Update (2.10.2011): Thank you so much to the folks who, via email and Twitter! have contributed really helpful comments. Please, keep them coming (if you don’t mind)!

As part of my ongoing attempt to get out of Cornell and into the field, I’ve been in the process of honing my proposed PhD research. Based on the productive interactions I’ve had with people at events like NewsFoo, and drawing upon some really wonderful work that’s already been done in this area by a number of anthropologists, I’m proposing to study interactions between “hacks” (aka journalists) and “hackers” (including, but not restricted to programmers, DB folks, visualization experts, etc). ((Note that this does not mean my project is centered around the Journalism group that goes by the same name — though I do hope to do work with them.))

This, the first of two documents, is a broad outline of the overall goals and direction of my project. The other doc, located here, is an attempt to conceptualize where the research will happen.

BTW, if you’re with a start-up or Newspaper in the US who’d be interested in working with a young (career-wise at least) anthropologist please feel free to contact me. Likewise, if you’re from a Foundation or Center interested in supporting or otherwise collaborating on this project, please drop me a note as well.

PhD Research Proposal:
The Makers/ing of the Future of News

US news institutions, in particular, newspapers, are in a state of crisis. While debates may be had as to how and when this moment was reached, and to the size and scope of said rupture, the fact remains that there is a sense of general agreement between lay people, academics, politicians, and those within the industry, that the current model is unsustainable. Popular opinion is the news must “change or die.”

At the center of my research project, is the following question: In the face of an existential institutional crisis, how do the individuals at the heart of the crisis work to create a “hopeful” future. Using an anthropological approach, I seek to explore the ways in which different concepts of the “future,” often containing multiple futures themselves, are introduced, negotiated, transformed, and reproduced in both the interactions of journalists and technologists and in the products of they build. I am also concerned with the ways that, at the same time they are developing new “news” futures, these actors reconcile themselves to the giving up of current presents and pasts.

The imperative for change in the “news” was succinctly crystallized in the following excerpt from a 2009 blog posting by NYU Journalism Professor Clay Shirky, widely circulated and commented upon within in news industry:

There is no general model for newspapers to replace the one the internet just broke… Nothing will work, but everything might. Now is the time for experiments, lots and lots of experiments, each of which will seem as minor at launch as craigslist did, as Wikipedia did, as octavo volumes did.
[Shirky, Newspapers and Thinking the Unthinkable, 3.13.2009]

Shirky gives voice to a dominant view held within and outside the US News industry: “the future of the news” will be found through a specific mode of research and development which imports specific high tech ideals and models of “innovation,” including the web 2.0 mindset (an idiosyncratic mixing of neoliberal and techno-utopian ideologies) and an increasing number of non-traditional actors, including programmers, database experts, and data visualization designers, into process of making the news. Traditional journalists find themselves working side-by-side with these technologists, not as client and service-provider, but instead as “equal” partners in a project to reinvent the news.

At a high level, my research works to map how, at this socio-historical moment in the history of the US News industry, a distributed network of actors, many of whom are from outside the traditional news business, are directly and indirectly coming together dream about new models of “news.” I plan to conduct in a historical examination of the recent history of the news industry and an analysis of the circulation of the various conversations and projects that are currently “in-play.”

Moving from the macro to the micro, the majority of my research will focus on documenting what emerges from specific encounters and collaborations between journalists and technologists taking place in and around a US metropolitan area. Centering myself within a mid-sized to large American city, I will conduct a multi-sited ethnography that, through participant observation and interviewing, seeks to trace the various, and often, conflicting values and visions at play in these interactions. This includes following the circulation of ideas and individuals, tracking how both are mediated through lived encounters — acts of embodied communication and negotiation — and ultimately how they code (and are encoded within) the applications and content that these projects produce. Along the way, I also plan to record how my interlocutors also reconcile their work with changes that they see occurring in journalism practices and institutions. This primary field research will be supplemented with research conducted in relevant on-line spaces, at various trade events, and side trips to external institutions, such as the John and James L. Knight Foundation, which my interlocutors are in dialog with.

Drawing upon my background in semiotic and linguistic anthropology, and previous experience as a professional publisher and web designer, it is my goal to build upon, and contribute to, ongoing discussions in the fields of anthropology, science and technology studies, and communications theorizing how media ideologies come to bound specific interactions and professional, in particular journalistic, practices. Additionally, following the work of Lucy Suchman, Diana Foresythe, Biella Coleman, and Christopher Kelty, I am interested in showing how, as a result of these interactions, specific ideologies become reproduced within software which, intentionally or not, helps shape the ways in which that software can be used to investigate, edit, distribute, amplify, and discuss the news. I also plan to develop my research in such a way that it will be of use to those engaged in the broader project of reinventing the news.