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Journalistic Professional Ideology as Boundary Maintenance

The final speaker in this session at Future of Journalism is Helle Sjøvaag, who shifts our focus to the role of the classic news ideals in a changing journalistic environment. Professional journalistic ideology remains an important part of journalistic professional life, and is mobilised in distinguishing professional journalists from other groups.

Digitalisation processes challenge the established news business model, of course: income streams and audiences are dwindling, and competition between news outlets increases. Journalistic ideology is the sum of journalistic professional beliefs, and is recycled through daily journalistic practice; branding of professional journalistic products as professional through such ideology becomes ever more important in this highly competitive space, therefore. This is a process of boundary-maintenance to sustain professional identity and difference.

Traditional, commercial news media serve two customer groups: audiences and advertisers. Audience fragmentation online and in television challenges this dual revenue model; it lowers the demand for newspapers, and thereby increases their dependence on advertising, which is also declining. New monetisable products are being trialled, therefore, which try to highlight the value of these products in order to attract customers. The high degree of product substitutability and low degree of differentiation online makes this difficult, however; this may lead to more homogeneous news products.

Succeeding in this market, against new competitors, requires strong branding and maintenance of institutional boundaries. Professional boundary work is especially important here: such work is focussed on jurisdictional control which enables the survival of professional knowledge systems. Challenges to professional identity are met by a denigration of outsiders, and protects the autonomy of insiders by blaming others for any negative consequences.

An examples for such boundary maintenance is the adherence to ‘hard’ news ideals by mainstream journalism organisations; this is visible for example in the treatment of newsworthy user-generated content and the maintenance of standard journalistic methodology. Possible approaches here may include a choice of accuracy over speed (with a strong focus on journalist-sourced information), or of speed over accuracy (reporting rumours even if not fully verified); in their framing, both highlight the gatekeeping role of the journalistic institution for available information.