency) and Italy, because of Berlusconi, has been an obvious exception to this (though changes there have mostly taken the form of cuts). The period I examine ends before the Leveson Inquiry began in the UK, but keep in mind that despite the best attempts of the Media Reform Coalition and others, that has been more about press regulation than about the framework conditions of media.

Abstract etc below.

Continue reading

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.

Special issue of Press/Politics on changing business of journalism

The October issue of the International Journal of Press/Politics is now available online.

It includes a special section called “comparative perspectives on the changing business of journalism and its implications for democracy” edited by myself, David Levy from the Reuters Institute, and Frank Esser from IPMZ at Zurich.

In addition to the programmatic introduction written by us as editors of the special section, where we note that while comparative journalism research has made great strides in recent years our empirical understanding of the institutional and systemic preconditions of journalism may not have advanced as quickly as either (a) conditions on the ground have changed or (b) other areas of research like those oriented towards news content, media use, or journalistic role-conceptions and practices. We call for more institutionally- and system-oriented comparative, mixed-methods, empirical work.

In the three articles included in the special section, I write about structural changes in Western media systems, Vaclav Stetka and Henrik Ornebring writes about the preconditions for investigative journalism in Central and Eastern Europe, and Edda Humprecht and Florin Buchel writes about similarities and differences in online news reporting in different countries.

We were very happy that Silvio Waisbord (the IJPP editor) entrusted us with his journal and it was a very good experience to work with David and Frank on the issue. I haven’t had time to read the other articles in the issue yet, but I’m looking forward in particular to Rita Figueiras and Nelson Ribeiro’s article on Angolan investments in Portuguese media, a very interesting topic.

It is, however, also clear that while the three articles we ended up publishing are all very interesting, there continues to be a real dearth of actual empirical and genuinely international cross-country comparative research that focus on the institutional and systemic preconditions that journalism operates under. This is, in my view, a major void and one journalism studies need to confront.

Comparing Media Systems and the debate it has sparked over the last decade is a major advance, but much more work, especially actual comparative, original, empirical work–including work that moves beyond content, journalistic role conceptions, and citizens’ media use–needs to be done.

Future of Journalism, Cardiff Conference round-up

I spent the last two days in Cardiff for Bob Franklin’s biannual journalism studies conference hosted by the School of Journalism, Media and Cultural Studies (JOMEC). Lots of good stuff and great to see folks and catch up on interesting work being done around the world. (Full program here, abstracts of all papers here.)

Three take-aways from panels and discussions I attended (more at #FoJ2013 on Twitter for those interested)—

First, local and regional journalism and news information environments–

It was very refreshing to see several very good pieces of empirical research on the particular questions concerning local and regional journalism and news information environments in different contexts. I was particularly impressed with the work being done by Andy Williams and colleagues on local and hyperlocal journalism in the UK, Julie Firmstone and Stephen Coleman’s work-in-progress on the local information environment in Leeds (including studies of the city council, legacy news, and new digital sites), as well as research by Piet Bakker and colleagues from the Netherlands on developments there. Very good stuff. It would be great to see more studies from other countries so we can develop a more comparative understanding of what is going on with local news and information environments in different contexts. (Some work has been done in the US too.)

Second,the ubiquity of the New York Times–

It is clear that the New York Times continues to hold enormous sway over the imagination of both journalists and journalism studies scholars thinking about digital and digital strategy. As Piet Bakker rightly remarked after Robert Picard’s keynote lecture, “everyone talks about the same three examples: the New York Times, financial newspapers like the Wall Street Journal and the Financial Times, and the Guardian.” Of course, all of these are highly unusual cases, from which we can probably learn relatively little about how digital is developing and working out for other news organizations, including top titles in small national markets (that is, much of Western Europe), but also, apropos my point above, local and regional newspapers like the Western Mail in Wales (studied by Williams et al), the Yorkshire Post (studied by Firmstone and Coleman), and their equivalents in other countries. As I’ve argued before—as many others have—even if we have to recognize the empirical fact that the New York Times figures prominently in how lots of people talk and think about digital strategy, the actual news organization and company itself probably can’t even tell us much about how other US newspapers are faring, let alone how newspapers elsewhere are faring. There’s an analogy here to the role for example the Barack Obama campaign plays in discussions of digital politics. (As Oscar Westlund pointed out in one discussion, it’s well known from studies of organizational learning that you often make your biggest mistakes when you learn from the wrong examples.)

Third,lots of good, theoretically and methodologically diverse, work on digital–

Journalism studies continues to catch up on digital, lots of good work on innovation, the integration of new technologies in newsrooms and work practices, how ordinary people engage with news etc through digital, and also some work across platforms that takes digital seriously without giving up on legacy or ignoring legacy media’s enduring importance. The field of journalism studies, from my impression, has done a better job of overcoming sharp analogue/digital distinctions and “old media”/”new media” binaries than many other areas of media and communication studies including, I hate to admit as someone who also has an intellectual home there, parts of political communication research. In part, it is good to see how a conference like this draws not only people who consider themselves journalism studies scholars, but also a sizable contingent of audience researchers (very interesting papers by Regina Marchi from the US and by Tim Groot Kormelink and Irene Costera Meier from the Netherlands on tailor-made news), a few media economists, people studying management, etc. This kind of diversity is surely a necessary part of understanding journalism today.

Prospects for global and national news, what about local?

Developments at leading national newspapers building their (paying) digital audience both in-country and internationally give reason for some cautious optimism concerning the future of global and national news, but it is not clear that we can learn much from the models rolled out at these papers when it comes to the important question of the future of local and regional news.

That’s one of my takeaways from a fabulous 30th Anniversary Weekend celebrating the Reuters Institute’s fellowship program for journalists from around the world. (The program’s 30th anniversary, not mine…)

In addition to a great chance to catch up with fellows and friends from around the world, the weekend provided for several interesting discussions of developments in the business of journalism around the world, with presentations by the new New York Times Company CEO Mark Thompson, Natalie Nougayrede, the editor-in-chief of the French daily newspaper Le Monde, and John Stackhouse, editor-in-chief of the Canadian Globe and Mail.

A few highlights from their presentations—

  • All of them recognized the challenges their organizations have faced and still face in a changing media environment, but all also spoke with confidence and vision about a future in which an expanded range of editorial content across more platform and a greater reliance on reader (viewer/listener/user) payment will continue to provide us with great journalism.
  • All stress their ambition to stand out from the empty calories of breaking news “churnalism” to create value for their users (in Nougayrede’s words: we need to get it first, but also get it right and get it rich). Especially Mark Thompson spoke out very strongly against the idea of “paid advertorials” or “native advertising” blurring the line between editorial and advertising.
  • All predict hybrid print-digital models for the foreseeable future—Mark Thompson said that internal modeling at the NYT suggest that print will be a key part of the company and news organization “for much longer than many people imagine”.
  • All present business models based on print sales and advertising revenues combined with digital advertising plus an increased emphasis on digital sales and an expanding range of ancillary products based on each news organization’s brand and reputation (conferences, seminars, etc).
  • All of them are heading news organizations with lower revenues today than in the 1990s, but all are also painting a picture where the coming years may look better than the dramatic declines of 2007-2012.

It was all very interesting, and many of the journalists in the audience remarked that it was refreshing to hear such confident and relatively upbeat presentations after years of doom and gloom, at least in North America and much of Europe.

Of course, all three speakers are keen to promote their vision for their respective title, and to boost their future prospects, but I thought every one of them remained mostly reality-based on their presentations and I agree that there are reasons for cautious optimism when it comes to the future of titles like especially the New York Times, but also nationally-dominant quality brands with some potential for global reach like the Le Monde (Nougayrede spoke of plans to expand the title’s presence in Francophone Africa, where some countries have a sizable and growing professional class).

But, just sticking to the case of the New York Times and Le Monde, I continue to wonder how much we can really learn from their experience when it comes to the future of other newspapers, especially local and regional newspapers and newspapers in smaller countries.

Mark Thompson quoted Chris Anderson, Emily Bell, and Clay Shirky’s important caveat in their report on “Post-Industrial Journalism” from last year to the effect that every statement in discussions of the future of journalism that begins with the sentence “let’s take the New York Times as an example” ought to be discounted because the NYT’s experience really isn’t representative of anything else. It is in a set of one, and only few other titles, perhaps the Financial Times and the Wall Street Journal, can be compared with it in any meaningful way.

Even the step from being a leading national title (with considerable global potential) in a market of 315 million to being amongst the top titles in markets of 60 million (like France) with less global potential is huge in terms of getting to critical mass both in terms of digital advertising and digital sales. The situation in a country like my native Denmark, with a population of 5.5 million (less than New York City or Paris alone) is of course very different.

For both national papers in smaller countries and regional and local papers in bigger ones, the problem of critical mass—which is central both when it comes to digital advertising revenues and digital sales, where people often speak of aiming for a “conversation rate” of maybe 1 per cent of monthly unique visitors signing up as paying readers—is even more pressing than at titles with potential for global reach. Mark Thompson called the New York Times a relative minnow when it comes to digital advertising (volume is required both to generate revenue and to enable good behavioral targeting of advertising). He is right, of course, when comparing the Times to Google, Facebook, etc, but if the NYT is a minnow, I don’t know what the word would then be for other newspapers.

We can see the problems of reaching critical mass both in small countries like Denmark, where even the top national newspapers are in a situation quite different from that of the New York Times or even Le Monde. The New York Times can support a newsroom with more than 1,000 journalists in a country of 315 million (with an additional about ten percent of its digital subscribers from the rest of the world). Divide that by 60 to get to Danish size, and you would have a newsroom of less than 20. Even after several years of cost-cutting, the newsroom at a title like Berlingske (currently being shopped around by its debt-burdened British owners Mecom) is much, much larger than that, but it remains an open question for how long it can sustain such an investment in quality journalism.

We can also see the problem of critical mass at the hundreds of local and regional daily papers that make up the majority of the US newspaper industry, employ the majority of US journalists, and produce much of the independent coverage of public affairs. The Newark-based Star-Ledger, for example, is critical in terms of covering New Jersey’s notoriously corrupt and incestuous politics (what other Western newspaper has a section simply called “corruption”?). Based across the Hudson River from the New York Times, it is losing money even though it has a daily paid circulation larger than Le Monde or several Danish daily papers combined (over 340,000 on weekdays). And though it is growing its digital subscriber base, it is hard for the Star-Ledger to build a digital business, as many of the readers it caters to already get some local news for free via broadcast and web from local television stations etc and many get much of their national and international coverage from national sources or larger neighboring newspapers like the Philadelphia Inquirer (in South Jersey) and the New York Times (in North Jersey). The recent trouble at AOL’s Patch and Advance Publication’s decision to scrap AnnArbor.com suggest that online-only hyperlocal journalism is even harder to sustain on a commercial basis. The problems of rapidly eroding print revenues and very limited growth in terms of digital revenue also bedevils much of the European local and regional press (though there seems to be some exceptions such as in Finland where the regional press seems to be doing better than the national press).

So, even though the presentations by Mark Thompson and even Natalie Nougayrede from Le Monde provided some reasons for cautious optimism when it comes to the future of global and national news, I’m not sure we can learn all that much from the experience of the New York Times when it comes to newspapers in smaller national markets or when it comes to regional or local newspapers.

This problem—especially the future of local and regional news—is thus intellectually distinct from the problem of the future of national and global news, and of separate importance not only for the business of journalism, but also very much for democracy. Though news tend to focus on national politics and national issues, most of our lives are lived locally, and much of our politics and government play out locally, watched by and reported on by ever fewer journalists. That, I think, is a problem in terms of accountability and in terms of the independent sources of information available to citizens about local public affairs.