- The Life Informatic: Newsmaking in the Digital Era by Dominic Boyer
Dominic Boyer’s signal achievement in The Life Informatic: Newsmaking in the Digital Era is to utterly evacuate the concept of reporting from the world of journalism. Instead, Boyer argues, the dominant mode of journalistic labor in the digital era is screenwork, a set of almost entirely sedentary processes in which newsworkers “[navigate] the complex ecology of information already ‘out there’” as much as they seek and reveal “unknown truths” (3). This navigation process, which Boyer understands as a specific aspect of a more general process of mediological subjectivity, takes place largely in front of screens. To focus so resolutely on digital information management—slotting, clicking, spinning, and timing—in part by bracketing the practices of news reporting is a genuine breakthrough. While aspects of this dynamic have been touched on in Boczkowski’s (2010) exploration of newsroom imitation, in Ryfe’s (2012) ethnography of three small American newsrooms, and in my own analysis of aggregation practices inside and outside traditional journalism organizations (Anderson 2013), no other author has zeroed in on screenwork as a core component of the newsmaking process in quite this way. And while I think the sedentary dynamic Boyer points to is, perhaps, overdrawn (a point I will return to in the conclusion to this review), the focus on the screen-oriented aspects of journalistic production is a welcome corrective to the cluster of five-decade-old newsroom ethnographies that have, by now, achieved largely hagiographic status in journalism studies.
The focus on screens and mediological labor aside, The Life Informatic falls rather squarely within the newsroom ethnography tradition (although interestingly enough, the vast majority of those ethnographies have been produced not by anthropologists, but by sociologists and more recently [End Page 583] by scholars in the science and technology studies tradition). Bracketed by opening and closing chapters focused on a comparison between medio-logical practices in journalism and anthropology, the remaining chapters of the book hew fairly closely to the “three site visit” paradigm that is so common in newsroom ethnographic research (though, yet again, perhaps not as much so in anthropology). The first site is the Associated Press office in Frankfurt (AP Deutscher Dienst, or AP-DD); the second is the Darmstadt campus of T-Online, a news portal subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom AG; and the third is the newsroom of MDR INFO, a 24/7 public radio broadcaster making the transition to digital forms of journalistic production. At each of these sites, Boyer analyzes the nuances of screen-oriented news-work in truly exemplary fashion; indeed, many journalism studies scholars and budding newsroom ethnographers could learn a great deal from this practicing anthropologist about how to do newsroom fieldwork well. We might summarize the four driving dynamics in these three chapters as 1) a focus on the praxiological aspects of mediological screenwork, 2) the relationship of journalists to “the public sphere” (or more accurately, to the realm of Offentlichkeit), 3) the shifting phenomenology of “news time” in the digital age, and 4) the literal and figurative spaces of journalistic work.
I will turn to an examination of each of these four concepts momentarily, but I do want to briefly point out an additional, highly intriguing aspect of The Life Informatic—namely, the setting of its field sites in Germany. There is no doubt that one of the dominant trends in journalism studies over the past decade and a half has been the growing internationalization of the subfield, a welcome development to be sure. And while Boyer does spend a few pages discussing the ramifications of his choice of Germany as a field site, by and large he chooses not to dwell on the comparative aspect of his book. This is both welcome and potentially problematic: welcome insofar as it is resolutely internationalist, without apology, and without the need for a great deal of hemming and hawing about the Americanist tendencies of communication research; potentially problematic as it has the potential to obscure some of the uniquely German (or at least uniquely...