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Lecture | Journalism Studies Seminars

Online | Online Headline Testing at a Belgian Broadsheet: A Postfoundational Perspective on How News Professionals ‘Sell’ Content

Tuesday 28 April 2020 - Friday 15 May 2020
Journalism Studies Seminars
Online lecture | materials available between 27 May - 16 June


In this talk, I approach the changing status of journalism from a postfoundational perspective, in order to gain an understanding of how old foundations or journalism become less solid and contested and enter a dialogue with new ones, and to which newly emerging foundations this leads.

In journalism as it stands today, a number of previously fixed roles are being contested. I focus on one such professional shift, viz. that in the role of the online sub-editor, and his/her approach to ‘selling’ an article’s content. Following previous research on sub-editing (Vandendaele & Jacobs, 2013; Vandendaele et al, 2015; Vandendaele, 2017a; 2017b; 2017c; 2018), I set out to investigate the impact of recently introduced audience-monitoring tools on one of the sub-editors’ main jobs, i.e. that of crafting headlines.

Drawing on digital data, interviews and fieldwork conducted in the newsroom of a Flemish broadsheet, I zoom in on how sub-editors (and other online news workers) systematically use audience-monitoring tools to test various versions. They analyse how many clicks and how much reading time a headline generates, before selecting a ‘winner’ to appear on the broadsheet’s website, social media and newsletter. In particular, I analyse the continuous back and forth between the online news workers’ journalistic gut feeling, their awareness of ‘selling’ their broadsheet’s brand ‘in the right way’, i.e. in line with the media outlet’s identity and values, and the need to gain clicks.

The online sub-editors’ process to gather ‘quality clicks’ is characterised as a constant struggle between news values (Galtung & Ruge, 1965; Harcup & O’Neill, 2001; 2016; Bednarek & Caple, 2017), production values (criteria sub-editors apply in their treatment of a newspaper article; Vandendaele, 2017) and the audience monitoring tools that register which stories are clicked, liked or shared most. Relying on the analytical power of a linguistic ethnographic perspective (NT&T, 2011), I address how the (online) sub-editors critically reflect on how their professional routines, and how the construction of their expertise and the interaction with their target audience are changing. By zooming in on the pivotal and evolving role played by the online sub-editors and their aim to position themselves – and their journalistic expertise – in tandem with their algorithmic tools as foundational to news media today, I aim to shed new light on how metrics in the newsroom are (re)defining journalism and the role of the journalism professional.


Dr. Astrid Vandendaele is a post-doctoral researcher at Ghent University (Department of Linguistics; Language and Communication) whose main focus is news production processes, in particular at broadsheet newspapers (both print and online) from a linguistic ethnographic perspective. She also coordinates the master after master programme of Multilingual Business Communication, teaches Business Communication in English and Scientific English for Communication Scientists and works as a self-employed copywriter/sub-editor.

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