From the dictatorship of the technicians…

Luís Ángel Fernández Hermana - @luisangelfh
17 October, 2016
Editorial: 40
Fecha de publicación original: 8 octubre, 1996

Date of publication: 08/10/1996. Editorial 040.

* Second article in a series on digital journalism.

It is not the same to preach as to give wheat

There is a matter pending within the Spanish internaut community: ironically enough, journalists have not taken the Internet by storm. The possibilities of the new media as a source and means of distributing information, as a space for interconnectivity and interactivity, and a place for creating an audience and, of course, as a professional and economic frontier, have hardly been investigated by professionals in communication. The media companies, for their part, have limited themselves, for the moment, to exhibiting themselves in the digital window –in itself a great step forward–, but have not as yet shown the vital signs of an evolution in tune with the role which the Internet is starting to play in the field of communication. This state of affairs is, apparently, due to the lack of enthusiasm, negligence or short-sightedness with which information professionals view the phenomenon of the Internet. Although there is some truth in this, it seems to me that things are not so simple or one-sided. I think that the suspicion and lack of interest towards this new media on the part of those who should have made it their very own–or at least decided whether it is as “meaty” as their own media has proclaimed over the last couple of years in numerous articles and even double page spreads devoted to the subject–, is a weighty matter which psychological interpretations or generalisations do not explain. Particularly if we examine this phenomenon from the perspective of the printed media.

During the mid-70’s western media was shaken by an unexpected tremor. Journalists had their beloved typewriters taken away from them and they were replaced by screens with keyboards. It was like putting a slice of Orwell’s 1984 on every table and what is more in the middle of newsrooms, the very bastions of freedom of expression! In short, the change was not easy. Indeed, at the beginning of the digital era, at the same time as the lead in the printers inexorably cooled down, things hotted up in the newsrooms. There were historical conflicts, such as those in Fleet Street, London, on the New York Times and the Washington Post. But these were only the most well-known ones. Beneath the surface of the prestigious names, the battle for the restructuring of the media business and the very profession of journalism shook practically the whole printed media industry to one degree or another.

When the dust settled, we found ourselves with various new things on our hands. For a start, every journalist had in front of them a mysterious gadget made up of a keyboard and a screen on which a cursor twinkled insatiably; no matter how many letters, phrases or articles were written it kept on winking that it wanted more. Secondly, many printing workshops disappeared or changed into completely different physical and labour spaces. Lastly, a team of people who had never before set foot in a newsroom took up their places there and, judging by the amount of weird and wonderful things they brought in with them, it looked as though they meant to stay. They were the technical department. From the company and professional point of view, this was the big change. Little by little, journalists settled down again to their old habits and the subsequent modifications in the newsroom structure took place more as a result of external factors than of digitalisation. But the latter began to acquire its own omnipresent dynamic.

The technical departments became the driving force of technological innovation in the sector, the key factor in maintaining the competitive edge of the media companies. Journalists took no part in this process. They were victims in the good sense of the word in the same way as peasants in the Middle Ages had things merely “happen” to them. One day there was a hailstorm, the next a band of mercenaries swooped down and razed their crops, then there was a good harvest followed by a visit from the tax collector and then perhaps during the night or at any moment for that matter, their daughters were forced to give themselves up to the feudal master. And, in the distance, always the ominous presence of the castle.

The technical department has kept the innovation pot on the boil, fed by the sacred fire of computer knowledge, the ark of digital know-how. Journalists were merely the instruments of their designs; all they needed to do was learn how to make the innovations work, not to “understand” them.

This relationship has been consolidated in practically all the media as time has passed. No newspaper can hope to attain any success without the help of a competent, experienced and imaginative technical department. But there are hardly any newspapers that have managed to break down the barriers between the watertight compartments within which the newsroom and the technical departments move. This impermeability has meant that as they have evolved they have developed skills which are apparently not transferable. Journalists, for their part, although it would be impossible for them now to imagine working without computers, have entertained an attitude sometimes bordering on technophobia, above all when the “computer system” behaved in a temperamental manner and refused to obey even, what they considered, the most simple commands. On the other hand, total dependency on machines for professional work has favoured this “culture” and has built a fatal wall between them, cutting communications with the technical department when the specific needs of the newsroom should be expressed. The technicians, for their part, could not help looking down on people who continue to treat such complex, versatile and multidimensional computers as though they were simply typewriters with a screen. This is the dreadful error that we were living with, when on-line services and the Internet broke out of their ivory towers at the beginning of the decade and their use became popularized. And, then, suddenly, the WWW also appeared.

The stage was set so that it seemed that only a few journalists of a very particular professional profile would dare to explore the new medium. As soon as they ventured into cyberspace they rapidly found themselves caught between two contradictory forces: on the one hand, the professional use of the Net meant that they could assess its potential as a new model of eminently participative communication which was taking over the space which had previously been occupied by the established media. On the other hand, the short circuit between newsroom and technical department did not facilitate the development of these individual initiatives. The Net, in the hands of journalists, threatened the — already traditional despite being so young– power of the technical departments. Knowledge began to spread beyond the “social class” of computer experts and technicians who were intrinsically innovative as far as fulfilling the “normal” objectives of the company, but conservative when it came to transmitting this knowledge particularly in an environment so apparently turbulent as that which the Net proposed. And it was precisely this attitude which made things difficult for the few journalists who began to use it.

These colleagues, without being aware of it, became the agents of innovation who put the media on the cyberspace map. The pressure they brought to bear and their insistence that the Internet was of particular interest began to sink in–drop by drop. Finally things moved forward when these agents of innovation came across a “generalizer” –almost invariably the technical department, because they possessed the means both physical and human to undertake it– who then appropriated the ideas for themselves and, in the process, buried the agents sending them back into the entrepreneurial limbo from whence they came. From this moment onwards, and this historical phase has yet to conclude, technical or R+D departments initiated their first corporative experiences on the Internet. In all of these experiences, almost without exception, it is patently obvious just how isolated the newsroom is from the technical department: as yet we have not gone beyond the stage of simply transferring the printed press into the Net, an initiative which, in addition, the newsroom does not participate in or is even aware of. By turning the Net into something merely technical, journalists have not had the opportunity to negotiate their participation in it and companies, consequently, have not begun to define how collaboration between journalistic objectives and the technical side means to reach them.

As is explained in an excellent study called “Operation Zodiac”, jointly undertaken by the Institut Catalá de Telemàtica Aplicada and Carnegie-Mellon University (USA) with the aim of analysing this process in both countries, the sequence innovation agent-generalizer-liquidation of the innovation agent did not only happen in the media companies, but in a multitude of Spanish companies that were starting to venture onto the Internet.

As far as media companies are concerned, the phenomenon is not exclusive to Spain. In many meetings on “new media” that I have attended in other parts of the world I have often participated in what has almost become the ritual moment when journalists who are on the Net explain the difficulties they have had to overcome –and not always transcended– to gain the collaboration of the technical department in what is essentially a new adventure in communication. An adventure defined by its journalistic innovative content and in which the technical component, by the way, is becoming smaller and smaller. All of them have suffered at the hands of the “dictatorship of the technicians” (the analysis made of it by colleagues on the Irish Times, one of the first newspapers that started to develop specific content for the Net, is emblematic). And all of them admitted –we admit– that the schematic dilemma inherent in every dictatorship (rebellion or submission) threatens the viability of the media companies themselves within this new framework of digital communication.

The risk of prolonging the present state of affairs is that a kind of paralysis sets in when decisions have to be made, or a detour is simply taken to show that at least there is a certain sensitivity towards the new paradigm. This was what happened, for example, on The New York Times, which made the stupid mistake of creating a new digital newsroom. The temptation of taking this direction creates the risk that, apart from wasting the skills and experiences that some sectors of the newsroom have acquired in their work on the Net, it also leaves the journalists who continue to work as though what is happening in cyberspace did not have anything to do with them, defenceless. At the same time as a new medium is being born and is developing and which their company is actively participating in, the journalists, many of them unaware of it, observe the new phenomenon with the same distance they would the launch of a new newspaper in another country. But cyberspace poses a challenge of an immediacy which cannot be delayed. Everything that happens there has to do, one way or the other, with their profession, its present and its future.

Translation: Bridget King.


* Other articles dedicated to digital journalism

1.- In search of the digital journalist
2.- From the dictatorship of the technicians…
3.- …to the rebellion of the masses
4.- The birth of “soft power”
5.- The postman knocks a thousand times
6.- How to escape from the newsagent and survive the attempt
7.- The floating university
8.- The knowledge correspondent
9.- Hard disc journalism