Henrik Örnebring

28Journalism and Change

Abstract: This chapter argues that even as studying change in journalism is the central concern of the contemporary field of journalism studies, change is itself under-theorized within the field. The chapter looks at research on three key aspects of change in journalism: professionalization, commercialization, and digitalization. The main finding is that while there is rich empirical, descriptive research on all these aspects of change in journalism, there is very little theorization on how to explain these changes. Research on change in journalism is also often unclear about how change on different analytical levels (micro, meso or macro) relate to each other. The chapter ends by proposing a typology for different aspects of change in journalism on different analytical levels.

Keywords: change, professionalization, commercialization, digitalization

1Introduction: The more things change …

The greatest truism of contemporary journalism studies is “Journalism is changing”. Change in journalism is contested, discussed, and critiqued, but rarely presented as anything but inescapable. As journalism studies has grown, “change” as the raison d’être of the field as a whole has become ever more central and now stands as the dominant way of framing research questions and interpreting research results within the field.

How did it come to be this way? Certainly the field of journalism studies was not always so obsessed with change. Walter Lippmann, writing in 1922, was less interested in studying how journalism itself was changing (if at all) and more in how news and journalism contributed to changing people’s minds. Thirty years later, scholars such as David Manning White (1950) and Warren Breed (1955) were more interested in the stability of different newsroom patterns than in any change to such patterns. Why did Mr Gates (White’s “gatekeeper”) consistently select certain types of wire stories for publication and not others? Why did journalists follow newsroom policies even when they contravened their professional norms? Thirtyish years after White and Breed, Gaye Tuchman studied a shared system of news-gathering that was remarkably stable, not than constantly changing (Tuchman 1978).

The question of why “change” shifted from being peripheral to central in the minds of journalism scholars is no great mystery: journalism studies did not focus on how journalism was changing because journalism did not change. This is a simplification, but we do know that for most of the 20th century (particularly the first two or three decades of the post-World War II period) the basic institutional framework of journalism in the Western world was exceptionally stable, not only in itself but also in comparison with other sectors of society (a similar argument can be found in Picard, in this volume, see also Lowery’s notes on isomorphism as part of an institutional analysis of news, in this volume).

The journalism landscape was dominated by large and very profitable daily newspaper companies, complemented by likewise large and often well-resourced public service media organizations (at least in Europe). These organizations were populated by a well-organized professional collective with a strong claim to social and cultural legitimacy. This claim to legitimacy was furthermore sustained by the fact that the dominant form of employment was permanent, full-time contracts with these large and well-resourced organizations. The technological framework for journalistic production was complex but often separated from the editorial work, or at least the technological aspects of editorial work were supported by specialist staff (such as cameramen and film editors in the case of television news, for example).

As these aspects – technology, business, overall organization of labor – began to change from the 1970s and 1980s onwards (picking up speed after the creation of the World Wide Web in 1994), so too did journalism research become increasingly concerned with studying these changes, in part because of the close relationship between journalism and journalism scholarship (journalism scholars are also actors in processes of journalistic change and perform discursive work interpreting and framing change that reverberates within the news industry, see Borger et al. 2013; Curran 2010; Zelizer 2009). Journalism scholarship was not that interested in change because journalism did not change all that much for a long period of time, and as this stability was challenged by a confluence of factors, journalism studies did become more interested in describing, understanding, and explaining change.

However, this shift has by and large taken place without serious critical reflexivity and without much conceptual precision in the concept of “change” itself. Considering change in journalism – and indeed change in any societal phenomenon or institution – we need to answer at least five questions about the nature and character of change:

Is change rapid and wholesale (revolution) or slow and incremental (evolution)?

What is the time scale of change?

What causes change?

What aspects (of journalism, in this case) are changing?

At what level of analysis is change studied?

Here are the stock answers to these questions: journalism has been, and still is, undergoing revolutionary change over a very short period of time. This short period began in 1994 and accelerated in the mid-to-late 2000s (with the introduction of social network sites like Facebook and YouTube, and with the transformation of online advertising tools). The ongoing change in turn envelops all central aspects of journalism – its organization, its economic status, its cultural authority, its democratic role, its texts, and and its audience – and at the end of the day is largely perceived as caused by technological developments but also economic factors.

I write “stock answers” because journalism studies also feature counter-stories to the one just told, many of them present in this volume. I have already highlighted Robert Picard’s chapter on the business of journalism, and I will also mention Angela Phillips’ chapter on technology and journalism, the latter rejecting strong technological determinism in favor of more nuanced arguments acknowledging the social shaping of technology as well as the actual affordances of particular technologies. This chapter will continue and develop these counter-stories in a different way: by highlighting and then analyzing how journalism scholarship has conceptualized change in a more general sense across aspects of journalism and levels of analysis. I will begin with a brief historical excursion into how change was conceptualized in pre-Internet era journalism studies – to the extent that it was conceptualized at all – and then turn to what I consider to be the three major organizing concepts describing and analyzing change in journalism in the contemporary era: professionalization, commercialization, and digitalization. This section will address the first three questions about change presented previously, i.e. revolution vs evolution, the time scale of change, and the causes of change. Then follows a section presenting a tentative typology for how to place the various changes taking place in journalism along the axes of aspect of change and level of analysis, thus addressing the last two of the five questions about change I presented at the outset.

2A brief (and selective) history of studying change of/in journalism

Studying change over time was not a central concern in the nascent field of news and journalism studies. There have been some exceptions. In studies of agenda-setting (which straddle the field of journalism/news studies and political communication studies), changes in media coverage and their effect on public and policy agendas were often studied in the short term (though not in McCombs’ and Shaw’s original agenda-setting study, which only measured content at a single point in time, see McCombs & Shaw 1972). Studying how media coverage and public opinion changed (or did not) during a two-month or four-month interval was typical (Chaffee 1972; Sohn 1978: 327). Similarily, early scholars of newspaper readership and media use in general were interested in how news consumption patterns were changing across time (Chaffee & Choe 1981; Tims & Chaffee 1983).

Studies of the history of news and journalism of course explicitly chart changes over time, though it is notable that much news/journalism history has a descriptive bent, seldom offering explanatory accounts of why changes occur, and furthermore often adopts a progressivist perspective. For example, the titles of Harold Herd’s classic works on the history of British Journalism, The Making of Modern Journalism and The March of Journalism (Herd 1927, 1952, respectively) are indicative of a historical narrative of progress towards the modern. Such a narrative can also be found in histories of the US press, e.g., Mott (1941) and Emery (1952). This so-called whig interpretation of history (a term originally coined by Butterfield (1965)) has of course been criticized, notably by Carey (1974), but long remained strong in historical accounts of how journalism had changed over time: becoming more modern, more free, in short better (though there were always critical counterpoints to this narrative, notably from Marxist media historians, e. g., Curran (1978)).

The introduction of new media has historically also created an interest in how the “new” medium is changing or affecting “old” media – the locus classicus here is of course Marshall McLuhan (1964), but his interest in how media-technological change could create societal change was surprisingly little reflected in the study of news and/or journalism of the 1960s and 1970s, with some exceptions (e.g., Bogart (1975) on how the introduction of TV affected newspaper profitability, and Robinson and Jeffers (1979) on how the introduction of TV affected newspaper readership patterns). McLuhanesque perspectives have in fact become more prevalent in journalism studies with the coming of the digital era, more common now than they were in the decades immediately following the publication of Understanding Media.

Overall, perspectives on change in news and journalism scholarship have historically either been short-term (as in the various studies of news audiences and agenda-setting cited previously) or confined to the study of journalism history, where the dominant narrative of change has been one of progress and gradual improvement in an implicit normative sense. Only very recently has there been an interest in more explicitly theorizing change in media studies as a whole and, by extension, journalism studies (Burgers 2016; Stanyer & Mihelj 2016; Ryfe 2017). Based on a review of articles dealing with change over time in some way in three media and communication journals over 15 years, Stanyer and Mihelj conclude that the media and communication field overall – i.e. not just journalism studies – has had an unreflective and under-theorized approach to change, particularly when it comes to explaining (rather than just describing) change (Stanyer & Mihelj 2016: 274). Ryfe comes to the same conclusion in his book about journalism and the public, and proposes a theoretical framework for explaining change in journalism that is rooted in institutionalist perspectives (an approach to studying change also advocated by Bannerman and Haggart (2015)) and relies on linking developments in journalism to developments in other fields and in society as a whole (Ryfe 2017: 137 ff, 156). These efforts are all recent, however, and do not historically reflect the analytical concerns of either communication studies in general or the specific subfield of journalism studies.

3Theoretical (?) perspectives on change in journalism

Scholarly interest in how journalism is changing has thus significantly expanded in the past decades. This is not least noticeable in the rise of a set of interrelated and oft-recurring concepts that, so to speak, have change built into them: these are, of course the numerous what we could call “-izations” of journalism scholarship. Professionalization, commercialization, and digitalization are probably the most common, though there are others, e.g., hybridization, tabloidization, Americanization, homogenization, etc. All these -izations have in common that they describe longitudinal processes whereby some aspect of journalism increases or becomes more prominent (often, it is viewed, at the expense of other aspects, which are decreasing/become less prominent). The rise in importance of these concepts captures well the increasing focus on change in journalism scholarship. These are all terms that explicitly refer to change over time, often combined with an implicit view that the change described by these concepts is still ongoing. In the following I will discuss these concepts and the epistemological underpinnings of the change they describe, focusing on the three most commonly-invoked -izations.


Professionalization is the oldest of the three concepts, originating as it does in the 1950s and 1960s sociology of the professions. The concept came into existence against a backdrop of more and more occupations requiring higher education for occupational entry, adopting formal codes of practice and codified professional values, and forming professional associations seeking to promote the autonomy and social legitimacy of the occupation (e.g., Greenwood 1957; Caplow 1966; Wilensky 1964). The concept was first applied to journalism by McLeod and Hawley (1964), whose opening words in their article succinctly encapsulates the concern that has been underlying discussions of journalistic professionalism ever since: “A recurrent journalistic controversy has involved the question whether journalism is a true profession or merely a craft. If any sort of agreement exists, it is probably that journalism is partly professionalized but lacks some important ingredients of a true profession” (McLeod & Hawley 1964: 529). It has proven difficult to fit journalism in alongside the traditional professions of medicine and law with their historically strong claims to unique expertise, need for formal qualification, and where professional entry has been highly regulated by the profession itself.

However, it is important to note that McLeod and Hawley did not actually study change over time. Their study was based on a sample of newspaper workers in Milwaukee at a single point in time and in their article, “professionalization” rather refers to a continuum along which individual practitioners can be placed. The journalists in their study range from “Pros” (the most professionalized) to “Semi-Pros” (less professionalized), and a third category, “Employees”, consisting of people who worked on the advertising/circulation/clerical sides of the newspaper enterprise, was the least professionalized (McLeod & Hawley 1964: 531, 533 f).

Scholars following McLeod and Hawley have often held an implicit view of professionalization as evolutionary. Professionalization was understood as a process where the occupation became gradually better: more oriented towards universal professional values, more intellectual sophistication, rise of more efficient and fairer working practices (Markham, McLeod & Rush 1969; Nayman 1973; Osiel 1986; Windahl & Rosengren 1976), and so on. This notion of professionalization-as-progress was criticized early on (Wilensky 1964) and criticism increased with the rise of so-called critical professionalism research, where professionalization was said to rest on processes of occupational closure (Witz 1990), resistance to outside control and accountability mechanisms (Sarfatti Larson 1977), and in some cases outright group think (Largent 2008).

It was not until survey studies in the McLeod and Hawley mold started to accumulate time series that professionalization as a type of change across time came into scholarly focus, notably with the regular surveys of US journalists conducted by David Weaver, Cleveland Wilhoit, and associates (Weaver & Wilhoit 1986, 1996; Weaver et al. 2007; see also Brownlee & Beam 2012 for a summary of changes across all waves of this survey).

These studies actually confirm the onward march of professionalization. Over the 40-year period studied, the share of journalists with a university degree has continually increased, as has the share of journalists with a graduate education (Brownlee & Beam 2012: 351 f). Over time, journalists overall reported a stronger commitment to ethical practices and less acceptance of ethically dubious practices (Brownlee & Beam 2012: 358), and commitment to professional values remained strong, even though some changes in what is considered to be “professional” behavior could be observed: journalists’ emphasis on a disseminator role (i.e. providing citizens with factual information in a timely fashion) has decreased over time as the emphasis on a populist-mobilizer role has increased – though the watchdog and interpreter roles consistently are considered the most important over time (Brownlee & Beam 2012: 356 ff). Survey time series from other countries also report a general strengthening of various aspects of professionalism (in particular education and commitment to professional values) over time, at least up until the mid-2000s (e.g., Weischenberg, Malik & Scholl 2006: 97 ff; Wiik 2012: 34).

More recent studies, some of them survey-based but some also based on more qualitative data, suggest that this pattern is changing and has been replaced by one of rapid decline: a de-professionalization (Chang-de 2006; Witschge & Nygren 2009; Nygren 2012). The image of professional decline in journalism across a range of aspects is pervasive in the literature – commercial values and imperatives of news organizations weakening professional values (McManus 2009); changing principles of work organization emphasizing outsourcing and contingent labor likewise weakening the basis of professionalism (Örnebring 2016); managerialism as a value system replacing a journalistic value system in news organizations (Andersson & Wiik 2014), and so on.

While at first the professionalization concept was not used to describe change but rather differentiation within the profession, the interest in tracking change over time soon became a primary concern of survey research on journalists, particularly aspects of professionalization such as education and commitment to ethics and professional values/roles. The results of these survey time series indicate that change has been evolutionary and that it largely fits the original progressivist account of professionalization, with some exceptions. As to time scale, these are changes that have taken place in the past four or five decades. More recent research (mostly from the most recent decade) indicates more revolutionary changes. Evidence is thus mixed and it is not clear how and at what pace different aspects of professionalism are changing. Educational demands seem to be, if anything, increasing, while it is simultaneously the case that the material base of professionalization (i.e. long-term or permanent employment within large, resource-rich, and stable news organizations) is eroding.

If the cause of professionalization in journalism was conceived to be the activities of professional organizations, employers, and educators acting in concert, then what is considered to be the cause of de-professionalization? The twin processes of commercialization and digitalization are frequently viewed as the independent variables to the dependent variable of professionalization.


Commercialization refers to a perceived process in which the work and texts of journalism become more and more subjected to commercial imperatives (e.g., Bagdikian 1983; Baldasty 1992; McManus 1994; Underwood 1993). This process is almost universally viewed as to the detriment of journalism and by extension public discourse in general. McManus defines commercialization as “… any action intended to boost profits that interferes with a journalist’s or news organization’s best effort to maximize public understanding of those issues and events that shape the community they claim to serve” (McManus 2009: 219).

General concerns about the influences of commercial concerns, profit motivations, and market logics on other spheres of society have a long history, as evidenced, for example, by the publisher Henry Holt’s lament of the increased influence of literary agents in the publishing business (Holt 1905), or the teacher James Peyton Sizer’s 1917 treatise on the (negative) moral consequences of the commercialization of leisure (Sizer 1917). Indeed, one of the key arguments for the establishment of the first public service broadcaster in Britain in the 1920s was to avoid commercialization of culture (Burns 1977: 42; Reith 1924: 57). The dominant theoretical framework for understanding commercialization in journalism follows this tradition and has been critical/Marxist in nature (e.g., McChesney & Foster 2003; McManus 1994; Hallin 2008; Thussu 2008).

Of course it is deeply problematic for democratic society that an institution that has both been given and taken upon itself to fulfil basic democratic functions also has been organized primarily as a profit-driven enterprise, but in light of, for example, Robert Picard’s observations on the economics in journalism in this volume, it is also evident that a perception of “commercialization” as a destructive process ignores the fact that journalism has been a commodity (and therefore subject to commercial concerns) since at least the mid-19th century (Baldasty 1992; Habermas 1989). In fact, for Habermas, the commercialized decline of the news media began not in our contemporary era but with the rise of the mass press in the mid-19th century (Habermas 1989: 185) and was inextricably linked to the emergence of advertising as a way to fund newsgathering and -distribution (Habermas 1989: 193). Scholars such as McManus do acknowledge this long history of journalism as a commercial practice (McManus 2009: 219 ff) but argue convincingly that the process of commercialization has been accelerating particularly in the past two decades due to interconnected trends, such as the economic rationalization of news organizations, rise of public (i.e. stock) ownership of news organizations, and the rise of competing alternative news sources (McManus 2009; see also Lacy & Martin 1998). To these trends we could add the rise of online advertising and the concomitant focus on news that can be easily and widely shared and “clicked” (Currah 2009: 47 f; Karlsson & Clerwall 2013) All these things are seen as driving news organizations to get rid of staff, increasingly automate work tasks and work processes, and above all to focus on content that is sensationalist and entertainment and lifestyle-oriented. There is thus a strong link between commercialization and another process called tabloidization, which refers to the idea that all news organizations become more like tabloids in terms of what kind of news they produce and how they present the news.

In a recent counterpoint to the commercialization argument, Ryfe (2017: 138 f) notes that the institution of (US) journalism has historically been shaped by the interplay between three other institutions, namely market, state, and civil society. What has happened over the past two decades or so is that the market pole has weakened vis-à-vis the others, rather than strengthened. This point is supported by overwhelming empirical evidence of loss of advertising revenue and subscription revenue, newspaper closures, job losses in journalism, and so on. One could observe that if commercialization is the enemy of journalism then it is not a very successful one.

Of course, the commercialization argument is more sophisticated and there is no necessary contradiction between declining commercial fortunes and an increased dominance of market logics. It stands to reason that in an environment where competition over scarce revenue is increasing, commercial logics would come to dominate over professional ones. Still, within the discourse of commercialization, media companies and conglomerates are often presented as all-powerful agents of domination, whereas in reality they have declined significantly according to most measures of commercial success and power – both individually and as a market sector – over the past couple of decades.

These two accounts (those of great commercial power and great commercial decline, respectively) shows that there is some friction within the commercialization concept. But there is also great agreement in how change is viewed: as noted previously, commercialization has been present in journalism at least since the mid-19th century and caused gradual changes to journalistic work and professional values, but in the contemporary era the pace of commercial change has exploded. The exact time scale of this is somewhat unclear (McManus’ and Underwood’s concerns over commercialization stem from the pre-Web era, for example). Commercialization is furthermore seen as changing pretty much all aspects of journalism, from work organization and work practices to actual news content, as well as the ways in which audiences are addressed and invited to interact with the news.

There is a certain circularity to the commercialization perspective: changes in journalism are explained as resulting from an increased dominance of commercial imperatives over other imperatives, which is in turn demonstrated by the fact that these commercial imperatives appear to change journalistic practices and texts. In short, there is no detailed theoretical explanation as to why commercial concerns would necessarily and in all instances be dominant over, say, political or civil society concerns. States are not devoid of resources and tools for resisting market influence and civil society is a powerful norm-creating institution in its own right that would not necessarily be subordinated to the commercial sphere in all instances (and indeed it has not been, historically speaking). True to its Marxist roots, the commercialization account of change in journalism sees commercial forces as nigh-invincible.


Just as with the two preceding concepts, digitalization has a rich literature of its own. The rapid spread of personal and workplace computers in the 1980s and 1990s, the increased capacity of digital information storage and transfer, and the emergence of a global digital communication network generated academic interest across a number of fields in the social sciences and humanities. Touchstone works considered issues such as how digital media (in particular the global digital network) would change nearly all aspects of human life, including business and everyday life practices (Castells 1996; Negroponte 1995) as well as working life (Zuboff 1988); the nature of personal identity in a digital, networked world (Turkle 1984, 1995); and how digital media change both the form and content of media texts (Bolter & Grusin 1999). These issues – and others – have also been seen as central to journalism and have generated a body of research where the impact of digitalization of nearly every aspect of journalism has been studied. Key areas of study include but are not limited to research on how journalistic work is changing in the face of digitalization (Deuze 2003; Örnebring 2016; Powers 2012; Russial 2000; Singer 2004); how digitalization changes the news text itself and the presentation of it in various ways (Barnhurst & Nerone 2001; Matheson 2004; Weber 2012); and how digitalization and distribution via digital networks changes news audience behavior and news consumption (Costera Meijer & Groot Kormelink 2015; Webster & Ksiazek 2012).

Looming large in this literature – even if he is not always quoted directly – is Marshall McLuhan and his determinist view of technology: as technology changes, so too does the commercial conditions of journalism as well as its professional values and practices. Under technological determinism, it is technology that is the independent variable and commercialization and professionalization the dependent ones. This strong technological determinism was particularly prevalent in early accounts of digitalization in journalism (“early” here meaning shortly after the introduction of the World Wide Web to a broad audience in the mid-1990s). In his 2000 article on technology and journalism, John Pavlik even opens with the statement “Journalism has always been shaped by technology”, and then, in the following section, “Technology has, for better or worse, exerted a fundamental influence on how journalists do their jobs” (Pavlik 2000: 229). Similar strong statements on the influence of technology on journalism can be found, for example, in the work of McNair (1998) and Welch (2000).

In general, the strong technological determinism of early research on journalism and digitalization has since been replaced by a “softer” one, acknowledging that technology use and adoption will be inflected by existing social structures and institution, but at the same time pointing out that different technologies have different potentials. A key term in this softer version of determinism has been affordances (“… properties of the world that are compatible with and relevant for people’s interactions”, Gaver 1991: 79), a term originally from perceptual psychology (Gibson 1977) but popularized for analysis of digitalization and digital media by Gaver (1991) (see also Hutchby 2001) – using examples such as how thin vertical door handles afford pulling and flat horizontal plates afford pushing, and how onscreen buttons afford pushing but not moving and editing (Gaver 1991: 80, 81). Just like references to McLuhan are rare in determinist research on journalism and digitalization, so too are references to Gibson and Gaver uncommon in journalism research, where social and technological factors are viewed as integrated (though there are exceptions, e.g., Graves 2007).

From many of the referenced studies of journalism and digitalization, one can see that the common view of change is largely empirical and self-evident. There is of course some merit to this perception of self-evidence. The move from a technology not existing to being accessible is of course a readily observable one, as is the move from a technology being accessible to its use being required on a day-to-day basis. Many studies of the digitalization of journalistic work have highlighted the perceived suddenness and rapidity by which technological assemblages, such as multiplatform production and audience interactivity, were incorporated as requirements in the workplace, and how skill demands and work tasks related to new technologies likewise were perceived by many journalists as sudden and intrusive (Avilés et al. 2004; Huang et al. 2006; Chang-de 2006; Quinn 2006). After all, there was a time when there was no Internet, no World Wide Web, no Google, no social media, no digital cameras, no integrated content management systems, no smartphones, and journalism was produced and performed perfectly well without them.

Journalism researchers have largely accepted their respondents’ accounts of rapid and uncomfortable change, perhaps because many journalism researchers have been or still are journalists themselves and thus also have personal experience of technological change in the workplace. This individualized view of change has generally failed to notice or at least adequately account for the gradual and often long-term organizational adaption of various digital technologies in the news industry (though see Boczkowski 2004, 2010; Marjoribanks 2000); many technologies were introduced gradually and unwillingly into news organizations and did not spread beyond specialist employees.

Overall, digitalization as a process of change in journalism is perceived as very rapid and ever-escalating – digital desktop publishing is followed by the World Wide Web which is followed by multiplatform/convergent news production which is followed by the Google revolution, the social media revolution, and the smartphone revolution. The scholarly adoption of journalism’s own discourse of speed (Hampton 2004; Örnebring 2010) has encouraged the perception of digitalization as an unstoppable, often destructive force, despite attempts to historicize and critically deconstruct this view (Curran 2010; Curran, Fenton & Freedman 2016). And even if one acknowledges the gradual nature of adoption of many technologies, taken together all the changes linked to digitalization are – rightly or wrongly – generally perceived as revolutionary.

3.4Moving on

Based on this overview, we can see that “change” in journalism research has mostly been understood in empirical rather than theoretical terms. The three concepts I have argued have been the dominant ones for understanding change in journalism are not theoretical concepts per se but rather heuristic ones: they have been used to make sense of and bring together aspects of change that have been seen as related. Two of the concepts (commercialization and digitalization) have also been used to explain change but in a generalized fashion and often based on empirical evidence drawn from a single nation or organization. As Nielsen (2013: 408) points out, economy- and technology-driven perspectives on change cannot account for the different paths of change in journalism that emerge from comparative cross-national analysis.

The lack of a strong theoretical foundation for understanding change should not detract from the considerable empirical contributions to describing change that have been generated by journalism scholarship. In the final section of this chapter, I will focus on these empirical contributions and attempt to systematize them.

4A typology of change in journalism: aspects and analytical levels

In the previous section, I focused on the questions of the time scale of change, the nature of change (revolution vs evolution), and the causes of change, all viewed through the lens of the common heuristic concepts of professionalization, commercialization, and digitalization. In this section, I shift focus to the two last questions on change presented on p. 556 of this chapter: which aspects are changing, and on what analytical level the changes occur or are observed.

Under the headings of professionalization, commercialization, and digitalization I have presented ten different empirical changes in journalism – this is by no means (as we shall see) and exhaustive list but it does cover many of the areas of change where the empirical evidence is multifaceted and strong. These changes are, in the order I have covered them, 1. the onward march of professionalization for most of the 20th century; 2. the more recent de-professionalization of journalism; 3. the economic rationalization of news organizations; 4. the increased importance of the so-called “clickstream” as a source of revenue; 5. the tabloidization of news content; 6. the financial weakening of legacy news organizations and the legacy news industry as a whole; 7. digital technologies changing journalistic work practices and work demands; 8. digital technologies changing the news text itself; 9. digital technologies changing news audience behavior; and 10. the gradual and often slow organizational adoption of new technologies. We have already talked about revolution vs evolution, time scale, and causation in relation to these changes, but as can be seen these changes all pertain to rather different aspects of the field we call “journalism” – and the empirical evidence for each comes from very different sources at different levels of analysis.

One can divide the different aspects of journalism in many ways; I have here chosen a fourfold division of: Texts, Actors, Actions, and Values. Texts refer to the content aspect of journalism: what is written (or visually presented, or both) and how it is written. Actors are the people and organizations involved in producing journalism; Actions are the activities they undertake in order to accomplish this production. Values, finally, refer to the normative aspects of journalism: the ideas about what constitutes “good” and “bad” (in a broad sense) within the field. This is not the only division possible but it does capture the fact that journalism is both an activity (performed by a set of very diverse actors) and a particular set of texts, and that the quality and legitimacy of both the activities and the set of texts are judged by a shared (but not uncontested) value system. Changes in all of these aspects can then in turn be analyzed on the individual (micro) level, the organizational (meso) level, or the institutional or industry (macro) level, creating the typology presented in Table 28.1.

Tab. 28.1: A typology of change in journalism.

Looking again at the changes I have described in this chapter, (5) and (8) describe changes to the Text aspect of journalism; (1) (partly), (6), and (9) describe changes primarily to different categories of Actors in journalism; (3), (4), (7), and (10) changes primarily pertaining to the Actions that some of these actors take; and (1) (partly) and (2) refer to changes to the Values aspect.

(1) is almost solely analyzed at the individual level (through aggregate individual survey responses); (2) likewise; (3) commonly analyzed at the organizational level (i.e. with data gathered from different organizations, sometimes individual ones, sometimes aggregated); (4) also analyzed at the organizational level; (5) analyzed at the individual level but here through aggregated individual content items rather than survey responses; (6) at the institutional/industry level using industry-spanning data; (7) equally at both the individual and organizational levels; (8) at the level of aggregated individual texts; (9) at the level of aggregated individual data (both survey data and other forms of digital trace data generated by users); and (10) at the organizational level.

These classifications taken together would allow these changes to be mapped as follows:

Table 28.2: Changes detailed in this chapter classified.

Some observations about change can then be made based on this table: first, we see that what is often conceived of in the literature as coherent areas of change often stretch across aspects and analytical levels. In the professionalization literature, for example, some aspects of professionalization deal with the Actor aspect whereas others deal with the Values aspect, and in the case of digital technologies changing working practices and work demands, the analysis is sometimes conducted on the individual level, sometimes on the organizational level. The purpose of the typology is not prescriptive, i.e. I am not saying an area of change should be described as solely part of one aspect or that it should be analyzed at a specific level of analysis. But highlighting the fact that the same body of research, addressing the same kind of change, can operate on different analytical levels or in different aspects of journalism can help address the confusion that sometimes occurs around both causation and what “change” in journalism actually consists of.

Second, the focus on the individual and to some extent organizational analytical levels to some extent seems to come at the expense of institutional/industry-level analysis, which is in line with my earlier observation that the individual-practitioner perspective dominates journalism research as a whole – but also in part due to the simple fact that the individual and organizational levels are easier to operationalize than the institutional/industry level. This does not mean that institutional-level changes have not been studied. For example, in the text/institutional level box, we could place what could be called “model discourse” changes (or, following Hartley (1995), changes in “textual regimes”), i.e. textual changes that occur beyond just the aggregated individual texts but rather to the overarching principles of journalistic textual construction. Such changes are quite well documented by media historians (as they rely not only on the analysis of the news texts themselves but also of other texts such as policy documents, journalists’ biographies, and so on) and all arrive at similar results: on a longer (100+ years) time scale the journalistic model discourse has become more interpretive and less event-centered (Barnhurst & Mutz 1997; Djerf Pierre & Weibull 2008; Fink & Schudson 2014).

Similarly, changes in the actor aspect have also been observed on the institutional/industry level, with the most obvious change being the emergence or entry of entirely new categories of organizations into the journalistic field. The news industry’s loss of advertising revenue to companies such as Google and Facebook are well described (Currah 2009; Picard in this volume). Social media companies like Facebook and Twitter are not only shifting the industry boundaries through their competition for advertising revenue but also their rising importance as news platforms and distribution channels (Hermida et al. 2012; Newman 2009). And while the entry of new social media actors into the institution of journalism gets a lot of public and scholarly attention, we also need to note that companies, like temping agencies, also increasingly are actors in the journalistic field and contribute to ongoing shifts in how journalism is organized and paid for (Örnebring & Ferrer Conill 2016).


It would be a relatively easy task to “fill” the currently empty boxes of the typology with other kinds of change in journalism – tabloidization could also be studied on the organizational level, for example, if the research question is whether a particular news organization has been more tabloidized over time. This is not the purpose of the typology, however. Rather, it serves to illustrate that the a-theoretical nature of the concepts that have guided understanding of change in journalism research often makes for problematic generalizations, where professionalization, commercialization, and digitalization are all used to refer to many kinds of changes that may be somewhat related but which more often are quite analytically distinct. The typology itself does not provide a theoretical way out of this situation but can hopefully at least help to untangle the interrelations, distinctions, and causalities surrounding that which journalism research is today almost solely focused on studying: change.

Further reading

As has been the point of this whole chapter, there is a wealth of literature describing how journalism has changed, but hardly any on the concept of change itself nor on how to theorize change. As such, the critical research review by Stanyer and Mihelj (2016) serves as an excellent introduction to the issue of conceptualizing, studying and theorizing change in communication research. Ryfe’s recent (2017) book Journalism and the Public is a good companion text, as it deals specifically with journalism and demonstrates how to think theoretically about change in relation to a specific issue in journalism research (journalism’s relation to the public).

The literature on each of the three processes of change discussed in this chapter – professionalization, commercialization, and digitalization – is rich and extensive. On professionalization, the historical overview of survey time series by Brownlee and Bream (2012) provides perhaps the best overview, along with the other texts from the same edited collection (Weaver and Willnat, 2012). On commercialization, McManus’ 1994 book Market-Driven News remains a classic reference, and his later (2009) overview of the field is a very comprehensive update on more recent research. On digitalization, the longe durée perspective of Barnhurst and Nerone (2001) is a useful corrective to much of the presentist debate and research on the topic, as is James Curran’s criticism of the future-centric perspective of much journalism scholarship (Curran, 2010).


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