Algorithmic-based technologies’ impact on journalistic identities
Algorithm-based technologies increasingly impact not only what news we are seeing but also how journalists are evaluating themselves. In this blogpost, Tomás Dodds reflects on changing professional identities in two Chilean newsrooms.
New journalistic profiles
Journalism can be a fickle profession. Its dependency on the technologies with which it surrounds itself—or those on which it bases its work—means that the practice of journalism looks different depending on the platforms utilised to chase an ever-moving audience.
During 2017 and 2018, I conducted ethnographic research, including participant observation, inside two newsrooms in Chile: a newspaper and a television station. I not only observed journalists, but I also worked as a one. I pitched my own stories and witnessed first-hand how these technologies changed the values and priorities of television, newspaper, and journalists working for digital platforms. My research question related to how news makers are appropriating digital technologies and how these technologies impact the news-making process. However, I soon realised that a strange phenomenon was observable between journalists who worked on different platforms. Those reporters who wrote for the newspaper seemed to think poorly of their digital counterparts. Concurrently, those who wrote for the web often complained to me about their paper colleagues.
I sat with a newspaper journalist and asked her opinion on this issue. She did not think that newspaper reporters disdained their digital colleagues. Rather, she believed that the digital team thought poorly of themselves. ‘When I got hired to write for the paper, my colleagues in digital told me, “Now you are really going to write”,’ she remembered.
The more I spoke with her, the more I realised that two completely different experiences of what being a journalists meant were happening simultaneously in the same newsroom. At the root of these differences was the technology each group of professionals were utilising. While digital journalists, working in two shifts, ceaselessly wrote small, breaking-news articles—thus feeding the algorithm of third-party platforms such as Facebook or Twitter—this newspaper reporter’s working day was entirely different. The prominence of her work depended not on the quantity of the articles she published each day but on the quality: the sources whom she booked to interview, the angle from which she determined to tell the story, and the potential to reveal exclusive information. These qualities, she remarked, were often missing in her digital colleagues’ work.
The affordances that create differences
‘Newspaper reporters criticise web journalists, saying that they are sitting all day doing nothing. That is understanding nothing of what the job of the web journalists really is about’, stated a digital journalist when I asked her. She added, ‘Newspaper reporter[s] go out, drink like 10 coffees, have a long lunch, [and] come back to write 2,000 characters, while I write like 20,000 characters per day. And for what!? The paper journalist writes the same article for tomorrow that I already wrote 10 hours ago for the web’, she added.
It became evident that workers for each platform prioritised different journalistic values. Some emphasised background contextualisation and content, whereas others stressed immediacy and the opportunity to scoop a story.
The rapport between the paper and digital journalists was marked by the preparation time as well as the transience and fixation affordances of the platforms that the journalists utilised to perform their jobs.
Because newspaper journalists had only one deadline, which was typically in the late afternoon, some digital reporters perceived that they utilised the entire day to prepare for an article and interview sources. In turn, newspaper reporters argued that this allowed them to bring a distinctive note and originality to the news they produce. However, web journalists were not allotted time to prepare, as their deadline was marked by their ability to publish before their competition because algorithms often prioritised whichever story was published first. This often translated into short, source-less articles that differed little from those of other media sites.
The second affordance that must be considered is the transience and fixation of the media platforms, which can be glossed as the ‘versionality’ of media products. Web articles can be changed repeatedly, and this occurs not only on the day they are published but also weeks later. During my fieldwork, I learned that it was common to receive the order to publish at least one paragraph when a breaking-news story occurred and to add a ‘news still in process’ statement at the end of the text; additional paragraphs would be included as new data arrived. This practice allowed the social networks department to be able to connect to the website in their posts and generate traffic for the web page. Newspaper journalists, however—and the same can be said for television reporters—were bound for eternity by the fixation of the platforms on which they worked.
The entanglement with digital technologies
Journalists who worked with algorithm-based technologies compulsorily adapted their priorities when making the news. Scoops, time, and breaking-news stories were these journalists’ priorities (which newspaper journalists may have shared, by the way) that had moved to the top of the list. This meant that in newsrooms in which managers had not attempted to integrate journalists across platforms, reporters looked at each other across the room, each unable to recognise the other.
On the one hand, those workers who utilise these technologies feel the pressure and urgency to feed a relentless computer algorithm. On the other hand, those whose jobs remain untouched by these technologies look with apprehension across the room, seeing what they believe is the erosion of basic professional values and ethics. Both positions seem to be drifting further apart as technologies become increasingly powerful, leaving professionals on both sides of the newsroom mulling over the basic question of what it means to be a journalist in contemporary multiplatform newsrooms.
This phenomenon opens the door for future anthropological research on media and journalism, asking questions about how this phenomenon impacts not only those working inside the newsroom, but the audiences and publics that consume their information. Media workers could oppose the new rhythms of digital infrastructures or the obscure algorithms of third-party platforms, but that would necessarily translate into dysfunction within the already established patterns of production, negatively affecting audience metrics and advertising revenues alike. Chilean digital reporters have begun to resent their work and to begrudge the performance of reporters working for other platforms. Anthropologists have the opportunity to study how both the technical and cultural-professional systems participate to produce values and ethics in news production processes that guide the work of journalists and other media workers in different platforms.