Platforms, actor-network theory and entrepreneurial journalism

For three weeks I had the pleasure of teaching ‘entrepreneurial journalism,’ an intensive, workshop-style MA course in which students focused on designing and pitching innovative journalism and media products. The course was the first of its kind in the Netherlands, but of course the idea has been around in the US for a while.

Our program is a ‘professional MA’ that mixes academic and practice-based study, and the course was led by Jeroen Smit, best known for his investigative journalism and books on ABN Amro and Ahold. Ritzo ten Cate and I provided some lectures and helped coach the project groups. One of the course's highlights was a hangout with Rob Malda, who talked about his journey (and the web’s) from Slashdot to his latest invention Trove.

Beyond the guest lectures, working with some excellent students and generally getting out of my comfort zone, here were a few takeaways for me - some ideas I developed while preparing for the course and working with the students.

Where’s the controversy? ANT and entrepreneurial journalism

The default criticism of entrepreneurial journalism is that the commercial, high-risk world of entrepreneurialism is incompatible with journalism’s public service ideal (along with the financial and institutional stability that this requires).“Entrepreneurial journalism is an oxymoron,” as a well-known media scholar recently put it at a conference in Groningen.

But where the controversy normally centers on the ‘entrepreneurial,’ I borrowed from a ten-year old Fred Turner piece to ask whether the more instructive controversy is the one around ‘journalism,’ or at least the romantic, modernist notion that accompanies it.

As Turner argues (and I'm also thinking of Chris Anderson's work), changes in the industry have upset a classic understanding of journalistic roles, in which one can neatly distinguish between publishers, editors, journalists, marketers. In their place, one sees a range of increasingly hybrid roles in which those distinctions disappear, with new roles being added as well. Celebrated examples would include Malda, who while at Slashdot called himself the site’s chief editor/engineer. But this kind of hybrid work would also include, say, journalists at old media organizations who are encouraged to publicize their stories on Twitter (thus becoming journalists-marketers).

In this view, entrepreneurial journalism is roughly equivalent to an expectation that journalists think and act like publishers and marketers - it's only an oxymoron if you see it in a vaccuum, outside of the broader change in which journalism practices and forms are being unsettled and reformulated in a new context.

For me, 'hybrid' is a way to begin thinking about new norms, routines and constraints, and about how the current changes constitute evolution rather than revolution. In a twist that I didn’t really expect, my colleagues (who are much more optimistic about how journalism is changing than I am) fully embraced the idea of ‘hybrids’ as a sign of the kind of freedom and innovative thinking inherent to the new environment.

Of course, the long-standing criticism of ANT is that its relentless focus on ‘describing’ renders it incapable of producing critical perspectives, so it was interesting to see its language fit so easily in the rhetoric of those I respectfully disagree with (of course, Latour himself has talked about this kind of cooptation).

What do platforms do?

Revisiting the Turner piece also got me thinking about a more contemporary problem, which I summed up by asking the students whether “to publish or to platform.” This is an issue for something like Medium, which according to some has an identity crisis when it tries to brand itself as quality media while also inviting anyone to participate.

Although platforms are generally thought of in terms of how they destabilize and 'flatten' markets (by lowering barriers to entry), I asked the students to also think of them as machines for restabilizing industries, something that I think can be seen on three fronts.

The first is regulation. The dirty, open secret of some of these platforms (at least in the case of AirBnB and Uber) is that their success has depended in part on their 'sellers' circumventing regulation and taxation. But increasingly that same success provides the impetus for governments to adapt to the new context, for instance with Amsterdam's legtimization (and normalization) of private, short-stay rentals. Next up, health and safety standards.

A second is how these platforms depend on a certain professionalization of their sellers - which is why AirBnB hired a hotelier as its head of global hospitality.

Third, for all their rhetoric around the 'sharing' economy, it's clear that these platforms have enabled a kind of lower tier entrepreneurialism in which new (private) actors use their taxation and regulatory advantages to compete with estabished companies. Think of airbnb 'hosts' who buy up apartments and rent them out from a distance, or the people renting cars to Uber drivers unable to afford their own. These comprise another set of new, hybrid actors that will have to be accounted for by new regulation.

The other future of journalism

The question for me is how such platform effects (seen here in the service industries, thus admittedly very different) could translate to media. How might platforms like Spotify or (in the Netherlands) Blendle serve not only to alter the economics of their respective industries, but also help establish existing or reconfigured roles in a new context?

Perhaps, after some 20 years of talk of creative destruction and the Internet's radical effects on media and journalism, now is the time to stop asking how these industries are being 'disrupted.'

Instead, we might look at these platforms and ask what the shape of the industry is that we're educating 'entrpreneurial journalists' for. And most importantly, what can we do to steer this stabilization so that it serves their needs, and not just that of the platform owners?