Exploring a Curatorial Turn in Journalism

Anita Howarth

Abstract


Introduction

Curation-related discourses have become widespread. The growing public profile of curators, the emergence of new curation-related discourses and their proliferation beyond the confines of museums, particularly on social media, have led some to conclude that we now live in an age of curation (Buskirk cited in Synder). Curation is commonly understood in instrumentalist terms as the evaluation, selection and presentation of artefacts around a central theme or motif (see O’Neill; Synder). However, there is a growing academic interest in what underlies the shifting discourses and practices. Many are asking what do these changes mean (Martinon) now that “the curatorial turn” has positioned curation as a legitimate object of academic study (O’Neill).

This article locates an exploration of the curatorial turn in journalism studies since 2010 within the shifting meanings of curation from antiquity to the digital age. It argues that the industry is facing a Foucauldian moment where the changing political economy of news and the proliferation of user-generated content on social media have disrupted the monopolies traditional news media held over the circulation of knowledge of current affairs and the power this gave them to shape public debate. The disruptions are profound, prompting a rethinking of journalism (Peters and Broersma; Schudson). However, debates have polarised between those who view news curation as symptomatic of the demise of journalism and others who see it as part of a wider revival of the profession, freed from monopolistic institutions to circulate a wider array of knowledge and viewpoints (see Picard). This article eschews such polarisations and instead draws on Robert Picard’s argument that journalism is in transition and that journalism, as a set of professional practices, is adapting to the age of curation but that those traditional news providers that fail to adapt will most likely decline.

However, Picard’s approach does not address the definitional problem as to what distinguishes news curating from other journalistic practices when the commonly used instrumental definition can apply to editing. This article aims to negotiate this problem by addressing some of the conceptual ambiguities that arise from wholly instrumental notions of news curation.

From “Cura” to the Curatorial Turn and the Age of Curation

Modern instrumentalist definitions are necessary but not sufficient for an exploration of the curatorial turn in journalism. Tracing the meanings of curation over time facilitates an expansion of the instrumental to include metaphoric conceptualisations. The term originated in a Latin allegory about a mythological figure, personified as the “cura”, translated literally as care or concern, and who created human beings from the clay of the earth. Having created the human, the cura was charged by the gods with the lifelong care of the human (Reich) and at the same time became a symbol of curiosity and creativity (see Nowotny). “Curators” first emerged in Imperial Rome to denote a public officer charged with maintaining order and the emperor’s finances (Nowotny) but by the fourteenth century the meaning had shifted to that of religious officer charged with the care of souls (Gaskill). At this point the metaphorical associations of creativity and curiosity subsided.

Six hundred years later souls had been replaced by artefacts valorised because of their contribution to human knowledge or as a testament to exceptional human creativity (Nowotny). Objects of curiosity and originality, as well as their creators, were reified and curation became the specialist practice of an expert custodian charged with the care and preservation of artefacts but relegated to the background to collect, evaluate and archive artefacts entrusted to the care of museums and to be preserved for future generations. Instrumentalist meanings thus dominated.

From the 1960s discourses shifted again from the privileging of a “producer who actually creates the object in its materiality” to an entire set of actors (Bourdieu 261). These shifts were part of the changing political economy of museums, the growing prevalence of exhibitions and the emergence of mega-exhibitions hosted in global cities and capable of attracting massive audiences (see O’Neill). The curator was no longer seen merely as a custodian but able to add cultural value to artefacts when drawing individual items together into a collection, interpreting their relevance to a theme then re-presenting them through a story or visuals (see O’Neill). The verb “to curate”, which had first entered the English lexicon in the early 1900s but was used sporadically (Synder), proliferated from the 1960s in museum studies (Farquharson cited in O’Neill) as mega-exhibitions attracted publicity and the higher profile of curators attracted the attention of intellectuals prompting a curatorial turn in museum studies.

The curatorial turn in museum studies from the 1980s marks the emergence of curation as a legitimate object of academic enquiry. O’Neill identified a “Foucauldian moment” in museum studies where shifting discourses signified challenges to, and disruptions of, traditional forms of knowledge-based power. Curation was no longer seen as a neutral activity of preservation, but one located within a contested political economy and invested with contradictions and complexities. Philosophers such as Martinon and Nowotny have highlighted the impossibility of separating the oversight of valuable artefacts from the processes by which these are selected, valorised and signified and what, at times, has been the controversial appropriation of creative outputs. Thus, a new critical approach emerged.

Recently, curating-related discourses have expanded beyond the “rarefied” world of museum studies (Synder). Social media platforms have facilitated the proliferation of user-generated content offering a vast array of new artefacts. Information circulates widely and new discourses can challenge traditional bases of knowledge. Audiences now actively search for new material driven in part by curiosity and a growing distrust of the professions and establishments (see Holmberg). The boundaries between professionals and lay people are blurring and, some argue, knowledge is being democratized (see Ibrahim; Holmberg). However, as new information becomes voluminous, alternative truths, misinformation and false information compete for attention and there is a growing demand for the verification, selection and presentation of artefacts, that is online curation (Picard; Bakker). Thus, the appropriation of social media is disrupting traditional power relations but also offering new opportunities for new information-related practices. Journalism is facing its own Foucauldian moment. 

A Foucauldian Moment in Journalism Studies

Journalism has been traditionally understood as capturing today’s happenings, verifying the facts of an event, then presenting these as a narrative that reporters update as news unfolds. News has been seen as the preserve of professionals trained to interview eyewitnesses or experts, to verify facts and to compile what they found into a compelling narrative (Hallin and Mancini). News-gathering was typically the work of an individual tasked with collecting stand-alone stories then passing them onto editors to evaluate, select, prioritise and collate these into a collection that formed a newspaper or news programme .

This understanding of journalism emerged from the 1830s along with a type of news that was accessible, that large numbers of people wanted to read and that, consequently, attracted advertising making news profitable (Park). The idea that presumed trained journalists were best placed to produce news appeared first in the UK and USA then spread worldwide (Hallin and Mancini). At the same time as there was growing demand for news, space constraints restricted how much could be published and the high costs of production served as a barrier to entry first in print then later in broadcast media (Picard; Curran and Seaton).  The large news organisations that employed these professionals were thus able to control the circulation of information and knowledge they generated and the editors that selected content were able, in part, to shape public debates (Picard; Habermas).

Social media challenge the control traditional media have had over the production and dissemination of news since the mid-1800s. Practically every major global news story in 2010 and 2011 from natural disasters to uprisings was broken by ordinary people on social media (Bruns and Highfield). Twitter facilitates a steady stream of updates at an almost real-time speed that 24-hour news channels cannot match. Facebook, Instagram and blogs add commentary, context, visuals and personal stories to breaking news. Experts and official sources routinely post announcements on social media platforms enabling anyone to access much of the same source material that previously was the preserve of reporters. Investigations by bloggers have exposed abuses of power by companies and governments that journalists on traditional media have failed to (Wischnowski). Audiences and advertisers are migrating away from traditional newspapers to a range of different online platforms. News consumers now actively use search engines to find available information of interest and look for efficient ways of sifting through the proliferation of the useful and the dubious, the revelatory and the misleading or inaccurate (see Picard). That is, news organisations and the professional journalists they employ are increasingly operating in a hyper-competitive (see Picard) and hyper-sceptical environment. This paper posits that cumulatively these are disrupting the control news organisations have and journalism is facing a Foucauldian moment when shifting discourses signify a disturbance of the intellectual rules that shape who and what knowledge of news is produced and hence the power relations they sustain.

Social media not only challenge the core news business of reporting, they also present new opportunities. Some traditional organisations have responded by adding new activities to their repertoire of practices.  In 2011, the Guardian uploaded its entire database of the expense claims of British MPs onto its Website and invited readers to select, evaluate and comment on entries, a form of crowd-sourced curating. Andy Carvin, while at National Public Radio (NPR) built an international reputation from his curation of breaking news, opinion and commentary on Twitter as Syria became too dangerous for foreign correspondents to enter. New types of press agencies such as Storyful have emerged around a curatorial business model that aggregates information culled from social media and uses journalists to evaluate and repackage them as news stories that are sold onto traditional news media around the world (Guerrini). Research into the growing market for such skills in the Netherlands found more advertisements for “news curators” than for “traditional reporters” (Bakker).  At the same time, organic and spontaneous curation can emerge out of Twitter and Facebook communities that is capable of challenging news reporting by traditional media (Lewis and Westlund). Curation has become a common refrain attracting the attention of academics.

A Curatorial Turn in Journalism

The curatorial turn in journalism studies is manifest in the growing academic attention to curation-related discourses and practices. A review of four academic journals in the field, Journalism, Journalism Studies, Journalism Practice, and Digital Journalism found the first mention of journalism and curation emerged in 2010 with references in nearly 40 articles by July 2015. The meta-analysis that follows draws on this corpus.

The consensus is that traditional business models based on mass circulation and advertising are failing partly because of the proliferation of alternative sources of information and the migration of readers in search of it. While some of this alternative content is credible, much is dubious and the sheer volume of information makes it difficult to discern what to believe. It is unsurprising, then, that there is a growing demand for “new types and practices of curation and information vetting” that attest to “the veracity and accuracy of content” particularly of news (Picard 280). However, academics disagree on whether new information practices such as curation are replacing or supplementing traditional newsgathering. Some look for evidence of displacement in the expansion of job advertisements for news curators relative to those for traditional reporters (Bakker). Others look at how new and traditional practices co-exist in organisations like the BBC, Guardian and NPR, sometimes clashing and sometimes collaborating in the co-creation of content (McQuail cited in Fahy and Nisbet; Hermida and Thurman).

The debate has polarised between whether these changes signify the “twilight years of journalism or a new dawn” (Picard).  Optimists view the proliferation of alternative sources of information as breaking the control traditional organisations held over news production, exposing their ideological biases and disrupting their traditional knowledge-based power and practices (see Hermida; Siapera, Papadopoulou, and Archontakis;  Compton and Benedetti). Others have focused on the loss of “traditional” permanent journalistic jobs (see Schwalbe, Silcock, and Candello; Spaulding) with the implication that traditional forms of professional practice are in demise. Picard rejects this polarisation, counter-arguing that much analysis implicitly conflates journalism as a practice with the news organisations that have traditionally hosted it. Journalists may or may not be located within a traditional media organisation and social media is offering numerous opportunities for them to operate independently and for new types of hybrid practices and organisations such as Storyful to emerge outside of traditional operations. Picard argues that making the most of the opportunities social media presents is revitalising the profession offering a new dawn but that those traditional organisations that fail to adapt to the new media landscape and new practices are in their twilight years and likely to decline. These divergences, he argues, highlight a profession and industry in transition from an old order to a new one (Picard).

This notion of journalism in transition usefully negotiates confusion over what curation in the social media age means for news providers but it does not address the uncertainty as to where it sits in relation to journalism. Futuristic accounts predict that journalists will become “managers of content rather than simply sourcing one story next to another” and that roles will shift from reporting to curation (Montgomery cited in Bakker; see Fahy and Nisbet). Others insist curators are not journalists but “information workers” or “gatecheckers” (McQuail 2013 cited in Bakker; Schwalbe, Silcock, and Candello) thereby differentiating the professional from the manual worker and reinforcing the historic elitism of the professions by implying curation is a lesser practice. However, such demarcation is problematic in that arguably both journalist and news curator can be seen as information workers and the instrumental definition outlined at the beginning of this article is as relevant to curation as it is to news editing. It is therefore necessary to revisit commonly used definitions (see Bakker; Guerrini; Synder).

The literature broadly defines content creation, including news reporting, as the generation of original content that is distinguishable from aggregation and curation, both of which entail working with existing material. News aggregation is the automated use of computer algorithms to find and collect existing content relevant to a specified subject followed by the generation of a list or image gallery (Bakker; Synder).  While aggregators may help with the collection component of news curation, the practices differ in their relation to technology. Apart from the upfront human design of the original algorithm, aggregation is wholly machine-driven while modern news curation adds human intervention to the technological processes of aggregation (Bakker). This intervention is conscious rather than automated, active rather than passive. It brings to bear human knowledge, expertise and interpretation to verify and evaluate content, filter and select artefacts based on their perceived quality and relevance for a particular topic or theme then re-present them in an accessible form as a narrative or infographics or both. While it does not involve the generation of original news content in the way news reporting does, curation is more than the collation of information. It can also involve the re-presenting of it in imaginative ways, the re-formulating of existing content in new configurations. In this sense, curation can constitute a form of creativity increasingly common in the social media age, that of re-mixing and re-imagining of existing material to create something novel (Navas and Gallagher). The distinction, therefore, between content creation and content curation lies primarily in the relation to original material and not the assumed presence or otherwise of creativity.

In addition, curation outputs need not stand apart from news reports. They can serve to contextualize news in ways that short reports cannot while the latter provides original content to sit alongside curated materials. Thus the two types of news-related practices can complement rather than compete with each other. While this addresses the relation between reporting and curation, it does not clarify the relation between curating and editing. Bakker eludes to this when he argues curating also involves “editing … enriching or combining content from different sources” (599). But teasing out the distinctions is tricky because editing encompasses a wide range of sub-specialisations and divergent duties. Broadly speaking, editors are “newsrooms professionals … with decision-making authority over content and structure” who evaluate, verify and select information so are “quality controllers” in newsrooms (Stepp). This conceptualization overlaps with the instrumentalist definition of curation and while the broad type of skills and tasks involved are similar, the two are not synonymous. Editors tends to be relatively experienced professionals who have worked up the newsroom ranks whereas news curators are often new entrants ultimately answerable to editors. Furthermore, curation in the social media age involves voluminous material that curators sift through as part of first level content collection and it involves ever more complex verification processes as digital technologies make it increasingly easy to alter and falsify information and images. The quality control role of curators may also involve in-house specialists or junior staff working with external experts in a particular region or specialisation (Fahy and Nisbett).  Some of job advertisements suggest a growing demand for specialist curatorial skills and position these alongside other newsroom professionals (Bakker). Whether this means they are journalists is still open to question.

Conclusion

This article has presented a more expansive conceptualisation of news curation than is commonly used in journalism studies, by including both the instrumental and the symbolic dimensions of a proliferating practice. It also sought to avoid confining this wider conceptualisation within unhelpful polarisations as to whether news curation is symbolic of a wider demise or revival of journalism by distinguishing the profession from the organisation in which it operates. The article was then free to negotiate the conceptual ambiguity surrounding the often taken-for-granted instrumental meanings of curation. It argues that what distinguishes news curation from traditional newsgathering is the relationship to original content. While the reporter generates the journalistic equivalent of original content in the form of news, the imaginative curator re-mixes and re-presents existing content in potentially novel ways. This has faint echoes of the mythological cura creating something new from the existing clay. The other conceptual ambiguity negotiated was in the definitional overlaps between curating and editing. On the one hand, this questions the appropriateness of reducing the news curator to the status of an “information worker”, a manual labourer rather than a professional. On the other hand, it positions news curators as one of many types of newsroom professionals. What distinguishes them from others is their status in the newsroom, the volume, nature and verification of the material they work with and the re-mixing of different components to create something novel and useful.

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Keywords


curating; news curation; aggregation; journalism



Copyright (c) 2015 Anita Howarth

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