Online journalism and the promises of new technology PART 6: Conclusion

2. November 2010

I totally forgot to wrap up this series – but here it is; the conclusion. Sorry about the delay. And by the way; the whole series is now published (in a slightly different version) as an article in the journal Journalism Studies (restricted access).

Here are the previous posts:

  • The revolution that never happened (part 1)
  • The three main assets of new technology to online journalism — interactivity, hypertext and multimedia (part 2)
  • Online journalism and hypertext (part 3)
  • Online journalism and interactivity (part 4)
  • Online journalism and multimedia (part 5)

The previous posts of this series have left an impression that online journalism is left behind by the technological developments in new media. Linear text is preferred over hypertext and multimedia (hypermedia). Traditional norms of gatekeeping are preferred over participatory journalism and alternative flows of information, albeit interactivity seems to play a larger role when it comes to how major breaking news events, like crises events, are researched and covered.

Journalists and editors seem, at least to some extent, eager to embrace change brought forward by new technology, while users don’t seem to care. All in all; it seems that technology may not be the main driving force of developments in online journalism. The question is therefore: how can research on online journalism better grasp why online journalism develops as it does?

Some researchers suggest that ethnography and a closer look at the practices and routines of online news production is the answer. Pablo Boczkowski is a premier example of this trend, first with his 2004 “classic” Digitizing the News, and now with the newly released News at Work — a book in which he investigates online journalism from multiple perspectives (from inside the newsroom to audience perception).

The case studies presented in Domingo and Paterson (eds) Making Online News (2008) — a book which comes in a new edition with new studies next year — are also examples of this ethnography-trend. However, both Boczkowski’s work and the studies in Making Online News are quite  dominated by the technological discourse.

Some other studies also utilize ethnographic methodology, but from a broader, albeit still technology oriented, approach that aim at finding out how convergence of newsrooms affect the production of journalism (Dupagne and Garrison, 2006 (pdf); Erdal, 2009 (PhD dissertation as pdf); Klinenberg, 2005 (restricted access); Lawson-Borders, 2006 (preview in Google books).

These studies provide valuable insights into the complexity of online journalism production and put forward findings that shed light on why technology is not utilized to the degree that has been previously postulated.

Notwithstanding the significant contributions of these studies, there are still many shortcomings of the research on online journalism. I will conclude this series with six suggestions for further research.

First, studies of online journalism could benefit from a broader contextualization Mitchelstein and Boczkowski (2009) (restricted access) argue that the research on online journalism lacks historical dimensions. Relating online journalism to developments in journalism prior to the Internet boom could therefore be a suggestion. Viewing online journalism in reliance to media theory and how media and media products transform over time could be another. Mitchelstein and Boczkowski (2009) also identify a need for more cross-national studies, and for online journalism researchers to look beyond the newsroom and the news industry and take into account structural factors of for instance the labor market and comparable processes in other industries in order to better understand “who gets to produce online news, how that production takes place, and what stories result from these dynamics” (2009, 576). It should however be noted that Mark Deuze’s 2007 book Media Work (preview in Google books) and a special issue of the journal Journalism on Newsworkto some extent address these shortcomings.

Second, the research on online journalism is flooded by a range of theoretical concepts that are either interchangeable or are interpreted differently by different researchers. Concepts like interactivity, hypertext and multimedia are understood in different ways, and other concept, like genre and innovation are generally used without any theoretical discussion on what they represent and how they might inform the research on online journalism. A stronger emphasis on conceptualization is therefore needed

Third, most of the research on online journalism is limited to a focus on the presentation and to some degree the production and reception of hard/breaking news and the rhetoric of online news sites’ front-pages. The development of other genres therefore seems to have been downplayed in the research, even though some studies have been conducted on online feature journalism (Boczkowski 2009 (restricted access); and some of my own research (my PhD as pdf)). Furthermore, sections and stories that are reached by other means than via links from the front-page (e.g. traffic to stories and sections generated from search engines) seem to be under-represented in the research. A stronger emphasis on the diversification of online journalism is therefore needed.

Fourth, research on online journalism could benefit from a greater recognition of and reflection on the text as a research unit. Although most research on online journalism deals with text in one way or the other, there is a striking neglect of theoretical and methodological reflections on what texts are, how they facilitate communication, how they relate to media, and how they connect media with society. Genre theory and discourse analysis could for instance be valuable tools to establish research approaches that aim at investigating online journalism as communication. Lüders et al. (2010) (restricted access), for instance, show how the concept of genre provides vital insights into the emergence of new media like the personal weblog.

Fifth, although some of the research mentioned in this series makes longitudinal claims, the empirical material is seldom of longitudinal character. This seems to be a flaw considering the swift development of online journalism and the lack of common theoretical and methodological approaches, which makes comparisons between findings difficult.

And finally, sixth, research of online journalism suffers from a methodological deficiency. The research is dominated by content analysis, surveys and interviews. Qualitative approaches are rarely utilized, even though ethnographic news production studies seem to gain popularity. However, given the limited cases that are possible to investigate with such a methodology, more ethnographic research is need. Furthermore, content analysis should to a greater extent be combined with qualitative textual analysis of online journalism texts – all in order to uncover the complexity of online journalism.

Online journalism and the promises of new technology PART 5: Multimedia

3. August 2010

In this fifth and second to last part of this series I’ll review the research on how and to what degree multimedia is utilized in online journalism.

Previous parts in this series has focused on the revolution that never happened (part 1); how to define the three main assets of new technology to online journalism — interactivity, hypertext and multimedia (part 2); the research on the use of hypertext in online journalism (part 3); and the research on online journalism and interactivity (part4).

Content analysis studies

As with hypertext and interactivity, most studies of multimedia in online journalism rely on content analysis of websites. Tanjev Schultz (1999) found that only 16 percent of online newspapers in the US had multimedia applications in the late 1990s. Two more qualitative oriented content analysis studies revealed similar lack of multimedia (In the US, Canada and the Netherlands: Nicholas W. Jankowski and Martine van Selm (2000); In the US: Wendy Dibean and Bruce Garrison (2001) (only excerpt available for free)).

Jankowski and van Selm concluded that of all supposed added value facilities of online journalism multimedia “is perhaps the most underdeveloped” (2000, p. 7). However, online news sites affiliated with TV stations were more prone to utilize multimedia according to the same study. Yet, in a more extensive investigation of TV broadcasters’ online news sites in the US (pdf available), Mary Jackson Pitts (2003, p. 5)  lamented: “[t]he majority of stations provide text-only stories, thus failing to use the multimedia capabilities of the web”.

In their extensive investigation of European online journalism, Richard van der Wurff and Lauf (Eds) (2005) found that print newspapers were as much about multimedia as online newspapers (this study is not available online). Thorsten Quandt (2008) (only abstract available for free)  found that 84.5 percent of the 1600 stories he analyzed in 10 online news sites in the US, the UK, Germany, France and Russia were strictly text-based.

In Scandinavia, Martin Engebretsen (2006) (pdf available) found that online newspapers used a bit more multimedia, but still not more than found in previous studies in the US. Daniela V. Dimitrova and Matt Neznanski’s (2006) study of the coverage of the Iraq war in 2003 in 17 online newspapers from the US and elsewhere showed no increase in the use of video and audio in the US newspapers compared to Tanjev Schultz’s study published seven years earlier. Furthermore, they found minimal difference between the international and the US online newspapers (slightly more use of multimedia in the US online newspapers). However, Jennifer D. Greer & Donica Mensing (2006) (book chapter partly available through Google books) found a significant increase in multimedia use during the same period (1997-2003) in their longitudinal study of online newspapers in the US.

Interviews and surveys

Studies relying on interviews and surveys with online journalists and editors reveal some of the possible reasons for the lack of multimedia in online journalism found in the content analysis studies. According to Michele Jackson and Nora Paul (1998) (the US) and Christoph Neuberger et al. (1998) (Germany) online journalists and editors had a positive attitude towards utilizing multimedia technology, but problems related to lack of staff, inadequate transmission capacity and other technical issues obstructed the materialization of multimedia content.

Later studies indicate that online journalists and editors downscale the value of multimedia content: Thorsten Quandt et al. (2006) (only abstract available for free) found that multimedia was considered to be the least important feature of web technology for online journalism. John O’Sullivan (2005) found similar results in his qualitative interviews with Irish online journalists (only abstract available for free). Niel Thurman and Ben Lupton interviewed 10 senior editors and managers affiliated with British online news providers and found that the general sentiment was that “text was still core” (2008, p. 15). However, in his PhD dissertation (which is not available online)  Arne H. Krumsvik, in interviews with CNN and NRK (Norwegian public broadcaster) executives, found a much more positive attitude towards multimedia than towards interactivity and hypertext (2009, p. 145). And in a recent case study of multimedia content on the BBC online (only abstract available for free),  Einar Thorsen concludes that video content has increased tremendously (Thorsen, 2010).

User studies

There are not many studies that investigate the users’ attitudes towards multimedia news online.  In an experimental study (pdf), S. Shyam Sundar (2000) found that those who read text-only versions of a story gained more insight into the topic of the story than those who read/viewed multimedia versions of the same story. Hans Beyers (2005) (pdf) found that only 26.4 of the Flemish online newspaper readers in his survey thought the added value of multimedia was an important reason to read online newspapers.

Multimedia summarized

To summarize the findings of the research on multimedia in online journalism deriving from the techno-approach, it seems that multimedia remains the least developed of the assets offered to journalism by Internet technology. Online journalism is mostly about producing, distributing and consuming written text in various forms, even though some recent studies describe an increase in the use of especially video. This falls in line with the general increase in online video watching  described in a recent Pew Internet report. However, it seems that online news sites are struggling to cope with multimedia.

In the last part of this series I will conclude on what we might learn from the research on the utilization of hypertext, interactivity and multimedia in online journalism. Might their be other ways of understanding the development of online journalism then through the lens of technological innovation?

Back to the Feature: the defence

30. June 2010

On Tuesday 22 June I defended my PhD dissertation on online feature journalism;  “Back to the feature. Online journalism as innovation, transformation and practice” (a pdf of the dissertation may be downloaded here). I must say, it was an interesting and memorable experience.

First, the two professors that evaluated my dissertation, Jane B. Singer and David Domingo, put me under pressure as they critically assessed my dissertation and posed some rather difficult questions for me to reflect upon. However, I really appreciated the discussion that followed and I am  very grateful for the time they invested in evaluating my dissertation.

Second, before the defence I was asked to give a lecture on “the future of feature journalism”. I enjoyed working with this lecture — it was both challenging and inspiring. I’ll probably blog on the topic when I have time.

The dissertation comprises of two parts:

A.  Six stand-alone articles:

  1. “Online Journalism and the Promises of New Technology: a review” (which is now accepted for publication in Journalism Studies, earmarked for the July issue, 2011)
  2. “The Featurisation of Journalism. What Feature Journalism is and how it has Transformed as Genre” (which is accepted for publication in Nordicom Review, issue yet to be confirmed)
  3. “Online Feature Journalism. A Clash of Discourses” (which is published in Journalism Practice, 3(1), 2009, pp. 13-29)
  4. “Digital Feature Journalism: how the Discursive Practice of an Online Newsroom Affects Genre Development” (which is originally published, in Norwegian, in Rhetorica Scaninavica, 49/59, 2009, pp. 90-107)
  5. “The Shaping of an Online Feature Journalist” (which is published in Journalism, 10(5), 2009, pp. 702-718.)
  6. “What’s Stopping Them? Towards a Grounded Theory of Innovation in Online Newspapers” (which is published in Journalism Studies, 10(6), 2009, pp. 821-836.)

B.  A “Final Contribution” where I — based on the articles and previous research — aim at establishing a theoretical framework for online journalism research that comprises of three perspectives: Innovation, transformation and practice.

Online journalism and the promises of new technology PART 4: Interactivity

2. June 2010

This post is also to be found on the onlinejournalismblog.com  Previous posts in this series:

In the fourth part of this series I will take a closer look at the research on interactivity  in online journalism and to what degree this asset of new technology has been and is utilized

Content analysis studies

As with hypertext, the research on interactivity in online journalism is dominated by content analysis, even though a greater body of this research also relies on surveys and interviews with journalists. Kenny et al. (2000) concluded that only 10 percent of the online newspapers in their study offered “many opportunities for interpersonal communication” and noted that little had changed since the introduction of Videotex 25 years earlier: “Videotex wanted to electronically push news into people’s homes, and so do today’s online papers”.

Similar findings and conclusions are found in Pitts’ (2003), Jankowski and van Selm’s (2000) and Dimitrova and Neznanski’s (2006) studies of news sites in the US; in van der Wurff and Lauf’s (Eds) (2005) investigations of European online newspapers; in Quandt’s (2008) analysis of news sites in the US, France, the UK, Germany and Russia; in Paulussen’s (2004) investigation of Flemish online newspapers; Oblak’s (2005) study of Slovenian online news sites; O’Sullivan’s (2005) research on Irish online newspapers; Fortunati et al.’s (2005) (pdf) study of online newspapers in Bulgaria, Estonia, Ireland and Italy; and Spyridou and Veglis’(2008) study of Greek online newspapers.

Comparisons between these studies are, however, difficult to make, due to differences in both methodological approaches and theoretical understandings of what interactivity is. However, it might seem that the European online newspapers tend to offer slightly less interactivity than the online newspapers in the US.

In a longitudinal study of 83 online news sites in the US, Greer and Mensing (2006) found a slight increase in interactive features from 1997 to 2003. The possibility to customize news, however, decreased during the same period. Li and Ye (2006) found that 39.2 percent of 120 online newspapers in the US provided discussion forums – twice as many as in Kenney et al.’s study six years earlier. Hermida and Thurman (2008) found “substantial growth” (p. 346) in user-generated content in 12 British online newspapers from 2005 to 2006 (concerning features like comments to stories and “have your say”).

In an analysis of the level of participatory journalism in 16 online newspapers in the US, the UK, Spain, France, Germany, Belgium, Finland, Slovenia and Croatia, Domingo et al. (2008) concluded that interactive options promoting user participation “had not been widely adopted” (p. 334). However, their findings suggest a distinct increase in most such interactive options compared to earlier studies, especially regarding the possibility for users to comment on stories, which 11 of the 16 online newspapers allowed. The process of selecting and filtering news, however, remains the most closed area of journalistic practice, allowing the authors to conclude that: “[t]he core journalistic role of the ‘‘gatekeeper’’ who decides what makes news remained the monopoly of professionals even in the online newspapers that had taken openness to other stages beyond interpretation” (p. 335)”

Some content analysis studies offer insights into how interactive features such as discussion forums are used. Fortunati et al.’s (2005) (pdf) concluded that users “prefer to remain anonymous and silent” (p. 426). Li and Ye (2006) found similar results, and Thurman (2008) (pdf) found that the BBC News website’s comments system “Have Your Say” attracted contributions from not more than 0.05 percent of the site’s daily users.

J-blogs and interactivity

Some studies focus on interactivity in so called j-blogs, e.g. weblogs written by journalists and published on their online newspapers’ site. Singer (2005) found, in her research on 20 j-blogs in the US, that the journalists “are […] sticking to their traditional gatekeeper function even with a format that is explicitly about participatory communication” (p. 192). However, two other studies of j-blogs offer alternative findings. Wall (2005) investigated US j-blogs on the Iraq war in 2003 and found that these j-blogs emphasized audience participation to a much greater extent than the online newspapers in general. Robinson (2006) investigated 130 US j-blogs and found similar results.

Surveys and interviews

Studies relying on surveys and interviews with journalists contribute with similar findings as the content analysis studies. Riley’s qualitative interviews with journalists at a metropolitan US newspaper in the late 1990s offer some interesting insights into the attitude towards interactivity at the time. According to Riley (1998), most reporters were “horrified at the idea that readers would send them e-mail about a story they wrote and might even expect an answer”. In his 1999 PhD thesis (pdf), Heinonen found similar attitudes in his interviews with Finnish journalists during the same period.

However, this attitude seems to have changed. Schultz (2000) found a slightly more positive attitude towards interactivity among journalists at The New York Times, as did Quinn and Trench in their interviews with journalists in 24 online news organizations in Denmark, France, Ireland and the UK published in 2002 (MUDIA-report Online News Media and Their Audienc,e not available online). More recent studies suggest an even broader acceptance of interactivity among online journalists. In a survey of journalists in 11 European countries O’Sullivan and Heinonen (2008) found that 60 percent of the respondents agreed that linking with the audience is an important benefit of online journalism. O’Sullivan’s (2005) study in Ireland, Paulussen’s (2004) in Flanders, and Quandt et al.’s (2006) study in Germany and the US all found similar results.

In a broad scale study relying on 89 in-depth interviews with editors and journalists in newspapers and broadcasting stations in 11 European countries, Metykova (2008) (pdf) found that the relationship between journalists and their audience had indeed become more interactive, especially regarding email and text message interaction. However, this increase in interactivity “tended to be seen as empowering journalists to do their jobs better rather than blurring the distinction between content producers and content consumers” (p. 56).

Chung (2007) in interviews with website producers nominated for the Online Journalism Award in the US, and O’Sullivan’s (2005) found that online journalists, web producers and editors find it difficult to implement interactive features, even though they express a willingness to do so. O’Sullivan’s (2005)offers an interesting perspective: The use of freelancers may obstruct interactive features because freelancers cannot be expected to interact with readers to the same degree as the in-house editorial staff. Freelancers are generally not paid to participate in discussions with readers or initiate other kinds of interactivity.

Surveys of online newspaper users in Europe found that users lacked interest in participating on discussion forums and similar features (In Sweden: Bergström, 2008 (pdf); In Flandern: Beyers, 2004; 2005 (pdf); In Finland: Hujanen and Pietikainen, 2004; In Germany: Rathmann, 2002). The most important facility of online newspapers according to these survey studies seems to be that online newspapers are continuously updated. Already in the mid 1990s Singer (1997) found, in interviews with 27 journalists in the US, that those journalists who were positive towards the Internet and new technology emphasized the importance of immediacy in online journalism. Quandt et al.’s (2006)found that the online journalists in Germany and the US valued immediacy as the most important feature of online journalism. O’Sullivan’s (2005)found that immediacy was the “big thing” and that frequent updates was “the great strength of online media” (p. 62).

Interactivity summarized

To summarize the research on interactivity in online journalism, it seems clear that online news sites are becoming more and more interactive, first and foremost regarding human-to-human interactivity. Users are allowed to contribute to the content production by submitting photos and videos and by commenting on stories and participate in discussion forums. However, users are seldom allowed to participate in the selecting and filtering of news. The traditional norm of gatekeeping is thus still very much in place in the practice of online journalism. Fortunati et al.’s (2005) (pdf) concluded: “[…] the power relation between media organisations and readers is not in play” (p. 428).

Furthermore, the research reveals that online journalists and editors are becoming more eager to interact with readers, but organizational constraints like time pressure and the utilization of freelancers prevent them to a certain degree to do so. Last, but no least, user studies suggest an overwhelming indifference with interactivity – it seems that people prefer to be passive consumers, not active producers.

However, it seems that the picture might be slightly different when online newspapers report on major breaking news events, like natural disasters and other types of crises events. Several studies in recent years that focus on citizen journalism, like for instance Allan and Thorsen’s (Eds) compilation of case studies from around the world (2009), have demonstrated a boost in user participation and interactivity in the coverage of such events. In other words, it may seem that when crises strike, gatekeeping is to a certain degree abandoned.

In the next post in this series I’ll take a closer look at the third and final asset of new technology that was supposed to revolutionize journalism online: multimedia.

Online journalism and the promises of new technology PART 3: HYPERTEXT

10. May 2010

Previous posts in this series:

In the third part of this series I will take a closer look at the research on hypertext in online journalism and to what degree this asset of new technology has been and is utilized in online journalism. The general assumption of researchers interested in hypertextual online journalism is that if hypertext is used innovatively it would provide a range of advantages over print journalism:

  • No limitations of space
  • The possibility to offer a variety of perspectives
  • No finite deadline
  • Direct access to sources
  • Personalized paths of news perception and reading
  • Contextualization of breaking news
  • Simultaneous targeting of different groups of readers – those only interest in the headlines and those interested in the deeper layers of information and sources

This list is generated from several sources, out of which the most important are:

Content analysis studies

Empirical research on the presence and relevance of hypertext in online journalism tends to rely on the methodology of quantitative content analysis to statistically count the amount of links present in online news sites. The findings are generally (but with many variations) categorized according to the three different types of hypertext identified by Chris Shipley and Matt Fish in their 1996 book “How the World Wide Web Works” ; Target links (links within documents), relative links (links to other pages within a site), and external links (links from one site to another site).

Most of the content analysis studies of hyperlinks in online journalism are snapshots of a situation at specific moments in time. A few of them are larger, cross-country studies, like Kenny et al (2000), who investigated 100 online newspapers (62 from the United States and 38 from “other countries”) at the end of the millennium and found that 33 percent of them offered links within news stories (target links) and only 52 percent of them offered some kinds of hyperlinks.

Jankowski and van Selm (2000) investigated 13 online news sites in the United States, The Netherlands and Canada and found similar results. A few years later, van der Wurff and Lauf (eds) (2005) presented studies of 72 European online newspapers and found that hyperlinks was the least developed “internet feature” (page 37). In their research on the front-pages of 26 leading online newspapers in 17 countries worldwide in 2003, Dimitrova and Neznanski (2006) found that use of hyperlinks had become “an established feature of online news”, but that the majority of the links was relative links (within-site links, mostly to archived material). Only eight percent of the online newspapers provided external links “despite the theoretically limitless possibilities for external linking”.

Compared to these studies, Quandt (2008) found in an extensive study of 10 online news sites in the United States, France, Germany, United Kingdom and Russia that hyperlinks were used to a somewhat greater extent: 73 percent of the 1600 full-text articles he analyzed had relative links, 14.3 percent had target links and 24.7 percent had external links.

Other, more nation-specific studies conclude that hyperlinks/hypertext is not utilized to its potential in online journalism, especially concerning the use of target links and external links (In Scandinavia: Engebretsen 2006; In Slovenia: Oblak 2005; In Ireland: O’Sullivan 2005; In Flandern: Paulussen 2004; In the United States: Pitts 2003; In Spain: Salaverria 2005).

A common explanation in these studies for the perceived lack of hypertext in the online news sites investigated is that a majority of the stories published online is shovel ware (stories that are originally published in print). Only a few studies offer more theoretically informed explanations of the findings, and even fewer offer a longitudinal approach.

One study that does both is Tremayne’s analysis of front-pages of ten online newspapers in the United States over a period of six years (1999-2004). He found that the amount of external links decreased during these years, while relative links increased. He explained this by network theory:

“[a]s each organization builds up its own archive of Web content, this material is being favored over content that is off-site. This is just one example of preferred attachment, which is the driving principle of network theory” (page 60).

Preferred attachment may be the result of a protectionist strategy aiming at keeping readers on-site, even though it is not portrayed as such in network theory. Such a strategy conflicts with the utilization of hypertext technology.

Surveys

While content analysis has been the preferred method to investigate hyperlinks/hypertext in online journalism, other methods have also been utilized. In their2002  report Online News Media and Their Audience (which is not to be found online) Quinn and Trench presents a survey of 138 “media professionals” engaged in online news production in Denmark, France, Ireland and United Kingdom. The respondents agreed that providing hyperlinks could make stories more valuable to the readers. However, they were skeptical as to whether the readers “should be left to make their own judgment about the relevance of links, rather than […] having the news services provide guidance to users” (page  35).

O’Sullivan (2005) interviewed Irish online journalists and found that few of them found hyperlinks to be an important feature of online journalism. On the contrary, they expressed concerns as to whether (external) hyperlinks would lead readers away from their site. In his 2009 PhD thesis The Online News Factory: A Multi-Lens Investigation of the Strategy, Structure, and Process of Online News Production at CNN and NRK (not available online) Krumsvik found that hypertext was to a little extent utilized – external links were “ignored” (page  145).

User studies

In an experimental study of how readers in the United States evaluate in-text (target) links in news stories Eveland et al. (2004) found that only the experienced web users found such hypertext structured news stories valuable. For in-experienced users, the hypertext structure was a disadvantage. Sundar (2009) found similar result in his experimental study. However, users seem to be satisfied with relative links. According to a survey amongst readers of Flemish online newspapers, the utilization of links to archived material (relative links) is regarded as an important reason to read online newspapers.

Based on these studies, it seems that relative hyperlinks, i.e. hyperlinks to other stories within the online news site, is the most common form of hypertext structure found in online journalism, while target links (links within stories) and external links are used to a lesser degree. A protectionist attitude might prevent utilization of external links; while utilization of target links may be obstructed by a high degree of shovel ware material and uncertainty as to whether users actually benefit from such links.

In the next post I’ll take a closer look at what the research on interactivity in online journalism might tell us. Until then – please feel free to comment any thoughts/disagreements.

Online journalism and the promises of new technology PART 2: The assets

6. May 2010

In the first post in this series I argued that technology may not play such an important role to the development of journalism in new media as people seem to believe. In this post I will look at the three assets of new technology that are generally portrayed as the most significant for journalism in new media: multimedia, interactivity and hypertext (see for instance this article by Mark Deuze for arguments on why these three assets have been considered the most important for online journalism).

The general assumption of the “techno-researchers” has been that an innovative approach to online journalism implies utilizing these three assets of new technology. There are, of course, lots of other technological assets and/or concept related to technology that keeps popping up in the discourse on online journalism:

  • In a 1996 article (pdf available here), Peter Dalhgren spoke of archival and figurational.
  • Christpher Harper (in his 1998 book “And that’s the way it will be”), Jospeh D. Lasica (in this 2002 article) and others spoke of personalization in some way or the other, inspired by the (in the second half of the 1990s)  much hyped concept of the Daily Me”, introduced by Nicholas Negroponte.
  • John Pavlik (in his popular 2001 book Journalism and new media) added contextualisation and ubiquity.
  • In recent years much attention has been given to the asset of immediacy (see for instance David Domingo 2006 PhD dissertation available as a pdf here).
  • In a 2008 conference paper available for download here, Fernando Zamith extended the list to a compilation of seven assets: interactivity, hypertextuality, multimediality, immediacy, ubiquity, memory and personalization.

In addition, the literature on technology and online journalism is flooded by a sea of different concepts that describe similar or even the same phenomenon or asset – concepts like convergence, transparency, hypermedia, user-generated content (UGC), participatory journalism, civic journalism, wiki-journalism and crowdsourcing.

However, most of these (additional) assets can be treated as concretizations of interactivity, hypertext and multimedia depending of course on how these three concepts are defined. In Table 1 I lay out the different concepts that flood the literature to make visible how I understand their reliance to hypertext, interactivity and multimedia.

Hypertext Interactivity Multimedia
Archival
Contextualisation
Ubiquity
Transparency
Memory
Figurational
Immediacy
UGC
Participatory journalism
Civic journalism
Personalization
Wikijournalism
Crowdsourcing
Convergence
Hypermedia

Table 1: Different concept related to new technology and online journalism and how they relate to multimedia, hypertext and interctivity

It must, however, be noted that the techno-approach research lacks commonly accepted definitions of hypertext, interactivity and multimedia. This creates some confusion as to what these characteristics represent and how they differ from one another. What some label “interactivity”, others label “hypertext”. In fact, both hypertext and multimedia can be characterized (and are often characterized) as “interactivity”. As is visible in Table 1, I treat several concepts that are understood by others as interactivity as belonging to hypertext.

Below I will lay out how I understand hypertext, multimedia and interactivity – please feel free to disagree with me.

Hypertext

Hypertext is generally understood as a computer based non-linear group of texts (i.e. written text, images etc) that are linked together with hyperlinks. The term was first coined by Ted Nelson who described it (in a 1965 Association for Computing Machinery conference paper) rather roughly as “a series of text chunks connected by links which offer the reader different pathways”.

Most scholars researching hypertext in online journalism rely on what Espen Aarseth in the book Cybertext labels a “computer industrial rhetoric”,  i.e. an understanding of hypertext as a technological function (made visible by the electronic link) rather than an observable practice of interaction between text and reader. Researchers interested in hypertext as a text-reader practice are more likely to coin the object of study a practice of interactivity rather than a practice of hypertext.

The general assumption of researchers interested in hypertextual online journalism is that if hypertext is used innovatively it would provide a range of advantages over print journalism: no limitations of space, the possibility to offer a variety of perspectives, no finite deadline, direct access to sources, personalized paths of news perception and reading, contextualization of breaking news, and simultaneous targeting of different groups of readers – those only interest in the headlines and those interested in the deeper layers of information and sources.

Interactivity

Like hypertext, interactivity is a slippery concept that is used to describe numerous processes related to communication in general and practices like online journalism in particular. Based on a review of the “history” of interactivity, Jens F. Jensen arrives at this definition in a 1999 Nordicom Review article (pdf): Interactivity is “a measure of a media’s potential ability to let the user exert an influence on the content and/or form of the mediated communication”.

Jensen separates interaction from interactivity and his definition is therefore mainly a technological one. Interaction refers to the social dimension of interactivity, and Sally J. McMillan argues for an incorporation of this dimension as well. Accordingly, she has identified six different understandings of interactivity along two different axes:

Table 2: Six notions of interactivity, according to McMillan (2005)

All these kinds of interactivity may be found in an online newspaper. However, the Human-to-Computer axis is similar to what I above understood as hypertext. I will therefore treat the research covering this axis as related to hypertext.

Out of the then six notions of interactivity that are left only two seem to have occupied researchers of interactivity in online journalism to a great extent: human-to-human (both features and processes). This research is dominated by questions such as to what degree users are allowed to interact with online newsrooms/online journalists through emails; to what degree online news site offer discussion forums; and whether users are allowed to comment on stories or in other ways be involved in the production process.

Multimedia

In the article “What is multimedia journalism?”  published in Journalism Studies in 2004 (pdf available for download here),  Mark Deuze argues that the concept of multimedia in online journalism studies generally is understood in either of two ways: 1) as a presentation of a news story package where two or more media formats are utilized (e.g. text, audio, video, graphics etc), or 2) as a distribution of a news story packaged through different media (e.g. newspaper, website, radio, television etc).

Most research on multimedia in online journalism deals with the first understanding. When I in the following posts use the term multimedia I will therefore have it refer to such an understanding, albeit in a bit more pragmatic sense that better fit the empirical research on multimedia in online journalism. Since an online news story with text and a photo is generally not considered to be multimedia, I will have the term refer to stories and websites where more than two media are utilized. I will also let the term include not only the presentation of news, but also the production of news.

That’s more than enough definitions and introductory notes. Please feel free to share any disagreements and other types of comments. In the three following posts I will review the research on interactivity, hypertext and multimedia in online journalism the last decade.

Online journalims and the promises of new technology, PART 1: The revolution that never happened

5. May 2010

A week ago I got the message that my PhD dissertation has been approved and may be defended. The defence will take place in late June. Yuhu! To celebrate, I’m writing a series of posts on online journalism research for the online journalism blog…. This is part 1:

Who would have thought, back in the 1990s, that by 2010, online newspapers would still be mainly about publishing written text to a mass audience?

Not many. The general assumption shared by academics, practitioners and media executives alike was that journalism would be revolutionized by new technology. Online journalism would be all about multimedia, hypertext and interactivity. Some even believed that the Internet would cause the the end of journalism (pdf). And the discourse surrounding both the practice of and research on online journalism is still quite preoccupied with how new technology will fundamentally change journalism.

So why, then, is online journalism still mostly all about producing written text to a mass audience? Why is use of multimedia, hypertext and interactivity still so rare? (If you believe  online journalism in fact is technologically innovative – keep on reading.)  Is it only because online newsrooms don’t have the resources they need to be innovative? Or are there other reasons?

In a series of posts I will take a closer look at online journalism and the promises of new technology.  I will do this by a close examination of the technologically oriented research on online journalism in Europe and the US that has been published during the last decade. This review will show that online journalism indeed is mostly all about text and traditional mass media thinking. Furthermore, it will show that new technology might not be the main driving force behind changes in journalism. The questions therefore are: why do online journalism develop as it does? How can we best understand the evolution of journalism in new media?  The last part of this series will address these questions.

First, however, it is useful to be reminded of a simple fact: revolution prophesying has been quite common  upon the entry of new technology throughout history. The telephone, television, the radio and computers were all supposed to cause “the end of history, the end of geography and the end of politics”, according to professor Vincent Mosco in his brilliant 2004 book The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace. Needless to say, these technological inventions did change the world dramatically, but not in such a quick and radical fashion the fortune-tellers seemed to believe. People tended to use these technologies quite differently than how many of the revolutionists predicted.

Take television: who would have thought in the 1950s and 1960s that radio would still be a powerful technological platform several decades later? Imagine the argument: who would want only sound, when you could have both sound and vision? It seems like a powerful argument (and please feel free to start hum that Bowie tune…). Then consider the fact that television was much more of a revolution than the Internet has been. It took only a few years for television to diffuse in society (8 in the US), while it has taken the Internet 20 years to gain the same kind of penetration. Television did change journalism. But it didn’t kill it, or fundamentally change the social function of journalism and the role of the journalist. Likewise, the Internet will not kill journalism. It will change it, but perhaps no so radically as one would expect.

Things tend to transform slowly. Journalism transforms slowly. For instance, I recently read a 1925 book on feature journalism by American Harry Franklin Harrington. If I didn’t know better, I’d guess it was written 20 years ago. It portrayed feature journalism very much as it still is practiced today.

On that note I’ll end this introduction. In the next part of this series I will look at the three assets of new technology that are generally considered to have the (potentially) greatest impact on online journalism: multimedia, hypertext and interactivity. What are they? And how do they fit with the wide range of concepts that flood the discourse on online journalism, concepts like crowdsourcing, wikijournalism, UGC, participatory journalism, citizen journalism, hypermedia, immediacy, etc?

Its (almost) done!

8. February 2010

I haven’t written anything here for a while now, sorry about that. The reason is mainly that I have been working really hard these last couple of months to finish my PhD-dissertation. And now, I’m happy to say, it’s done. Or more precisely; I have finished writing it, its now being proof read, and I will hand it in by the end of this week or the beginning of the next.

It got a lot bigger than expected. My plan was four articles and a final contribution of approximately 80 pages. I ended up with six articles and 100 pages of final contribution. As soon as I have handed it in, I will write some posts on what my main contributions are.

Article out in Journalism Studies

10. November 2009

Since my article “What’s stopping them? Towards a grounded theory of online journalism” now is out in the current issue of Journalism Studies (no 6, 2009), I have written  a post about it on the onlinejournalismblog.com.

The post is a further elaboration of a previous post on this blog.

New article: The Shaping of an Online Feature Journalist

2. October 2009

First: I have been asked to contribute to the Online Journalism Blog – which I am very excited about. The following post has therefore been cross-published on that blog.

What happens when an online newspaper decides to implement web-only feature journalism? Will the role of the online feature journalist be different from that of a print feature journalist?

These questions form the topic of a recently published article in a special issue of the academic journal Journalism focusing on the changing conditions of work and labour in the global news industry (the introduction to this special issue can be downloaded here). In the article, I argue that academic research into online journalism has been biased towards exploring online  journalism as breaking news journalism, thereby to some extent neglecting the magnitude of new styles and genres that emerges in online news sites (see David Domingo’s excelent Phd dissertation (pdf) for a thorough overview of the academic research into online journalism). An increasing number of online newspapers across the world
now for instance include sections like “special reports” (e.g this section on the St. Petersburg Times online edition), “multimedia features” (like The New York Times online multimedia/photo section), ‘travel’ (e.g The Guardian online’s travel section), etc., where breaking news and immediacy in reporting are not core activities.

Such sections signal a coming together of two apparently widely different practices of journalism: feature journalism and online journalism. Feature journalism is often associated with glossy magazines and newspaper weekend sections where readers are invited to spend time, relax and take pleasure in their reading.  The dominant discourses of feature journalism therefore seem to contrast with the discourse of online communication as it so far has been portrayed in research on the practice of online journalism and the evolving role of the online journalist. (For a more thorough discussion of what feature journalism is, see the paper What is feature journalism? that I recently presented at the 19th Nordic Conference for Media and Communication Research in Karlstad, Sweden)

In the article in the special issue of Journalism I investigate how the implementation of feature journalism in an online newsroom influences the role of online journalists and how the role of an online feature journalist is thus shaped. The article is based on a longitudinal, ethnographic case study of the production of feature journalism in the Norwegian online newspaper dagbladet.no (which, as the first Scandinavian online newspaper, launched a section entirely devoted to feature stories in 2002). What is interesting with this online feature section is that most of the production is web exclusive – it is produced by especially assigned online feature journalists. Feature stories that emerge online elsewhere (e.g  Soundslides- and Flash-productions) tend to be spin-off products of already published newspaper productions. The dagbladet.no-case therefore represents a unique opportunity to explore how (or if) an online newsroom establish a new, online-based understanding of what feature journalism is or should be when they are left to explore the genre without influence from old media editors and journalists.

The empirical material gathered from the case study (six weeks of observation in the newsroom of dagbladet.no in four different periods from 2005 to 2007), 28 interviews with newsroom staffers, and document analysis) reveals that – in this particular case – the online feature journalists became heavily influenced by the productions routines and role performance of their online colleagues. Hence immediacy became a virtue for them – they developed a production routine where frequent publishing of new stories became important. However, the online newsroom at large was influenced by what the feature journalists brought to the table: The other online journalists felt that the feature section ernhanced their status and gave them a competitive advantage over other Norwegian online newspapers.

The findings can further be summed up in these points:

  • In order to provide their role with status, the online feature journalists in dagbladet.no felt a need to distance them selves from how feature journalism is understood and practiced in conventional media in general and in the Dagbladet (print) feature journalism supplement “Magasinet” in particular. This lead to, amongst other things, a dismissal of the reportage as genre. The online feature journalists felt the readers provided the same kind of ‘human touch’ to their stories as the method of field reporting and face-to-face interviewing did for their print counterparts, as the readers was allowed to comment on and and attach personal stories to the feature pieces. An interesting examples of this strategy can be found in this story on the troubles of gay people in rural areas in Norway, where the comments at the end of the article are dominated by personal experiences on the topic from gay readers (the story is in Norwegian).
  • Even though they became heavily influenced by the work routine of their online colleagues, the feature journalist of dagbladet.no felt a need to distance them selves from the standards of online journalism in general which they perceived to be too inaccurate and shallow. They therefore became intensely occupied with for instance backing up there stories with a sufficient amount of sources and hyperlinks. They perceived their role as being pioneers in the process of increasing the standards of online journalism. This was appreciated by the other online journalists in dagbladet.no as they felt the feature journalists enhanced the overall status of online journalism.
  • The online feature journalist of dagbladet.no developed a strategy implying that close relations with readers became more important than close relations with sources – the latter being a more common virtue in conventional feature journalism, where close encounters with people and milieus are common elements in the discourse. Even though they based their stories on many sources, the majority of the sources where second or third hand and largely assembled from other websites (reflecting a copy/paste practice common in online journalism at large). In stead of searching for first hand sources, the feature journalists devoted their attention to the audience. Readers were perceived as content providers both in the sense that the discussions the stories generated were regarded as valuable content in themselves, and because the journalists ‘outsourced’ the human touch reporting to the audience. Thus, the readers to some extent became the sources.

The article concludes that the web exclusive feature journalism of dagbladet.no is a “multi-skilled practice of feature journalism entailing a
devaluation of reportage as genre and emphasizing audience participation. This marks a shift from source-driven to audience-driven feature journalism, where debate and sharing of information and knowledge replace intimacy and adventure as dominant discourses.” (p. 715).

The case study is framed by an understanding of labour in general and media work in particular as undergoing substantial change and entailing a
more individualized and random style of work. This development can be traced both in a historical axis of factors that have shaped the
role of journalists throughout history, and a contemporary axis of the particulars of labour in modern society at large. Thus, the case study of how the role of an online feature journalist was negotiated within the online newsroom of dagbladet.no, serve as an example of these more general trends in media work.

Is video the future of online feature journalism?

4. August 2009

Blogger Vadim Lavrusik has investigated the use of video in ten US online news sites and found that video is most frequently used in feature stories. This is because feature stories tend to ” have visual elements that lend themselves well to video footage”, argues Lavrusik.

This raises the question of a what a feature story is and if a feature story might be something different online than in traditional media (i.e. print and TV). In a paper  I’m presenting at the 19th Nordic Conference for Media and Communication Research in Karlstad, Sweden next week,  I argue that feature journalism traditionally has been dominated by discourses of adventure, intimacy and fiction. Feature journalists use techniques of fiction writing to cover adventures actions entailing intimate encounters with sources and milieus. And they might them selves be intimate with their readers by writing in a subjective style.

However, feature journalism is not a static genre that hasn’t changed. When new technology is introduced and implemented, genres change. And new genres develop. For instance, competition from first television news and then online news has “featurized” newspaper journalism since newspapers no longer can compete with online/tv breaking news coverage. The distinction between news and feature journalism is therefore becoming increasingly blurred in newspapers.

So what happens when feature journalism is remediated online? It is possible to identify at least two different strategies:  Online news sites with strong affiliation with a parent newspaper and/or broadcaster tend to rely on a multiplatform strategy. They equip their (newspaper)  journalists and photographers with a video camera and/or a sound recorder and publish the written piece both in print and online. In addition, they publish a Soundslide (to better maximize the use of the photographers work) or a video or a Flash production online.   This is the strategy chosen by most US online newspapers and probably by the the sites Lavruski investigated.  This is all fine. But it is still basically old media feature journalism – with some added content.

Online news sites with no or limited affiliations with a parent newspaper and/or broadcaster tend to choose a different strategy. Either, they rely heavily on text based stories and interactions with readers – like the Norwegian online newspaper dagbladet.no does in its feature section –  or they embark on a multimedia bonanza implying the utilization of all thinkable multimedia features. Examples of the latter  are the eccentric online magazines made by Magwerk and Flyp Media (see this blog post for more on Flyp Media).

    In a recently published article in a special issue of the Scandinavian journal Rhetorica Scandinavica on journalism and rhetoric, I analyze how the Norwegian online newspaper  dagbladet.no has developed a unique understanding of feature journalism in a stand-alone feature section. I have followed the development of this feature sections for several years, both from a readers point of view and by ethnographic research from within the newsroom. I found that their understanding of what feature journalism is developed from an initially quite  traditional understanding to a more online adapt understanding, where reader involvement became the core virtue. The stories they produce are text-based and quite long, and they are motivated by the possibility of engaging readers in debate – or having readers share personal stories that serve as “cases” to the main story (thus embedding the discourse of intimacy that is represented in traditional feature journalism in a quite different manner). The point is that this development was not planned or foreseen by the journalists or editors of dagbladet.no – it develop in this direction probably because the online feature desk was left to develop its journalism without intervention from the parent newspaper.

    I guess my point with writing all this is that remediating a genre online – feature journalism or any other genre – is a complex process that might end up with a completely new genre. Adding a video might give added value to a feature story online, but this is perhaps not the way the genre is further developed in new media.

    How to make innovations in online newspapers succesful

    29. June 2009

    In a new article soon to be published in the journal Journalism Studies (online version available  now), I argue that innovations in online newspapers are dependent upon five factors:

    1. Newsroom autonomy: Are innovative projects initiated and implemented within an autonomous newsroom and with relative autonomy within the online newsroom?
    2. Newsroom work culture: Does the online newsroom reproduce editorial gatekeeping or are alternative work cultures explored?
    3. The role of management: Is newsroom management able to secure stable routines for innovation?
    4. The relevance of new technology: Is new technology perceived as relevant, i.e. efficient and useful?
    5. Innovative individuals: Is innovation implemented and understood as part of the practice of journalism?

    Here is the abstract of the article:

    Findings in recent research suggest that online journalism is much less innovative than many researchers and scholars predicted a decade ago. Research into online journalism has, however, been biased towards a focus on online news journalism, thereby neglecting the magnitude of new styles and genres that are currently emerging online. In this paper the findings of a longitudinal ethnographic case study of the development of a section for feature journalism in the Norwegian online newspaper dagbladet.no is presented. The study is framed by an understanding of innovation as a process where organizational structures and individual agency interact. The findings suggest that individual action has been downplayed in previous research as a determinant for processes of innovation in online newsrooms, and that a substantive grounded theory of innovation in online newspapers is comprised of five factors: newsroom autonomy, newsroom work culture, the role of management, the relevance of new technology and innovative individuals.

    The article will be published in print in issue 10(6) – December 2009.

    New book on reportage journalism

    29. June 2009

    A couple of weeks ago my new book on reportage journalism was published. Congrats to me!:-)

    The book’s title translates to “The Genre of Place: On modern reportage journalism”. It is mostly a text book for college students at journalism programs in Norway, and perhaps elsewhere in Scandinavia. It deals with modern day reportage journalism in print and online. With extensive use of examples, the books tries to answers questions like:

    • What makes an idea for a reportage good?
    • What are the best ways to compose a reportage?
    • How should one use observation as a method in reportage journalism?
    • What characterizes modern day reportage journalism?
    • What can reportage journalism in online newspapers be like?

    The book has all ready been included in the curriculum of several  journalism programs througout Norway, which makes me happy:-)

    My new book on repportage journalism

    My new book on repportage journalism

    This will be my blogg…

    29. June 2009

    Hi

    So this is my blog. My thoughts on this are as follows: This is going to be a professional blog, not a personal one. I’ll blog on matters of professional interest to me – e.g. journalism. More precisely, I’ll blog on feature journalism and online media, ’cause that’s whats my PhD-dissertation is all about.

    Hopefully, I’ll be able to blog on topics of interest to someone else than myself.


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