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Autonomy in local digital journalism: a mixed-method triangulation exploration of the organizational culture and individual moral psychology factors of digital news workers




Zlaten, Rhema, author
Anderson, Ashley A., advisor
Plaisance, Patrick L., advisor
Abrams, Katie, committee member
Rollin, Bernard, committee member
Tropman, Elizabeth, committee member

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The main purpose of this mixed-method dissertation was to examine the shifting digital news industry, especially in regard to individual and organizational-level autonomy. Specifically, this work responds to calls in media ethics, media sociology, and moral ecology to better understand how organizational structure and individual moral psychology factors influence the levels digital news workers exhibit autonomy within their digital news organization. The autonomous agency of news workers is an essential indicator of how journalism work is fulfilling its role as the fourth estate in American democracy. This dissertation examined how autonomy is either inhibited or enabled by a myriad of factors in the digital news frontier. I worked with the editorial staff at a hyper-local digitally native news organization, The Golden Gate, over the course of one year. I began the research process with a participant observation period. Then a few months later the staff completed a moral psychology-based survey online. My data collection period ended with in-depth participant interviews based on the themes found during the first two phases. My data collection resulted in several themes to answer my research questions concerning the organizational structure, leadership, socialization, and autonomy of The Golden Gate. These themes included company culture (divided into several sub themes), routine and workflow (also divided into several sub themes), individual autonomy, individual processes of growth, organizational autonomy (also divided into several sub themes), and professional autonomy. The first overarching perspective I gained during this study was that the experimental hyper-local journalism model enacted by The Golden Gate digital news organization represented a new wave of digital journalism. The Golden Gate's digital product was a carefully curated newsletter representing a richer take on conveying not just their original reporting, but the story of the city. A second overarching perspective I gained during my research process was seeing the strength of how the moral psychology components informed the media sociological considerations of my research site. The moral psychology survey components teased out the ethical climates of the staff. The highest ranking ethical climate (according to the Ethical Climate Questionnaire results) for The Golden Gate was the social responsibility climate, a climate that speaks to journalistic professional norms of serving the public good. The second highest ranked ECQ was the teamwork climate. These ethical orientations stemmed in part from the company's structuring vision of an audience-first focus, but they also flowed from the staff's strong allegiance to professional journalistic norms, as deciphered from the moral psychology components of my survey. I also found support for my variables. When I examined my data on the variable of The Golden Gate's organizational structure and routines, I found that in some ways, the company practiced traditional news culture. They exemplified high levels of independence in their reporting processes. The routine of the staff needing to divide their time between traditional reporting and public relations roles, however, was where the culture of the organization shifted significantly. They also exemplified a highly collaborative and role sharing work ethic. When I evaluated the leadership structure at The Golden Gate, I found a culture where each staff member was expected to take complete ownership of their role in the company. From the top down, everyone pitched in as needed, and they were all asked to actively participate in money and workflow committees as part of their regular duties. When I evaluated levels of autonomy, The Golden Gate staff exemplified high levels of autonomous agency in nearly every area of their work. Even in collaborative moments, the staff members each contributed their unique strengths and perspectives to get stories out. The staff also expressed a high level of freedom from top-level oversight as they shaped the voicing and coverage of their city. The staff did convey, however, a tension of the audience-first focus as a major driver of what stories they would work on. I also explored future research implications for media ethics, media sociology, and moral psychology, all research paradigms that can offer rich and varied perspectives on the future of digital journalism work.


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digital journalism
media sociology
moral psychology
media ethics


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