Some Notes on Churnalism and a Question About Two Sided Markets

Whilst recently pondering automated content generation from original data sources again (eg as per Data Textualisation – Making Human Readable Sense of Data, or Notes on Narrative Science and Automated Insights), along with other forms of so-called “robot journalism”, I started framing for myself some of the risks associated with that approach in the context of churnalism, “the use of unchecked PR material in news” (Daniel Jackson and Kevin Moloney, ‘Inside Churnalism: PR, journalism and power relationships in flux’, Journalism Studies, 2015), “the passive processing of material which overwhelmingly tends to be supplied for them by outsiders, particularly wire agencies and PR” (Nick Davies, ‘Flat Earth News’, Vintage Books, 2009 p73), “journalists failing to perform the simple basic functions of their profession. … journalists who are no longer out gathering news but who are reduced instead to passive processors of whatever material comes their way, churning out stories, whether real event or PR artifice, important or trivial, true or false” (ibid, p59).

Davies (ibid) goes on to suggest that: “the churnalists working on the assembly line in the news factory construct national news stories from raw material which arrives along two primary conveyor belts: the Press Association and public relations” (p74).

The quality of these sources differs in the following ways: “PA is a news agency, not a newspaper. It is not attempting, nor does it claim to be attempting, to tell people the truth about the world. … The PA reporter goes to the press conference with the intention of capturing an accurate record of what is said. Whether what is said is itself a truthful account of the world is simply not their business” (p83). If this is a fair representation of what PA does, we might then expect the journalist to do some journalistic work around the story, contextualising it, perhaps seeking comment, alternative views or challenges to it.

On the other hand, PR content is material that is “clearly inherently unreliable as a source of truth, simply because it is designed to serve an interest” (p89), “whether or not it is truthful, [because it] is designed specifically to promote and to suppress stories in order to serve the interests of political, commercial and other groups” (p91). This sort of content requires additional journalistic effort in terms of verification and some reflection on the rationale behind the press release when trying to to work out the extent to which it is newsworthy or might feed into a story that is newsworthy (a press release or flurry of press releases might give you a feeling that there is a deeper story…).

The two input drivers of churnalism claimed by Davies – wire copy and PR – both play a significant role in influencing what content goes into a story. For the publisher of web-mediated news content, another filtering process may influence what content the audience sees in the form of algorithms that prioritise the placement of news stories on a website, such as the “most popular story” links. Mindful of web traffic stats, the churnalist might also be influenced by this third “reverse input” in their selection of what content is likely to do well when posting a story.

According to Jackson & Maloney (p2), “[t]he classic sociological conceptualisation of [the] process [in which “the PR practitioner trades data and opinion with journalists in exchange for favourable publicity”] is the information subsidy (Gandy 1982, Gandy, Oscar H. 1982. Beyond Agenda Setting: Information Subsidies and Public Policy)” [my emphasis]. The notion of the information subsidy was new to me, and I think is a useful one; it is explored in Gandy, Oscar H. “Information in health: Subsidised news.” Media, Culture & Society 2.2 (1980), pp103-115 as follows:

“We have suggested that the news media, traditionally seen as an independent and highly credible source for information about the environment, is in fact, dominated by purposive information supplied by PRs interested in influencing private and public decision making. We have suggested further that information subsidies of journalists and other gatekeepers operate on the basis of simple economic rules. Journalists need news, however defined, and routine sources are the easiest ways to gain that information. We have suggested further that success in providing information subsidies to one’s chosen targets is closely tied to the resources available to the subsidy giver, since considerable resources are necessary for the creation of pseudo-events dramatic enough to lure a harried reporter away from a well written press release, or from the cocktails which often accompany a special press briefing. Media visibility breeds more visibility. Appearance in the press lends status, and that status leads more quickly to a repeat appearance” p106.

Economically speaking, the media is often regarded as operating in a two sided market (for example, I’ve just popped the following onto my to-read list: Two-Sided Markets: An Overview, Jean-Charles Rochet, Jean Tirole, 2004, updated as Two-Sided Markets: A Progress Report, Jean-Charles Rochet, Jean Tirole, November 29, 2005, Rochet, Jean‐Charles, and Jean Tirole. “Platform competition in two‐sided markets.” Journal of the European Economic Association 1.4 (2003): 990-1029 and Parker, Geoffrey G., and Marshall W. Van Alstyne. “Two-sided network effects: A theory of information product design.” Management Science 51.10 (2005): 1494-1504). In the context of two sided markets in publishing, the publisher itself can be seen as operating as a platform selling content to readers (one side of the market), content which includes adverts from advertisers, and selling advertising space – and audience – to advertisers (the other side of the market).

To the extent the costs of running the platform – and hence the profitability of generating content that satisfies audience and generates audience figures (and perhaps conversion rates) that satisfies advertisers – are reduced through the provision of ready made content by PR firms, we perhaps see how the PR players might be modelled as advertisers who, rather than paying cash to the platform for access to audience, instead subsidise the costs of producing content by providing it directly. That is, to the extent that advertisers subsidise the monetary cost of accessing content by an audience (to the level of free in many cases), PR firms also subside the cost of accessing content by an audience by reducing the production costs of the platform. Maybe? (I’m not an economist and haven’t really delved very far into the two sided market literature… But when I did look (briefly), I didn’t find any two sided market analyses explictly covering PR, churnalism or information subsidies, although there are papers do do consider information subsidies in a market context, eg Patricia A. Curtin (1999) “Reevaluating Public Relations – Information Subsidies: Market-Driven Journalism and Agenda-Building Theory and Practice”, Journal of Public Relations Research, 11:1, 53-90?) So my question here is: are there any economics that do explore the idea of “information subsidy” in the context of two sided market models?

It seems to me that the information subsidy provided by PR or wire copy represents a direct efficiency or timesaving for the journalist. It is not hard to understand why journalists feel pressured into working this way:

“Despite operating in a highly competitive marketplace driven by new technology, conglomeration, deregulation, competition from free newspapers and declining circulations, newspapers’ managements have squared the circle by paying staff low salaries, shedding staff and cutting training, while simultaneously increasing output, including online content (Curran and Seaton, 1997; Davis 2003; Franklin, 1997; Murphy, 1998; Tunstall, 1996, Williams and Franklin, 2007). Time available for journalists to speak to contacts, nurture sources, become familiar with a ‘patch’ and uncover and follow up leads has become a ‘luxury’ (Pecke, 2004, p. 30)” p489.

“In such a pressurised and demoralised working environment it is all too easy for journalists to become dependent on the pre-fabricated, pre-packaged ‘news’ from resource-rich public relations organisations or the familiar and easily accessed routine source or re-writes of news agency copy” p489

The Passive Journalist: How sources dominate local news, Deirdre O’Neill and Catherine O’Connor, Journalism Practice, Vol. 2, No 3, 2008 pp487-500

Writing almost 40 years ago, David Murphy (David Murphy, “The silent watchdog: the press in local politics”, Constable, 1976) described the situation in local newsrooms then in ways that perhaps still ring true today:

When the local newspaper editor comes to create his edition for the week or the evening he has to assess: (a) the raw material – bits of information – in the light of how much space he has available, which is calculated on the ratio of news to advertisements, the advertisements being a controlling factor; (b) the cost of particular kinds of coverage; (c) the circulation pull of any particular coverage, bearing i mind the audience to which it will be directed; (d) the need to have something tin the paper by the deadline, which is at the same time up-to-date. The reporter is aware when collecting his data of these sorts of factors, because he is acquainted with the news editor’s or editor’s previous responses to similar material.

This creates a situation in which the ideal type of story is one which involves the minimum amount of investigation – preferably a single interview – or the redrafting of a public relations handout, which can be written quickly and cut from the end backwards towards the beginning without making it senseless. It must also have the strongest possible readership pull. This is the minimum-cost, maximum-utility news story (p17).

Returning to Jackson & Maloney:

“The habitual incorporation of media releases and other PR material into the news by journalists is not a new phenomenon, but the apparent change is in the scale and regularity in which this is now happening” p3.

“From time immemorial, PR practitioners have been attempting to get their copy into the news. As discussed earlier, this is typically considered an information subsidy, where the PR practitioner acts as a sort of ‘pre-reporter’ for the journalist (Supa and Zoch 2009. Supa, Dustin W., and Lynn M. Zoch. 2009. “Maximizing Media Relations through a Better Understanding of the Public Relations–journalist Relationship: A Quantitative Analysis of Changes Over the Past 23 Years.” Public Relations Journal 3 (4)). In exchange for sending them pre-packaged information that the journalist can use to write a story, the PR hopes to gain favourable coverage of their client” p7.

They also extend the idea of an information subsidy to a more pernicious one of an editorial subsidy in which the content is so well packaged that is is ready-to-go without any additional input from the journalist, placing the journalist more squarely in the role of a gatekeeper than an interpreter or contextualiser:

“Our findings on PR practice in 2013 are quite clear: for the practitioners we spoke to, the days of the monolithic media release sent to all news desks are largely over. They are preparing page-ready content customised for each publication, which is carefully targeted. They are thinking like journalists—starting with the news hook, then working in their PR copy backwards from there. Alongside the body of work that documents the growing influence of PR material in the news, we believe that the concept of the information subsidy may need expanding in light of this. The implication of churnalism is that there is more than an information subsidy taking place. Where journalists copy-paste, there is an editorial subsidy occurring too. This is significant when we think about the agenda-building process, and its associated power dimension. An editorial subsidy implies more than just setting the agenda and providing building blocks for a news story (such as basic facts, statistics, or quotes) for the journalist to add editorial framing (see Reich 2010, Reich, Zvi. 2010. ‘Measuring the Impact of PR on Published News in Increasingly Fragmented News Environments: A Multifaceted Approach.’ Journalism Studies 11 (6): 799–816.). It means a focus on the more sacred editorial element of framing stories too, which for our participants usually meant positive coverage of their client and the delivery (in print or on air) of the key campaign messages. But for most of our participants, achieving the editorial subsidy was dependent on the (journalistic) style in which it was written, and it was this that they seemed most preoccupied with when discussing their media relations practice” p13.

(In a slightly different context, this reminds me in part of The University Expert Press Room and to a lesser extent (Social Media Releases and the University Press Office.)

If journalists are simply treating PR copy as gatekeepers, then we need to consider what news values, and and what editorial values, they then apply to the content they are simply passing on. As Peter Bro & Filip Wallberg describe in “Gatekeeping in a Digital Era”, Journalism Practice, 9:1, pp92-105, (2015):

“When the concept of gatekeeping was originally introduced within journalism studies, it was employed to describe a process where a wire editor received telegrams from the wire services. From these telegrams the wire editor, known as Mr. Gates in David Manning White’s (1950 White, David Manning. 1964. ‘Introduction to the Gatekeeper.’ In People, Society, and Mass Communication, edited by Lewis Anthony Dexter and David Manning White, 160–161. New York: Macmillan) seminal study, selected what to publish. This capacity to select and reject content for publication has become a popular way of portraying the function of news reporters. In time, however, telegraphy has been succeeded by new technologies, and they have inspired new practices and principles when it comes to producing, publishing and distributing news stories.

This is a technological development that challenges us to revisit, reassess and rethink the process of gatekeeping in a digital era” p93.

“What White (1950, 384) described as a daily ‘avalanche’ from the wire services, such as United Press and Associated Press, has not vanished in news organizations even though the technological platform has changed. Many news media still publish news to their readers, listeners and viewers by way of a one-way linear process, where persons inside the newsrooms are charged with the function of selecting or rejecting news stories for publication” p96.

In the linear model where the journalist acts not simply as a gatekeeper but plays a more creative, journalistic role, one of the costs associated with performing “the simple basic functions of their profession”, as Davies put it, is checking the veracity of story via a second source. In their paper on “The Passive Journalist”, which looked at how reporters operate in local and regional news, O’Neill & O’Connor “wished to know the extent to which sources were influencing the selection and production of news and rendering the role of the local journalist essentially passive or reactive, with all the subsequent implications for the quality of local reporting and the public interest” (p490).

“The findings suggest that journalists’ reliance on a single source for stories, possibly reflecting shortage of time and resources, combined with sources’ skills in presenting positive public images, is a significant contributory factor to uncritical local press reporting. … Of the 24 per cent of articles with a secondary source, most were still framed by a primary source, with a brief alternative quote included at the end of the report. What this means in practice is a formulaic style, superficially giving the appearance of ‘objective news’, but which fails to get to the heart of the issue, or misses the real story. There was little evidence of the sifting of conflicting information or contextualising that assists readers’ understanding and makes for good journalism (Williams, 2007)” p493.

“Th[e] study found that almost two-thirds (61 per cent) of local government-sourced stories (one of the main routine source categories) had no discernible secondary sources and suggests a significant unquestioning reliance on council press officers or press releases … For example, the Yorkshire Evening Post covered a story on 22 February 2007 about local authority performance league tables (‘Three-star Rating for City Council’s Good Showing’), but framed it only in terms of the report and the views of the council leader and chief executive, with no alternative or dissenting views presented, despite the fact that the authority had dropped one star in the ratings” p493.

Author: Tony Hirst

I'm a Senior Lecturer at The Open University, with an interest in #opendata policy and practice, as well as general web tinkering...

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