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From standardization to deskilling: The unintended consequences of Mexican journalism's modernization

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Abstract

This article proposes a new interpretation of the modernization of Mexican journalism. Based on interviews with journalists from three northern Mexican states that have been recognized as pioneers in the modernization of national journalism, it shows how the standardization of news production has generated –as its unintended consequence– a deskilling of journalistic work.
1Comunicación y Sociedad, 2019, e7122, pp. 1-19.
From standardization to
deskilling: The unintended
consequences of Mexican
journalism’s modernization
De la estandarización a la descualicación:
las consecuencias indeseadas de la
modernización del periodismo mexicano
doi: https://doi.org/10.32870/cys.v2019i0.7072
Víctor Hugo reyna garcía1
http://orcid.org/0000-0001-8870-7067
This article proposes a new interpretation of the modernization of Mexican journalism.
Based on interviews with journalists from three northern Mexican states that have been
recognized as pioneers in the modernization of national journalism, it shows how the
standardization of news production has generated as its unintended consequence a
deskilling of journalistic work.
Keywords: Deskilling, standardization, modernization, journalism, Mexico.
Este artículo propone una nueva interpretación sobre la modernización del periodis-
mo mexicano. A partir de entrevistas a periodistas en tres estados del norte de México
que han sido identificados como pioneros de la modernización del periodismo nacional,
se muestra cómo la estandarización de la producción de noticias ha generado –a manera de
consecuencia indeseada– una descualificación del trabajo periodístico.
Palabras clave: Descualificación, estandarización, modernización, periodismo,
México.
How to cite:
Reyna García, V. H. (2019). From standardization to deskilling: The unintended
consequences of Mexican journalism’s modernization. Comunicación y Sociedad,
e7072. doi: https://doi.org/10.32870/cys.v2019i0.7072
1 Benemérita Universidad Autónoma de Puebla, Mexico.
E-mail: vhreyna@gmail.com
Submitted: 17/12/17. Accepted: 12/02/18. Published: 21/02/19.
2Giancarlo Cappello Flores
introduction
There is an open debate regarding the scope and limitations of
Mexican journalism’s modernization (Reyna, 2016). On the one hand,
Hughes (2009) and Lawson (2002) suggest that there was a normative
change that eroded the collusion institutionalized during the Partido
Revolucionario Institucional’s (PRI) hegemony. On the other hand,
González (2013) and Márquez (2012) argue that this change produced
continuity, since it was interpreted and practiced with ambiguity to
reproduce the informative and nancial dependence on the State.
In both cases, the transformation is conceptualized and analyzed
through the liberal model of journalism2 in order to study whether
the change projected was accomplished or not. Although these
studies clarify various aspects obscured by the once dominant decit
perspectives (Arredondo, Fregoso & Trejo, 1991; Trejo, 2001; Villamil,
2005), they do not examine the process in its entirety insofar as they
focus on the ways in which Mexican journalism’s professional culture
has or has not been improved (that is, on the intended consequences of
professionalization).
Following Beck (2013), this article presents a new reading of
Mexican journalism’s modernization. Instead of its scope and limitations
from a professional culture perspective, it proposes to analyze the
unintended consequences of the process from a labor perspective. This
implies, rstly, that the analysis is not aimed at ratifying or refuting
the modernization hypothesis and, secondly, that it focuses on the
dysfunctions of the transformation of news production rather than on
professional norms.
As noted by Hughes (2009) and Lawson (2002), the change began
during the 1970’s in Northern Mexico, in Nuevo León, when Alejandro
Junco was named general director of the newspaper El Norte and
reorganized it according to the liberal model of journalism. During this
development –these authors do not acknowledge– both the professional
2 HallinandMancini(2004) denethe liberalmodel ofjournalism through
three primary characteristics: the press’neutral and objective orientation
anditsautonomyfromtheState,astrongprofessionalismcharacterizedby
itsself-regulation,andthepredominanceofthemarketinnewsproduction.
3
From standardization to deskilling: ...
norms and working conditions, relations and organizations were
transformed. These actions were intended to recongure journalists’
professional prole and to eradicate their practices of corruption and
incompetence.
In sociological terms, professional and labor norms were
standardized in order to “discard unlimited diversity” (Star &
Lampland, 2009, p. 8). This way, the innite conditions to practice
journalism were reduced to a controllable number and a well-dened
news production model was established, supplying the newspapers
with greater efcacy, calculation, prediction, and control (Ritzer, 1996).
This allowed its reproduction in Baja California and Sonora through the
newspapers owned by Grupo Healy and later, the national expansion of
Grupo Reforma, El Norte’s publisher.3
As such, the intended consequences of standardization were, on the
one hand, to prevent journalists from deviating from the norm and, on
the other, a mimesis of a production model in organizations associated
with Grupo Reforma. Nevertheless, because it entailed a strict division
of labor and it implied dissociation between conception and execution
(Braverman, 1998), it has also produced unintended consequences:
the deskilling of news work4 and the reduction of journalists hired as
reporters to compilers of public ofcials’ statements.
3 During the 1980’s, Grupo Healy and Grupo Reforma established a
collaborative relationship through which the former’s newspapers’
productionwasreorganizedunderadvisementbythelatter.Overthecourse
of the rst stage, El Imparcial replicated the news production model of
El Norte.Oncethereplicabilityofthemodelwasconrmed,bothpublishing
groupsbegantheir expansion: GrupoHealyfounded La Crónica in1990
and Frontera in 1999, in Baja California, while Grupo Reforma did the
same withReforma, in1993, inMexicoCity;Mural,in 1998,in Jalisco,
andthecurrently defunctPalabra,in1997,inCoahuila.Currently,Grupo
Reformaisthemostimportantpublishinggroupinthecountry.
4 The concept of deskilling has been dened as “the process of eliminating
(or reducing) the required individual (specic) skills as part of a system of
operations” (Oxford Reference, 2009). Within journalism, it includes the
standardization and simplication of complex tasks in order to improve
efciency, calculation, prediction, and control in newsrooms.
4Giancarlo Cappello Flores
Based on 64 unstructured interviews with journalists and former
journalists employed in the leading newspapers published in Baja
California, Nuevo León and Sonora, three Northern states considered
pioneers of Mexican journalism’s modernization (Hughes, 2009;
Lawson, 2002; Schmitz, 2008), this article studies the dysfunctions of
the standardization process. The actors’ experiences and perceptions
demonstrate how the idealized change has been expressed in an
unintended manner to diminish the skills that are necessary to work as
a journalist (deskilling).
The article is organized in three sections. The rst section presents
a conceptual framework regarding the unintended consequences of
modernization, which proposes a new perspective to explore Mexican
journalism’s transformation. The second section describes the research
design, justifying the choice of unstructured interviews and non-
probabilistic chain sampling, better known as snowball sampling, as
research techniques. The third section analyzes the relationship between
standardization and deskilling in journalism.
tHe unintended consequences of
journalisms modernization
In their research on Mexican journalism, Hughes (2009) and
Lawson (2002) describe an unprecedented “opening”, “change”,
“democratization”, “modernization”, “professionalization” and
“transformation”. Although they frequently refer to the adoption of
the liberal model of journalism’s standards, they never use the concept
of standardization. Generally speaking, the notion of standardization
tends to have a negative connotation, and using it to describe a positive
phenomenon would be contradictory.
Nevertheless, in a strict sense, the change they describe is
standardization. If this concept is dened as “the act of forcing an
organization to use specic standards to satisfy particular needs each
time they emerge in the organization” (Oxford Reference, 2008), the
transformation process initiated at El Norte following the promotion
of Junco may be best understood in that way, since it consisted of the
establishment of several standards intended to produce ample amounts
of news in an efcient and predictable manner.
5
From standardization to deskilling: ...
In contrast with Hughes (2009) and Lawson (2002), who suggest
that the main objective of the transformation was to create critical
and independent journalism thereby contributing to Mexico’s
democratization, the concept of standardization is more realistic
than it is idealistic and allows us to inquiry into an element never
before addressed: the coordination strategy of news organizations.
Beyond the ambiguity of notions such as “openness”, “change” and
“modernization”, the organizational coordination strategy is what
regulates the adoption or imposition of specic production standards.
According to March and Simon (1958), the distinctive character
of standardization relies on three factors: the normalization of semi-
manufactured products for their ulterior processing, the interchangeable
nature of the parts and time coordination between each sub-process.
Instead of an organizational coordination based on planning or
feedback, this one is aimed at “reducing the innite number of things in
the world, both potential and real, to a moderate number of well dened
variables” (p. 181).
In contemporary sociological theory, Ritzer (1996) goes further
and describes a superior phase of standardization: McDonaldization.
Suggesting that “the principles ruling the operation of fast food
restaurants have been promptly dominating an increasing number of
aspects of American society and the rest of the world” (p. 15). These
principles are: efciency (optimal method), calculation (objective
measurement), prediction (homogeneous production capacity) and
control (strict resource administration).
These conceptualizations provide a better understanding of the
ways in which Junco, at El Norte in Nuevo León, and José Santiago
Healy, at El Imparcial in Sonora, reorganized their newspapers and
began their expansion. They both implemented a coordination by
standardization in order to prevent their employees from practicing
their own interpretation of journalism and to limit them to reproduce
the organization’s model. They also created reporting and editing
standards (efciency), news quotas (calculation and prediction) and a
strict division of labor (control).
This transformation differs from those that occurred in newspapers
such as La Jornada or Proceso, in Mexico City, or Zeta, in Baja
6Giancarlo Cappello Flores
California, insofar as it not only did not emerge from a cooperative
undertaking or from an innovation by individual journalists (that
is, through coordination via feedback), but instead it happened as a
result of a productive reorganization in which an objectivity regime
was imposed. This “general model to conceive, dene, organize and
evaluate journalistic texts, practices and institutions” (Hackett & Zhao,
1998, p. 86) prioritizes distanced observation over ideological critique.
This objectivity regime was taken to the next level at El Norte
rst and at El Imparcial later in order to establish a totalitarian system
that captured every aspect of news production. Everything, from
behavior and sartorial choice to modes of gathering, writing and editing
information, was standardized through and governed by the objectivity
norm. Even journalists’ lifeworld was colonized when it was decreed
that they had to “read newspapers and magazines and to listen to and
watch newscasts everyday” (Grupo Reforma, 1999, p. 6) in order to do
their jobs.
Through Beck (2013), in addition to the intended consequences,
the unintended consequences of this transformation can be examined.
In this case, standardization’s dysfunctions are the deskilling of
news work and the demotion of reporters to compilers of statements.
Márquez (2012) researches this phenomenon from the sociology of
professions perspective and discovers ambiguity in the interpretation
and practice of objectivity. This article proposes to study this
phenomenon from the perspective of the sociology of work in order to
highlight the relevance of job design and control.5
In this viewpoint, it is not the failure but the success of modernization
the one that –as an unintended consequence– demotes journalists hired
as reporters to compilers of public ofcials’ statements. This happens
because by standardizing news production and imposing an objectivity
regime, the skills required to work as a journalist are degraded in pursuit
of efciency, calculation, prediction and control. When the marching
5 The concepts of work design and job control are tightly linked since the
former refers to the content, methods, and relationships of a specic task
(Rush, 1971) and the latter describes “an individual’s ability to inuence on
what happens in his or her work environment” (Ganster, 2011).
7
From standardization to deskilling: ...
orders are to ll newspaper spaces with brief notes on public ofcials,
the fact that the employees’ want and can do watchdog reporting
becomes irrelevant.
tHe unstructured interView as a researcH tecHnique
Semi-structured interviews prevail in studies on Mexican journalism’s
modernization (González, 2013; Hughes, 2009; Márquez, 2012). The
reason is that the actors’ experiences and perceptions, rather than the
analysis of the contents they publish, allow for a better reconstruction of
Mexican journalism’s contemporary history and help identify patterns
of change and continuity. Although some research projects use mixed
methods, their arguments are usually based on the evidence recollected
through interviews.
In spite of using the same research method, the main difference
between foreign and national academics lies in their participant
selection: while Hughes (2009) and Lawson (2002) interviewed
directors and editors, González (2013) and Márquez (2012) extended
their sample to include reporters. This explains, at least in part, their
divergence, given that leaders tend to portray a favorable image of the
organization they work for, while employees in entry-level positions
tend to communicate the opposite.
Considering that interviews are an appropriate data-gathering
research technique for tracing the transformation process initiated
during the 1970’s, this article is based on 64 unstructured interviews
with journalists and former journalists from the above-mentioned
newspapers in Baja California, Nuevo León and Sonora, three Northern
states that were pioneers in the Mexican journalism’s modernization
(Hughes, 2009; Lawson, 2002; Schmitz, 2008). Former journalists
were included in order to increase the size of the sample and to observe
patterns of change and continuity within news organizations.
Unstructured interviews were chosen over semi-structured
interviews insofar as the former offers more exibility and facilitates
an inductive approach which privileges participants’ experiences and
perceptions over the researcher’s hypotheses. Given that research
regarding the phenomenon of interest –the relationship between
8Giancarlo Cappello Flores
standardization and deskilling of news work in Mexico– is quite scarce,
it was important to approach the interviewees’ expressions with an open
mind and to avoid preconceived ideas from guiding the eldwork.
In contradistinction to structured or semi-structured interviews,
this research technique lacks a pre-established order of questions
–resembling a conversation– and questions are asked in response to
answers. This type of interview is recommended when, as it is often
with journalists; the target population is hard to access or distrustful
of non-journalists as it offers greater freedom to inquire into emergent
issues and to adapt to the particularities of specic interviewees during
these conversations (Rojas, 2002).
Similarly, non-probabilistic chain sampling, better known as
snowball sampling, has facilitated access to journalist populations
and has aided in the identication of the disperse population of former
journalists. Through this sampling process, research subjects are
chosen based on suggestions made by other members of the population.
As its name indicates, like a snowball rolling down a hill, “the size of
the sample grows as selected individuals invite their acquaintances to
participate” (Ochoa, 2015).
The bulk of the eldwork for this project drew from three news
organizations that established an organizational connectivity in Northern
Mexico: El Norte in Nuevo León, El Imparcial in Sonora and Frontera
in Baja California, but journalists and former journalists from at least
a dozen of other newspapers from those states were also interviewed.
Most of the interviewees had worked for more than one newspaper.
In some cases, they had worked for El Norte and El Imparcial, El
Imparcial and Frontera, or El Norte and Frontera.
The sample was balanced in terms of gender, age and rank: a total of
36 women and 28 men were interviewed, which reects the increasing
feminization of newsrooms. Likewise, journalists corresponding to
three generations (baby boomers, born between the 1940’s and 1950’s;
X, born between the 1960’s and 1970’s; and Y, born between the
1980’s and 1990’s) were interviewed in order to compare generational
perspectives regarding the transformation process. All interviews were
transcribed manually and analyzed using qda Miner Lite.
9
From standardization to deskilling: ...
from standardization to desKilling
One of the aspects of El Norte’s and Grupo Reforma’s productive
reorganization that Hughes (2009) and Lawson (2002) emphasize is
the consultation offered by the American professor, Mary Gardner.
According to the authors, her collaboration –which spanned two
decades, from 1975 to 1995– was crucial insofar as it facilitated the
implementation of the liberal model of journalism in an organization
that intended to eliminate corrupt and incompetent practices. In this
sense, her contribution would have been to get Mexican journalism
out of its “underdevelopment” and to modernize it in accordance with
American journalism’s standards.
Ethnocentric highlights the intended consequences of the
transformation and ignores its unintended consequences because
it focuses on remarking the benets of the “Americanization” or
“detraditionalization” of Mexican journalism. However, such change
has generated a series of dysfunctions that, four decades after its
inception, have transitioned from a latent to a manifest state to express
in form a generational and cultural clash, which is increasing the
turnover rates in the newspapers explored by this project.
Based on eldwork conducted in Baja California, Nuevo León and
Sonora, this article identies two interpretations and responses to the
standardization of news production: on one hand, baby boomers and
generation X journalists, who were part of the transformation that began
in the 1970’s, argue that the objectivity regime and its constitutive
elements –such as non-partisanship, balance and inverted pyramid– are
still relevant and are the best way to practice journalism; on the other
hand, journalists from generation Y challenge these ideals and practices.
As such, standardization is dysfunctional both due to the deskilling
of news work that it fosters and due to the generational conict that
it generates. The conict extends beyond the generational clash
between college-educated journalists and those who were trained in
the newsrooms (González, 2017) and it is being resolved through the
resignation of the generation that refuses to adapt to an old-fashioned
model of news production. Thus, standardization and deskilling
10 Giancarlo Cappello Flores
become spaces of ideological dispute and are turning newspapers into
transitional spaces.
tHe standardization of news production
At El Norte, the standardization process established an objectivity
regime that emphasized brevity, clarity and simplicity in news
production. Under this model, the news article, written following
an inverted pyramid structure, in which information is organized
in descending order of importance, was established as the dominant
genre. Within this genre, the essence of news (what, who, when, where,
and why) must be summarized in the rst paragraph, which must not
exceed 35 words. The remaining paragraphs may be up to 45 words
long (Grupo Reforma, 1999, p. 10).
This way of producing news provides newspapers with efciency,
calculation, prediction and control (Ritzer, 1996). Efciency is a
byproduct of a methodological optimization which dictates how the
journalist must do their job, from the recollection to the composition
of information. Calculation is based on the number of articles each
reporter must produce, the size of each paragraph and article. Despite
the diversity of matters and sources, this makes news production
homogeneous (predictability) and makes journalists easily replaceable.
From this perspective, the relevance of Gardner’s counseling
resides not only in the “openness” or “change” that it triggered, but in
the newsroom workshop it created in order to attract and shape new
talent. Replicated by El Imparcial, La Crónica and Frontera with the
aid of the same professor, this workshop standardized news production
and established the objectivity regime as the new norm, training the
new generations both on the technical and ideological fronts so that
they would better accept the then new model of news production.
Within this context, in addition to standards, numerous directors,
editors and reporters circulated between Baja California, Nuevo León
and Sonora in an effort to guarantee the adequate implementation of the
model in newly founded or transforming organizations. For instance,
Martín Holguín and Javier Villegas, who were promoted to deputy
directors of the editorial department of El Imparcial, the most important
11
From standardization to deskilling: ...
position after the directors (who are the owners), came from El Norte.
Likewise, journalists trained at El Norte were recruited for Frontera
and La Crónica:
The Healys are a bad copy of the Juncos in every sense. I came eeing the
formality of El Norte, I have always hated formality and (joining Frontera);
I realize that the Healys suffer from the same delusions, the same complex
of believing that you must be very formal and wear a tie. They are cut from
the same cloth. In fact, their stylebook is almost identical, copied from El
Norte. That is, everything … the rst paragraph, a headline with a verb,
an introductory paragraph containing 30 words or less, two introductory
paragraphs and the third one with a quote, in quotation marks and always
quotation marks with “he/she added”, “said”, “announced”, etcetera, the
data table on the side ... everything is exactly the same. In that sense, (when
I left El Norte for Frontera) it was easy, since I had taken the workshop at
El Norte (Personal communication, Journalist 1, male, 42 years old, Baja
California).
Standardization is closely linked to routinization. In terms of social
reproduction, the former is the development of the pattern while the
latter is the reproduction of that pattern. Due to the complexity of the
news production process, standardization and routinization of news
work are necessary. Without this predictability, without these behavioral
patterns, journalists would have to decide how to gather and process
information about each event and they might not be able to keep up
with the production pace.
Journalism has always been governed by routines. Even when it was
artisanal, journalists had to habituate and routinize their actions in order
to transform their writings into published articles. With industrialization,
these tasks were distributed among more people (division of labor),
each of whom was specialized in a specic task. The modernization
process that began in the 1970’s reafrmed and further standardized
reporting and editing routines within Northern Mexican newspapers in
an effort to minimize their ambiguity.
In these newspapers, the routine of a journalist hired as a reporter
usually includes three steps: rst, within the organization, they organize
12 Giancarlo Cappello Flores
their daily schedule alongside their superiors; second, outside the
organization, they gather the solicited information as well as their
editors’ last minute requests; nally: inside the organization, they write
the news article based on the information they have gathered. As a
result of the digital expansion of newspapers, during the second step,
journalists are also asked to write and send news from the eld.
Some of the journalists interviewed in Baja California, Nuevo León,
and Sonora do not perceive their jobs as monotonous. They explained
that they like “that no day is like any other; I like the advantage and
disadvantage, for lack of a better phrase, that journalism both offers us
the opportunity and forces us to reinvent ourselves every day” (Personal
communication, Journalist 2, female, 25 years old, Sonora). To them,
eldwork outside of the newsroom is exciting because, to some extent,
it is unpredictable; on the other hand, they characterize writing in the
newsroom as monotonous and tedious.
In some cases, the enthusiasm for the eldwork diminishes over
time. When it is combined with a lack of growth opportunities and the
repetition of tasks, even this facet of news work comes to be considered
monotonous. The daily repetition of these tasks makes journalists feel
stagnant and start developing turnover intentions. This is more evident
in journalistic organizations with little vertical movement, such as El
Norte and El Imparcial:
I already feel stagnant, I feel stuck. Writing an article or conducting an
interview no longer thrills me. I feel as though it is the same thing over and
over again. I ask the same questions. Yes, it is interesting, but, for example,
in terms of entrepreneurs … I have interviewed lots (of people) and I always
ask the same questions, since it is what we are supposed to ask: “How did
you come up with the idea?”, “How much was the initial investment?”,
“What are your plans?”, and “Which market are you targeting?” It is always
the same thing… So I feel stuck in that regard. I feel as though I am no longer
enjoying my job, which I dislike because I always … I promised myself I
would not give up journalism … at least not yet … But if I feel frustrated
by what I do, by the job itself (and because of the limited opportunities for
a promotion). I feel as though I do it in automatic (Personal communication,
Journalist 3, female, 29 years old, Nuevo León).
13
From standardization to deskilling: ...
Despite this, newspapers do not modify their working structure.
Most of the organizations included in this research project impose a
quota on their reporters of ve articles per day. Because they have a
print edition and a digital one, and because they are both written by the
same staff, some reporters can produce up to 10 articles in a single day.
Half of these articles are reduced versions for the digital edition and the
other half are corrected and enlarged articles for the print version. In
return, their wages oscillate between 8 000 and 15 000 Mexican pesos
per month.
In order to satisfy these quotas, reporters develop adaptive
strategies that range from phone interviews with people they could have
interviewed in person to exchanging information with colleagues from
other media outlets. These actions are starkly opposed to the objectivity
regime and, specically, to the notion that they must be present at the
site of the events in order to report the “facts the way they are”, as well
as to the notion of exclusivity implemented through the modernizing
project. However, they employ these types of strategies because they
are otherwise not able to produce what is demanded from them:
Look at this (WhatsApp group). Announcements, pictures, pictures … My
rival is sending me pictures and locations … From La Jornada, El Sol de
Tijuana, Uniradio, El Mexicano, Telemundo, they are all sending pictures
… Pictures I am perfectly able to use in the newspaper. Reporters, after all I
have told you, are going through the same stuff. There is no boss, no editor
(in this group). This makes our lives easier. We all have virtually the same
information, we all share it … everything that’s uploaded here is public.
The quotas are huge and I can’t run around like crazy (covering them all).
So, for me, this group is a relief because, if I miss a picture, I know I’ll be
able to have access to one here. The rivalry that existed before, when we
had to protect our pictures so that our rivals would not have access to them,
has disappeared (Personal communication, Journalist 4, male, 34 years old,
Baja California).
tHe desKilling of news worK
From the sociology of professions, Márquez (2012) argues that Mexican
journalism’s modernization did not generate its intended effect insofar
14 Giancarlo Cappello Flores
as norms like as objectivity were ambiguously interpreted and practiced
in order to maintain the pro-government slant that they were supposed
to eradicate. Instead of interpreting these norms from a nonpartisan and
balanced standpoint, she suggests that journalists considered them as a
function of reproducing statements without expressing any judgment:
“My objectivity is: I went to a press conference, I am only passing on
what they said, and that is all” (Journalist cited in Márquez, 2012, p.
103).
From a sociology of labor perspective, the practice of journalism
as the reproduction of public ofcials’ statements can be interpreted in
two ways. On the one hand, the lack of job control expressed by most
of the journalists interviewed prevents them from being able to dene
their tasks and methods, so they are forced to produce the type of news
determined by the organization that employs them. On the other hand,
once it acquires a given character, this way of doing (or not doing)
journalism is socially reproduced from one generation to the next until
it is questioned and challenged.
Together, these analytical perspectives help narrow the interpretation
and execution of objectivity to the design of news work. In other words,
this professional norm is reduced to the reproduction of statements
without expressing any judgments because this is how it has been
designed and not only because this is how some journalists perceive
it. This argument nds support through the eldwork conducted in
Northern Mexico, where many reporters insist that their marching
orders are to generate news based on public ofcials’ statements:
The media is interested only in public ofcials’ statements; that is what they
look for, that is what they want … If you give them something else, well,
if they have some space left on Sunday, maybe they will include it … If it
is a story or something similar … But, really, they are only interested in
that: (what they say), the numbers of public ofcials, and that is it … For
instance, if they were interested in a subject such as marijuana legalization,
(they would tell you): “nd the Health Secretary and tell him/her that you
are interested in his/her opinion on the legalization of marijuana”. If you
are able to get something else, somebody (else) to tell you something (else),
good But if you only had the (public ofcial) statement (they would
15
From standardization to deskilling: ...
tell you): “that is it, write the article using the statement; this is what we
care about” (Personal communication, Journalist 5, female, 26 years old,
Sonora).
This creates a paradox: informative journalism, governed by the
objectivity norm, arises in opposition to the subjectivity of opinion
journalism, but in this sociopolitical context it is articulated to collect
public ofcials’ opinions and to present them as objective information,
free from the point of view of the reporter. As such, it is an opinion-
based journalism mediated by the strategic ritual of objectivity, which
protects journalists from accusations of partisanship (Tuchman, 1999).
However, this is not a byproduct of failure but of the success of the
modernization developed by Junco in Grupo Reforma and reproduced
by Healy in Grupo Healy. Specically, it is derivative of a division of
labor that has established that certain journalists must devote themselves
to a watchdog journalism that sets an agenda, while the rest must limit
themselves to generating daily news based on the recollection of public
ofcials’ statements. The rationale for this division is producing large
amounts of news, but without neglecting agenda-setting in order to lead
both fronts.
Despite its benets in terms of efciency, calculation, prediction
and control, this division of news labor is also dysfunctional. Firstly, it
limits the professional development of the journalists assigned to daily
news production, since they are not offered the opportunity to carry
out investigative journalism (in other words, they are deskilled though
task delimitation). Secondly, the promotion from daily news reporter to
investigative reporter is not always possible. Finally, reporters assigned
to investigative tasks must generate high impact stories each week.
In El Imparcial and Frontera, where the number of employees is
smaller than at El Norte and where daily news reporters are usually
jealous of investigative reporters, the division of labor among reporters
is porous rather than solid and it is often that reporters assigned to a
special investigations have to act as wild cards to also cover daily news.
Given the fact that their role is questioned and their job continuity is
precarious, they feel compelled to accept the additional workload:
16 Giancarlo Cappello Flores
No matter what happens, you have to turn in one article per week. These
jobs are … your sources rule (you depend on their availability) … they
involve transparency requests answered in … For starters, a transparency
request is answered in one or two weeks. Then, in that sense, like (that idea
that) “you have to do this, you have to do that this week” (is not entirely
coherent). At the same time, if other things come up during the day (they
tell you): “Do this, help us with that” (Personal communication, Journalist
6, female, 25 years old, Baja California).
The possibility of working as investigative reporters can create
job satisfaction and prevent journalists from developing turnover
intentions. A now former reporter from El Norte, who expressed doubts
about her future in journalism due to the limited growth opportunities
available for her, stated that the only way she imagined herself working
as a reporter in the future was if she could do watchdog journalism,
although she knew that “who does investigative journalism is very type
casted” (Personal communication, Journalist 3, female, 29 years old,
Nuevo León).
However, investigative journalism is not a panacea. Due to the
aforementioned ambiguity of functions, during the past decade, several
reporters assigned to special investigations at El Imparcial and Frontera
have resigned. Some of them even after they were awarded employee
of the year recognitions. In every case, there was discomfort with the
newspapers’ editorial orientation and with the increasingly limited
number of topics they were able to write about. Some even declared
that investigative journalism is turning into a mechanism for political
blackmail.
As such, like the jobs performed by daily news reporters, the labor
of investigative reporters is also being deskilled. They may have been
trained in the best universities and they might have the intention to
contribute to social change, but if the news organization that hires them
decides that they are not allowed to address certain issues that might
compromise their nancial and political interests, they have no choice
but to accept these directives because they lack decision-making power
(labor control).
17
From standardization to deskilling: ...
In Junco’s and Healy’s modernizing project, the division of news
labor has separated conception from execution (Braverman, 1998).
Consequently, journalists have been deprived of their ability to
dene their own work. It is not that they lack agency, but that in an
organizational context they are hired to reproduce a news production
model that was instituted four decades ago and not to practice their
own understanding of journalism. If they attempt to diverge from the
pre-established script, they are immediately punished and threatened
with being red.
conclusions
This article proposes a new reading of Mexican journalism’s
modernization. Instead of focusing on the scope and limitations of
change from a professional culture perspective, it analyzes its unintended
consequences from a labor perspective. With the reference of Northern
Mexico’s leading newspapers, which headed the modernization project
that began in the 1970’s, it focuses on the standardization of news
production and its consequences in terms of skills.
The eldwork carried out in Baja California, Nuevo León and
Sonora suggests that standardization produces a deskilling that demotes
journalists hired as reporters to gatherers of statements. This article
argues that this is not necessarily the result of journalists’ ambiguous
interpretation and practice, but rather an outcome of the way in which
news work was designed and the logic of the prevailing news production
model. As such, a key factor that prevents journalists from reaching
their professional ideals is that they lack job control.
The limitations of this article correspond to those of the
modernization project. Contrary to what Hughes (2009) and Lawson
(2002) suggest, and as González (2013) and Márquez (2012) imply,
we maintain that Mexican journalism’s modernization has not been
a nationwide phenomenon, having reached only a limited number of
news organizations. As such, through the concept of standardization,
we paid attention to the organizational connectivity established between
Grupo Reforma and Grupo Healy in an effort to analyze one of the most
expansive transformation projects.
18 Giancarlo Cappello Flores
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