All ears! : Tracing journalistic podcasting in India through newsroom ethnography

Prologue

I have to admit that writing a blog on my ongoing work, should have been more welcoming to me than writing a research paper on the same. It is easier, right? Well, the issue is that the current pandemic has affected my research so deeply, that everything has sort of toppled, and a regular research paper driven by a specific research question might do more justice unveiling the layers of complexities currently faced! Strange times indeed, when a paper seems easier than the blog, but that is ethnography (and also, pandemic) for you.

I am a practicing journalist-turned-journalism teacher, and hence the choice of newsroom ethnography as my method for my doctoral work was in a way, obvious. My own experience heartily agrees with a view that newsroom is a fascinating site for conducting ethnography, since creating content is affected by so many variables and the holistic ‘culture’ that gets produced is worth studying. My position, interestingly, is somewhere between the classic insider-outsider dichotomy, as I theoretically know how any newsroom would work, so I do have internal insights, but I am not currently a part of any newsroom, so an outsider for practical purposes.

Newsroom ethnography as a method has come a long way from the ‘first wave’ ethnographies. The advent of digital has had a profound impact on the journalistic production, processes and profession. Journalism today is in flux, attempting to solve some existential questions of who exactly is a journalist, and what does journalism even mean. I draw upon several concepts of the new-age journalism put forth in this decade to position my work. ‘Blown-up newsroom’ by Anderson (2011) states that the newsroom has lost its structural centrality and much news work today happens beyond the conventional boundaries of a newsroom, and it is not necessarily shaped only by a journalist. The idea of looking at journalism as an ‘under process’ phenomenon, as proposed by Deuze (2018) is another concept I use. Journalism, as produced beyond a newsroom, must be looked at as a set of practices, in context of their actors, audience and effect.

The changing journalism has also given rise to some new content formats available for a journalist to use. Podcasting, amongst others, is a content format that many Indian journalistic set ups are increasingly using. For the longest time, podcasting was explained with radio as a reference point. However, the audience for podcasting is rapidly growing and it understands the unique value of this content format. On the other hand, the journalists have also realized the USP of podcasting and are using it regularly. I was curious about this adoption of podcasting by Indian newsrooms and decided to explore it through newsroom ethnography.

So What Am I Trying to Study?

Only if the research questions in ethnography were straightforward like those of pure sciences! Journalism is a messy business, and news selection, production and consumption by themselves are worth separate enquiries. I am, by and large, focusing on the factors that play a role in the adoption and appropriation of podcasting by the Indian newsrooms, contextualized in the broader journalistic culture that it operates in. It deals with the structural factors, the work practices, the perception of audiences, the agency that the journalists have, and the disruption caused in all of this because of technology. Newsroom ethnography, albeit in a new sense of the term seemed a most suitable method to study production practices and the resultant culture and I went on with it.

And…?

I visited newsrooms for ethnographic observations, spent some days there doing full shifts, accompanied the journalists to their tea breaks as well (where some hitherto invisible information came to the forefront, and information of such kind is incredibly valuable to an ethnographer), had multiple in depth interviews with journalists from two separate newsrooms, and here are some of the early findings:

1. A top down beginning: The actual podcasting journalists, who take care of the news selection, podcast production and dissemination, are not the ones who decided that they should do it. It was a top-down decision, where a selected few from the management decided that the particular media house would start podcasting. One can also say with sufficient conviction that it was a case of FOMO, where the media house wanted to adhere to the latest ‘it’ thing that is podcast and add it to the bouquet of offerings.

2. Allocation of resources: This top down approach literally translated into an edit meeting being called, and an ad hoc team put together by shifting some of the existing journalists to the podcasting department. Most podcasting journalists reported that they did not even know what a podcast was, before suddenly being shifted to this, where they have learned stuff on the job. These journalists have made peace with it though, and are actually looking positively at this new role, as they have been getting good feedback from the listeners, the numbers of listens are increasing and their higher ups encourage them to keep up their work, all of which suggest a possibility that the media house wants to continue podcasting. And despite this so-called good-run, podcasting remains a baby of the newsroom, which is evident from the allocation of non-human resources too like recording studios, software or equipment. The team shares it with other sister properties of the organization.

3. Different news values: we were taught in a J-school that a piece of information becomes worthy of being selected as news if it has at least one of the ‘news values’. While the concept remains true with the podcasting team too, their values are different. They do not operate in breaking news domain, so urgency or immediacy may not be a relevant value to them, but ‘shelf-life’ of a particular piece of information is, and so is the ability of that podcast to go viral/generate high engagement on social networks.

4. The curious emergence of WhatsApp: The messenger undoubtedly has changed news work like never before. Everything from sourcing the latest news, verifying from different sources, maintaining sources, sharing news material to disseminating it has been fundamentally affected by WhatsApp. So much is the dependence on WhatsApp that I feel it should be considered as a separate site for ethnographic investigation. Apart from the journalists interacting with each other in real life in and beyond the newsroom, their virtual selves contribute equally to creating a particular culture.

The fateful Arrival of CoVid-19

And as all of the early insights were guiding me into planning a detailed field work with several major Indian newsrooms, the pandemic arrived. My scheduled newsroom visits got cancelled, and now it doesn’t look like they will happen any time in the near future. The methodological ramifications of pandemic are going to be huge for me, like any other ethnographer. I am currently thinking of modifying my method and conducting in depth interviews with the journalists over telephone. Group discussions are also easily doable, (although potentially noisy) with group calls. But the insights that only field work can give (Think newsroom fights and chai gossips) is going to remain a major missing piece of the puzzle.

Funnily, most of the podcasting journalists are not going to newsrooms and are working from home as of now. More funnily, they do not seem to think that anything is compromised. This, very interestingly, makes a big statement about the ‘blown-up’ -ness of the newsroom. The loss of centrality for the structure of the newsroom had never been so pronounced. Due to the pandemic, the production sites have disappeared per se, but the production is intact. Pandemic has clearly revealed that news production can survive even when there is no newsroom. Can one then say that the newsroom perhaps is not indispensable for news production?! And what does it do to the whole concept of ‘newsroom’ ethnography then?

I had telephonic conversations with many journalists during the lockdown, and they reported that they are producing more podcasts than ever. Growth of podcasting in the pandemic times may also indicate that it is not a mere beneficiary of the changing structure, but also a catalyst in the process of old ways of newsroom being replaced with new ones. And now when I think about it, the pandemic ramifications are not only methodological for me, but also somewhat ontological.

Ethnography has so much to do with stories. Most of the insights are obtained through the stories told by the members of the community. In addition to that, any ethnographic inquiry is also a story in itself. It has a (often not so clear) beginning, a (somewhat overwhelming) middle and an (not finite) end. So is mine. Just that, now this pandemic has been thrust upon me as a character in this story. I have been told that it is a crucial character, it has unpredictable arc, and has deep consequences for other characters as well as for the story. My only big question as a writer of this story is, whether to call this pandemic a hero of my story or a villain?

About the Author

Sneha Gore Mehendale is a journalist-turned-journalism educator and currently works as an assistant professor with the Symbiosis Institute of Media and Communication, Pune. She is pursuing her PhD in journalistic podcasting in India.

Blog of the Media Anthropology Research Collective — South Asia