In a new article to be published in Digital Journalism, Nikki Usher and I look at how digital news startups talk about what they do by examining their “manifestos” — i.e. public-facing statements about who they are, what they do, and why they make journalism better. Although these manifestos are by no means uniform, they do share an effort to define not only what the news startup is doing, but why improvement is needed in the first place. In this way, they are examined as key moments of metajournalistic discourse that define appropriate practices, demarcate the boundaries of journalism, and establish arguments for what legitimate journalism looks like–or ought to look like.
One pattern we found was a reluctance to attack traditional journalism in any sustained way. Instead, these startups simultaneously rely on the authority of existing journalism while they also craft arguments for the improvements they offer. In being constrained from a full-throated attack, these sites instead emphasized two traits. First, they took an iterative stance in which they celebrated an attitude of experimentation, which they contrasted with static news forms. Second, they sought to collapse barriers between journalism and technology by advocating for closer connections between news workers and technologists.
Another thing we learned was that life often moves faster than academic publishing. As the article finished the revision process and entered the production stage, one of our news sites, Circa, ceased operations due to a lack of funds. To us, this underscores the precariousness of the digital news environment and the fine line between innovation and sustainability.