Category Archives: Academic Work

Vox the News Cycle

vox storystreamInteresting discussion at Nieman Journalism Lab triggered by a recent post by Vox Media’s VP of Engineering, Michael Lovitt, on launching Vox.xom as a nine week development project. Vox.com has some very cool features, not least of which is the threading of topically related stories into ‘StoryStreams’, including the stream of “How We Make Vox“. Co-founder of Vox, Melissa Bell, explains:

If we wanted to build a digital startup journalism entity, we would behave like the technology company Vox Media truly is: launch fast and tweak often.

The launch of Vox.com has been framed in terms of it being a technology company. It would be interesting to see a breakdown of how they actually approach stories and the production of content. Hopefully, it is not like David Eun’s 2011 master plan for AOL.

Eun used an ‘engineering flow’ type approach to integrating SEO and analytics information into the production of news-based media content. Not very many people were happy about this. As one recent commentator described it:

It’s telling that throughout “The AOL Way”, the emphasis is on what managers and technology employees can do to maximize pageviews, and not on actual writing or video production, itself. That is, the presentation implies that AOL management took its content’s quality for granted.

Bell describes the work of Vox.com as addressing the problem of having to catch up after dropping out of the constant flow of the news cycle.  She became aware of this problem after being promoted into her previous role at The Washington Post as ‘director of platforms’ and ‘blog strategy’. From the same Guardian piece:

“It was amazing to me as a reader how quickly I felt I fell off the news cycle,” she says. “If I wasn’t paying attention to the rapid developments, it was difficult for me to understand what was happening in major news stories. When I took that step back I realised the challenge of being a reader.”

What is the news cycle according to Vox.com? There seems to be more or less topical news stories being explained through the website, but there is also “7 things the most-highlighted Kindle passages tell us about American readers” as the ‘most read’ story.

vox kindle

The news cycle used to be organised around the habits of consumers. The evening broadcast television bulletin, the morning newspaper, or the hourly radio bulletin. It was structural to the rhythms of industry and cultural expectations of news consumers. Not unlike the difference between the ranking of books in the New York Time’s Bestsellers list as compared to the highlighting of book passages through Kindle as an index of popularity, has there been a shift in the character of the news cycle?

Building Research Capacity

Ben Eltham‘s analysis of the cuts to investment in science and research also touches on some general points about building research capacity in the contemporary era of underfunded research institutions. The main point that needs to be emphasised is the lack of stability that the current de-funding approach produces. Eltham quotes Nobel laureate Brian Schmidt on the difficulties of planning a research program:

“I think the problem that we have right now is that every time we get a new program, the ground shifts,” Schmidt added.

“I’m trying to plan my research program, like everyone else, five to 10 years out, and when we spend money and then switch it a few years later, we end up not getting very good value for the government’s investment.”

Beyond politics and policy, there is a fundamental epistemological problem with the current instability produced by de-funding research.

There is currently too much risk involved in the business case for planning five to 10 year research plans. Who knows how research will be funded in three years, let alone 10? At a minimum, it means creating multiple research plans and diversifying investment in knowledge creation (that is, time required to do research) across these plans, so as to minimise the risk in the ‘ground shifting’ again. This dilutes the amount of work that can be carried out and reduces overall research capacity.

There is a massive drop in efficiency for organisations that lose confidence in how they appreciate their own progress. Who is succeeding in research when a program is simply de-funded? What does it mean to succeed? What are the milestones?

How many potential PhD candidates will look at the state of investment in research in this country and decide that the lack of security is not worth putting at risk their own welfare or the welfare of their families?

Journalism Jobs

The ABC is reporting on a leaked “issues paper” from the University of Queensland (UQ) and that UQ apparently plan to merge most of their Communications offerings. Part of this process is allegedly dropping the journalism course (although the leaked document states the contrary: they have no intention to drop the BJournalism degree).

“Issue paper” author and UQ Dean, Prof Tim Dunne, has definitely isolated some issues that are worth engaging with:

Demand for journalism is declining globally as employment opportunities diminish in the era of digital and social media. In recent years, there has been widespread job loss in the journalism profession in Australia. The Australian Government Job Outlook suggests that job openings for journalists and writers will be below average over the next five years, with an overall decline in the number of positions. At the same time, there is increased visibility (on-line, through social media etc) and new kinds of employment opportunities are emerging, including areas such as data analytics.

I am not sure how Journalism is taught at UQ but I find it very hard to believe that students are not equipped to take on the challenge of new “on-line” platforms in addition to traditional media forms.

Prof Dunne presents a bleak picture for journalism, but it is not entirely correct. What is the current state of the news-based media industry, formally known as ‘journalism’? Absolute numbers are very hard to discern, but trends are relatively straightforward:

The ABS Employment in Culture, 2006 – 2011 captures some trends over the five years 2006 to 2011.

Table 1: Employment in Journalism
Role 2006 2011
Newspaper or Periodical Editor 4844 5059
Print Journalist 6306 5510
Radio Journalist 671 603
Television Journalist 1059 1123
Journalists and Other Writers (nec) 1279 1705
Journalists and Other Writers (nfd) 1414 2125
Totals 15573 16125

Much has been made over recent high profile lay-offs at Fairfax and News Corp, as if they are the only places that hire journalists. For example, the current #fairgofairfax social media campaign to generate support for Fairfax employees has a high degree of visibility on Twitter. Indeed, the number of print journalists declined by 800 in the five years 2006 to 2011, but as a field the numbers went up. I shall return to this below.

When we turn to the Australian Government Job Outlook data it is clear that this increase in the number of journalism jobs is not surprising.

Table 2: Journalists and Other Writers (Job Growth)
Time Period Occupation (per cent growth) All Occupations (per cent growth)
5 Year Growth 37.8 7.8
2 Year Growth 28.7 1.9

It seems that the Prof Dunne pays particular heed to this page of the Australian Government Job Outlook data regarding prospects:

Over the five years to November 2017, the number of job openings for Journalists and Other Writers is expected to be below average (between 5,001 and 10,000).Job openings can arise from employment growth and people leaving the occupation.

Employment for Journalists and Other Writers to November 2017 is expected to decline.

Employment in this large occupation (29,800 in November 2012) rose very strongly in the past five years and rose strongly in the long-term (ten years).

Journalists and Other Writers have an average proportion of full-time jobs (75.3 per cent). For Journalists and Other Writers working full-time, average weekly hours are 41.6 (compared to 41.3 for all occupations) and earnings are above average – in the eighth decile. Unemployment for Journalists and Other Writers is average.

So after witnessing jobs growth four to five times the average for the past five years or so, and 10 times the average over last two years, there will ‘only’ be between 5000 to 10000 new positions available.

The broader journalism industry seems like it is in a pretty good state of affairs, which contradicts popularist conservative narratives about an oversupply of journalism graduates. Two years ago The Australian newspaper attacked Journalism Schools and attempted to open up another front of the Culture Wars (or return to old ground after the earlier ‘Media Wars‘). They suggested that Australian journalism schools produce too many graduates, when it is apparent that universities were actually servicing demand. The Australian newspaper does not represent journalism in Australia; in fact, it is a tiny vocal minority.

The bottom line is that there has been an explosive growth over the last decade in journalism and other jobs relating to the news-based media industry. The biggest growth measured in the Employment in Culture statistics for Journalism is in the ‘Not Elsewhere Classified’ category of just under 500 new positions; occupations include blogger, critic, editorial assistant and essayist. The key point is that this growth is not in the legacy media industries areas where journalists have traditionally worked. Most people who work in the media industry know this to be intuitively correct. More media content (writing, filming, recording, producing, etc.) is created and distributed now than at any other point in history.

The real question that Prof Dunne asks, and which is implied by his remarks about the rise of new employment areas, what combination of skills and competences shall serve our graduates in an era that produces more media content than ever before in human history? Or as he states: “What is likely is that there will continue to be a need for strong and vibrant courses in journalism that are practice-based”.

He gestures towards data analytics as an example. Many research projects show how newsrooms have learned to appreciate analytics information about their websites, and increasingly about individual users (in the era of paywalls and required logins). Students report that they feel empowered after the workshop where I give them as editors the task of setting up a ‘dashboard’ in Google Analytics so as to create reports for their team of student journalists. They can see how older forms of journalistic ‘gut feeling’ map onto new analytics information.

Another example is regarding the delegation of editorial responsibilities to more junior staff. Reading into the Employment in Culture figures there has been an increase in the number of editors from 2006 to 2011. Occupations in this role include features editor, news editor, pictures editor, subeditor, and (importantly) website/blog editor. One way to interpret this shift, which is congruent with other observations, is that there has been a ‘flattening out’ of the journalism industry with less medium-specific silos and more network-based cross-platform media enterprises. We train graduates to be prepared to take on some of the responsibilities that used to belong to senior journalists as editors but are now graduate level positions.

Based on proposed five tier funding arrangements there will be a refocus on design and audio-visual studies as the core units of journalism and communication studies. Part of this is because of the very strange separation of Audio and Visual Studies from the other discipline areas in the 1007 Field of Education code so it is in the funding tier that receives greater federal government funding.

Nihilistic mentality enters into production

If we look carefully, post-Fordism takes advantage of abilities learned before and independently of entrance into the workplace: abilities brought forth by the uncertainty of metropolitan life, by uprootedness, by the perceptual shocks pf technological mutations, even by video games and the use of cellular phones. All of this is at the base of post-Fordist “flexibility”. These experiences outside the workplace become afterward, in the production system known as “just in time,” authentic and proper professional requirements. Great European thought, from Nietzsche to Heidegger, described the “nihilism” that characterizes the forms of life outside the stringent rationality of the productive process: instability, disenchantment, anonymity, and so on. Well, with post-Fordism, the nihilistic mentality enters into production, constitutes in fact one of its precious ingredients. To work profitably in offices and factories, what is necessary today is a great familiarity with the situation and the fragility of every state of things. — Paulo Virno, 2005

 

What is ‘theory’?

Steven Muecke provides a description of what theory is in his review of Morton’s Hyperobjects:

What he does is “theory,” which is what high-flying professors of English write when they are not training people to read literature. Those who read Terry Eagleton’s Literary Theory in college will be familiar with the genre. It comprises difficult material made a little more accessible, and even enjoyable, via rhetorical flourishes, brilliant and breathtaking connections (Marx, God, Wordsworth, and cornflakes might appear in the same sentence), and sometimes it includes combat sports, as rival critical theories are pummelled into the ground.

Theory is not an academic discipline. Philosophers reading Hyperobjects might groan and protest (see Nathan Brown’s review of Morton’s recent Realist Magic), but Morton is not doing philosophy, he is sampling it. Likewise with the most recent advances in theoretical physics, appearing in this book in spades, along with some writing about avant-garde arts and music. It’s a strange mash-up, this theory stuff. You don’t read theory to advance the discipline you might belong to — you read it for stimulation…