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Labouring in the field: talking, reading and writing business news

News management

One of my earliest field observations was that the daily newsroom operation at De Standaard bears a striking resemblance to the routines of news management that first-generation newsroom ethnographers described in the 1970s (Van Hout and Jacobs, 2008). For instance, Golding and Elliott's ([1979]1999) portrayal of broadcast news production as 'a highly regulated and routine process of manufacturing a cultural product on an electronic production line' applies remarkably well to a print context, even after 35 years. So does their claim that the newsroom diary and the story meeting are central mechanisms 'aimed at plotting the flow of events in the world and marking them for manufacture into 'stories'' (Golding and Elliot, [1979]1999).

The diary is a written record of events 'based on the knowledge that events will occur, not on observation of them unfolding' (Golding and Elliot, [1979] 1999: 113). It pools events that have been judged newsworthy a priori, either on the grounds of previous coverage or on their perceived public weight. The diary manages the unpredictability of news by marking planned events for coverage. The entries are based on press releases, announcements and invitations that circulate in the newsroom. Reporters are free to add entries and do so regularly but usually in consultation with the desk chief. One of the journalists told me that reporters could pretty much 'autonomously decide whether or not to follow up a story lead' (DS_FN1_4). The diary represents the initial selection of news; the 'critical mass' of marked - and electronically inscribed - events that initiate the daily news cycle.

These events trigger another regulating mechanism: the story meeting (Van Hout and Van Praet, 2011). These staff meetings are literacy events par excellence. They are episodes of textual mediation that are ritualised (and hence discursively stable, repeated and observable) and feature two dominant literacy practices: talk about planned or spot news events; and inscription of mutually established decisions about story play and authorship. Four of these meetings are held daily and each serves a particular purpose in the production cycle (Figure 4.1).

Around 10:00am, the desk chiefs and one or two representatives from the chief editorial team assemble to review the previous day's paper and preview major stories for next day's paper. Reporters trickle in and work on planned stories, make phonecalls and read up on developing stories. At 2:00pm, the separate newsdesks convene to negotiate story selection, length, placement and authorship. Front page story suggestions are made. Immediately following the 2:00pm newsdesk meetings, the copy-editors, editor-in-chief and a representative from the affiliate title, Het Nieuwsblad, convene at 2:45pm for a front page editorial meeting. The main activity here is to pool and review front page story nominations and inside stories per newsdesk. On the newsroom floor, reporters

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Figure 4.1 Editorial routine at De Standaard

write up their assigned stories. Final decisions regarding the front page layout are made during a 5:30pm meeting. The copy-editors announce which stories, photos and graphics will be displayed on the front page. Each news desk circulates their respective (and final) story selections. The front pages for De Standaard and Het Nieuwsblad are discussed, story updates since 2:45pm are reviewed and regional news stories are briefly summarised. Most stories are filed between 6:00pm and 8:00pm, after which time the copy-editors take over.

 
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