A Must Read Report

I was at a dinner party last week and was chatting with a former high ranking official in the Clinton White House (anonymous, naturally). We got talking about what I teach and he launched into the singular worry: Who will produce the news in the  future? In the 90s, the White House merely collected clips from a handful of national news outlets, and pretty much got a handle on the mediated conversation that was taking place nationally. It is a pointed question, and one with no simple answer and a lot of speculation.  But what I should do is direct him to the new Tow Center report Post Industrial Journalism by C.W. Anderson, Emily Bell, and Clay Shirky.

This is an important document at an important juncture for journalism. It lays out a cogent, carefully considered argument about journalism that scales from the specifically concrete (CMS systems hindering innovation) to the conceptual broad (what journalism in the future will have to do).

My main reason to recommend this report is that it does something rather magical: It avoids the extremes of gleefully stomping on the ghosts of print or ruefully waxing nostalgia for the good old days. In a word, this report is realistic. Advertising is not coming back (nor is there ready replacement), and digital formats are not going to just pick up the slack (not for years, anyway). It is sober, basing its argument on the need for hard news in a way that connects with the concerns expressed above by the former White House official.

Another attribute I really enjoyed was the authors’ comfort with an argument I have been making lately: we are moving from a homogenous news environment in which newspapers, television, and magazines basically coalesced each into a standard format with similar output, shared norms, and the like, to a heterogenous media ecosystem (to use the report’s language) in which we will have a variety of formats with different types of journalists following different rules and making money in different ways. This is hard to grasp really.  We are so comfortable with “the press” or “journalism” standing for something cohesive. In a section titled “The End of Solidarity,” the authors note:

Perhaps the most salient change in the next seven years will be the continued
weakening of the very idea of what constitutes news, and thus what constitutes
a news organization (p. 116).

They make the point elsewhere:

Journalism is instead moving from one to many, from a set of roles whose description and daily patterns were coherent enough to merit one label to one where the gap between what makes Nate Silver a journalist and what makes Kevin Sites a journalist continues to widen. (p. 110)

There are many problems confronting journalism right now–and rightly many opportunities. But this very disintegration of how we think of journalism as a unified field–the shift identified in the report’s title as “post-industrial” journalism demands our attention as it unfolds around us. Now, go read the report.

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More on Walter Cronkite

Memory Studies, an interdisciplinary, international journal Photo Titlededicated to collective memory, just published an article I wrote with my friend and frequent collaborator Dan Berkowitz. We were interested in what the journalistic community were doing with the memory of Walter Cronkite following his death in July 2009. Although both working and retired journalists hailed his work and recalled, however mythically, his cultural weight during the heyday of television news, we were surprised at how distant Cronkite was made out to be. Rather than a model of news, Cronkite became a symbolic relic of another era–one long gone. This created a complicated situation in which Cronkite was both revered and cast aside. It demonstrates the limits communities face when drawing on past memories to bolster authoritative standing in the present. Now, after writing two papers about Cronkite, I have to find time to read all 832 pages of this. Can I wait for the movie?


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Now in Paperback!

The University of Illinois Press has released a paperback edition of my book On the Condition of Anonymity: Unnamed Sources and the Battle for JournalismBest of all, this means there is an affordable edition out there for humans and not just the expensive hardcovers for libraries (although, for any librarians reading this, the hardcover is still available).

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Article on Walter Cronkite

Journalism Studies has just published a piece I wrote about Walter Cronkite titled: “Rethinking Journalistic Authority: Walter Cronkite and Ritual in Television News.” This paper emerged after I was struck by all the elements of ritual that kept popping up in commemorations of Cronkite in the days after his death. As journalists sought to explain just what it was that made Cronkite Cronkite, they kept having to move from the stable of go-to journalism norms to deeper questions explaining his appeal. He was a cultural guide; he was everyone’s uncle; he was everyone’s dinner companion. He was the dividing line between work and leisure. Etc. Yet these ideas didn’t fit neatly into journalism’s self-definition of quality. Instead, they signaled a deeper attachment–ritualistic more than merely informative. Of course, I draw on James Carey for this argument to make a larger point about what news does. 

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“The People’s Debate” Published

I’m very happy to be part of Journalism Practice‘s special issue on “Online Reporting of Elections.” Einar Thorsen did a great job putting together an international collection of research articles. My contribution is a piece I wrote with my good friend Eran Ben-Porath. We were both really interested in CNN’s partnership with YouTube back in 2007 to conduct a debate using YouTube-submitted videos. It seemed to us something promising and unduly ridiculed:

However, it also was amusing how much CNN tried to tamp down its role in actually selecting and ordering the videos. After a long and twisty academic road, the piece in Journalism Practice is what we came up with, and we hope the idea of the “demotic voice” that we adapted from the work of Graeme Turner is useful. It’s also a testament to the speed of academic research that here it is in 2012 and we are just getting out our research from the last election.

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Starting immediately, I will be taking over as reviews editor of Journalism. I’m looking forward to this new editorial position, including bugging lots of people to write reviews. The hard part will be clearing of some shelf space in my office. If you are interested in writing a review or if you have a book you think would be of interest to the journal’s reading, email me or check out the submission guidelines on the journal site. For reviewers, it’s a great way to get a book you would want to read anyway.

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Q & A on Anonymous Sources

The University of Illinois Press has a Q & A where I talk about my book and issues of anonymity generally. It’s part of an effort to promote the new redesign by UIP, which I encourage you to check out. And with the holidays around the corner, what better gift than a book about unnamed sources?

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ICA Journalism Studies

I want to offer a sincere thanks to everyone who voted for me to be the next vice-chair, chair elect of the Journalism Studies division of the International Communication Association. I am looking forward to serving the growing community of journalism studies scholars in the years to come, starting in Phoenix in May. I’m also happy to be working alongside my talented friend Seth Lewis as secretary.

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What’s a citation worth anyway?

Last week, when a colleague sent an email looking for research tips to give our new masters students, I sent one: Google Scholar. I’m sure many readers will agree, Google Scholar just makes it easier to find articles. And while Google itself is subjected to endless speculation about its interests, particularly in the ad-serving realm, Google Scholar appears to be an almost forgotten cousin of its brawny Web-searching relative. Simply put: Scholar does two things (reasonably) well: First, it simplifies the cumbersome boolean labyrinths of many other academic databases while also linking right to an institution’s electronic holdings. Second, it displays who cites an article right there with no extra searching needed.

It is this second quality that is most intriguing. It’s impossible not to follow the progress of one’s own articles, checking to see how they’ve fared since leaving the safe ports of our word processers to sail the seas of academia. We’ve done all we can for them and wish them well out there on their own, hoping someone else will discover them, find something useful, and, of course, cite them. Gulp.

Now Google Scholar has upped the narcism ante with My Citations, a sort of home page-slash-clickable CV-slash-scorecard-slash-ego challenger. I’ve included a screen shot of mine, or you can see it here. This has some neat qualities to it, clearly: you can track a scholar’s corpus much more easily than through a normal Google Scholar search, and as the proprietor I can add in links to my information and add colleagues (although, only manually, as my friend C.W. Anderson pointed out).

But what is most frightening is how it casually it quantifies citations. It turns an academic career into, well, something not too disimilar from a baseball card. Of course, there is allure in this to watch citations grow, visually, through the handy histogram, as well as assorted other measures.  However, what does this all mean? That is the thorny question that inevitably arises when academic work is splayed out in this fashion. One must click through to find out, first of all, who is doing the citing, and, even more deeply hidden, in what ways these citations occur. I don’t know what is a mere mention of something I’ve written perhaps to bulk up references and what has engaged another author in a substantive–hence contributing–way. Instead, we have numbers, and increasingly public numbers at that. It’s like in the television commercials for an investment service in which workers flash their total savings above their heads. Mine would read 130 right now, a nice number, but is it also a meaningful one?

My worry is that such quantification of academic work will creep into assessment without a concerted effort to discuss what it means and how healthy it is to producing quality work. Such is the nature of metrics in our measurable world complicated by difficulty of comparing scholars. However, until such a discussion emerges, I’ll be here waiting for citation number 131.

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Peer Review from the Other Side

Like most junior scholars, my experience with academic journal peer review has quickly migrated from the submission end to the reviewing end. It’s a big step to move into this gatekeeper role, and one with no instruction manual. Journals usually provide a vague referee report to help reviewers structure comments systematically, but for the most part our knowledge of what a review looks like comes from reviews we’ve received from own work. And I am sure my experience with the reviews I’ve received mirrors that of others: some are helpful, some are disappointing, and some are downright bizarre.

By this point, I’ve reviewed dozens of manuscripts for 15 (and counting) different journals (not to mention a smattering of conference papers). And while I’ve dutifully judged these submissions, I’ve never stopped to codify how it is I think about reviews until I was asked to answer some questions to help with a research guide. I found the exercise to be personally enlightening in galvanizing my thought process, but I also wanted to share it with others who may be on either end of peer review. The questions are not mine, so I can only be blamed for the answers. Feel free to add comments about your own experiences.

What makes you decide to accept an invitation for peer reviewing, other than your availability? Do you rely on abstracts and keywords?

As a junior scholar, I try to accommodate every review request to get involved in the field. I feel indebted to the many reviewers that I have helped me improve my own work over the years. Participating in peer reviewing is a way of giving back to the field.

What do you look for in an article, generally speaking?

All scholarly research articles are really arguments that the author has identified a useful research question that fulfills a gap somewhere in existing literature, and that it does so productively and rigorously. A submission may be soundly assembled, but have no value in advancing research. Conversely, a submission may promote an interesting new path but in such a woeful manner as to not meet the basic requirements of scholarly work. The job of a reviewer is to assess whether this submission can add something new and then to provide direction for making this happen.

What makes you reject an article? In other words, what basic criteria does an article need to reply to in order not to be rejected?

I confront every new manuscript critically yet hopeful that it will be an acceptable piece of scholarship. However, I end up rejecting the vast majority of submissions I review. Rejections occur for a variety of reasons, including a lack of depth in the writing, a lack of clarity about what the study is doing, poor use of existing theories or scholarly concepts, poorly executed methods, and lackluster findings. No one item earns a rejection, but rather I ask if problems can be fixed or if they are too severe or too numerous to be revised. When rejecting a paper, I always do two things. First, I question myself to make sure that I am not just rejecting the paper because of my own preferences; every paper should be evaluated for its own merit. Second, I make sure to write useful comments for authors so that they may find a way forward with future work. Having a journal submission rejected may be common for academics, but it is always painful and potentially deflating. As a reviewer, I try to mitigate this effect.

How do you decide between minor and major revision? 

There is no set standard, but one that I try to apply asks how clear the solution is to whatever the problem is preventing acceptance. If it is clear, from my reading anyway, that an author needs to change x, y, and z and what needs to be done is straightforward (even if time-consuming), than that is a minor revision. By contrast, a major revision occurs when I identify a problematic aspect of a manuscript–something that is not quite right–but that I am also unable to see how it gets fixed. In this case, I ask the author to go back and retry a new approach in the hopes that this will alleviate the problem. Of course, there are also major revisions that occur because of a multitude of small problems rather than any major issue.

How do you decide between major revision and reject?

Deciding between a major revision and a rejection requires a decision of whether to trust that the author is capable of making the corrections needed for acceptance. No one wants an author to waste time on a revision that would still fall far short. At the same time, if the topic is important and the paper promising, I want to give the author a chance to fix up a paper for the benefit of advancing the field. Of course, often an author confronted with a major revision that suggests new directions will simply take their submission elsewhere. As a scholar, I’ve had this happen where rather than revise a paper in an entirely new–and somewhat uncomfortable direction–I’ve gone to another journal and been accepted.

How important is grammar and writing style in your assessment? Would you reject a paper that was poorly written, even if it contained interesting information?

With english becoming the lingua franca of increasingly global academic scholarship, non-native speakers are forced to submit their work in english-only journals. I keep this in mind whenever I review an article, noting that the editor or a copy editor can help spruce up the language of a submission. I really think it is unfair to discriminate against someone’s scholarship simply because of language. That said, it can be extremely distracting to read a poorly written manuscript. Indeed, it is also difficult for the author to make sophisticated points without a mastery of the language. But nonetheless if the material is sound save for some language issues, I would not hold it against an author.

If you feel you’re not the right person to review an article, after accepting an invitation, would you still try to review it or do you pull out?

There are two reasons why I would decline to review an article: either it is a topic that I lack knowledge of or it is a method that I am unable to assess. If there is no fit on the topic, I inform the editor that I cannot do the submission justice and often make suggestions of other scholars I know who would be a better fit and ask that the editor consider me for future submissions more aligned with my own areas of interest. When it comes to a method that I cannot properly assess, I may still review a submission if I am quite comfortable with the topic. However, I would make it abundantly clear to the editor what my shortcoming is to ensure that another reviewer can properly account for these areas.

From a practical perspective, how do you assess the paper? Do you make a list of errors and corrections (including page and paragraph numbers), for example, or do you prefer giving general comments?

When peer reviewing, I try to keep track of my own thoughts by jotting them in the margins of the manuscript as I read. This way, I can quickly make note of a comment and then return to the paper with my full attention. At the end of reading a submission, I go back through and examine my comments looking for recurring criticisms in order to craft a review. When I write a review, I focus on explaining in detail general issues that have arisen, saving only a small amount of room at the end for specific errors and corrections.

When you are invited by a journal you are not familiar with, do you assess the paper primarily according to your own criteria for academic journal publishing, or do you also consider the journal’s specific aims and scopes, and if so, to what extent?

At this point, I’ve reviewed for fifteen different journals located in several different countries. For the most part, I judge each submission against my own standards for scholarly research. But I also stress specificity and clarity in my written reviews, which not only aids the author in making revisions but also helps the editor understand my qualms so that she may decide if my criteria are a good fit for the journal. I’ve actually had a paper that I recommend rejection for get accepted to a journal. I respect this decision by the editor much more than an editor merely parroting back what the reviewers said with no interest in how they arrived at their conclusions.


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