JCMC 9 (4) July 2004
Collab-U CMC Play E-Commerce Symposium Net Law InfoSpaces Usenet
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Online News Production in Flanders: How Flemish Online Journalists Perceive and Explore the Internet's Potential
- Added Values of the Internet
- Online Journalism in Flanders
- About the Author
AbstractThe Internet provides the online journalist with a vast range of new opportunities for feedback, customisation of content, instant publishing, archiving, (hyper)linking, the use of audio and video, etc., all of which can have serious implications for online media production and in particular online news presentation. This study examines how online journalists take advantage of the 'added values' of the Internet: interactivity, hypertextuality and multimediality. After a discussion of these key features of online media, the article presents a general profile of online journalists in Flanders (the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium) as well as a first understanding of their perceptions of their role. A Web survey was conducted in spring 2001 among 73 Flemish online journalists. The survey results show, among other things, that most respondents believe that the future of online journalism lies in interactivity, hypertext and multimedia. Building on this suggestion, a second study explores the ways in which 20 Flemish news Websites actively use the added values of the Internet. A checklist was developed to analyse the use of the aforementioned Internet-specific facilities by Flemish online media professionals. The main conclusion is that there is a gap between the (perceived) potential and actual use of the Internet's added values in online news production.
IntroductionSince the first online media emerged on the World Wide Web a decade ago, their main concern has been how to make their activities profitable (McMillan, 1998; Punie et al., 2002). The first business models for online publishing focused on advertising, sponsoring, e-commerce and content syndication (selling media content to third parties, mostly other news outlets). As all these (potential) revenue streams seem to be insufficient to guarantee economic viability, most news Websites are now turning to pay-for-content models. At this moment, it is still uncertain if people will be prepared to pay for content on the Internet - although one can refer to some recent reports suggesting that charging people for content may prove to be a successful strategy (cf. Breunig, 2003; Punie, 2002).
One of the main arguments in this article is that if news Websites want to be profitable, if they want to attract people (and charge them for content), they first have to become 'valuable' (worth paying for) in the eyes of their users. This means that they must find ways to distinguish themselves from other media, especially from their traditional counterparts in the print or broadcast media sector. Research shows, however, that online journalists spend a lot of time on repurposing content instead of producing original news stories exclusively for the Web (Boczkowski, 2002; Neuberger et al., 1998). One of the main reasons is that shovelware production only requires a very small staff whereas "generating original content and maintaining interactive services can be extremely labor-intensive" (Chyi & Sylvie, 1998. p. 5). Other studies confirm that small staff sizes, a lack of time and commercial pressures are the main obstacles for innovative online media production, in which the Internet's potential is fully explored (Arant & Anderson, 2001; de Aquino et al., 2002; Quandt, 2003).
Added Values of the InternetSeveral new media experts argue that online media have their own 'logic', which differs from traditional media logic by some Internet-specific characteristics. Drawing on a dialogue between Newhagen and Rafaeli (1996), Dahlgren (1996: 64) points out five "primary and highly related aspects of cyber-communication which are at the core of its media logic, and which will continue to give shape to the formats of cyber-journalism in the future (...) These key qualities are: multimedia, hypertextual, interactional, archival, and figurational". So far, not much attention has been paid to the 'figurational' aspect of online communication, perhaps due in part to the vagueness and ambiguity of this term. But the first three aspects mentioned by Dahlgren - multimedia, hypertext and interactivity - appear in almost all scholarly articles that try to capture the medium-specific characteristics of the Internet (Bardoel, 2002, pp. 504-505; Deuze, 2001; Pavlik, 1997). The 'archival' function, for its part, can be seen as an aspect of both interactivity and hypertextuality. Indeed, an online archive - or the information it carries - is 'hyperlinked' with other (fragments of) texts, while the interactive element lies in the user's ability to 'control' the search in the archive.
Interactivity has always been considered to be one of the key features of new media. Yet, there does not exist a sole, standard definition of the concept, although there are two widely acknowledged definitions. The first is offered by Steuer (1992, p. 84), who defines interactivity as "the extent to which users can participate in modifying the form and content of a mediated environment in real time". Rafaeli in his turn views interactivity as "the extent to which communication reflects back on itself, feeds on and responds to the past" (Newhagen & Rafaeli, 1996). Broadly speaking, these two definitions reflect the two fundamental ways in which the term is understood. As King (1998) argues, the first meaning of interactivity is related to the user's 'control over content'. Indeed, on the Internet the consumer can determine where, when, how and what he or she wants to consult. In this respect, communication on the Internet seems to shift from 'allocution' (cf. the traditional 'transmission' model of communication) to more balanced communication patterns of 'consultation' and 'conversation' (McQuail, 2000, pp. 129-132). In a second sense, interactivity is described in terms of 'feedback' and two-way or multiple-way communication ('conversation') between producer and consumer. This kind of interactivity also takes on different forms: e-mail, chat, message boards, etc.
Although King's distinction between 'interactivity as control over content' and 'interactivity as feedback' is a useful starting point, we feel this multidimensional concept needs an even further refinement in order to measure interactive features of online news media.
Heeter (1989, pp. 231-225) identifies six dimensions of interactivity. Among them, as Massey and Levy (1999, p. 526) argue, four appear to fit the literature on online media production. These four dimensions are: complexity of choice available, responsiveness to the user, facilitation of interpersonal communication, and ease of adding information.
The 'complexity of choice available' refers to the extent to which users can choose their own trajectory through the available information. When looking at Websites, this 'choice complexity' can be established in different ways. First, this dimension is closely related to 'hypertextuality', because hyperlinks offer choices to users to navigate throughout the Website; so the more hyperlinks, the higher the choice complexity. Second, choice complexity of online media can be increased by making it possible for consumers to choose, in accordance with their individual needs and interests, which categories of news and information they want to receive - an ability generally referred to as 'customisation of content.' Third, choice complexity of a news site can be measured by looking at the various 'extra services' available to users, such as e-commerce sections, site information and support, search engines, agendas, etc.
By 'responsiveness to the user' Heeter means the degree to which new media can react to or interact with the user, whether it be technologically or personally. It is important, however, to stress the difference between passive and active responsiveness, or in other words, between the 'potential for responsiveness' and 'actual responsiveness' (Massey & Levy, 1999, p. 526). Indeed, several studies suggest that the appearance of an e-mail address on a news site does not guarantee that journalists will actually respond to reader e-mail. The main obstacles for high-quality interaction between the journalist and his or her audience are, according to Schultz (1999), a lack of time to respond and the irrelevance of much reader input (e.g. off-topic mail).
The 'facilitation of interpersonal communication' refers to the extent to which users are provided with facilities to engage in a synchronous one-to-one interaction with other users on the site. We can think of facilities such as video conferencing, chat or instant messaging.
A fourth dimension of interactivity, 'ease of adding information,' deals with asynchronous one-to-many communication or the degree to which users themselves can put information on a Website. This can be achieved through message boards (forums) as well as 'open source' technologies that enable users to publish their own information on a site.
In addition to these four dimensions of interactivity, Massey and Levy propose a fifth dimension: 'immediacy of content'. They write:"The technological ability to instantly report an unfolding news event may be the one characteristic of online journalism that most clearly distinguishes it from traditional journalism. It can be defined as the extent to which a Web newspaper offers its readers the most immediately available information" (Massey & Levy, 1999: 527).Frequent updates and constant deadlines give online media an ever-fresh nature, and several media experts are convinced this is the most important distinctive value of Internet publications (Fallows, 1999).
Hypertextuality refers to the extent to which different (parts of) texts are connected to one another at different junctures, thus leading to a hypertext that "might usefully be considered as a particular trajectory through a series of texts rather than merely the texts themselves" (Hall, 2001, p. 66). The online media professional can use hyperlinks that are either internal or external. Internal links refer to other texts (or sections) within the site, while external links refer to texts or sites located elsewhere on the Internet. According to Deuze (2001), few of today's news Websites actually embed hyperlinks in an effective manner; the potential of external hyperlinking is especially insufficiently explored. Commercial considerations seem to make Websites very cautious of letting "viewers escape their "family" of related businesses" (Cohen, 2002, p. 541).
It is clear, however, that effective use of internal and external hyperlinks is a basic element of good online media production. It enables journalists to refer their readers to all kinds of background or related information, ranging over archival documents, illustrations, primary sources, multiple perspectives on a particular topic, and so on. Some media experts even believe that media credibility could increase if online journalists were to create more transparency by referring readers directly to their sources (Gahran, 1998).
The idea that good online news reporting requires hyperlinks to related information about a particular topic implies that news Websites have to invest in a complete and easy-to-use archive. Together with efficient use of hypertext, search engines offer great opportunities for journalists who want to enrich continuing news stories with previous material. Users, for their part, can increase their comprehension of any news item, since they can "interactionally themselves fill in what they need, depending on how extensive the archives are and how developed the hypertext is" (Dahlgren, 1996, p. 66). Besides 'extensiveness', other parameters for measuring the archival capacity of a news site are accessibility (e.g., free of charge?; registration required?), searchability (e.g., possibilities for advanced search), and up-to-dateness.
The archival depth and the broad scope that can be attained via (external) hyperlinks to related information elsewhere on the Internet lead to a disappearance of time and spatial constraints. Theoretically speaking, online journalists, as opposed to their traditional colleagues, are faced with a bottomless news hole. In this respect, some authors suggest that the hypertextual characteristic of the Internet requires new strategies for online news presentation. The linking of texts and the layering of news demand new ways of writing and storytelling. Many experts agree that online news stories can no longer be shoehorned into the classical inverted pyramid model of storytelling in print media. Instead, as Hall (2001, pp. 66-69) suggests, a news story on the Internet should be structured as a 'matrix' of different 'lexia' (chunks of information), all linked to one primary 'anchor text,' which can be seen as the top level that provides the essence of the story. This implies a non-linear type of storytelling that might combine aspects of both print and broadcast media. It is, of course, important that the online journalist can keep the reader curious enough to browse through the different chunks of information (Fredin & David, 1998).
By multimediality we mean the extent to which text, graphics, sound, voice, and (still and moving) images are translated and integrated into a common digital form (Dahlgren, 1996, p. 64). It must be emphasised that multimedia refers to a new media format that results from the convergence and integration of traditional print, audio and video formats.
One of the important implications of multimedia is that the online journalist must learn how to work with these different formats. For his writing, the journalist will also need the skills to decide for each story which part(s) will consist of text and which part(s) will carry audio and/or visual elements. Just like hypertext, multimedia has serious implications for (the linearity of) online news presentation (Hall, 2001; Pavlik, 2001).
At this point, we must keep in mind, however, that multimedia news production is still scarcely out of the egg, due to different factors. The main problem is a technological one: the limited bandwidth makes innovative multimedia content difficult (Deuze, 2001). More complex problems concerning multimedia appear on the organizational and institutional level of online media, not in the least regarding media competition and copyright concerns. Still much work has to be done also in terms of developing integrated multimedia newsrooms, seen by many as a precondition for effective online news reporting (Pavlik, 2001, pp. 101-114; de Aquino et al., 2002). At this moment, Websites related to television stations seem to have an advantage over online newspapers, because they have the material and the organizational structure needed for both audio and video production (Jankowski & van Selm, 2000).
Nonetheless, it is very doubtful whether news organizations will want to invest in online multimedia tools, as most of them - not only in Flanders, but all over the world - are still struggling for economic viability (cf. McMillian, 1998; Punie et al., 2002). Finally, multimedia news production requires new technological and journalistic skills. Critics as well as professionals have already expressed their concerns about this so-called 'multi-skilling' - concerns that go beyond the general sense of what Garrison (1999) calls 'technofobia'. Research findings from a study of a multimedia BBC newscentre lend considerable support to the idea that 'multi-skilling' can be seen as "a crude attempt to reduce editorial costs, resulting in deskilled [sic] practices, decline of standards, journalists tied to computer screens, and work overload" (Cottle, 1999, p. 39).
Despite all these sometimes deep-rooted problems surrounding multimedia, some critics are convinced that this Internet-specific characteristic requires a new way of thinking about online media production. Soukup (2000) argues that it is time to approach communication in cyberspace from a (cross-disciplinary) multimedia perspective, liberated from the 'textual bias' of contemporary research and theory on new media. Pavlik (2001) seems to agree by suggesting that online media professionals should explore the potential of mobile multimedia news reporting, using equipment such as a 360-degree omni-camera. When such multimedia news production on the Internet will move beyond its experimental stages is unclear, and critics wonder if it ever will. But theoretically speaking, multimedia facilities, together with interactive features and hypertext, create a vast range of new opportunities for online media professionals.
ResearchIn short, the basic assumption here is that the Internet's added values relate to three concepts: interactivity, hypertext and multimedia. We will examine if and how these added values are actually used in online news production by Flemish media professionals. In order to draw a general picture of online journalism in Flanders, the Dutch-speaking part of Belgium, we start off with a brief description of the social demographics, working conditions and role perceptions of Flemish online journalists.
Online Journalism in Flanders
During the spring of 2001, we conducted a Web survey among Flemish journalists working for a news Website (print or broadcast related as well as online-only). The total number of online journalists in Flanders can be estimated at about 130.1 Standardized e-mail messages, inviting online journalists to fill in a Web-based questionnaire about their profession, were sent to the general e-mail addresses of all online newsrooms, as well as to those journalists whose personal e-mail address could be retrieved on the Website they worked for. The questionnaire was divided into five sections that probed for social demographics, working conditions, daily practices, journalistic functions and role perceptions of Flemish online media professionals (see Deuze & Paulussen, 2002). The survey ran for 40 days, during which period an e-mail reminder was sent, and gained a response of 73, or about half of the estimated population of Flemish online journalists. In our research, online journalists are defined as 'those media professionals who are directly responsible for the content of news Websites' (cf. Deuze et al., 2004).
The social demographics of the 73 respondents show that most of them are male (80%), highly educated (62% have an academic degree) and younger than 35 (62%). Yet they do not seem to lack experience in journalism: 26% of the respondents have been in the profession for more than ten years and three out of four have worked for traditional media (mostly print) before going online. Nearly two-thirds of Flemish online journalists work for an online-only (stand-alone) news Website. The average Flemish online newsroom has four online journalists.
A large part of the Web-based questionnaire probed for role perceptions of online journalists and their opinions about the future of their profession. First and foremost, the results show that the majority of Flemish online journalists (74%) are convinced that online journalism is a distinct form of journalism, compared to print and broadcast journalism. Nine out of ten respondents say that online journalism is complementary to its traditional counterparts, from which it can distinguish itself by using the added values of the Internet. Indeed, the majority agrees that the medium-specific characteristics of the Internet are at the core of the online media profession: respectively 67%, 82% and 70% say that the future of online journalism lies in interactivity, hypertext and multimedia.
Journalistic Tasks Important (in %) Neutral (in %) Not important (in %) Disseminate information quickly 90 6 4 Interact with readers 80 17 3 Provide depth through hypertext 77 13 10 Provide a forum for discussion 69 26 5 Make use of multimedia 67 21 12 Signalize and present trends 60 35 5 Provide interpretation and explanation 59 37 4 Build a sense of community 53 33 14 Serve the widest possible public 47 31 22 Provide entertainment and relaxation 40 25 35 Influence public opinion 17 39 44 Be a spokesperson for certain groups 14 46 40
Table 1. Perceived importance of journalistic tasks by 73 Flemish online journalists.
Table 1 presents an overview of the perceived importance of 12 journalistic tasks. Besides suggesting that 'traditional' journalistic functions remain important on the Internet, the results show that Flemish online journalists are well aware of the Internet's added values. They put working with hypertext and multimedia high on their priority list and consider interactive functions which are facilitated by the Internet, such as 'interacting with readers' or 'providing a forum for discussion', to be (very) important. Only 'disseminating information quickly' seems to be more important for most of them - it can be argued that this also relates to an 'added value' of the Internet, as online media can publish instantly and constantly (cf. infra).
Based on these survey results, we could assume that Flemish online journalists recognise the potential and importance of interactive features, hypertext and multimedia for online news production. This brings us to the question of whether the awareness of the Internet's added values results in the actual use of this potential? In other words, do online journalists really use Internet-specific facilities that they consider to be added values for online news production? In order to answer this question, a second study was conducted to examine if and how 20 Flemish news Websites deal with interactivity, hypertext and multimedia.
The study at hand explores the ways in which 20 Flemish online news media utilise the added values of the Internet. An open checklist was developed to analyze Internet-specific facilities dealing with interactivity, hypertext and multimedia. During the analysis, this checklist was further refined and complemented with brief descriptions of the facilities on each Website. In this respect, we can speak of a qualitative content analysis that focuses on the 'form' in which content is presented, and that also carries some aspects of 'ethnographic descriptive' research (cf. Altheide, 1996; Jankowski & van Selm, 2000). Table 2 gives a simplified version of the checklist. The different concepts that appear in it are thoroughly discussed above.
(based on Heeter, 1989; Massey and Levy, 1999)
Choice complexity: Responsiveness to the user Facilitation of interpersonal communication Ease of adding information Immediacy of content Hypertextuality: Use of internal hyperlinks Use of external hyperlinks Archival function Multimediality: Use of text, photos, video, audio and animation Integration of text, audio and video
Table 2. Checklist for testing the Internet's added values (simple version).
Twenty Flemish news Websites were analyzed during a four-week period in February-March 2002. The unit of analysis was the entire Website, beginning on the homepage. If other content besides news content appeared on the site, we focused on news content. Table 3 presents an overview of the 20 Flemish news Websites that were subject of this study. As mentioned before, six Flemish newspapers have a news site (the sites which are paired are look-alikes in terms of design and content and belong to the same publishing group). Although the Internet activities of Flemish broadcast media are mostly limited to brand-promotional issues, three Websites related to a television station and one related to a radio station could be labelled as a 'news Website.' Most Flemish magazines have a Website, but only a handful of them actually offer non-promotional news content. Finally, we should note that 'online-only' news media are underrepresented in this study. Instead of analysing them all, we decided to select five prototypical or representative online-only news sites: one portal site (Planet Internet), one portal site specializing in ICT news (ZDNet.be), one community site (Divazine), one sports site (Sport 24), and one niche Website aimed at broadband Internet users (King Kong magazine). We should note that two of the examined sites do not have their roots in Flanders. ZDNet.be is a regional edition of the US-based global ICT news portal ZDNet (owned by CNET Networks). Planet Internet was owned by the Dutch telecom operator KPN (at the end of 2002 KPN sold Planet Internet to Scarlet Telecom). However, at the time of our study, ZDNet.be and Planet Internet Belgium both worked with a Flemish staff of online journalists, who produced original content specifically for these regional editions.
6 online newspapers 4 related to radio / TV station De Standaard Online Radio 1 Belang van Limburg / Gazet van Antwerpen VTM TijdNet Kanaal Z Het Nieuwsblad / Het Volk JIM.be 5 related to other print medium 5 online-only news sites Knack Planet Internet (now: Scarlet) Trends ZDNet.be Cash Online King Kong magazine Clickxmagazine Divazine Maomagazine (closed down in June 2002) Sport 24 (now: Sport.be)
Table 3. 20 Flemish news sites examined.Note: Most of the sites underwent a restyling in the period after our study (one site, Maomagazine, closed down).
Examining interactivity and the use of hypertext and multimedia in online news production can never be free of interpretation. During the analysis, we noticed that several Internet-specific capabilities cannot be measured without taking a wide range of factors into consideration. Because of the unique character of each Website, any attempt to view the Internet's added values in a black-or-white manner is problematic. We must therefore be cautious in quantifying and generalizing our findings.2
Despite some of the aforementioned restrictions of this exploratory and interpretative analysis, the findings give considerable support to the assumption that in Flanders news Websites fail to take full advantage of the Internet's added values. Although several Websites underwent a restyling after the study was conducted, it is safe to say these changes are not profound enough to affect the main findings of our analysis.
The study of interactivity on twenty Flemish news Websites was based on the five dimensions referred to above. We will discuss the main findings with respect to each dimension.
Choice of Complexity Available
TV news sites offer least choice to the user. The online versions of Het Nieuwsblad and Het Volk also give very few options; both sites only carry some re-purposed content from the printed newspaper as well as a handful of general section links. Looking at the facilities for 'customization' of Flemish news sites, we see that only De Standaard Online has a 'personalized newsletter' service, i.e. customized to every individual's needs and interests. Business and financial news sites (TijdNet, Trends and Cash Online) have services that offer 'personal' financial advisory and portfolio management. This brings us to another indicator of the complexity of choice available: the amount and diversity of extra services on a Website. The three sites that have the widest range of extra services are De Standaard Online, Planet Internet and ZDNet.be. Because the two latter consider themselves 'portal sites,' it is not surprising that e-commerce and e-service (sms-service, free downloads, job section, support, ...) are given a prominent position on the site.
Responsiveness to the user
The Internet has facilitated interaction between journalists and their public. Still, the appearance of an (editorial) e-mail address on the Website - usually accessible via a "contact" button on the homepage - does not guarantee actual 'responsiveness to the user': one quarter of the news sites did not respond to a simple question. Personal e-mail addresses of journalists could not be retrieved on most sites.
Facilitation of Interpersonal Communication (Between Readers)
Two out of three examined news sites do not have a chat option or any other feature that 'facilitates interpersonal communication between readers' in real time.
Ease of Adding Information
Although forums give consumers the opportunity to add information or spread opinions online, eight news sites in our study do not have such a discussion platform. It was often difficult to determine whether or not a discussion forum was 'moderated.' At some Websites (e.g. Het Belang van Limburg and Gazet van Antwerpen) we found a forum where the Webmaster or another editor participated in discussions or proposed new topics, but given the big amount of 'spam' or 'junk' mail, we wondered if actual 'moderation' was present. Remarkably, the emergence of online forums seems to imply that the tradition of letters to the editor has been abandoned: only Divazine has a separate section where letters to the editor are published online.
Immediacy of Content
Breaking news can be found on nine of the twenty sites. Although most of them do not indicate when material on the site is updated, we can say that all Flemish news sites are up-to-date. Even the sites related to weekly magazines refresh their content frequently.
Hyperlinks guide the Internet user from one Web page to another, so it is obvious that, despite major differences among sites, all Flemish news sites contain hyperlinks to various sections within the site. But few of them are characterized by in-depth news reporting and the integration of hyperlinks to sources, archival documents and/or related (background) information.
The only Flemish news sites that really take advantage of internal hyperlinks are De Standaard Online, Cash Online and four of the five examined online-only sites.
Few online news media in Flanders make use of hyperlinks that refer the user to sources of information elsewhere on the Internet. Yet online-only news sites seem less reserved in incorporating external links than sites related to 'old media,' but given the exploratory nature of our study and the limited sample of sites examined, it is too early to draw definite conclusions about the differences between stand-alone and media-related Websites in terms of hypertextuality.
The archival function is best fulfilled by De Standaard Online and TijdNet; both online newspapers have an extensive and up-to-date archive with an advanced and easy-to-use search engine. Three of the four other archives that score high in terms of 'extensiveness', 'accessibility,' 'searchability' and 'up-to-dateness' - Knack, Trends, Cash Online and ZDNet.be - are related to print magazines. Only TijdNet requires a small fee from users who want to consult entire articles in the archive (the search itself is free of charge), while the archives of Knack and Trends are only completely available to registered readers of the print version. In September 2002, De Standaard Online also decided to charge for content: from then on, users had to pay for the archive and for some 'customization' services (e.g. the personalized newsletter). More than half of the examined news sites hardly invest in an archive (three of them do not even have an archive at all). This is surprising since the importance of electronic storage of news articles increases year after year, not only for business but also for journalistic reasons.
The study also shows that multimediality on the examined online news media is quite limited.
Use / Integration of Text, Audio and Video
Text remains prominent on all news Websites (except Kanaal Z); print related sites are almost exclusively text-based. Not surprisingly, all TV Websites contain (real time) video material, but rather than integrating this into 'multimedia news reports,' they just distribute 'TV on the Internet.' The same can be said about Radio 1: the site just presents 'radio on the Internet' as well as short linear text messages in a separate news section, but it does not integrate text, image and sound into a single multimedia format. In fact, the only Flemish news site that explores the potential of non-linear types of storytelling, by using hypertext and multimedia in innovative ways, is King Kong, a niche site for young people with a broadband connection to the Internet.
ConclusionThe main conclusion of this study is that Flemish online news media do not fully explore the potential of the Internet yet. Although there are some good examples of news sites that incorporate certain facilities effectively, no single site manages to take advantage of the whole range of opportunities the Internet offers in terms of feedback, customization, immediacy of content, hypertext, online storage of information, multimedia, etc. Of course, all news Websites contain hyperlinks and interactive features, and some of them use multimedia more or less, but few of them do it extensively. Also in other countries, research has shown that few online media exploit the Internet's added values in an advanced way (e.g. Jankowski & van Selm, 2000; Kenney et al., 2000; Massey & Levy, 1999; Schultz, 1999).
Nevertheless, online journalists seem to be well aware of the potential of the Internet. The Web-based survey among Flemish online journalists suggests, for instance, that most of them are convinced that interactivity, hypertext and multimedia are at the core of efficient online media production. Put together, the two studies discussed in this article indicate a gap between, on the one hand, the (perceived) potential of several Internet-specific facilities for online news production and, on the other hand, the actual use of these added values by online media professionals.
An explanation frequently heard among optimistic new media experts is that it is just a matter of time before online news producers will utilize the full range of capabilities offered by the Internet. As journalists become more familiar with new communication technologies and the Internet becomes even more mature in terms of capacity and usability, online journalism will become more and more characterized by interactive multimedia news reporting. Several studies have shown, however, that reality is more complex than this technologically-determined picture. Cottle (1999) and Ursell (2001) emphasize that the impact of new technologies in the newsroom depends on commercial and institutional goals of the medium, political expectations, organizational and editorial decisions and the increasing work pressure on journalists. Especially the latter aspect relates to a structural problem for contemporary online media producers, namely a lack of time and resources. According to a study among American editors working for online media, "small staff sizes and demand for speed and scoops" put so much pressure on online journalists that they do not always verify facts properly (Anderson & Arant, 2000). Given the assumption that they already experience difficulties with fulfilling their core tasks, one can wonder whether online journalists are still able and willing to spend enough time and effort on integrating the Internet's added values into their online news stories. Jankowski and van Selm (2000, pp. 98-99) suggest that traditional media on the Internet often follow a defensive 'carry over' strategy, "(...) designed to maintain current audience and advertising markets as opposed to policies driven by an exploration of new terrains and possible convergence of traditional media fare into multimedia products" (p. 99). Such a conservative strategy rarely encourages online journalists to experiment and explore the potential of interactive, hypertextual and multimedia capabilities for online news presentation. Nonetheless, as mentioned before, many media experts are convinced that it is by using the Internet's added values that online media can distinguish themselves from their traditional counterparts - and it is this distinction that might be the precondition for readers and advertisers to embrace online news media. Hence, the paradox of today's online news production lies in the fact that news organizations follow a defensive media strategy on the Internet (motivated by profit concerns), in which online journalists cannot take full advantage of those Internet-specific features that might make their Website more 'valuable' and, thus, more profitable. Dealing with and moving beyond this paradox may be one of the biggest challenges for new media professionals and scholars alike.
Footnotes1. Exact numbers are not available, unless the scope would be limited to the professional journalists who are recognized as "e-journalists" by the national journalists' union AVBB. We found that at the time of our survey only four out of ten Flemish online journalists (37%) were recognized as professional journalists.
2. Because of the interpretative nature of our research method, we organized a 'control session.' Six students were asked to do the same study, independent of our own, after which the two studies were compared. We found that most findings were in line with each other; if this was not true, agreement occurred after discussion.
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About the AuthorSteve Paulussen is a research assistant at the Department of Communication Sciences at Ghent University, Belgium, where he recently received a Ph.D. for his thesis on the implications of the Internet for journalistic news gathering and news production. His research interests include computer-assisted research and reporting (CARR), online journalism, new media and journalism education. His recent work has been published in The European Journal of Communication and Journalism Studies.
Address: Ghent University, Department of Communication Sciences, Korte Meer 7-9-11, B-9000 Ghent, Belgium. Tel: +32 9 264 91 84.
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