Blending journalism and ethnography. Part I: The slow and the new

There is a small but also an interesting study field about the relationship between journalism and ethnography (Cramer & McDevitt, 2014Hermann, 2014) where some scholars have contributed, to a greater extent, to discuss the possibilities and advantages of including ethnography in journalistic work. It is mainly in this way: ethnography—>journalism. The aim of this growing line of knowledge is, thus, how to improve journalism through the implementation of an ethnographical ethos into the daily practice of journalism.

There is, nonetheless, a contribution to this relationship I would like to highlight. This contribution is going in the opposite direction to the others (Spickard, 2017). It means that instead of trying to construct a linkage between both fields, it is proposing a clear demarcation between what is ethnography and what is journalism. Although at the first glance to make that kind differentiation could seem like an obviate, there is a branch of journalism that gives the impression it could be an ethnographic construction.

That way of doing journalism is mainly known as slow journalism. Although, in my case, and despite there is a subtle difference between both terms, I used to called it as literary one. This slow journalism is proposed as a “new alternative” (Le Masurier, 2014) for going out of nowadays’ mainstream and accelerated ways of journalistic production. in other terms, this is a paused journalism, one that has both, the time and the space for going deeper into their topics, and for constructing elaborated products resulted from that exploration.

It was the professor James Spickard, during a conference in Harvard University about religious social activism, who proposed to differentiate ethnography from slow journalism. And it is not because journalism could be confused with ethnography, at the opposite, it is because ethnography, specially in the field of sociology of religion, is sometimes accused of just being a sort of slow journalism. However, it is not my intention with this post to propose a discussion about how different, or similar, both fields are.

The idea I have is to keep, for now, both concepts separately, as a kind of ascetic exercise for preserving their singularities, but recognizing, at the same time, their possible encounters, but not as an strategy to produce a kind of ontological differentiation between two fields. Not at all. What I want to achieve with this series of posts, is to mix —without the possibility to identify any single component at the end— both elements in a methodological/experiential movement that I can use as a device for exploring urban forms.

So, in this post I will only take care of the of the concept of slow journalism, expanding it

As a journalist, the idea of a slow journalism resulted pretty interested due to my personal intention of creating long descriptions of urban places. This new alternative, that is, more or less, sixty years old, can be traced following the works of Truman Capote, Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Hunter Thompson, among other authors. (By the way, Thompson, precisely, is the founder of Gonzo journalism.) However, and despite the work of their is labeled and categorized under the name of new journalism, both new and slow journalism are producing similar pieces of information regarding their intention of creating deep long-form content.

The usage of the term slow for renaming this way of doing journalism is based on the “slow movement”. The first one that mixed the slow concept and journalism was Peter Laufer in his 2011 book “Slow News, A Manifesto for the Critical News Consumer.” The rediscovering, and the usage with another name (adding also new elements) of this perspective that aims for a paused and deep way of producing information is an interesting process of appropriation and reinvention of a way of producing journalism that always has been at the edge of the discipline. 

In the new journalism, for instance, the frontiers between this movement and literature were blended into a well-narrated non-fiction scenario producing great products in the shape of magazine’s reports and books. The slow journalism also took the creative possibilities gave by literature, but nowadays it is also mixed in a digital and multimodal ecosystem of possibilities that includes design, information architecture and statistic, sometimes for publishing, sometimes just for creating content. 

This paused and enriched way of understanding journalistic work is also a scenario for experimentating new ways of narrating and telling stories. I see this possibility represented in two different but interlaced stages: the first one is based on the exploration of new formats, platforms, and tools, what I have called as the process of elaboration of artifacts. The second one is related to a hybridization, to an encounter with other disciplines, ethnography in this particular case in order to construct epistemic devices for exploring urban life.

So, how to mix journalism and ethnography? And, more important, what is the point of doing that? How to blend both disciplines but without just putting them together or adding one to another? The answers to those questions are not here in this post. For being able to solve them we will need to take our time and decomposing each one of them in a more detailed, deeper, and slowly way.

This entry is the introduction of a series of post about the relationship between journalism and ethnography. More than being a formal proposal for rethinking journalism from an academical perspective this is a collection of thoughts I have been compiling during some time ago in a messy way, regarding the encounter of those two fields.

In fact, more than rethinking journalism I would like to experiment with a bi-directional segmented essay about how to compose an entanglement spot between journalism and radical ethnography, a kind of methodological outpost for exploring urban life, without a particular disciplinary frame. In that way, this series of post is not about how to use a specific discipline for enriching the another; it is about how to construct an open and collective artifact for composing better stories and descriptions about the life outside.