Even the ways we think about revolutionary forces shape our revolutions. Revolutions are products of multiple institutional and personal decisions, inventions, and adaptations. This is as true of what we commonly call technological revolutions—including the digital revolution—as of others. Technology matters, of course, but the technology itself, be it a pencil or the Internet, is hard to separate from the economics and politics of its use, and harder still to isolate from the ways of thinking embedded in the very design of the technology’s hardware and software.
There’s a nice illustration of this phenomenon in “Rethinking Hard and Soft News Production: From Common Ground to Divergent Paths” (Journal of Communication, March 2009) by Pablo J. Boczkowski. Boczkowski is an associate professor of communication studies at Northwestern and the author of Digitizing the News (2004), one of the first book-length studies of the online operations of U.S. newspapers. Here he focuses on his native Argentina with an ethnographic study of “hard” and “soft” news production at Clarin.com, the largest online news operation—operated by the largest newspaper—in the country.
In 2004, Clarin.com (launched in 1996) went through a major organizational redesign: both the Web site and the newsroom producing it were divided into two units. Ultimo Momento was meant to disseminate up-to-date “hard” news content, while Conexiones provided “soft” or “feature” news. This reflected the print-centered assumption that hard and soft news have different relationships to time: the former is breaking news whose value is in part its immediacy; the latter’s value is a more time-independent quality of interesting-ness rather than newness.
The two departments shared the same fifth-floor newsroom in a working-class neighborhood of Buenos Aires. Only a hallway separated them, but their workspaces were very different. The Ultimo Momento area was crowded with people and objects—three rows of desks, each with six workstations, some desks with many screens. Journalists scanned multiple screens while talking and often shouting to one another. The several television sets were almost always on. In contrast to this lively if frenetic environment, the Conexiones group was quiet and calm. There were only two rows of workstations, and one television that was almost never on. People rarely shared desks or computers and often listened to music with headphones on. Talk among colleagues was much less frequent or boisterous than across the hall.
Ultimo Momento journalists produced most of their stories in less than two hours (each person was expected to write six or seven stories a day). These journalists largely drew their stories from wire stories, Clarin’s print edition, and other online news sources. Conexiones journalists, required to produce just two or three stories a week, took hours or several days on articles. They used many more original sources and were required to include at least three sources of new (not recycled) information per story. Ultimo Momento journalists regularly updated their stories—working mostly on the headlines and the leads while making only slight adjustments to the body of the stories. Their soft-news peers at Conexiones focused their efforts on the body of the story and rarely updated a story once it was posted. And while Ultimo Momento journalists mixed fast information-sharing technologies with voiced or shouted negotiation, blurring the boundaries between “virtual” and “real” news production, Conexiones journalists relied much less on the speed-enhancing features of the digital newsroom than on more traditional interview-based newsgathering.
This close, over-the-shoulder look at one online news operation in Argentina was conducted in 2005. The online site has been redesigned twice since then, and the print and online operations have merged into an integrated newsroom. Still, Boczkowski tells us, his recent examinations of Clarin.com suggest that the diverging workplace logic of hard and soft news has left its imprint. The next time you read that “online journalism is . . .” or “online journalism does . . .” such and such, it’s worth recalling the Boczkowski rule: online journalism, like print journalism, can be a variety of things. Print-based distinctions in types and modes of storytelling survive online.