- The Life Informatic: Newsmaking in the Digital Era by Dominic Boyer
In his intriguing new study The Life Informatic: Newsmaking in the Digital Era, anthropologist Dominic Boyer draws on several years of field research with various news organizations in Germany to argue that “if one were to speak of an ‘average’ journalistic type today, it would no longer be a beat reporter, an investigative journalist, a foreign correspondent, or even a desk editor. No, the far more common type is that of the office-based screen-worker” (p. 2).
Boyer’s book covers familiar ground: the question of how new technological tools and new divisions of labor within journalism have emerged in response to evolving global digital infrastructures, shifting audience attention, and increasing demands for quick profitability. His study complements recent work from within: technology studies, in Pablo J. Boczkowski’s 2010 News at Work; media studies, in Susan J. Robinson’s 2011 Journalism as Process; and the industry itself, in Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s 2010 handbook Blur. To this existing literature, Boyer brings a rich ethnographic focus on daily labor practices rather than on industry- or organization-scale relationships.
This close focus on practice within the newsroom is both the book’s strength and its weakness. Boyer’s suggestion that “screenwork, as currently institutionalized, typically creates conditions of distraction that make paying attention to anything offscreen increasingly difficult” is a provocative finding which is clearly suggested by his field data (p. 3). This is especially revealed in his chapter about the “slotters” at the Frankfurt Associated Press office. These professionals have the job of watching for incoming and breaking news, assigning reporting tasks, editing draft bulletins, [End Page 298] and finally sending the results back out over the wire—all of which magnifies their roles in terms of authority over deciding which events and ideas in the daily stream of information qualify as “news” in the first place (pp. 16–17). However, when Boyer claims that “A narrowing of journalistic attentiveness is coming to exquisitely overdetermine the traditional news business of finding and circulating facts in the world” (p. 4), I’m not sure that such a broad conclusion is warranted.
Boyer concludes by arguing that not only is the contemporary journalistic professional “increasingly a sedentary screenworker” (p. 130), but also “that screenwork both assumes a certain kind of entrepreneurial professional subject (one searching far and wide for relevant information, skillfully juggling multiple tasks) and helps to naturalize that subjectivity through an attention-dominating visual interface”—a state of being he calls “digital liberalism” (p. 136). There is still hope, however. Boyer concedes, “Although there is no doubt that screenwork reflects a major zone of overlap in news practice, it has not made news journalism homogenous across organizations or media” (p. 145). With the same kinds of digital screens deployed in extensive rather than intensive arrangements, Boyer suggests, individual journalists working in the field with mobile screen technology might upend the phenomena he observed in his office-based fieldwork: “the phenomenology of mobilized screenwork could be a different life informatic entirely. The solitary journalist is perhaps as much an autological subject as the sedentary journalist, but he is at least more mobile, and hopefully more able to engage offscreen storylines and informational sources” (p. 149).
Boyer’s deep ethnographic study reveals in sharp detail one aspect of the “life informatic” when it comes to the competitive environment of global, digital, and often entertainment-focused journalism. Fortunately for us, even within journalism the life informatic still encompasses a wider diversity than any one study can hope to reveal. [End Page 299]
Greg Downey is an Evjue-Bascom Professor in the School of Library & Information Studies and the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author of Telegraph Messenger Boys: Labor, Technology, and Geography, 1850–1950 (2002) and Closed Captioning: Subtitling, Stenography, and the Digital Convergence of Text with Television (2008).