In a new article, “Micro Media Systems”, Signe Ravn-Højgaard from the University of Greenland argues that we need to redefine scale when doing research in the smallest media systems – at least when trying to understand the effects of smallness not related to the small media market.
As a researcher in Greenland, I often experience how small the Greenlandic society is: when the journalist calling for an interview is my former student, when I go to the supermarket and I almost always meet people I know, when I attend an event or go to the movies and it is unthinkable to see no familiar faces. I meet people I’ve worked with, am related to, have laughed with, discussed with, gone hunting with. I meet the same people over and over again.
This is life in a small society. And this small social field inherent of small societies affects how journalism is conducted and how the media work.
Traditional research in small media systems
However, scholars studying small media systems have primarily looked at how (dis)economy of scale in small media markets limits media supply. Diseconomies of scale implies that it is almost the same price to produce news for 15 million people as it is to produce news for 1.5 million or 150 thousand people. Therefore, this research defines size in terms of population, as population size correlates (more or less) with media market size. So, small media systems are defined as those media systems with a population below a certain threshold, for example, below 1 million people.
However, I believe there are two problems with this definition. Firstly, it is not sensitive to the differences between media systems with 56,000 people, like Greenland, and those with 10 million people (which is the threshold that has been used within some of this research). Secondly, as it has also been pointed out by my colleague in Iceland, Jon Gunnar Ólafsson, the definition is not sensitive to the effects of smallness created by the dense social relations in small societies; for example, dense and overlapping relationships in small societies create mutual dependencies among journalists and their sources. Their relations are often not only that of source and journalist, but they also interact in many other capacities in society – be it as neighbours, as former high school classmates, as cousins, and so on. Therefore, the price of falling out with someone is high, as you will still have to interact with each other for the rest of your life. Another effect of very small scale has to do with the fact that when so few people work in the media sector even just a few vacancies can affect the entire media output of the whole media system. For example, in the Greenlandic public broadcaster, KNR – one of two news outlets in Greenland and the only producing radio and TV news – have around 20 journalists working in the newsroom. 4–5 vacancies can therefore have a big impact, and the station would then have to reduce its news production
A new way to define size
To enable analyses more sensitive to such small-scale dynamics, I suggest a new definition of size:
Instead of treating size as a binary variable, where either media systems are categorised as small or large, and having to decide upon an – ultimately arbitrary – cut-off point between small and large media systems, I suggest treating size as a continuous variable. This implies that the effects of smallness become more pronounced the smaller the media system, and it allows us to study the differences among small media systems and micro media systems.
Further, instead of defining scale in terms of population size, I find it more beneficial to define it in terms of density of overlapping role-relationships, when studying these kinds of dynamics. Of course, overlapping role-relationships and population size is closely related: The smaller a society, the more likely these overlaps are. But population size is not the only factor influencing the density of overlapping role-relationships. For example, isolation of a society creates more overlap in relationships. Think about the differences between media in, for example, Greenland and Kolding, a Danish town with a population the approximate size of that of Greenland. In Kolding, the journalists in the local paper might as well live in one of the neighbouring towns, just a short drive away. Likewise, a lot of inhabitants of Kolding also work, shop, or go to the movies somewhere else. This decreases the likelihood of overlapping role-relationships. Whereas in Nuuk, Greenland, you cannot go anywhere else to shop or go to the movies. This makes the social field smaller. So, physical isolation is making the social field smaller, and so does language barriers and ethnic divisions.
Using this definition of scale, there is no inbuilt difference between local and national media systems, as they can be studied along the same continuum of size when researching these sociological aspects of small media systems.
Micro media systems
Picture by Thomas Ritter via Pixabay