Chris W. Anderson

(University of Leeds)


In this brief paper I want to try to understand the evolving, 20 year relationship between journalism studies and political communication from a variety of perspectives. In the first section of the I take a brief tour of the history digital journalism over the past 20 years, drawing it into dialog with developments around the world. In the second section, I will argue that there has emerged a division in the journalism studies research between an international emphasis on comparative positivist scholarship which owes a debt to political communication, and a more North American strand which, though fragmented, is more closely tied to sociology. In the third section, I contrast these «mainstream» or «dominant» approaches in each part of this bifurcated field (to the degree that they exist) to their intellectual challengers or competitors, hoping to simultaneously regionalize and internationalize the relationships I discuss in the earlier sections.

Keywords: comparative political communication, digital journalism, new media history.


1. Introduction

Twenty years ago, when this journal was founded, there was no «journalism studies» – at least in any strong institutional sense. Of course, there were many studies «of journalism», but the majority of these were scattered across a wide variety of venerable communications subfields including «mass communication», «political communication», «cultural studies», «media theory», and the even more generic «media studies». All that began to change in 2000 with the establishment of the Journalism Studies division at the International Communications Association and the founding of two field consolidating journals: Journalism: Theory, Practice, and Criticism (Sage), and Journalism Studies (Routledge). Journalism studies as a named academic field, and this journal, have thus grown up together.

One of the running jokes about the emergence of journalism studies is that the field has prospered in exact ratio to the degree to which the object of study – journalism – has declined. Alongside the two journals mentioned above, we past two decades have seen the establishment of Journalism Practice (2007) and Digital Journalism (2013), and all four journals have climbed in the impact factor rankings (over the past five years in particular). Routledge, in particular, continues to produce journalism related research at an astounding rate, featuring hardback imprints ranging from «Routledge Focus on Journalism», to «Routledge Research in Journalism», to «Journalism Studies: Theory and Practice». At the same time, the industry of journalism itself (especially in the United States, but generally elsewhere) has been wracked by what some argue is a terminal decline. Between 2003 and 2015, news print advertising revenue plummeted by more than 50%, while journalistic employment, dropped by 30% to a level not seen since 1978 (Pew Research, 2014). Local news in the United States continues to collapse (Anderson, 2020), large have newspapers closed, media mergers continue to accelerate, and these increasingly monopolistic chains have cut back printing and home delivery days. Journalists and the news they produce are trusted less than ever (Ipsos MORI, 2013). The work routines of once bureaucratic news institutions have been transformed, and production processes are now far different than they were only a few years ago. In Barbie Zelizer’s words, «crisis» has become the preferred term of choice used to describe the mature era of digital journalism production following the enthusiasm and effloresce of the participatory media moment (Zelizer, 2015). As the industry is increasingly destabilized, academics seem to have ever more to study and have amassed a cluster of material infrastructures – journals, academic division, job postings, awards – that allow them to both accomplish scholarship and succeed in personal and professional terms.

In the rest of this brief paper I want to try to understand the relationship between journalism and political communication from a variety of perspectives. In the first section of the I take a brief tour of the history digital journalism over the past 20 years, drawing it into dialog with developments around the world. In the second section, I will argue that there has emerged a division in the journalism studies research between an international emphasis on comparative positivist scholarship which owes a debt to political communication, and a more North American strand which, though fragmented, is more closely tied to sociology. In the third section, I contrast these «mainstream» or «dominant» approaches in each part of this bifurcated field (to the degree that they exist) to their intellectual challengers or competitors (see Figure 1, below).

2. Histories of digital news

Can there really be a history of digital news? The future of the what we mean by «digital news» remains unknown, the state of play is changing fast, and barely 20 years have passed since the first newspapers went online. But as I have argued elsewhere (Anderson, 2015), rapid digital developments make a historical, chronological perspective more important for scholars, not less. Since the late 1990s, I would argue that we have actually seen at least four «eras» come and go as online journalism, and the larger culture in which it is embedded, have evolved. I call these eras the «participatory era», the «crisis era», the «platform era», and the «populist era», and will now discuss each of them in turn. 

2.1. The participatory era

The early years of the internet were marked by an excitement that the relatively low costs of digital content production, combined with the ease through which such content could be distributed, would mark of flourishing of creative practices more generally. The theorists of these developments were primarily American scholars, though creative journalistic practices at the margins of mainstream journalistic practice were not confined to North America. Scholars like Henry Jenkins (2008) and Yochai Benkler (2006), along with more popular writers like Clay Shirky (2008), combined legal, economic, and socio-cultural strands of scholarship to sketch a 21st-century information utopia in which a relatively bottom up stream of digital content circulated
relatively friction free, could be combined with other cultural products, and would be enabled by a relatively permissive copyright regime. Although the underlying political philosophy in which these ideas were grounded was never entirely articulated (although see Benkler, 2002), the general background seemed to some combination of an Americanist «marketplace of ideas» framework (in which the more ideas in circulation at any one time, the greater the likelihood that truth would emerge from an open and transparent clash of perspectives) or a cybernetic notion of media use (in which media producers, products, and consumers were enmeshed in a series of feedback loops that would inevitably improve the accuracy and relevance of news products). These frameworks, although originally geared toward the production of general cultural products per se, easily lent themselves to being adapted to a journalistic context.

When we look at this participatory development from a more global perspective, we can see the tension between this largely Americanist «marketplace» notion of media production and traditions of alternative media production that had long existed across the globe, particularly in Southern Europe and South America. There have long been pirate radio stations, alternative newspapers, and culture-jamming satellite radio newscasts emphasizing DIY media; these cultural forms are not simply confined to the United States in the Internet Era. The left-wing activist website Indymedia was one of the first participatory journalism projects to draw on this framework of citizen participation and DIY media production, and the tensions within Indymedia between its marketplace notions of alternative information and its political commitments nicely capture this tension between American and global points of view. The core scholarly and popular concerns during the participatory era might be summed up by a question which was once meant seriously and now has become something of a joke in media sociology circles: «is blogging journalism?». This question, though now rather silly, gets at a fundamental intellectual preoccupation of the participatory era. In a world where everyone can, at least in theory, contribute bits of factual media content to the public realm, what separates professional journalism (with its low barriers to entry, lack of mechanisms of occupational exclusion, and seemingly simple forms of work and content production) from the fact-generating activities of ordinary people? We will come to the way these issues were taken up in scholarship in the pages at follow. In the world and the profession, however, these questions of who counted as a journalist were soon overtaken by the economic crisis enveloping news media, and Western newspapers in particular.

2.2. The crisis era

The debate about who could be considered a journalist in an age of radically democratized participation was not entirely distinct from the economic, professional, and organizational crises that overtook newspapers following the 2008 financial crash. Once again, the dominant discourse about these developments in the journalism studies field were American. In the United States, between 2003 and 2015, news print advertising revenue plummeted by more than 50%. Newsroom employment, likewise, was down by 30% during the same time, dropping to a level not seen since 1978 (Pew Research, 2014). During that dark economic decade, few large newspapers closed, while many others, including many of the newspapers owned by Advance Publications, cut back printing and home delivery days. In the eyes of the public at large, journalists and the news they produce are trusted less than ever (Ipsos MORI, 2013). The work routines and production flows at hierarchically-oriented, bureaucratic news institutions veered toward the chaotic; production processes are now far different than they were only a few years ago, and they still show only minimal signs of stabilizing.

In Barbie Zelizer’s words, «crisis» became the preferred term of choice used to describe the mature era of digital journalism production following the enthusiasm and effloresce of the participatory media moment (Zelizer, 2015). While Zelizer doubts whether crisis is the best word to describe the transformations in journalism in the digital age, we might rephrase her argument with the thought that the intellectual problem is not identifying the journalism crisis (or opportunity); it is, rather, disentangling a set of multiple, occasionally causal, occasionally unrelated journalistic crises. There was a crisis of culture and trust, insofar as the competence of journalists was under fire from a variety of actors across the political spectrum and a general anti-professionalism was embraced by a variety of insurgent digital actors. There was an organizational and workflow crisis, as newsroom processes were entirely reshaped to accommodate the changing digital consumption habits of increasingly wired audiences. Finally, and perhaps most profoundly, there was an economic crisis, as the collapse of the digital advertising market led to newsroom layoffs, newspaper closures, and an increase in labor precarity amongst journalists. 

The American economic crisis in journalistic production, finally, drew intellectual sustenance from the explosion of participatory media that began a decade before. If part of the destruction of the traditional business model for journalism was the dramatic crash of the value of display advertising due to an unlimited supply of digital inventory – as theorists like Shirky (2009) argued – than the blame for this could in part be lain at the feet of the thousands of media makers that populated this new digital space. While the primary impact of the radical media makers discussed in the previous section was psychological, cultural, and professional, in other words, there was a powerful line of argument that drew additional economic consequences from these professional shifts. As we will see, however, this was an incorrect argument. The most important culprits in the collapse of the newsroom business model were not increased competition, but rather the efficiency of hyper-personalized digital advertising and the concentrated market power of digital platforms. The economic problem for journalism was not competition, in other words, but surveillance and monopoly. I will turn to a discussion of these developments in the next section.

How did this largely American story play out in more global terms, in media systems where the existing journalistic organizations were not as tied to the market and thus not as vulnerable to what many have called (wrongly, in my view) «digital disruption». In answering this, we need to distinguish between a notion of crisis that exists in economic terms, organizational terms, and rhetorical terms. Take the BBC, just to quickly name an example. Given its dominance of the journalistic field in the United Kingdom and its (relatively) stable sources of public funding, there is no sense in which the BBC could have been subject to the same crisis forces as American newspapers. And yet, notions of crisis pervaded the BBC and the UK journalistic field more broadly. How can this be? In addition to the economic crisis, as I have noted, there was also a deep organizational crisis that pulverized many traditional news organizations, deeply affecting the traditional journalistic workflow that envisioned a rather straight line between news gathering, assembly, and production. In a mammoth, sprawling, mutli-platform news company like the BBC, this organization chaos was likely to be even more intense than that in American newspapers. Finally, and perhaps most importantly: as noted above, the notions of crisis and technological disruption were as much rhetorical as they were tangible. In this sense, a wide variety of news outlets were subject to the rhetoric of crisis as much as they were to actual existing crises. Because the collapse of the American newspaper industry was seen as having technological roots, and technological development could strike anywhere, at any time, there was a «crisis» in many places around the world. Only with the emergence of platform discourse in the next phase of our history would a genuinely non-American line of thinking about digital news emerge.

2.3. The platform era

By the late 2010s, concerns about possible economic business models for news and the role played by quasi-journalistic actors in the production and distribution of news stories had shifted from the «blogosphere» and citizen journalists to media platforms: Facebook, Twitter, Google, and others. Tarleton Gillespie, one of the first scholars to write about the politics and economics of these socio-technical systems, considers how the meaning of platform has evolved over the past decade:

As platform first took root in the lexicography of social media, it was both leaning on and jettisoning a more specific computational meaning: a programmable infrastructure upon which other software can be built and run, like the operating systems in our computers and gaming consoles, or information services that provide APIs so developers can design additional layers of functionality. The new use shed the sense of programmability, instead drawing on older meanings of the word (which the computational definition itself had drawn on): an architecture from which to speak or act, like a train platform or a political stage. Now Twitter or Instagram [or Facebook] could be a platform simply by providing an opportunity from which to speak, socialize, and participate (Gillespie, 2017).

I think the shift from talking about the blogosphere as an economic and professional threat to journalism to talking about Facebook as a similar threat marks an evolution from an academic perspective on digital news that thinks primarily in competition/speech/free-market terms to one that thinks in terms of institutional power and monopoly. As I noted above, this marks the emergence of a more genuinely «European» (or at least non-American) view on the relationship between digital news and political communication. This evolution also sheds light on some deep ideological blind spots embedded in the first wave of theorizing about the crisis in journalism, one which relates, again, to its American roots. The original perspective saw the economic crisis in news as caused by an explosion in content supply and a corresponding collapse in the value of display advertising generated by digital overabundance. From this point of view, the decline in the economic fortunes of old media organizations could be seen as the revenge of the free-market on hidebound news monopolies, even if the public utility of these monopolies could still be justified in normative terms. Both advertisers and readers now had their choice of news. If our attention shifts to platforms, however, what we see is the replacement of one (local) quasi-monopoly by another (global) monopoly – from the one newspaper town to Facebook. The first perspective fits well with the libertarian and law and economics perspective of much writing about the early internet. The second point of view does not.

And yet: whatever the theoretical predispositions of those studying them, a concern with the relationship between platforms like Twitter and Facebook and journalism have come to dominate a great deal of the recent academic research on digital news.

2.4. The populist era

While economic concerns continue to dominate the discussion of digital news in 2019, additional, more normative concerns have also emerged. Once again, the lens moves even further back from the American-dominated view on political communication and digital news – though we can see that American (Donald Trump) and British (Brexit) developments were something of a trigger to start taking the political experiences of the rest of the world seriously. The final phase of my history relates to the rise of anti-liberal political forces, and how journalism is coping with this rise. How are populist political actors using the affordances of social media and platforms to shift the meanings of, and the participants in, electoral politics (Anderson and Bodker, 2019)? Are state actors, disguised as ordinary citizen journalists or professional news reporters, hijacking the public discourse for nefarious purposes? These concerns also tie into the renewed focus on digital platforms like Facebook, and demonstrates just how much the debate over the future of journalism has changed over the past ten years. From a somewhat abstract debate about the who counts as a journalist online and offline, the surge of so-called «fake news» has injected concerns about national security, cyberspying, enemy propaganda, and the toxic power of trolls into arguments about the boundaries of the journalism profession. One of the ironies about the web of revelations in 2018 about the degree to which foreign actors used Facebook to insert political propaganda into coverage of the U.S. Presidential elections is the fact that it re-raises older issues long thought buried. Who is a journalist? Who gets to decide? What happens when the trust in a major political institution is weakened, in part, due to the blurred boundaries between amateurs and professionals, particularly when those amateurs are acting in distinctly anti-democratic ways? There are no easy answers to these questions, but the degree to which older debates in digital journalism studies are being re-litigated is rather remarkable. Remarkable, too, are the ways that formerly utopian journalism scenarios are being stood on their head under the pressure of the populist and right-wing wave sweeping the nations of the liberal west.

In this fourth and latest era of news online and offline, political science and political communication have joined the plethora of fields being drawn on by digital journalism scholars. In the next section, I move away from the typological history of digital news and turn instead to an overview of how different tribes of scholars – not just political communication theorists but sociologists of the professions, science and technology scholars, and historians – have analyzed the developments I discussed above. I then turn, finally, to a more synthetic treatment of the dominant trends in American and global journalism scholarship.

3. Scholarly lenses

In his much-cited, ever-evolving contribution overview of the sources of journalism scholarship, Michael Schudson has argued that the sociology of news has drawn on three or four foundational sources of knowledge when crafting its studies and theories. In the pages that follow I want to borrow from this approach, with my emphasis on the fact that studies of digital news have occasionally been more explicit in their theoretical borrowings than the studies cited by Schudson; much of the work in the past few years in digital journalism studies seems to be something of an arms race to advance the most compelling, adaptable, or all-purpose theory that can explain the most aspects of the transformation in news, often drawing on European social theorists which are at a far remove from journalism per se.

We might term the first scholarly lens the «boundaries of journalism» perspective. As noted earlier, in the early days of digital journalism scholarship a great deal of intellectual ink was spilled on trying to understand just how the boundaries between journalists and non-journalists were erected and maintained, and how these boundaries served to reify different systems of cultural and economic power. Led by Rodney Benson (2006) as well as other scholars influenced by the work of sociologist Pierre Bourdieu (Willig, 2016; Munnik, 2017; Benson and Neveu, 2005), «field theory» emerged as a second contending framework for understanding the ways that the
boundaries of the journalism profession were changing in the digital age.

Given that so many of the changes in 21st century journalism appear to have been caused in small or large part by technological developments, it is not surprising that media scholars would have turned to a second lens, the dynamic field of science and technology studies (STS) in order to understand digital media. The work of Pablo Boczkowski on the digitization of the journalism industry (2004) can be seen as the key citation in this regard, insofar as the was the first study to draw explicitly on an STS framework to study the production of news. The study of technology and technological innovation, however, are not the only way to deploy an STS framework in the study of journalism (Anderson and Kreiss, 2013). Remember that the original concerns of STS were specifically with questions about how scientific knowledge is created and legitimated. Another avenue for the supplication of STS theory to the study of news would be to study the manner in which journalistic practices themselves generate knowledge, and how this knowledge is different from other forms of knowledge operating in domains like the law, science, and sociology (Anderson, 2018; see also Kleiss and Nielsen, 2017; Galison, 2015).

It is only recently that scholars have started to consider that the worldwide-web has a history and to think seriously about the history of digital news (my third framework). Although histories of the internet have existed at least since Abbate’s Inventing the Internet (1999), the web as a distinct medium needs to be understood apart from the technical infrastructure and ideologies that made it possible. To date there have been few histories of digital journalism; or perhaps it is more accurate to say there have been few narratives about news on the web specifically framed as histories rather than ethnographies, qualitative studies, or meta-theoretical analysis. This relates, in part, to the relative dearth of humanistic perspectives on digital journalism and political communication – a topic I will turn to in the final section of this paper.

4. Synthesizing the scholarship

What can we say, finally, about the range and breadth of digital journalism and political communication scholarship over the past two decades? Is there any way to synthesize the where we now stand within a heterogeneous, unorthodox, constantly proliferating field of study? Can we have any sense of where we are? I want to argue that we can, and that we can best do so by splitting the current state of affairs into an international and American1 wing, and within those wings, looking at the dominant and alternative approaches in each.


  • US-Dominant. As already discussed above, the major form of American scholarship on digital journalism is relational in nature and look at how boundaries emerge between different occupational groups. In recent years, these analyses of journalism drawing on the sociology of the professions have tended to focus on journalistic authority and the boundary work that was entailed in order for that authority to be rendered legitimate (eg Lewis and Carlson, 2015). Bourdieuean analyses, on the other hand, are increasingly utilized by scholars of political communication and for comparative work on media systems (Benson, 2013). By and large these analyses the news media have used field analyses and sociology as a theoretical backdrop for empirical work. For the sociology of the professions, studies digital news have provided ample empirical evidence of the ways that technologies help draw journalistic boundaries in ways that go beyond rhetoric. Journalistic boundary work, in other words, is as much a material processes as it is a discursive one. For scholars working in the Bourdieuean tradition, the analysis of digital news and especially digital news organizations have forced more these more structurally inclined analysts to grapple with a dynamic and rapidly shifting ecosystem in which the stability of earlier organizational eras is not a given. Studies looking at how journalistic authority is institutionalized via the creation of insiders and outsiders should be seen as a major part and parcel of Americanist journalism studies.
  • US-Alternative. The key here, as opposed to the dominant tradition, is to actually never draw boundaries, but rather see what happens in journalistic spaces that exist between undefined regions. We might call this the «news ecosystems» or «diffusionist» perspective, defining news ecosystems as the entire ensemble individuals, organizations, and technologies within in a particular geographic community or around a particular issue, engaged in of journalistic production and, indeed, in journalistic consumption. In other words: there have always been more groups making, distributing, and consuming the news than those contained within the traditional newsroom infrastructure; that most ethnographic studies of news have looked primarily at the newsrooms of large, traditional, central news organizations; that different outlets and different institutions produce different forms of news and different story frames that then circulate amongst different demographic groups and different strata of citizens; and that these stories, frames, technologies, and journalists travel across digital and physical space, themselves affecting other stories as well. Studying news ecosystems is not a strategy only for the digital age (there have always been groups, such as pirate radio producers, African-American newspaper editors, and alternative weekly reporters, who have created news outside the confines of large journalism outlets) but it has particular resonance in an era where the boundaries of news production are blurring online, and where news travels and ricochets extremely quickly across digital space. The goal here is to study how different news stories, technologies, and information formats travel. Once again, this approach is sociological but far more indebted to Science and Technology Studies than to boundary work or to the research of Andrew Abbott.
  • International-Dominant. There is a growing globally oriented vein of political communication scholarship that is increasingly influential within digital journalism studies. Largely empirical, causal, and normative, the «Worlds of Journalism» research project is a model for this form of work, although arguably Hallin and Mancini’s path-breaking 2004 volume Comparing Media Systems is its origin point. This type of research attempts to compare journalism across multiple countries or regions, isolating several potentially differentiating variables and seeking (usually via survey research or content analysis) to determine along which variables the meaningful difference lies and if these differences can be seen as causal in any particular way. A piece comparing news coverage of populist political protest across 5 countries in Europe (Spain, Denmark, Norway, Italy, the United Kingdom), for instance, would be a prime example of this type of scholarship.
  • International-Alternative. The most incisive critics of this style of comparative thought are probably Powers and Vera-Zambrano, though in terms of intellectual adoption their point of view remains a minority taste. For these two authors, the contrast is between «universalism» (which they critique) and «contextualism» (which they support). As they write in a 2018 article in the International Journal of Press/Politics:

We suggest that one epistemology – we call it «universalism» – underpins much comparative scholarship. While this approach produces numerous comparative insights, it also struggles to adequately account for the diversity of contexts it studies. We therefore describe an alternative epistemology, which we term «contextualism». This approach aims to identify the mechanisms or principles that unify or differentiate cases across contexts. We suggest that progress in the field depends in part on the coexistence of multiple epistemologies, each with careful awareness of its strengths and limitations (Powers and Vera-Zambrano, 2018: 143).

This alternative perspective argues for a more case-study driven approach, one that can perhaps add subtle nuance to the variable based categories developed in the more dominant perspective.

1I realize that an American scholar dividing a field of scholarship into the «American» side and the «rest of the world» is poor form. Why not, you might ask, divide the field into its poles of «Europe» and elsewhere, or even build a contrast between Denmark and «everywhere else»? In this I can only plead realpolitik: the dominance of American scholarship in political communication, political science, and journalism studies is an empirical fact, even if it is not a normative ideal.

5. Conclusion

In this paper, I have tried to understand the relationship between journalism and political communication from a variety of perspectives. In the first section I looked at history digital journalism over the past 20 years, drawing it into dialog with developments around the world. In the second section, I argued that there has emerged a division in the journalism studies research between an international emphasis on comparative positivist scholarship which owes a debt to political communication, and a more North American strand which, though fragmented, is more closely tied to sociology. In the final section, I contrasted these «mainstream» or «dominant» approaches in each part of this bifurcated field (to the degree that they exist) to their intellectual challengers or competitors.

There is much to say about what might lie ahead for this field of continually shifting research. When all is said and done, perhaps the most important aspect of digital journalism studies within the field of larger political communication research is that it has remained sensitive to the changing context in which it is embedded. While the larger field of political communication has had a tendency to be overly structuralist and focus on permanent categorical types, the presentist nature of journalism studies has pushed the field to try to keep up with the times. This productive tension – between the timelessness of scholarship and the demands of the present day – may be particularly useful as we enter the third decade of the 21st century in world marked by changing patterns of scholarly communication, and indeed, by an unsettled tumultuous, and increasingly crisis-prone democratic system.

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