News Agencies from Telegraph Bureaus to Cyberfactories
News Agencies from Telegraph Bureaus to Cyberfactories
- Terhi RantanenTerhi RantanenDepartment of Media and Communications, London School of Economics and Political Science
Many national news agencies (press associations) are facing significant transformations and some of these longstanding institutions, which we once thought would last forever, may even cease to operate. Most academic research concentrates on the biggest Western agencies, with very little research done on agencies outside the West. News agencies have also been studied either without a theoretical lens, or with a theoretical lens that does not necessarily help us to understand the essentially transnational character of news agencies, many of them operating both nationally and internationally.
- Communication and Technology
- Journalism Studies
News agencies (news services, wires, press associations) are currently going through significant changes. The new media environment, in which the number of informal news sources has significantly increased, challenges all traditional news providers, including news agencies.
This article argues that despite the importance of past research on news agencies, it has failed to keep up and does not reflect the environment in which those agencies currently operate. New research is therefore urgently needed in order to produce updated analysis to help us analyze current trends that may seriously jeopardize the very existence of some agencies in the future. We may soon witness significant transformations of longstanding institutions we had once thought would last forever, and even see some of these cease to operate. Something that many academics previously considered as a permanent element in any national media system now faces an unforeseeable future, a situation that urgently demands our attention.
This article is divided into three sections. First, it defines news agencies as they were in the past and as they are in the present. Second, it critically reviews relevant research on news agencies and analyzes its strengths and weaknesses. Third, it makes suggestions as to the type of research that might be needed in order to better understand these agencies’ current situation and their future.
Definition of a News Agency
In the past, news agencies were defined in the following way:
News or telegraph agencies are correspondence bureaus, whose special characteristic lies in the transmission of news reports. They are enterprises which systematically gather news in the fastest possible way and, after reviewing and editing this, transmit it to newspapers and other interested parties in the most rapid manner possible.(Groth, 1928, p. 22)
One of the key features in the definition was that they were wholesale rather retail companies, serving newspapers rather than audiences. This definition remained unchanged for almost a century, but was then challenged by developments in communication technology, which has not only made it easier to collect and distribute news to individuals, but also enabled those individuals to sometimes collect and distribute it themselves. As a result, news agencies have recently defined themselves as “providers of news stories and also of pictures, graphics, radio and video reports and other information to both traditional media and new media environments created by the rapid development of modern information technology” (European Alliance of News Agencies, 2002–2018). This new self-definition also reflects the change from text to video, since the latter has become much more important than the former as a source of revenue for many news agencies in Europe.
For example, the vast majority of European news agencies now have a news-video service. They cover national news themselves and cooperate with international news agencies like Agence France-Presse (AFP), Associated Press (AP), and Reuters for international video news (Paterson, 2011). Market experience is that it is growing more difficult to sell text, but that video is booming. This increased demand for video-news clips is partly explained by an increase in the market for video on smartphones (E. Nylen, Secretary General of EANA, personal communication, June 26, 2018). Text is often freely available from many sources, but pictures, especially video, are rarer and also better protected from free use. The definition also implies that the media themselves may not be the only customer group for news agencies.
The change in this self-definition also reflects how agencies that once depended so much on the telegraph are now trying to redefine their role in the digital era. What was previously a clear-cut division between wholesalers and retailers has now become much more blurred because of changes in news-gathering environment, where traditional news media have partly been replaced by new players, such as social-media sites like Twitter and Facebook, and news aggregators such as Google News. The pride that agencies once took in the speed made possible by use of the telegraph—then an expensive monopoly—has since, with the Internet era, disappeared. It has become almost impossible for news agencies to compete with the latest news available in real time on the Internet.
Finally, the reputation that news agencies used to have as the most reliable sources for news may also be in jeopardy. It was easier to maintain this in media environments where one agency had a longstanding monopoly, and its brand was well known. However, in a changed environment in which news is available everywhere, it has become difficult for some news agencies to maintain their well-established reputation.
In short, the once clearly defined role of news agencies is going through significant changes and many agencies are not sure which way to turn. In this context, when trying to define what a news agency is (or was) we need to take account of the following: (a) scope, (b) ownership, (c) clients, and (d) products.
Scope: National Versus International
The development of news agencies became a national project in many countries in the late 19th and the 20th centuries. In the late 19th century there were only a handful of news agencies in existence, mainly in Europe, Russia, and North America. Many agencies in Asia and Africa were founded in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s (Carlsson, 1980, pp. 118–120). Between the late-19th and mid-20th centuries it became a widely accepted media policy that every country should have its own national news agency, operating inside its own country’s boundaries, and delivering its services. A news agency became a national symbol like a national library, bank, or post office, serving the media in their national language(s). As a result, according to Vyslozil (2014, p. 28), there are today more than 100 news agencies in the world. These are distributed across 95 countries, as depicted below.
While media-rich countries have had periods when there was more than one agency competing for the same market, in most countries there is now only one agency. Many of the early news agencies established in the 19th century carried the names of their owners (for example, Havas in Paris, Tuwora in Vienna, Wolff in Berlin, Reuter in London, Ritzau in Copenhagen, and Stefani in Turin). Some either changed their names later or included the nationality of the agency in the name from the beginning of their operations, especially when they enjoyed a monopoly position. As a result, many agencies still carry the name of the nation state in which they operate: for example, Norsk Telegrambyrå (Norwegian Telegraph Agency, NTB), or Agence Télégraphique Suisse/Schweizerische Depeschenagentur (Swiss Telegraph Agency, SDA), often along with that of the technology that brought them into being, the telegraph, as well as references to their clients. These agencies include, for example, the Canadian Press (CP) in Toronto, Deutsche Presse-Agentur (German Press Agency, DPA) in Hamburg, the Press Trust of India in New Delhi and Agence France-Press (French Press Agency, AFP) in Paris.
In the past, news agencies were traditionally divided into international and national. The first so-called international agencies were Havas in Paris (founded 1835), Wolff in Berlin (1849), and Reuters in London (1851), which were also among the first agencies in the world; operated transnationally from the beginning. These agencies also formed a news cartel which, between 1856 and 1934, divided the world’s news market between them. The division was based on a number of agreements made between one of the three agencies mentioned and one agency in each country. That agency would enjoy a monopoly on news from the international agencies, and in return would not be able to sell its news to anyone except one of these three international agencies. This arrangement was rife with internal rivalry and alliances were continually formed, with two of the three allied against the third (usually Havas and Reuters against Wolff) (Rantanen, 1990, 2006).
However, even during the life of this cartel there were several agencies that had a special arrangement with the three international agencies and could operate outside their own national markets. These included Korrespondenz Bureau (KB), founded in 1860 in Vienna, and AP, founded in 1846 in New York. Many agencies were not satisfied with the cartel and eventually, in 1934, agencies such as AP, United Press Associations (UP, later UPI), founded in 1907 in New York, and TASS (Telegrafnoe Agentsvo Sovetskogo Soiuza, Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union), founded in 1925 in Moscow, managed to break the cartel through their collective operations (Rantanen, 1994).
The reason we are discussing events from so long ago is that one of the most longstanding and persistent myths about news agencies is that they can still be neatly divided into “international” and “national.” Since the end of World War II it has been argued that five international news agencies, Reuters, AFP, TASS, AP, and UPI dominate the world’s news flows (Boyd-Barrett, 1980). We have very little evidence that this still holds true. Reuters has become Thomson Reuters and is in Canadian ownership. TASS became Itar-TASS (and then TASS again) after the collapse of the Soviet Union. UPI is now owned by News World Communications, which belongs to the Unification Church, based in Boca Raton, Florida (United Press International, Inc., 2018). We can say, based on the number of journalists, foreign correspondents, bureaus, clients, or the size of revenues declared by the agencies themselves, that among the biggest news agencies in the world are AFP, AP, Reuters, TASS, and Xinhua (not necessarily in that order), but these are not the only ones operating globally. Web-ranking metrics extracted from search engines list Xinhua as the largest traditional agency, followed by Reuters and AP (News agencies web ranking, 2016). However, confirmation of this by independent academic research is missing even if research shows that in some countries our news agencies’ determining impact on the news (Boumans, 2017; Boumans, Trilling, Vliegenthart, & Boomgaarden, 2018). Meanwhile, for quite some time there have been agencies that have not been labeled as international, but could have been. For example, DPA (Deutsche Presse Agentur) in Frankfurt (Hamburg and Berlin), Agencia EFE in Madrid, Press Trust of India (PTI) in New Delhi, and LUSA (Agência de Notícias de Portugal) in Lisbon have all been operating as transnational agencies. DPA has 1,300 staff journalists worldwide. PTI exchanges information with over 100 news agencies across the globe. LUSA operates in Portuguese-speaking countries in Africa and South America. DPA coordinates branches in around 100 countries and offers its news services in four languages (namely German, English, Spanish and Arabic). EFE operates offices in around 120 countries and supplies news services in six languages (namely Spanish, Portuguese, English, Arabic, Catalan and Galician) (Vyzlosil & Surm, 2019). However, all this information is based on what these organizations choose to tell us about themselves.
In the early twentieth century, we need to ask which criteria we should use to define a national or an international agency. Or do we even need to make this distinction between the two groups? It has been based primarily on the assumption that national news agencies’ markets are defined by the borders of their nation states, that this is their “natural” territory. However, with the latest communication technology, which is global rather than (like the telegraph) national, and with the diminishing importance that national media often give to news agencies, the very idea of a national news agency is being called into question. In the future, we will see these bureaus increasingly operating outside their national territories and thus challenging the old clear-cut division between international and national agencies.
Ownership: Private, Cooperative, State, and Public
News agencies have also been categorized by their ownership. Traditionally they were divided into (a) private, (b) cooperative, and (c) state (UNESCO, 1953). While the private and especially the cooperative ownership models have been seen as ideal models for guaranteeing, as a former director of AP put it, “true and unbiased” news, the state-ownership model has not received similar praise. The state has often been seen as the enemy of news agencies, making them mouthpieces of government without any autonomy. Leading agencies Reuters and AP have both crusaded for private and cooperative ownership forms as a guarantee of the freedom of the press (Cooper, 1942). As Cooper (1942) himself famously wrote: “True and Unbiased News—the highest original moral concept ever developed in America and given the world.”
The relationship between private, cooperative, and state ownership, again, has always been and still is much more complicated. Even in the history of Reuters (Read, 1999) and AP, there have been periods when their cooperation with government was close. When AP wanted to expand into South America in the 1920s, it was backed by the U.S. government (Rantanen, 1992). Reuters had a period when it worked very closely with the British government in the 1930s (Read, 1999). Most news agencies, even if their ownership is private, have governments as their clients. The ownership of news agencies may also change over time (see, for example, Barrera & Apezarena, 2013). Private agencies, when in trouble, often turn to the state to rescue them.
The state-ownership category has become much more diversified than it was previously (see, for example, Rantanen & Boyd-Barrett, 2005). The clear-cut difference no longer holds for state-owned agencies either: The state needs the market and cannot maintain its ownership without private revenues (Meng & Rantanen, 2015). Seventy-five percent of all the news agencies in the world are state-owned (Vyslozil, 2014, p. 29). But although agencies with any kind of state affiliation have often been lumped into the same category, from TASS in Moscow to ČTK (Česká tisková kancelár) in Prague, there are significant differences within this group. An agency can be financially supported by the state, but not necessarily owned or controlled by it. Vyslozil (2014, p. 30) has suggested a new division of public-service agencies. For example, ČTK is a public corporation established by law. The state is not responsible for ČTK’s obligations and the agency is not responsible for the state’s obligations. ČTK is not subsidized by the state (ČTK Czech News Agency, 2018).
State agencies also no longer enjoy a monopoly. For example, in Russia there were for some time two state-owned agencies, TASS and RIA, competing against each other and against a private agency, Interfax (Vartanova & Frolova, 2010; Boyd-Barrett, 2012). In 2013 RIA Novosti (Russian Agency of International Information) was made a subsidiary of a new state-owned agency, Rossiya Segodnya (Spinner, 2013), but it still competes with Interfax and TASS. The many changes that have taken place since the collapse of Communism show that even the Russian government does not quite know what to do with its state-owned agencies.
Private ownership, almost without exception, has meant the media owning shares in a news agency. This form of ownership is not without complications: the largest media owners tend to control the agency and often prevent it from expanding its activities into areas that they themselves find profitable. Furthermore, more recently private ownership has included ownership by non-media owners. For example, in Cape Town, after the South African Press Association (SAPA) was closed down, it became the African News Agency (ANA) (in 2015) and is now owned by a South-Africa-based private-equity firm specializing in acquisitions. In Estonia, after the closing down of the Estonian Telegraph Agency in 2003, the Baltic News Service was first owned by a Finnish media group, Alma Media, and then by an Estonian property developer, also the proprietor of an Estonian media company operating in three countries (Lauk & Einmann, 2019).
Meanwhile, even in countries where private ownership had previously been dominant, agencies are now asking for government funding. Recently the Finnish News Agency (STT), after losing some of its most important customers, has received some government funding (Juntunen & Nieminen, 2019). Tanjug in Belgrade, a state agency once celebrated for its independence (Ivačać, 1978), was set in 2015 to be privatized or closed. No one wanted to buy it; the agency is no longer state-owned, but it continues to operate. As of 2018, it had reduced its staff, sold services to media and non-media clients, had the same top management as it had previously, and continued to be based in its old building (E. Nylen, Secretary General of EANA, personal communication, June 26, 2018).
In short, the ownership of news agencies has become more diversified. Differences exist both within and between categories. The emergence of new public-service news agencies has also challenged the validity of previous categories and made the difference between public-service broadcasting and public-service news agencies less clear. It also raises an important issue about the funding of news agencies. If they are seen as a public service, should they be funded by public money?
Products: Speed, Reliability, and Availability
The last element in any definition of news agencies is their product—what they sell. This has also gone through significant changes. One of the key elements in defining that product, news, has been speed. Traditionally, it was essential for news agencies to be able to deliver content faster than anyone else. Telegraph news developed into its own distinctive genre of writing, consisting of such standard elements as source, location, date, and time. It was constructed around the concept of an event that news coverage made public and thus eventful—a meaningful event (Rantanen, 2009). At the same time, this raw news had to be inclusive and trustworthy so that all customers, irrespective of their different political affiliations, could edit the coverage and make it their own.
The digital era, in which news is available all the time and everywhere, has made it almost impossible for news agencies always to be the fastest to deliver content, even if they try to be “revolver-quick news breakers” (Czarniawska, 2013). News agencies are often beaten by their own customers, not to mention social media, in the race for the fastest news. When the flow of news has become so fast that one item follows another within nanoseconds, being the first to break a story does not matter as much as it did when the first telegraph news was delivered. While news agencies have started falling behind in terms of speed, their brand in most cases has remained intact, since it stands for trustworthy and/or authoritative news. It is no coincidence that after Reuters was sold to a Canadian multimedia company, Thomson, in Toronto and in 2008 became Thomson Reuters, it kept its news service under the name of Reuters, a brand that was known around the world. Similarly, TASS kept its name after the Soviet Union collapsed, only adding the acronym ITAR (Informatsionnoe Telegrafnoe Agentstvo Rossii, Information Telegraph Agency of Russia) to it in 1992 (Rantanen & Vartanova, 1995); it has since reversed this change and retains its original name, even though the country it refers to no longer exists. Tanjug (Telegraphic Agency of the New Yugoslavia) in Belgrade, founded in 1943, also continued to operate under its old name until it was closed down in 2018.
However, even if it is often the case that one national news agency still enjoys a monopoly in its “home” market and might hold an official position, irrespective of its form of ownership, many others are struggling to keep their brand intact. Since news agencies have seldom been the most glamorous media, due to their role as wholesalers of raw materials, the old brand does not necessarily hold up in the era of social media, when a news item’s source does not matter in the same way as it used to. The fact that news is delivered by a national news agency no longer necessarily make it more trustworthy than news delivered by almost any other traditional or social-media outlet. News agencies have thus had to find new sources of revenue that are not, strictly speaking, news—services such as print-ready pages, weather services, archives, and so forth.
The first news agencies in Europe mainly sold political and financial news to newspapers, governments, and business. Another factor often ignored is that many of the first news agencies not only sold to newspapers, but also to governments, diplomats, and companies. It was no coincidence that, for example, Reuter established his bureau next to the Exchange in London and delivered financial news to its clients. This tradition has continued throughout Reuters’ history. Today just 3% of its revenues comes from news and only 22% from the media (Thomson Reuters Fact Book, 2017). Reuters is considered to be a news agency, while financial news providers such as Bloomberg are not, even if they all serve both media and non-media customers.
Still, newspapers have traditionally been news agencies’ major owners and clients. In the early 21st century, when newspapers, especially in Western Europe and North America, started losing their readers, they also stopped subscribing to news agencies’ services. Suddenly, nobody wanted to pay for news, since it was being given away for free (Rantanen, 2009; Picard, 2010). In this situation, news agencies not only started losing their customers, but their content distributed to consumers for free by companies like Google and Facebook (Facebook, Google and the Real Price of Free News, 2017)
The number of these agencies’ media clients had, in the past, tended to steadily increase with the advent of new technologies (for example radio and television), but governments and companies had been their clients from the beginning. A state subsidy to news agencies can take several forms, one of the most common being that the state is a major client of news-agency services. However, in the age of the Internet, it has become more and more difficult for many news agencies to attract social-media providers as new clients, and they continue to rely heavily on their old customers.
When news agencies’ traditional clients, such as newspapers, are in trouble, so are news agencies. Successful agencies, at least in the West, have been able to find new sources of revenue either by producing new products besides news and/or by finding new types of clients. Neither task is easy, since companies that had not previously been seen as news agencies, including agencies’ own customers, are also interested in these markets.
How Have News Agencies Been Studied?
News-agency studies can be divided into three different strands that also overlap with each other: (a) company histories, (b) policy-oriented research, and (c) academic research. Many authors have been active in at least two of these strands.
Many companies celebrate their anniversaries by publishing a company history. Many of these have been written by former CEOs or by journalists (for example, Frédérix, 1959) or by academics, such as Read (1999), who wrote the history of Reuters, or Boyd-Barrett (2014), who wrote that of Interfax. In particular when written by “insiders,” who often know “better” since they have been actively participating in developing a company culture and managing the organization, these provide valuable materials for those who cannot get access to the materials held by company archives.
The problems with company histories have been well rehearsed. Since their task is to celebrate the company, there are many controversial issues associated with them, especially concerning people who have worked for the company and are still alive. As a result, the closer company histories get to the present, the thinner they become in their analysis. Because of their celebratory nature, these histories often paint an uncritically positive picture of the company, and ignore or play down the role of its competitors. A recent example of such a company history is Boyd-Barrett’s (2014) history of Interfax in Moscow, a news agency described by the author as having “great boldness; an independent, profitable information agency, giving decision-makers news and business solutions, one that is international and national in scope and upholds the norms of professional journalism, with laudable persistence and integrity.”
Finally, company histories celebrate successful companies, but the histories of those which have closed down or are financially struggling are not written. This is why, for example, we know so little about the history of the International News Service (INS) or the United Press Associations (UP), with the history of press associations in the United States dominated by that of AP, the long-time market leader and, in the early 21st century, the dominant player.
Since World War II, international organizations such as the UN, UNESCO, and the IPI have paid particular attention to the role of news agencies. There were two reasons for this. The first was a postwar atmosphere in which the media, and especially news agencies, were seen to play a key role in promoting peace and understanding among nations. As the Constitution of UNESCO states, the organization was to
collaborate in the work of advancing the mutual knowledge and understanding of peoples, through all means of mass communication. Thus the Organization was doing no more than carry out one of its fundamental obligations, when it set itself, from its inception, to study the problems involved in the transmission of news and the informing of public opinion. If the free flow of information and ideas is to be ensured, the progress which has been achieved in the field of technology, and which has made possible the faster and fuller transmission of news must be utilized to serve an ever greater part of mankind.(UNESCO, 1953, foreword)
There were also several UNESCO-sponsored studies that were carried out at this time concerning images and stereotypes of nations and how they “saw” each other (Rantanen, 2010). Secondly, UNESCO considered news agencies as essential to all countries, especially to developing countries that did not have their own national news agencies. It saw its role as promoting and helping to establish them by providing education. One of the most detailed reports is UNESCO’s News Agencies: Their Structure and Operation (UNESCO, 1953). Despite some historical inaccuracies, for several decades it remained the only comprehensive book on the topic. This report was followed by, for example, the IPI’s Flow of News (International Press Institute, 1953) and by Schramm’s One Day in the World’s Press(1959), both of which studied the content and origins of news by using quantitative content analysis. These were studies not of news agencies, but of the press, and showed how news was used by newspapers in the heyday of news agencies. As testified in 1953,
Today, no newspaper or broadcasting station in the world which wants to keep its readers or listeners informed of world events can afford to forego the services of a telegraphic news agency. Even for domestic news, newspapers and radio stations will find it useful to subscribe to the country’s national agency, however many their own local correspondents may be, if only to ensure that they have not “missed” any important event. A national agency is better equipped than they are to provide a complete national information service.(UNESCO, 1953, p. 8)
The second wave of interest from policymakers came in the 1970s, when UNESCO played a key role in debates around the so-called New World Information and Communication Order (NWICO). UNESCO published several research reports on foreign news that showed what it described as the imbalance of news. As stated in its report on NWICO,
almost 80% of the world news flow emanates from the major transnational agencies; however, these devote only 20 or 30% of news coverage to developing countries, despite the fact the latter account for almost three-quarters of mankind. This results in a veritable de facto monopoly on the part of the developed countries.(International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, 1978)
News agencies were seen as the most important players in the international flow of news. Research in general was very critical of agencies, especially of the Western international agencies, which were seen as vehicles of media imperialism and/or as causing national agencies, especially in developing countries, to be dependent on them, which created an imbalanced flow of news (Boyd-Barrett, 1979). According to Boyd-Barrett, interest in this soon faded away and the report from UNESCO (Many Voices, One World; International Commission for the Study of Communication Problems, 1980) on the MacBride Commission’s study of communication problems devoted only a modest portion of one chapter to news agencies (Boyd-Barrett, 1981, p. 248). This was largely because, as Boyd-Barrett puts it, “the major agencies could no longer be depicted as the unambiguously wicked villains of existing imbalances in the flow of international news” (p. 248).
Especially in the 1970s, the distinction between policy-oriented research and academic research became less clear, since many academics participated actively in UNESCO’s debate on NWICO. News agencies of that time may have been surprised that they became the target of criticism: many of them were financially struggling even in that decade, and did not see themselves as being as powerful as the research claimed them to be. However, agencies in developing countries finally found spokespeople, even if they were not given much autonomy.
In the 1980s, some researchers started finding evidence that did not support the theories used in research on news agencies. For example, Weaver concluded that “much more international news is available each day from the big four Western news agencies, especially in Latin America and Africa, than most domestic media can, or do, use” (Weaver 1984, p. 9), thereby emphasizing the difference in size and needs of national agencies compared to international agencies.
Academic research on news agencies can be divided into three subcategories. These are: (a) historical research, (b) structural studies, and (c) news-flow studies.
Many academic historians have concentrated on individual news agencies, for example, Schwarzlose’s ’s (1989, 1990) history of AP or Allen’s (2013) history of CP. However, there have also been studies that have concentrated on news agencies in a single country and/or on their networks with other agencies (Palmer, 1976, 1983; Putnis, 2012; Rantanen, 1990; Silberstein-Loeb, 2014; Wilke & Rosenberg, 1991). One of the pioneering works was Gunilla Ingmar’s Monopol på nyheter [News monopoly] (1973), based on archival research that showed how the agreements between international news agencies were negotiated and used to form the international news cartel that lasted from 1856 to 1934. Her book was the first to study these agreements systematically and inspired Rantanen’s (1990) further work on them, based on archival collections in different countries.
The value of historical research is important from at least two perspectives. Firstly, historians mostly use archival materials and thus examine first-hand sources. This has been especially important for getting the facts right, since much of the existing literature only refers to the international news cartel without actually conducting any research on it. Only by carrying out archival research is it possible to study the tensions between different cartel members, and between members and those who remained outside it, in order to understand the rise and collapse of the cartel system. However, historians are dependent on access to archival materials and most news-agency archives are controlled by their companies. Even if access is provided, there is a bias in research toward those who control the archives and grant access to them, as well as toward the most powerful agencies. There is very little historical research carried out, for example, on news agencies in Africa, Asia, or the former Soviet Republics. One of the few exceptions is Shrivastava’s (2007) book on Indian news agencies and Xin’s (2006, 2012) publications on past and present Chinese news agencies.
There has been very little historical research on the content of news originating from news agencies. Among the few exceptions are studies by Wilke (1987) and Rantanen (1990), who both show in their work how the leading news centers have changed over time, but that some, like London and Paris, remained dominant for over a century.
Structural studies of news agencies go back to the Zeitungswissenschaft tradition in Germany and to the work of Groth (1928). Apart from UNESCO’s News Agencies study (1953), it would be several decades before the first comprehensive study of the structural aspects of news agencies would be published. The works of Boyd-Barrett and Palmer (1981) and Boyd-Barrett (1980) are among the most comprehensive studies of news agencies from that time, followed by those of Fenby (1985) and others (Robinson, 1981). Some scholarly attention has also focused on so-called alternative news agencies, such as the Inter Press Service (Giffard, 1984), the Non-Aligned News Agencies Pool (Vukasovich & Boyd-Barrett, 2012), and CANA (Caribbean News Agency) (Cuthbert, 1981).
The paradigm shift from international communication studies to global media is reflected in Boyd-Barrett’s and Rantanen’s edited book The Globalization of News (1997), in which the authors write that globalization may not only mean homogenization, but may also appear at another level as fragmentation and competition (p. 1). The interest in current news agencies quickly began to fade alongside the increasing interest among media scholars in social-media news in the early 21st century.
One of the most interesting more recent books is by Czarniawska (2011), who studied news production in three different agencies: TT (TT Nyhetsbyrån, TT News Agency) in Stockholm, ANSA (Agenzia Nazionale Stampa Associata—Società Cooperativa, Associated Press National Agency) in Rome, and Reuters, from the perspective of different disciplines, to show how technologies and journalists work together. Czarniawska (2011) uses three key concepts: (a) cybernization, the “increased role of technology in control of production,” (b) cyborgization, “an even-closer association between people and machines,” and (c) marketization, “the conviction that the market offers the most effective way of organizing, and that its demand must therefore be followed” (p. 198). She calls news agencies “cyberfactories,” inspired by the film The Matrix (Wachowski & Wachowski, 1999), arguing that news agencies resemble factories employing cyborgs (p. 206).
News journalists have been traditionally seen as gatekeepers of news coming from news agencies (White, 1950), but news-agency journalists have not often been studied as gatekeepers in their newsrooms (Boyer, 2011) even if newsroom ethnography studies were carried out as early as the 1970s (Willig, 2012). These studies showed us journalists’ daily routines. However, as Örnebring (2010, p. 59) remarks, journalism studies have broadly been more concerned with work in the general sense rather than labor that—especially news-gathering—news agencies do. While public-service-broadcasting news journalists and foreign correspondents (Seo, 2014) have been studied more frequently, there are very few studies available on news-agency journalists (Bunce, 2010), especially when it comes to how they work with new technology (Örnebring & Ferrer, 2016).
The concept of news flows originates from UNESCO studies of the late 1940s and 1950s. The debate around the concept of media imperialism produced much interest in the content of news originated from international news agencies in the 1970s and 1980s when news agencies were seen as the main gatekeepers in the flow of international news as Galtung and Ruge argued already in the 1960s (Galtung & Ruge, 1965). Most of this research was carried out using quantitative content analysis showing that most news reporting focused on stories that originated from the West, ignored large parts of the world, and was biased (see, for example, Hester, 1974; Bishop, 1975; Giffard, 1984). As Pinch summarized it,
The two most frequent objections to international news services are that the flow of news is pro-Western and that coverage of Third World events is superficial, focusing largely on violence and disasters rather than positive developments.(Pinch, 1978, p. 163)
Largely due to the amount of news, and later on the disappearance of wires, large-scale quantitative news-flow studies became laborious. The research in this tradition has concentrated on major agencies (see, e.g., Wilhoit & Weaver, 1983; Kirat & Weaver, 1985). However, this type of analysis continues to be popular and has become part of big-data analysis (Watanabe, 2013, 2017; Boumans, Vliegenthart, & Boomgaarden, 2016; Boumans et al., 2018).
Flow studies were theoretically based on the assumption that news was a mirror of the world, and should accurately reflect its reality. Later, there has been a theoretical shift towards media representations of the world, problematizing the role of the media as a mirror and giving more acknowledgment to their role in the construction of the world. With the theoretical shift, and with the increasing difficulty of separating flows from each other, there has been very little new research on news flows. The contribution of these studies at the time they were first conducted was to show the unevenness of the representations of the world in news flows (Wahutu, 2018).
What Kind of Research Is Now Needed?
News agencies as an object of study have gone through quite an interesting research history. Their importance in this context was probably at its highest until the 1980s, and has since been in steady decline. In the early 21st century, it is very difficult to find current research on news agencies and we very much rely on that which was carried out several decades ago.
It is also interesting to note how the agencies have been seen at different stages in the history of this research. At first, in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s they were seen as very positive, something that needed to be supported by relevant research, as in the early UNESCO studies. Later, in the 1970s and 1980s, international news agencies were viewed very critically while national agencies were regarded very positively, especially those in developing countries. Afterwards, most academics lost interest in news agencies, and they have since been seen in more neutral terms. In the early 21st century, when many agencies are struggling financially and some have even been forced to close down, research is needed once more, to explore possible future models for their operation if they are to continue to exist.
If empirical research on news agencies has recently been lacking, the absence of theory and/or conceptual thinking has also been very striking in the field of news-agency studies. Either they have not been theorized at all, or when they have, the concepts of media imperialism, dependency, or flows have continued to be used. All these concepts refer to the agencies’ external operations, which were formerly referred to as their international or global operations. It is interesting to note that, while public-service-broadcasting news has mainly been studied in a national context, news agencies have mainly been studied in an international context. The key role that news agencies played in the past in what has been conceptualized as a national media system has unfortunately been neglected in research, while much attention has been given to the agencies’ global activities.
In the early 21st century, when many national news agencies are struggling, we need to ask whether there is a future for them, and if so what kind of future. If public-service-broadcasting news has often been understood in the context of news informing members of the public in their role as citizens, news agencies have seldom been given the same task. The difference, of course, was that news agencies rarely reach citizens directly but do so primarily through the media. This principle that news agencies serve the media could also be conceptualized as a type of public service. So the question arises: who will pay for this?
This article has reviewed what we know about contemporary news agencies and how these have been studied. It has shown that national news agencies foresee an unpredictable future in which many of them may cease to exist. It also shows that when news agencies have been studied this has been either without a theoretical lens, or with one (such as media imperialism) that does not necessarily help us to understand the essentially transnational character of news agencies. The naturalization and idealization of national news agencies has served to juxtapose them with international news agencies in ways that have prevented us from seeing how much they need each other.
The article has also shown how under-researched news agencies are. Most academic research concentrated on the biggest Western agencies in the 1970s and 1980s, when it was fashionable to use this to support theories of media imperialism, one-directional flows of news, or how national news agencies were dependent on international agencies. When the concepts used became less fashionable, the interest in researching news agencies vanished. Most of the scarce research on news agencies carried out in the early 21st century is done by media historians.
There is also an undeniable bias against research on non-Western news agencies. As a result, we know very little about news agencies in other parts of the world. It appears that some agencies are struggling in Europe, but this may not necessarily be the case elsewhere. We simply do not have sufficient data to show who the biggest players are, but it may be that these are now in Asia rather than in Europe or North America. New research should bring forward the study of news agencies also in the non-Western world.
In order to try and foresee what kinds of futures there are for national news agencies, we need to bring them back onto the research agenda. Previously, they have mainly been studied in the context of international communication and journalism studies. It may be more useful to start using different frameworks as well, such as those available in anthropology, management, and organization or information studies. Otherwise, we will be only bystanders witnessing changes we knew nothing about.
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