Archive for May, 2010

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.

Advertisements

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?