Community or Colony: The Case of Online Newspapers and the Web
Annenberg School for Communication, ASC203C, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0281.
Annenberg School for Communication, ASC309E, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0281.
Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0281.
John M. Olin School of Business, Washington University in St. Louis, Campus Box 1133, One Brookings Drive, St. Louis, MO 63130-4899.
Annenberg School for Communication, University of Southern California, Los Angeles, CA 90089-0281.
Although the development of relationships on the Net may be seen as “community,” the increasing global presence from commercial media such as online newspapers suggest that another metaphor may be jousting for preeminence – colonization. Findings from an on-going case study of online newspapers suggest the early ideals of democratic community-building in cyberspace are encountering resistance as newspaper organizations delineate “virtual geographic space” and stake out “territory” on the web by subtly discouraging access to other sites (i.e., a type of virtual “homesteading”). Additionally, changes in the production practices of print journalists due to the emergence of electronic newspapers are discussed.
“The traditional media of the Fourth Estate (originally called ‘the Press') are converging with computing and telecommunications to create nothing less than a new medium of human communication–with the Net at its heart.”
Don Tapscott, Chair, Alliance of Converging Technologies, cited In C. Martin (1997), The Digital Estate.
“A good web site's first job is to keep people from surfing away.”
David Siegel, The Balkanization of the Web (1995)
The Net (both the World Wide Web and the Internet) is fundamentally a tool to allow people around the globe to communicate with each other. Because the Net transcends space and to some degree time, many consider the opportunity to interact simultaneously with multiple people who have related interests if not similar positions or attitudes (e.g., political election web sites that draw visitors/members from multiple political parties) to be a superior forum to its available alternatives–e.g., call-in talk-radio shows, ham or CB radio conversations, and other methods of “connecting” without traveling.
Until the early 1990s, the Internet was simply a network of computers used to transmit government data and enable academic research and conversations. With the advent of the World Wide Web and online subscription service providers such as America On Line (AOL), CompuServe and Prodigy, Internet traffic began its exponential upswing. In 1998, worldwide Internet users approached 147 million (NUA, 1998). This is up from only 36 million in 1997 and a mere 19 million in 1996. The CommerceNet/Nielsen Media survey in June 1998 finds that Internet users over the age of 16 in the United States and Canada grew to 79 million from 58 million at the end of 1997. Although in many areas people still do not have telephones, much less network servers, and for people of low socioeconomic status the costs of computer technology and service access are prohibitive, the evidence suggests that competition and growth are driving costs down and mass usage of the Net is becoming a possibility, particularly in areas of the world with sufficient technological infrastructure.
Online communication is viewed by many as nothing short of revolutionary. It is an opportunity to communicate, learn, share, buy and sell, and perhaps most importantly, to build community in virtual space. Newspapers, as key vehicles for the development of community in modern society, have been extraordinarily interested in the notion of building virtual communities as they move their operations online. By using published reports, original interviews and data from an in-depth case study of a major metropolitan newspaper, this essay examines how online newspapers attempt to create virtual communities on the Net.
The Ideals of Early Net: Democracy and Community
Only a few years ago, the Net was still being described as a “democratic cyberplace.” It was user controlled, highly interactive, and essentially egalitarian. These characteristics fueled the belief that a newsgroup, or these new things called “home pages,” could be maintained by a college freshman and be as interesting and attractive as similar sites controlled by larger institutions.
Furthermore, the lack of face-to-face interactions meant that the distribution of power in online conversations might be equalized by not really knowing the gender, race, educational background, etc., of the individuals involved (Hollihan et al., 1993). A cyber-persona was judged by its ideas, not wealth or prestige. Individuals often zoomed about the Net using clever pseudonyms reminiscent of CB “handles” as they participated in various mini-communities in virtual space. We remember the novelty of it all–moving to e-mail, searching the Library of Congress catalogue, gaining access to government resources, finding the professionally based news lists that brought together academics and others with common interests, as well as our amusement at running across newsgroups like “alt.sex.diapers.” But more than anything else there appeared to be a fundamental shift in the very connectedness of everyday life, in the way our work was done and in our access to information, organizations and governments. Rheingold (1993) warmed our hearts when he noted that the technology that makes virtual communities possible has the potential to bring enormous leverage to ordinary citizens.
Currently, the changes taking place on the Internet and the World Wide Web have radically reoriented our image of the Net both conceptually and ideologically. There is growing concern with the superficial, yet technologically daunting changes brought by the Web:
Some people began to speak louder than others. The egalitarian free-for-all of the pre-Web was now being replaced by a series of pulpits. Those with the programming know-how–not necessarily those with better ideas–took the spotlight. Worse, an elitist technological jargon took over; for example, on the more “advanced” sites, your received a condescending message that advised you to upgrade if you wanted to view the blinking text and rotating globes that the site's sponsor was kind enough to provide for your entertainment (MacDonald, 1996, 71).
In 1993, Rheingold expressed his concern about “big power and big money.” He believed that the Net was still out of the control of the elite but that it might not stay that way for long since big power and big money always found ways to control new communications media when they emerged in the past. As each day passes, the Web becomes more institutionally and commercially driven and it resembles less that egalitarian cyberspace of recent memory than it does a tacky, crowded-with-billboards freeway exit just before any major tourist destination in the U.S. The Web is now home to an almost unimaginable variety of information, put there by individuals, large companies or organizations, and governments.
Online service providers and the Web can be viewed as literally thousands and soon millions of vertical markets of products and services (targeted to specific customer groups) as well as virtual shopping malls and online catalogues. In a culture fiercely resistant to paying for content, some groups are now charging visitors to their sites to post messages. The Wall Street Journal's online version is available only by subscription; and AOL's attempts to capture market share brought in so many new customers without having spent the money to upgrade their system sufficiently that they created virtual gridlock. What are the consequences of changes such as these for the continued survival of virtual community?
The Net and Online Newspapers
When the Internet became a phenomenon and use spread beyond the government and the universities, electronic publishing exploded–newspapers, e-zines, and current information sites. Of these formats, newspapers have the longest history of electronic publishing. “Fifty years ago, newspapers were sent by broadcast radio to tens of thousands of home facsimile machines costing from $50 to $100” (Noll, 1996). There have been attempts at Videotex (delivered over phone lines to home TV sets), and companies like CompuServe began offering electronic editions of national newspapers on an experimental basis in the eighties (Bittner, 1996). A number of these projects were abandoned as too costly–not enough subscribers were available to make the service profitable.
Online newspapers appear not to have suffered the fate of earlier electronic newspapers. In the early 1990s, only a half dozen major newspapers and about a dozen smaller papers had a significant newspaper product or an interactive/on-line paper on the Web or an Internet provider like America On Line. Even without an online product, hundreds of newspapers had web pages, thus acknowledging the importance of at least a minimal presence on this new media. By the mid 1990s, new online newspaper offerings appeared almost daily and practically every major paper now has some form of on-line product, and most of the larger papers have essentially put the entire paper on-line. Now, new online newspaper offerings appear almost daily and practically every major paper has some form of online product. Most of the larger papers have essentially put the entire paper online. At the beginning of 1996 there were 154 online papers (Meyer, 1996). As of October 25, 1996, the Editor and Publisher Interactive Online Newspaper Database had 1562 online newspaper entries. The number of online newspapers on the Web in October of 1996 was 1441. Meyer (1998) reported there were 3,622 online newspapers midyear in 1997 and that number was projected to increase to 4,000 by the end of that year. However, the growth is stabilizing and approximately 100 newspapers have ceased online publication because of lack of profitability. On this issue, profitability, online newspapers confront the same economic constraints that other electronic publications faced: people's unwillingness to pay. However, current online efforts differ from their predecessors in that people are attracted to the product. A recent survey found that 67% of online readers frequently read newspapers and magazines on the Internet (Barrett, 1997).
Not surprisingly, the original players in the online newspaper business (with a few exceptions such as the San Jose Mercury News) tended to be from very large newspaper/publishing organizations that could cover the inherent cash-flow problems. The cost of entering this new format can be very high, with many newspapers and magazines laying out over $100 million per year to create and support electronic publications (Ziegler, 1995). It is apparent that many smaller newspapers have joined the Net bandwagon and are running their operation with just a few people–a new survey found that typical full-time staffing is one advertising employee, one technical employee and two editorial employees (Fitzgerald, 1997). The strategies of publishers continue to attract interest, and may be even more interesting in the future if the Chicago Tribune Co. is any indication. They are moving into CD-ROM as well as online activities; they have purchased a data network and a local cable channel, a stake in the Television Food Network and America On Line, and are unloading many of their newspapers and the Tribune's newsprint operations. Their stated goal is to be a premier software supplier–not exactly the mission statement one might expect from the Chicago Tribune's parent company).
“Take it as a given that within five years, networked computers in the workplace and the home will compete on an equal footing with the existing news media as a routine source of news for over half the public and the industrialized world,” writes Neuman (cited in Fulton, 1996). The rapid growth of online newspapers is the most important challenge facing newspaper publishing (Bittner, 1996).
Community and Online Newspapers
The term community has a number of historical usages–e.g., developing a place with boundaries that identifies a neighborhood and thus marking who lives inside and who lives outside; or more ideologically, a coming together in social communion (Bellah, Madsen, Sullivan, Swidler & Tipton (1985). Although the concept is culturally bound (for example, the conservative right in the U.S. tends to conflate community with family) (Lee & King, 1993), the most common notion seems to be that communities are identified groups of interdependent people who discuss actions and share certain practices and have a concern for the common good (Bellah et al., 1985). Alexis de Toqueville (quoted in Weinstein, 1996) knew what community was not:
Each person, withdrawn into himself, behaves as though he is a stranger to the destiny of others. His children and his good friends constitute for him the whole of the human species. As for his transactions with his fellow citizens, he may be among them, but he sees them not; he touches them but does not feel them; he exists only in himself and for himself alone. And if on these terms there remains in him a sense of family, there no longer remains a sense of society (p. 36).
It would not be difficult to argue that Toqueville's description is applicable to much of modern (especially American) society, with families living in cars on mean streets, large corporations polluting the environment, and our continuing inability to escape the classism and racism that tears apart cities and nations. His description may be less prescient than we imagine, however; it is more likely the result of historically continued practices that have merely become enlarged by the bureaucratic and technological features of modern life. But this sense that we have allowed community to erode appears to be one of the drivers for renewed interest in community–that people are searching for alternative sites for democracy, for their “lifeworld” as a way to make a difference (Habermas, 1987).
This renewed interest in community is expressed in two ways that are closely related to this study. The first are the early examples of virtual community and the second is the notion of public journalism.
Virtual community. Not long ago our conversations about cyber-community referred to the activist networks like PeaceNet and EcoNet. Other examples included community supported networks like the Public Electronic Network (PEN) in Santa Monica, California and the Cleveland Freenet (Hollihan et al., 1993). According to Rheingold (1993), “virtual communities are social aggregations that emerge from the Net when enough people carry on those public discussions long enough, with sufficient human feeling, to form webs of personal relationships in cyberspace.”
This definition of emergent, somewhat opportunistic, or community generated and run networks seems quite distant in time from many of the more current examples of the numerous virtual communities. These recent examples suggest that there is a growing movement to commodify the architecture for virtual communities. One highly identifiable virtual community that has been hailed as indicative of “the new architecture” of virtual communities is “ParentSoup” (backed by AOL, the Tribune Company, and TCI). ParentSoup is designed to facilitate parents' questions about raising children. They recruit “local mayors” who maintain the site's areas by ensuring that questions are answered and individual participants “feel at home” (Martin, 1997, p. 37). Their grass roots approach is modeled after Alcoholics Anonymous–the conversations have a “strong design” but no single voice dominates. What is most interesting to us about ParentSoup is that the marketing research that went into its development is very similar to the research that is done in civic or public journalism–what does the public want to know and how do they want to know it?
Public journalism. The parent companies of online newspapers have been interacting more closely with their local “constituent” neighborhoods and communities for the last decade. Often called public or civic journalism, this strategy is often critiqued as pandering or “journalism by polling.” This focus on the market has led to a “local, local, local” business strategy for many newspapers that is now being adopted by others on the Net. As Martin (1997) noted, “The concept of building communities is not exactly a new idea. Local newspapers, trade publications, interest-based magazines, and local television and cable markets have been in this business for a long time” (p. 34).
Besides pandering, the other major concern many publishers have with public journalism is perceived conflict of interest. As one publisher explained, “Newspapers are supposed to explain the community, not convene it. News reporters are supposed to explain the issues, not solve them. Newspapers are supposed to expose the wrongs, not campaign against them” (cited in Fitzgerald, 1996). The response to this position is that a newspaper can be involved in helping nurture job growth and otherwise creating a more vigorous neighborhood without having to buy in to public journalism; however, without a strong economic base the newspaper will cease to exist. Thus newspapers “must build their own communities–by working to renew civic life and support local mom and pop businesses–if their papers are to survive” (Fitzgerald, 1996).
The notion that “growing communities” is a common business strategy for print newspapers leads us to ask, what variation on the theme might be operationalized in an online newspaper organization?
Site and Method
In this report we examine data collected over approximately 18 months in a large metropolitan newspaper in the western part of the United States. The analyses reported are part of a larger study examining the impact of new technology on organizational culture and practices.
Background. The newspaper (hereafter referred to as The Paper) started an online service in 1995 that was available by subscription on Prodigy. The original online paper had only about 5% content overlap with the print version of the newspaper (although subscribers could retrieve newsprint articles through an archive link). The Paper explicitly marketed (both internally and externally) the online newspaper as a completely separate product with articles, features and pictures not found in the newsprint version of the paper. A New Media group was established at The Paper to create, produce, and publish the online newspaper.
As with other newspapers that had aligned themselves with a online service provider, The Paper reformulated its publication strategy and moved to the Web in 1996. This service/product was taken off-line for four months and reorganized as a “shovelware” product on the Web. In the process of moving to the Web, the newspaper eliminated 2/3 of the positions for the electronic paper although it is beginning to increase its staffing again.
Data Collection. Moderately-structured interviews were the principal data collection means. Interview questions focused on the leadership strategy, communication issues, and the internal cultural changes related to the adoption of “electronic newsroom” technology and services. We had access to the New Media group's members, executives and strategic planners, individuals from sales, advertising, and information systems, and the head of communication for the organization. All interviewees were told that their responses would be kept confidential. Interviews with more than half of the original staff of the electronic news service (19 individuals), including the managing editor and his boss, were supplemented by interviews with newsroom reporters (although those interviews were not conducted at headquarters), and the controller and CEO from the parent organization (see Riley, et al., 1997). The research team was also given copies of all the official internal and external announcements surrounding both the initial online news service and the move to the Web. These included letters from the publisher, press releases, press kits, news stories, the internal communication plan for employees and training materials designed to acquaint employees with the Internet.
Additional interviews continue to be conducted with members of other newspapers undergoing similar shifts to interactive newspaper publishing (three on the west coast, two in the Midwest, one on the east coast and two in Europe), in order to provide additional contextual data and update the literature review in an arena that is undergoing extremely rapid growth and change.
All interview responses, field notes and documents were shared with all members of the research team. Results are organized around two dominant themes that emerged through an analysis of the data: changes in print journalism production practices and changes in business strategy models.
Changes in print journalism production practices. Unlike other types of online news providers, newspapers (including The Paper) have been slow in recognizing that a fundamental condition of effective Web communication is interactivity. Most of the reporters interviewed were horrified at the idea that readers would send them e-mail about a story they wrote and might even expect an answer. In fact, the initial online service that was available on Prodigy did not have chat rooms or any direct links back to authors or editors (although the e-mail addresses of a few of the executives could be retrieved through some significant search efforts). One of the reporters explained, “When a story is printed, I'm already doing the work on my next assignment–I'm calling sources, checking out information, on my next story. I can't live in the past and keep answering questions about old stories or I won't make my next deadline.”
One of the members of the online staff claimed that the journalistic culture is really not suited to interactivity–that most of the reporters were interested in telling the world what was going on, and creating a compelling account of events. This is consistent with McAdams' (1995) account of helping the Washington Post's online service. Her position is that “A journalist with little on-line experience tends to think in terms of stories, news value, public service, and things that are good to read, but a person with a lot of online experience thinks more about connection, organization, movement within and among sets of information, and communication among different people.” Newspapers continue to act as if people only go online to get information, ignoring the fact that some of the most successful online sites like America Online's The Motley Fool attract people to a dynamic community that brings them back time and time again (Fulton, 1996).
Another change in production practices is a turn toward a broadcast, rather than print journalism model of operation. The computing editor of the San Jose Mercury News stated that the key to understanding the online newspaper organizations that are not following the architecture of The Paper and are providing users with up-to-the-minute reporting is the increasing stress related to instantaneous reporting (Gillmor, 1997). When the organization perceives its greatest competition to be CNN's Web site, then updating information becomes a 24-hour per day job as opposed to a newsroom's daily deadline. In such an environment there are serious questions about finding the time to ensure accuracy, much less build community.
Changes in business strategy models. While the Web is clearly about blending boundaries between media (adding video, audio, etc.), and making access to information as seamless as possible, the strategy of The Paper is clearly not one of opening space but of confining it. In the midst of a global network, this newspaper is busy constructing what we call “virtual geographic space.” The reasons are strictly economic at one level and about image construction at another. In their move from Prodigy to the Internet, the business model changed from a pay-per-subscription service to one where advertisers pay for space, form, and placement for their ads on the screen. In this model, the longer the time someone spends “inside” this site, the greater number of ads the customer is likely to see and the larger the chance that an ad is actually clicked on as a “destination” during the reader's stay in the site. One of the most obvious ways the online newspaper can maximize ad exposure and time spent inside the site–and thus increase their advertising rate–is through the use of contests, games and activities that can only be accessed by clicking on an advertisement icon.
This practice of creating their own space is also consistent with the recent finding form the latest Interactive Services Survey. Even though there has been a great deal of hype about partnering, newspaper Web sites are do-it-yourself projects. “Fully 68% of responding newspapers say they take less than 20% of their overall Web site content from outside sources” (Fitzgerald, 1997).
The much less obvious approach involves getting users to their site and not letting them leave. One of the New Media executives explained, “We are giving the reader a lot of options. They can get a customized paper… We have a list of topics that is very extensive and we are adding to our site with acquisitions and strategic alliances with online companies. One of our executives is very strategic and he understands the Internet.” What we did not fully appreciate during this interview is that if a user leaves The Paper's online site through one of these links, he or she can only get to another site controlled by The Paper. This constellation of sites is so tightly coupled and difficult to exit that we refer to it as being “Trapped in Space.”
The New Media organization is also attempting to leverage The Paper's name and image as a key regional source of information and create a “gateway” to their virtual colony. By creating a series of pages and sites that includes everything that has to do with the metropolitan region, even information that is not traditionally in newspapers but more akin to information from a convention bureau or chamber of commerce, The Paper increases the probability that they can attract users to their site and then keep them there. (We believe this strategy gives “mousetrap” a whole new meaning.)
The result of this colonization is a series of what we see as protectionist behaviors as the overall business strategy moved from a developmental orientation to one of acquisition and coalition. Although we had been told initially that the New Media organization was attempting to be very innovative, fewer and fewer employees believed this to be descriptive of their organization as the study progressed. Although none of the interviewees expressed this position, we are arguing that their increasingly close relationship with sales and advertising (see Riley et al., 1997 for a detailed discussion) had a significant influence on daily operations and long-term strategy. For example, according to several interviewees, Web sites that were originally going to be created in-house were eventually purchased on the recommendation of the advertising members of the cross-functional marketing strategy team. In addition, The Paper is actively working with competitors to set up “standards” that will protect them against the vagaries of technological advances.
Of course, the notion of “the competition” is becoming increasingly fuzzy. While most papers think of local competitors and national competitors, online newspapers are now talking about web competitors–and they are usually not talking about the electronic services of other newspapers. When competitors for that “virtual geographic space” begin to produce their own content (e.g., Slate, Microsoft's online magazine), then the online newspapers' competitive edge against AOL and other providers of news–superior content–becomes threatened. As a result, this organization is acting like a “defensive prospector” (Miles & Snow, 1978) – pushing hard to be out in front, and kicking and screaming all the way.
Although many of the other newspapers have started down similar paths, we came across several recent reviews of online sites and strategies that announced The Paper had the best model for online newspapers. There are more daring models available: for example, the Raleigh, North Carolina, News & Observer's nando.net helps students create their own content.
What are the consequences of these organizational strategies on the ability to sustain community on the Net? Online newspapers are among the most visible entities on the Net associated with the larger conceptions of society and democracy as representatives of the fourth estate but perhaps more importantly as representatives of their regional communities.
In this case study, however, our observations suggest that the primary conception of community has not expanded much beyond the print version's notion of increasing coverage of local issues and issues of personal concern–except to make those issues easier to find and more neighborhood specific. At the same time, the inherent contradictions arising from other changes on the Net call into question the ability of online newspapers to achieve even these very modest goals.
We are all well aware that the development and expansion of inventions and of modern media institutions were directly bound up with the tremendous increase in the mediation of experience and changes in our orientations to time and space. Innis points out, for example, that the introduction of papyrus greatly extended the scope of administrative systems because it was so much easier to transport, store and reproduce than previously used materials (cited in Giddens, 1991, p. 24). What are the implications of the Net? Sven Birkets claims that the Net “is radically changing our orientation to time… It allows us to live this proxy social life with the illusion of engagement, when really it is just busywork. In a superficial way, we are brought together, but we are set apart on a deeper level” (cited in Colton, 1995, p. E2). Sardar (1995) addresses the colonization of cyberspace:
The occupation of cyberspace has direct parallels with the colonization of non-Western cultures. Cyberspace is turning out to be the new other Western civilization which is projecting all its colonial prejudices, and the images of sex and violence in which it framed non-Western cultures, on to cyberspace. However this time the darker side of the West is bouncing back on itself (777).
This does not sound like a very good description of community.
As scholars and researchers of communication and community, we need to develop our own vision for the kind of organizational future and media future we would be comfortable with and which might be maintained during the coming commercial flood on the Net. As Rheingold so aptly stated, “What we know and do now is important because it is still possible for people around the world to make sure this new sphere of vital human discourse remains open to the citizens of the planet before the political and economic big boys seize it, censor it and sell it back to us.”
As we tackle the end of this century and begin the rush toward the next, the search for community has turned into a mantra for those concerned about the crisis in the texture of our lives (Hollihan, et al., 1993; Rheingold, 1993). The desire for community may already be a cliché in some quarters but it is a “Holy Grail” for others–fueled by the tension between the sense of connectedness that comes from the intrusion of distant events into everyday consciousness (Giddens, 1991) and from the often-described emptiness of late modern society that dances around the edges of collective fear and boredom. We hope this study contributes to the conversation.
This project was supported by a grant from the Annenberg Center at the University of Southern California. An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 47th Annual Meeting of the International Communication Association, Montreal, Canada, 1997.