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Abstract and Figures

Developments shaping digital journalism seem to speeding up at the start of the 21st century. Social media enable radical new ways to gather and verify sources and information. Hardware and software power innovative storytelling formats, combining platforms and channels, adding interactivity to the news experience. And the global news industry is quickly becoming a networked industry, with startups and other forms of entrepreneurial journalism springing up all over the world. In this essay, I consider a possible future for digital journalism by briefly reviewing first findings from a series of case studies of 21 new small-sized journalism enterprises operating in 11 countries (spread across 5 continents). The overarching research question: seen through their eyes, what does the future of (digital) journalism look like? The answers are hopeful.
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Deuze, M. (2017). Considering a possible future for Digital Journalism. Revista Mediterránea de Comunicación/
Mediterranean Journal of Communication, 8(1), 9-18. https://www.doi.org/10.14198/MEDCOM2017.8.1.1
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PhD. Mark DEUZE
University of Amsterdam. Netherlands. M.J.P.Deuze@uva.nl
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Considering a possible future for Digital Journalism
Considerando el futuro del periodismo digital
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Dates | Recieved: 04/10/2016 - Reviewed: 02/11/2016 - Published: 01/01/2017!
Abstract
Resumen
Developments shaping digital journalism seem to
speeding up at the start of the 21st century. Social
media enable radical new ways to gather and
verify sources and information. Hardware and
software power innovative storytelling formats,
combining platforms and channels, adding
interactivity to the news experience. And the
global news industry is quickly becoming a
networked industry, with startups and other forms
of entrepreneurial journalism springing up all over
the world. In this essay, I consider a possible future
for digital journalism by briefly reviewing first
findings from a series of case studies of 21 new
small-sized journalism enterprises operating in 11
countries (spread across 5 continents). The
overarching research question: seen through their
eyes, what does the future of (digital) journalism
look like? The answers are hopeful.
Parece que los desarrollos que inciden en el
periodismo digital se están acelerando al
comienzo del siglo XXI. Las redes sociales
permiten nuevos modos radicales de captar y
verificar fuentes e información. El hardware y el
software permiten formatos narrativos
innovadores, que combinan plataformas y
canales, añadiendo interactividad a la
experiencia informativa. Y la industria global de
la información se está rápidamente convirtiendo
en una industria en red, con el surgimiento de
starups y otras formas de periodismo
emprendedor en todo el mundo. En este ensayo,
exploro un futuro posible para el periodismo
digital examinando brevemente los primeros
resultados de un trabajo que analiza los casos de
estudio de 21 nuevas empresas periodísticas de
tamaño reducido que operan en 11 países, en los
cinco continentes. La pregunta de investigación
que se plantea es: visto a través de sus ojos, ¿cuál
es el aspecto del futuro del periodismo (digital)?
Las respuestas son esperanzadoras.
Keywords
Palabras clave
Atypical work; entrepreneurship; journalists; labor;
startups
Trabajo atípico; emprendimiento; periodistas;
ocupación; startups
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1. Legacy news media
Just the other day I sat down to chat with a young journalist who was recently put in charge of multimedia
operations at a reputable news company. He expressed sincere enthusiasm for his new role, and
elaborated excitedly about all his plans and the fun he is having with his team of dedicated digital
colleagues. Soon, however, the discussion turned to the more problematic aspects of his job. Such as the
fact that the company’s proprietary content management system purchased at great expense and to
facilitate a ‘digital first’ turn turned out to be just another system ill-equipped to handle tru multimedia
storytelling. Or that the digital desk in the newsroom is generally used as an afterthought if at all by
colleagues elsewhere. He shook his head as he was expressing his frustration with being seen as someone
simply providing a service, rather than being considered a professional partner in telling good if not better
stories. The most profound problem with the future of digital journalism at his beloved employer, he
explained, are the numerous debates and brainstorm sessions organized regularly in the newsroom, as no
one at these sessions dares to question neither the existing ways journalism gets practiced nor the traditional
ways news stories get told. “Our journalism is great,” he summarized his colleagues’ mindset, “so how are
we going to package it in a way that will entice audiences to pay for it?” The future of journalism thus gets
reduced to a discussion of platforms. And this, he conceded, leads nowhere.
This conversation, in a nutshell, summarizes the profoundly precarious position the profession of journalism
finds itself in, particularly when it comes to its digital future. It faces challenges on all fronts:
Technology: as the opportunity cost for the production of digital journalism diminishes, legacy
media face significant problems as they tend to be stuck in their ‘heavy’ material contexts (of large studio
complexes and associated equipment, dedicated newsrooms, content management systems, and other
proprietary software packages and hardware configurations designed for particular uses). Considering the
rise of freelance and entrepreneurial journalism, a global startup culture, and a range of innovative ways
in which journalists (both individually and in networks or teams) are leveraging their professional skills and
networks to produce news outside of established news organisations, technology runs the risk of becoming
something that simply serves to maintain existing structures and production cycles rather than enabling a
more nimble, creative, and multimedia portfolio.
Organisation and management: legacy news organizations are historically oriented toward
specific schedules associated with platform-specific production processes benchmarked by deadlines,
around which schedules other societal systems such as companies, government institutions, and political
parties traditionally organize their operations (as expressed through press conferences, the publication of
financial reports, and the release of public statements). However, the digital realm introduces a new media
logic, one that seems oblivious to industrial-age schedules or more or less predictable news cycles, forcing
news organizations to aggressively replace ‘analogue’ production practices with ‘digital’ ones which tends
to be a managerial hurdle many, if not most companies cannot take.
Culture: journalism worldwide is in a process of becoming a different kind of profession. Once
organized in formal institutions, where contracted laborers would produce content under informal yet
highly structured working conditions, today the lived experience of professional journalists is much more
precarious, fragmented, and networked. Still, the profession’s primary way of making sense of itself is
through recursive self-reference, particularly when it comes to those professionals working inside legacy
news media. Challenges and opportunities are perceived as coming from the outside, and the digital
future of journalism is therefore seen as something happening to journalism (rather than, for example, also
occurring because of it).
The question is, whether the profession can manage itself through and beyond these challenges. One
particular expectation is, that new(er) news organisations such as startups, editorial collectives, and
journalism outfits on the boundaries of the profession are better able to embrace and pioneer innovation,
unhindered as they are by the need to also protect and maintain a historical structure of making news. The
journalistic field in recent years has exploded and fragmented in all kind of ways, similar to perhaps the
music industry in the late 1990s, where both established brands and companies seek to reinvent themselves
as many more or less independent (in music parlance: ‘indie’) firms and networks of individual journalists
stake out significant territory.
2. Post-Industrial Organisation of Newswork
According to Anderson, Bell and Shirky (2012), journalism is evolving towards a ‘post-industrial’ model of
news. They argue that in order for journalism to adapt to the new media environment (with its attendant
social, economic and cultural implications), the profession needs new tactics, a new self-conception, and
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new organizational structures. In a post-industrial context, newswork increasingly takes place with the
formal or informal collaboration of the public, who participate on a co-creative continuum ranging from
sharing real-time information and providing eyewitness accounts, all the way to autonomously authoring
news stories, shaping an emerging type of networked journalism (Beckett, 2010; Russell, 2015).
Considering the role of digital journalism in this environment, Van Der Haak, Parks and Castells (2012) see
the emergence of a new professional figure: the ‘networked journalist’, whose work is “driven by a
networked practice dependent on sources, commentaries, and feedback, some of which are constantly
accessible online” (2927). They see in this new role for journalists “not a threat to the independence and
quality of professional journalism, but a liberation from strict corporate control” (ibid. 2935). Part of this
perceived journalistic independence online stems from the realisation, that journalism, as a set of practices
dedicated to the verification and dissemination of information of public relevance, today increasingly
takes place beyond the walls of legacy news institutions. As Anderson, Shirky and Bell concede, ‘the
journalism industry is dead but […] journalism exists in many places’ (2012: 76). Although many journalists still
work for such news media organisations, today’s newsroom looks quite different than those of the mid- to
late 20th century as they are largely empty (because of mass lay-offs and outsourcing practices), as well
as gradually transforming into integrated operations where content, sales, marketing and a host of other
functions (including circulation management, design, multimedia operations, and IT services) are supposed
to converge.
3. Global startup culture
In the digital context, the news organization is not so much a place but a process that involves networks of
people, technologies and spaces. There is a high degree of flux, blurring the in/out boundary of the
newsroom and its environment. In fact, the new ways in which newswork is organized ask us to move
beyond the binary opposition of inside and outside the newsroom as this notion becomes ever more
obsolete, and as a concept may obfuscate rather than illuminate. It is important to emphasize that most
of the actual reportorial work gets done elsewhere. With the rise of ‘post-industrial’ journalism, the journalistic
workforce becomes distributed, consisting of individual entrepreneurial journalists, freelance editorial
collectives, and a worldwide emergence of news startups.
The emergence of a startup culture in the field of journalism is global: since the early years of the 21st
century, new independent (and generally small-scale and online-only) journalism companies have formed
around the world (Bruno and Kleis Nielsen 2012; Simons 2013; Coates Nee 2014; Küng 2015; Powers and
Zambrano, 2016). In the context of self-deleterious print and broadcast business models, audiences
migrating to the digital space where their time is spent less with visiting news websites but more with finding
and sharing news via social media (thereby enabling companies like Facebook and Google to further
siphon off advertising revenue), and an organizational context rife with atypical working conditions, on-
going managerial overhauls, and declining budgets, journalistic newcomers and senior reporters alike strike
out on their own.
In 2013 I embarked on a five-year project titled “Beyond Journalism” (also the title of a forthcoming book
on the project, contracted with Polity Press) charting the development of news startups around the world,
seeking to understand the ways digital journalism takes shape in the context of new organisational forms
and new operational practices. Tamara Witschge (University of Groningen) joined the project in 2015. In
our project we critically investigate the work of those who are called ‘entrepreneurial journalists’ in a variety
of settings and countries. The project, while still on-going, currently covers 21 cases in 11 countries (see Table
1). Our identification of startups in the field follows that of Bruno and Nielsen (2012) and Powers and
Zambrano (2016): organizations built primarily around a web presence, that have no formal affiliation with
legacy news media, and that seek to be recognized by their peers as journalistic. That said, over the years
some companies have ended up participating in our project because of opportunity sampling, not fitting
neatly our original operationalization. For the purposes of this essay, I have left these companies out of
consideration.
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Table 1: Startups in the Beyond Journalism project (phase: 2014-2016)i
Name Startup
Remarks
Start
Discourse Media
In-depth journalism projects in collaboration
with news outlets; largely female-led.
2013
La Silla Vacia
Independent news blog; crowdfunding and
(US) foundation support.
2009
14ymedio
Independent news blog; (US) foundation
support & private investors.
2014
Periodismo de Barrio
University-based news service focused on
natural disasters; distribution via USB sticks.
2015
Zetland
Online magazine co-created with members;
also: live journalism shows in theatres.
2012
Mediapart
Subscription-based online in-depth news
platform; also user-generated content.
2007
IRPI
Investigative journalism platform; non-profit
with (international) foundation support,
crowdfunding.
2012
Jaaar
Jaaar is an online kiosk for newspaper articles
(similar to Blendle in The Netherlands).
2011
Naya Pusta
Weekly children’s TV news show; international
foundation support; produced through NEFEJ
(Nepal Forum of Environmental Journalists).
2012
De Correspondent
Online magazine; Long-form articles; access is
membership-based, also foundation support.
2013
Follow The Money
Membership-based startup for financial-
economic investigative journalism.
2010
The Post Online
Free online news blog; some investment
backing. Partnership with TPO Magazine
2009
TPO Magazine
Online news magazine; people subscribe to
individual journalists, also crowdfunding;
partnership with The Post Online.
2013
Bureau Boven
Freelance female-only editorial collective;
numerous jointly funded projects (also non-
journalistic).
2013
360 Magazine
Largely subscription-based print magazine with
Dutch translations of international journalism;
partnership with Courrier International (France).
2011
Code4SA
Non-profit data journalism outfit (part of
international network Code4); sponsoring and
civil society contracts.
2013
MMU Radio
University-based community radio station;
international funding.
2016
Corner Media Group
Network of hyperlocal online news sites in New
York City; advertising-based.
2011
Inkabinka
Software developer for automated news
summaries; subscription-model and venture
capital.
2013
The Brooklyn Ink
University-based (and sponsored) local
investigative student news website; offered as
a course.
2007
Mediastorm
Film production and interactive design studio,
with clients in journalism, business, and
education.
2005
Source: Author.
In all these cases, we explore and interrogate the factors involved in creating and running a journalism
startup, and how the professionals involved give meaning to what they do in the fast-changing field of
digital journalism. With this, we aim to shed light on the ways in which these new start-ups impact on the
field and wider understanding of journalism, providing rich, in-depth descriptions of these new forms of
journalism, the new types of business models, and news ways of practicing and perceiving journalism.
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With each case, we have followed a baseline method. First, we establish contact with the key people
involved. Our experience has been that getting access is relatively easy if one is prepared to go beyond
typical high-profile news startups (such as Vox, Politico, and Quartz in the United States). The next step was
to set up the parameters of access, as we tried to get the organisation involved to allow for site visits and
observation of office practices (such as editorial meetings, tagging along with reportorial projects, hanging
out in dedicated workspaces wherever these may be) over the course of one to three weeks. During this
time and in some cases, before or afterwards via phone or Skype the visiting researcher would conduct
as many interviews as possible with the startup founders, employees (if any), professionals involved, as well
as some context interviews with other journalists working in the same area. For comparative purposes an
interview guide was developed (after a few pilot studies in our home country, The Netherlands), consisting
of semi-structured questions on:
people’s professional backgrounds;
on practices, competencies and skills involved in running the startup and doing the work;
on the organisation and management of labor as well as the production process;
on the material context of the startup (i.e. workspaces, hardware and software, technologies);
on professional identity focusing on ethics, role perceptions, status and reputation, news values,
motivations and goals, audience, community and society;
and, to wrap up, a final question on what the journalists involved considered as the most
fundamental challenge for the field of (digital) journalism.
A third empirical step consisted of securing access to internal and external documentation on the startup.
Internal documents include meeting notes, e-mail exchanges, and (draft) papers related to the journalistic,
managerial and business practices of the organisation. External documents include press statements and
public mission statements (including online “About” and “FAQ” sections), social media posts (blogposts,
tweets, Facebook status updates, contributions to Instagram/ Pinterest/ LinkedIn, and so on), interviews
given to other media, press clippings on the startup involved. A fourth step involved doing a comprehensive
analysis of the products and services the startup produced during the time of our investigation. In some
cases, this involved doing a content analysis of stories, in other cases this phase of the research covered a
detailed description of all the features of the output the startup had been able to generate.
Although we are still in the middle of analysing all the data, I would like to use this essay as an opportunity
to reflect on three particular issues affecting all these startups:
the structure of their motivations and goals in pursuing their dream of journalism by going at it
alone (that is: deliberately outside the legacy media system);
key issues the professionals involved struggle with ‘making it work’ (including earning enough
money to make a living);
a reflection on the potentially precarious features of the global startup trend for the future of
digital journalism in a network society.
4. Digital Journalism Startups: Motivations and Goals
The post-industrialisation of journalism is part of a trend signposted as early as 2006 in a survey among
journalism unions and associations in 38 countries from all continents by the International Federation of
Journalists and the International Labour Organization. The report signalled the rapid rise of so-called
‘atypical’ work in the media, documenting that close to one-third of journalists worldwide work in anything
but secure, permanent or otherwise contracted conditions. Since then, freelance journalism, independent
entrepreneurship, and further flexibilisation of working conditions have become paramount, particularly
among younger reporters and newcomers in the field (as well as for more senior journalists affected by lay-
offs and downsizing so common across the news industry; Deuze, 2014). One would expect that the
dominant reason for setting up shop on one’s own we found was as a response to the crisis in journalism in
terms of employment. However, whenever a crisis in journalism was mentioned, our study participants would
refer to it in terms of a business opportunity: to fill a news gap. Examples of mentioned markets are taking
children as a serious news audience seriously (Nepal), identifying information and communication
technologies as a valuable niche news segment (Iran), or through offering in-depth stories with a more
engaged or ‘subjective’ voice than would be common among legacy news titles (France, Italy, The
Netherlands, the United States).
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In fact, the most commonly mentioned motivations for starting a business among the cases we investigated
bearing in mind the challenge to generalise from case studies fall into four thematic categories, none
of which related to the purported crisis in journalism: technology, economy, culture, and social.
Regarding technology, startup founders would mention the advantages online publishing offers them in
terms of cost-efficiency. More specifically, though, their technological motivation tends to be exemplified
by a sincere belief in the digital as a superior platform to gather, produce, co-create and disseminate news
on. All phases of the journalistic production process run through an almost exclusively digital design, where
information, leads and sources are collected online (often via social media), stories and reports are written,
edited and produced in multimedia formats (combining various media, such as text, pictures, infographics,
and video), the audience can be involved in various ways (from leaving comments on the site and
encouraging further sharing online to user-generated content such as blogposts), and distributing news
and information online (in real-time, through day-parting, or other creative temporal strategies) offers
freedom from print and broadcast schedules. Whereas in the old days technological complexity tended
to force news organizations toward assembly line type production schedules limiting the range of
possibilities for storytelling, the current digital context offers plenty of opportunities for free (contemporary
examples include online services such as Medium, Wordpress, Storify, or open source writing and
audio/video editing software like LibreOffice, Blender, Audacity).
An economic motivation for investing time and resources into a startup relates to the pragmatic notion that
working together provides the journalists involved with a better chance at surviving, than going at it alone.
Also, their capital as in the ability to convert their resources, networks, contacts, reputation, skills and
competences into opportunities for business, funding, or access to sources of support, tends to be
enhanced when banding together (see also Powers and Zambrano, 2016). In numerous cases younger
journalists or newcomers to the profession would work under the guidance or leadership of one or more
senior reporters and editors. A note of concern here refers to the efforts journalists involved are making to
make ends meet, even when grouping together. More often that not, the key source of income for a startup
or for individual reporters associated with the startup is non-journalistic in nature: working for commercial
clients, or within the parameters set by funding institutions. Additionally, much of the work that goes into
designing, setting up, and maintaining a startup is in fact free labour a form of work Fast, Ordering and
Carlson call ‘prospective’ labour, involving a kind of professional who “takes high risks, puts in long hours
without any guaranteed reward, is likely to be exploited, but can also find nuggets so big they will never
have to perform labour again” (2016: 969). The latter motivation was absent from the sample with one
exception: Inkabinka’s founders clearly are aiming for a multimillion-dollar paycheck for their software
development.
Another economic argument voiced referred to the freedom the independent environment offered to
pursue whatever our participants considered to be quality work, rather than being evaluated on the basis
of criteria related to productivity. Legacy media counterparts were often dismissed for focusing too much
on quantity over quality and caring more about producing to quota. We cannot test the veracity of such
statements other than acknowledging that these claims serve a particular purpose: to validate the choice
for going at it alone, for choosing the precarious path of a new small-sized business.
As is shown in study after study, journalists around the world rate autonomy as most important when it comes
to job satisfaction and happiness. In a comparison of surveys among journalists from 31 countries, the
authors note: “patterns indicate that most journalists around the world recognize the importance of job
autonomy, but also perceive large gaps between the ideal of autonomy and the actual freedoms they
have. However, these gaps in perception are not restricted to nations with limited press freedom” (Willnat,
Weaver and Choi, 2013: 172). Regardless whether the cases in our sample were from supposedly ‘free’
countries such as the United States and The Netherlands, or from nations with more restricted press policies
like Iran and Cuba, a key cultural motivation for the journalists involved was to do what they felt like doing
to be free from what many perceived as the shackles and constraints of legacy media organisations. At
the same time, such real or perceived autonomy comes at a cost, because it “is sufficiently powerful to
override any misgivings, constraints or disadvantages that might emerge in the everyday reproduction of
this highly competitive and uncertain domain” (Banks, 2007: 55). Objectively speaking, the working
conditions at many of the startups in our sample were anything but good: people work all hours of the day
and night, the boundary between working life and private life disappears, the work tends to be unpaid or
underpaid, and there is little or no predictability about what may happen next to the work or company
involved. Yet the relative freedom one has gets touted and celebrated throughout.
Finally, a social motivation emerges from these case studies of journalism startups. Banding together, setting
up shop with a group, working on projects as a team it all offers solutions to social isolation as a brutal
side-effect of working as an independent journalist in the field. The camaraderie and warm collegiality
often found among the colleagues of these startups was palpable, often seducing us as researchers in the
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process. It becomes hard to remain neutral and observant when the people you are witnessing,
interviewing and studying are clearly passionate and mutually validate each other’s passions for the work,
the company, the product, and the profession of journalism. At the same time I have to note the distinct
character of this collegiality as a rather loose network. Startups are fluid spaces in that they are inhabited
by a temporary constellation of people, many of whom are either by necessity or accident also working
on other things, scouting for other opportunities, and considering alternatives. It is a precarious collegiality,
then, but a highly appealing one.
The personal investment of journalists in their work is nothing new, of course. In fact, upon re-reading the
classic newsroom study “The News Factory” from 1980 by Charles Bantz, Suzanne McCorkle and Roberta
Baade documenting the routinized workflow at a local television newsroom in the United States I am
stunned how they predicted the motivations for journalists to leave established news organizations in favor
of trying things out on their own terms. In their study, Bantz, McCorkle and Baade consider the
consequences of news organizations opting for a routinization of the production process, no matter how
necessary or understandable such a managerial decision may be:
“The development of a factory news model, with its assembly line approach, in conjunction with
the trends toward routinization appear to have at least four organizational consequences: (1) the
news factory lacks flexibility, (2) there is a lack of personal investment in the news product, (3)
newswork becomes evaluated in productivity terms, and (4) goal incongruence emerges between
newsworkers’ job expectations and job reality” (59).
Seen in this light, the emergence of a startup culture at least in part stems from a significant frustration
among (certain) journalists about (specific) legacy media business and managerial practices.
5. Digital Journalism Startups: Making It Work
A significant critical observation about the digital journalism under investigation in this project must be, that
with few exceptions these startups are not earning enough money with their digital offerings to offset the
cost of doing (quality) journalism. There is not a single working business model, as almost all of these small
enterprises struggle to make ends meet. The competition online is high and sources of income and funding
tend to be fickle, often temporary and generally unpredictable. On the other hand: this does not mean
these startups are necessarily not making it work as businesses. In fact, it has been a revelation to see the
various creative and more or less innovative ways these journalists found sources of income. Zetland, for
example, sells out theatres with live news performances. IRPI, on the other hand, employs fulltime staffers
who seek out and apply for (international) funding and subsidies. Several startups have membership
programs (De Correspondent, Mediapart, Follow The Money), have their finances arranged through public
institutions such as universities (MMU Radio, Brooklyn Ink, Common Reader, Periodismo de Barrio), and
indeed some rely on advertising, paywalls and subscriptions. As stated enthusiastically by David Plotz in a
post on the American website Slate in 2014: there are (at least) “76 ways to make money in digital media.”
This may be so, but handling, organizing and applying a flexible variety of business models is not easy, nor
is it guaranteed to work out.
What this discussion of business models or lack thereof signposts, is the overriding element of ‘business’
running through all accounts of what it is like to work for a startup and making the startup work. Generating
funding, income, revenue, and return on investment are a constant factor, permeating all considerations
of the work, of living the life of an entrepreneurial journalist. More often than not, the professionals in these
cases talk about their work in terms of doing what they have to do in order to do what they want to do.
Such cross-subsidy is something quite common for both freelance journalists as some news organisations.
Where a freelance reporter might supplement their income as a journalist with work done for businesses or
public institutions, a news company may engage in the production of branded content producing
editorial work that (also) serves as an advertisement for a commercial client. The same is the case in many
startups, although quite a few try to either prevent cross-subsidy from happening, or put strict policies in
place that would separate marketing and business from editorial decisions. In one case of the hyperlocal
news network Corner Media Group in New York City - such a policy materialised as a row of potted plants
between the advertising section and the newsroom proper.
A fundamental factor determining people’s involvement with these news organisations is their level of
emotional engagement, despite the overall dearth of working business models. Sure, journalism is an
affective profession, in that most journalists tend to choose this line of work for emotional rather than
economical reasons few expect to get rich with journalism (Beckett and Deuze, 2016). In the fieldwork we
found countless examples of people profoundly passionate about their work and feeling strongly about the
need for the startup to exist (and succeed). Such passion enables people to handle or at least accept poor
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working conditions and an often-precarious outlook. At the same time, this kind of emotional engagement
with the work also makes people easily exploitable, if anything because they are more likely to explain
exploitation away.
Passion is pertinent in the ways in which our study participants give meaning to the work they do. In many
instances, the journalists involved would emphasize how what they do can be considered to be ‘true’ or
‘real’ journalism as opposed to the products churned out by colleagues in mainstream, legacy media.
Such sentiment was not just voiced by reporters working in societies where the state has a problematically
close relationship with the national news media such as Colombia, Cuba, Iran, Nepal. The same criticism
about colleagues in legacy media organisations can be heard from startups in The Netherlands, Italy, and
the United States. A significant part of the professional identity of the journalists involved with the startups in
this study was tied up with perceptions of being ‘true’ to journalism, an ideal-typical and even romantic
vision of the profession that in turn legitimised and validated the choices they (or their startup) made. Such
dreams of what journalism may be suggest that the ultimate role for journalism in society is to have impact
and (thus) make a difference in people’s lives. What is interesting about this construction of journalism, is
that it is not particularly new, nor innovative. In fact, these reporters and editors would generally refer to a
‘real’ journalism as dedicated to the truth, as functioning as a watchdog, scrutinising those in power
critically and sceptically in the name of the public, and doing so in a way that is professional, transparent,
and ethically sound. All of these values can be considered to be the basic building blocks of the consensual
occupational ideology of journalism as a profession as it emerged in the 20th century (Deuze, 2005). Still, for
the startup workers we spoke with this ideological vision of professional journalism felt distinct to what they
were doing more often than not suggesting that their counterparts in mainstream media companies
somehow had ‘lost their way’ or simply failed society by not living up to their own journalistic standards.
6. Digital Journalism Startups: Precarious Features
Beyond motivations, goals, and ways to make it work as a journalism startup, some problematic issues
remain. Such issues largely relate to the possible futures of digital journalism in the context of new news
organisations. First, one has to consider what exactly can amount to something resembling a career in
journalism. For some time now careers in media industries in general and journalism in particular have
changed structure, from a more or less predictable linear progression (for example from being an intern to
a junior staffer, securing a contract to be reporter or correspondent, then moving up the ladder in the
newsroom, at some point being eligible for an editorial position) to a portfolio or patchwork career. Such a
career resembles a patchwork of assignments, contracts, projects, stories, media, positions, and duties
often in a rather random order. Still, such ‘portfolio worklives’ (Handy, 1989) tend to be seen and
experienced as a series of stepping stones, leading to what in hindsight looks like a more or less consistent
career trajectory. Despite the enthusiasm we found among many study participants (about their company
and their work), I sometimes wonder to what extent life (partly) inside a startup may lead to, given the fact
how it is more often than not cross-subsidised by other (non-journalistic) work, how it offers little control over
what may happen next, and does not necessarily contribute to a specific reputation or status (which then
can be marketed to secure future employment). This is the ultimate embodiment of precarity in work, as it
is quite difficult for the professionals involved to have control over what happens next in their work-lives.
Pierre Bourdieu (1998) fiercely critiques such precariousness of work in the digital age, suggesting that living
under precarious conditions prevents rational anticipation and, in particular, the basic belief and hope in
the future that one needs in order to (individually or collectively) rebel against intolerable working or living
conditions.
A second, related concern with precariousness is work as an opportunity for (personal) growth. In the
context of ever-increasing flexibilisation of work throughout the contemporary labor market, one wonders
where workers learn new skills, how they reflect in a structural way on their own process, and to what extent
there are any moments for mentoring, intervision, and learning. I am pointing this out because
professionalization tends to be tied up with a certain dedication to the craft in this case, the craft of
journalism. And indeed, the people in this study generally speak lovingly of journalism what it can be,
what it should be, what kind of impact it may have on society. There seems to be a clear commitment to
quality and talking responsibility for the consequences of doing journalism, but how does one develop
structures of learning and growth in such a precarious context? There seems to be a new role for unions
and professional associations here one that is less about protecting people’s careers, and more about
assisting in people’s decisions (for example through education and training, legal assistance, and
administrative support) regardless of what their chosen form of employment looks like.
A third element of concern is the current structure of the market for journalistic storytelling. The on-going
flexibilisation of work and the emergence of a global culture of entrepreneurialism in journalism ideally bring
17
about a situation where audiences can pick and choose from a tremendous amount of quality offerings
available on a wide variety of platforms and channels. On the other hand, quite a few startups we studied
to some extent rely on traditional (print and online) publishers or broadcasters to pay for and distribute their
work. At the same time, these legacy media in recent years have laid off large numbers of journalists,
effectively relying increasingly on freelancers and people working in otherwise contingent contractual
contexts. This produces a market where journalistic talent competes with each other for a chance to tell
(and sell) stories, rather than the other way around: where publishers (online, print, radio, television, mobile)
would contend for the best reporting and reporters around. Interestingly, in several places around the world
new collective enterprises have sprung up in recent years aiming to organise freelance and independent
journalists outside of traditional trade unions in an attempt to improve working conditions (including client
negotiation support, healthcare provision, and workspace facilitation) for freelancers as a group. These
kinds of ‘organised networks’ (Rossiter, 2006) provide one possible solution to the dilemma of a distributed
workforce that has little negotiating power vis-à-vis large companies or corporations. On the other hand,
many of the startups we studied opted out of this competition for recognition and access to legacy
publication channels, instead building their own platform varying from a radio station to theatre
performances, from websites and weblogs to printed magazines.
Finally, a word regarding the audience for (digital) journalism. In most of these startups significant efforts
are made to engage the audience directly, either by taking them seriously as a market or a constituency,
at times by asking them for input (both financially through crowdfunding and content-wise via
crowdsourcing) and expertise, and including them in the production process with user-generated and user-
submitted content. This begs the question: how does one cultivate a genuine relationship with a public as
an entrepreneur? One would expect that legacy media had an enormous head start toward this end, but
we know from journalism studies that in fact most news media struggle significantly with their audience
relationships, generally outsourcing the responsibility thereof to marketing departments, ombudsmen or
audience representatives. The dedication to the public that characterises many of the startups in this study
has been a remarkable (and laudable) feature. Yet many of these startups probably will not last, given the
rate of failure for startups generally (Naldi and Picard, 2012). A generally high turnover rate of journalists
and editors in such small to medium-sized enterprises amplifies the volatility of the startup scene, and
carefully cultivated relationships with a specific community may vanish overnight. Given the already rocky
relationship between professional journalism and the general public, this could be a source of concern.
7. Discussion
In this essay, I have looked at possible futures for digital journalism seen through the lens of a research
project among digital news startups on five continents. In doing so, I have aimed to broaden the
conversation about digital journalism, taking it beyond expectations of new forms of multimedia,
crossmedia and transmedia storytelling, beyond a strict evaluation in terms of business models and return
on investments, as well as beyond discussions of quality reporting and editing. My focus is rather on what
doing digital journalism actually means for a growing number of journalists now contingently at work in the
news industry, often operating in a precarious context both within and outside legacy media organisations.
What this broadening of the scope for discussion brings, is a sincere appreciation and respect for
professionals trying to make it work in the digital arena. It also offers as an observation the pervasive nature
and longevity of traditional values that have come to define professional journalism, despite intense
business pressures, technological challenges, and cross-subsidising practices (see also Wagemans,
Witschge and Deuze, 2016). It certainly seems that the ideal-typical core values of journalism do not
necessarily stand in the way of new forms of journalism developing and flourishing in vastly different parts
of the world, operating under a variety of material, economical, cultural and political contexts. If anything,
this gives me hope. The possible future for digital journalism is precarious, and hopeful.
8. References
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[5] Beckett, C. and Deuze, M. (2016). On the Role of Emotion in the Future of Journalism. Social Media +
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[6] Bourdieu, P. (1998). Acts of resistance: against the new myths of our time. Cambridge: Polity Press.
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[8] Coates Nee, R. (2014). Social responsibility theory and the digital nonprofits: Should the government
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[9] Deuze, M. (2005). What is journalism? Professional identity and ideology of journalists reconsidered.
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[10] Deuze, M. (2014). Journalism, Media Life, and the Entrepreneurial Society. Australian Journalism
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[11] Fast, K., Örnebring H. and Karlsson M. (2016). Metaphors of free labor: a typology of unpaid work in
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[12] Haak, B. Van Der, Parks M. and Castells M. (2012). The Future of Journalism: Networked Journalism.
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[13] Handy, C. (1989). The age of unreason. Boston: Harvard Business School Press.
[14] Küng, L. (2015). Innovators in Digital News. London: Tauris.
[15] Naldi, L. and Picard, R. G. (2012). ‘Let’s start an online news site’: opportunities, resources, strategy,
and formational myopia in startups. Journal of Media Business Studies 4: 47-59.
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the United States: A Field AnalysisMatthew Powers. Journal of Communication 66, 857877.
[17] Rossiter, N. (2006). Organized Networks: Media Theory, Creative Labour, New Institutions. Rotterdam:
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[18] Russell, A. (2015). Networked Journalism. In Tamara Witschge, C. W. Anderson, David Domingo, Alfred
Hermida, eds. The Sage Handbook of Digital Journalism. New York: Sage: 149-163.
[19] Simons, M. (ed) (2013). What's Next in Journalism? Brunswick: Scribe.
[20] Wagemans, A., Witschge, T. and Deuze, M. (2016). Ideology as Resource in Entrepreneurial
Journalism. Journalism Practice 10(2), 160-177.
[21] Willnat L., Weaver D. and Choi J. (2013). The global journalist in the twenty-first century. Journalism
Practice 7(2), 163-183.
i With thanks to the researchers involved: Andrea Wagemans, Charlotte Waaijers, Evelien Veldboom, Fleur Willems, Joris
Zwetsloot, Luuk Ex, Milou van Zwan, Sophie Frankenmolen, Susan Blanken, Tessa Colen, Victor Kuijpers, Guus Ritzen, Liz
Dautzenberg, Jorik Nijhuis, Heleen d’Haens, Lotte van Rosmalen, Boris Lemereis, Alexandra van Ditmars, Ronja Hijmans,
Hadewieg Beekman, Renate Guitink, Anki Witte, and Erik Verwiel.
!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!
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