The Dark Side of DIY — Why “DIY News” Could Be a Contradiction in Terms

by Mike Ananny

This post is a much abbreviated version of a forthcoming chapter in the MIT Press volume “DIY Citizenship” (edited by Megan Boler and Matt Ratto).

Is the very idea of “do it yourself” news a contradiction in terms? That is, how can something like news production—which is ideally social, public-facing, consequential, and coordinated—possibly be the product of any solitary actor, geared at an individual? To be sure, sophisticated theories of DIY making have always accounted for the presence of a community of practice that scaffolds, learns from, and critiques others’ makings. It’s a straw-man argument to focus on the word “self” in DIY.

That said, what special ideal characteristics does news have that make particular demands on the social nature of DIY news production? I think there are at least three.

First, ideally, news passes a social pragmatic test: does a particular piece of information or perspective matter to publics? This question contextualizes traditional features of news (like timeliness, truth, or novelty) in terms of public significance. That is, news production should, ideally, focus on phenomena that are socially and culturally meaningful, inextricable issues and events, circumstances and consequences from which people cannot extract themselves. That is, news should distinguish private interests from public priorities. Indeed, tracing these distinctions might help us understand what people mean by “public”.

Second and related, news helps publics hear, not individuals speak. These two modes of communication—speaking and hearing—are related but they are not equivalent. Especially in the context of contemporary, networked news, there is no shortage of opportunities and venues for individuals to speak. These are powerful platforms for individual expression, but they are not necessarily spaces for news unless—through a value-driven approach that prioritizes critical, public engagements and outcomes—help people hear perspectives that go beyond their private individual interests. News should purposefully expose people to events, issues, experiences, and ways of thinking that they would not have chosen on their own. News doesn’t only support individual preferences, it achieves public priorities.

Third, for news to circulate it must grapple with institutional and cultural forces beyond itself. That is, for news to pass the pragmatic test—to matter—and for news to be about publics—not individuals—it must emerge from, exist within, and circulate among networks beyond its control and influence. It is increasingly impossible (and undesirable) to research, create, and publicize content one one’s own – even if that content matters to publics and helps them learn about themselves. News producers must engage with the tools, norms, and populations that help content circulate and garner the thoughtful attention of those who share circumstance and consequences.

The phrase “DIY news” is thus not quite an oxymoron, but it does beg questions about the public nature of news. Ideally, a critical reading of the term will help scholars and practitioners alike to distinguish information from news, interests from circumstances, and expression from listening.