ONLINE JOURNALISTS: Foundations for Research into Their Changing Roles
Interactive media have grabbed the attention of communication researchers in the latter half of the 1990s, but the focus to date has been primarily on media audiences and their use of these new forms. This paper suggests four approaches that may help provide theory-based underpinnings in a different area: the study of journalists and the ways in which their roles and jobs are changing. The approaches are gate-keeping theory; diffusion of innovation theory; sociological perspectives, particularly those involving the sociology of news work; and a somewhat eclectic perspective that explores the idea of journalism as a potential force of cohesion in an increasingly fragmented society.
The explosion in interactive media forms has grabbed the attention of communication scholars in the latter half of the 1990s. The number of studies is burgeoning, and new ones appear at a steadily accelerating pace. The focus to date has been primarily on the audience for computer-based media forms, particularly on the uses and effects of these new media. Adding to our understanding of computer-mediated communication have been explorations of everything from the effects of computer and video games on adolescents' self-perceptions [(Funk and Buchman, 1996)] to audience perceptions of interactivity in e-mail sent to a network news show [(Newhagen, Cordes and Levy, 1995)] to a whole host of forays into the constitution, implications and ethics of online community (see, for example, [Jones, 1995]; [Brennen and Primeaux, 1997]; [Weinrich, 1997]).
The interest in online audiences may be especially acute because of the nature of these newer media forms: by definition, interactive media blur the lines between the receivers and senders of a mediated message. The use of a medium such as the Internet obviously involves not only active participation in the traditional audience roles of selecting and processing media messages, but active participation in creating them, as well. However, the traditional receivers are not the only ones profoundly affected by this change. The traditional senders of media messages – the journalists – are faced not just with a new delivery method but with what may be a fundamental shift in their role in the communication process. How is what we know as “traditional” journalism similar to or different from online journalism? How does the nature of the interactive medium affect what journalists do?
This paper will suggest four foundations, resting on existing theories and conceptual approaches, upon which researchers might build in studying that changing journalistic role. Morris and Ogan [(1996)] have provided a valuable framework for exploration of the Internet as a mass medium, outlining the application of such theories as critical mass, social presence and media richness. This paper seeks to provide a similar framework, but with a narrower focus: journalists swept up in challenges to their one-time franchise of creating and delivering mass-mediated messages. New conceptual paradigms eventually may evolve to help us study their role. But before we take that leap, we have much to learn by using familiar aids to guide us along new paths.
One of the most easily accessible theories is the journalist as gate-keeper, a role that clearly seems threatened by a medium in which users can put their fingers on virtually any bit of information that interests them. “No other medium,” one observer has suggested, “has ever given individual people such an engaged role in the movement of information and opinion or such a proprietary interest in the medium itself” [(Katz, 1994, 50)]. Though the term “gate keeper” originated with sociologist Kurt Lewin, it was first applied directly to journalists by White, who studied the choices made by a wire service editor at a small midwestern newspaper.
“Mr. Gates,” who selected a relatively limited number of stories for publication and rejected the rest, saw to it that “the community shall hear as a fact only those events which the newsman, as the representative of his culture, believes to be true” [(White, 1950, 390)]. Subsequent studies have indicated that the journalist's self-perception as the person who decides what people need to know is deeply ingrained. Indeed, it has been suggested that the identification and dissemination of what is worth knowing is the journalist's most basic and most vital task in a democratic society, in which information plays a central role [(Janowitz, 1975)].
It would seem that the notion of gate keeping goes right out the window with the Internet. The ‘Net, and its user-friendly World Wide Web graphical overlay, is the best example yet of a postmodern medium; it provides the opportunity for creation of a highly personal pastiche, in which all importance, all meaning is relative to an individual perspective. Users can find anything they want online. They don't need someone else to do the picking and choosing. They don't need someone else to decide what's important. They don't need someone else to digest and package their information. They don't need someone else to interpret that information for them. Or do they?
Gate-keeping theory may provide a more valuable basis for study in this new media environment than it first appears. “What happens when the gate keeper goes away?” is not the only question to be asked. It might not even be the best question. Although few published studies have specifically addressed gate-keeping in the online environment, there is some evidence that journalists see that function as evolving and adapting rather than disappearing. A study by Singer [(1997)] indicates people inside the newsroom are modifying their definition of the gate keeper to incorporate notions of both quality control and sense-making. In particular, they see their role as credible interpreters of an unprecedented volume of available information as fundamental to their value – even their survival – in a new media environment. Her findings are in line with the most recent survey by Weaver and Wilhoit [(1996)], who found that journalists continue to see their primary role as interpreters, rather than mere gatherers and disseminators, of information.
Those findings raise interesting follow-up questions for interactive media researchers to pursue. Do the growing number of journalists now working online also value the interpretive role? If so, how might they see themselves fulfilling it? Another approach might be to examine whether the real or perceived need for a gate-keeping or sense-making role – among both journalists and members of the public – increases or decreases as the amount of information expands and people are empowered to make their own news judgments.
Although the evidence is still largely anecdotal, there is some indication that online users – despite much-publicized exclamations of elation at their new freedom from media control over information – may actually be looking for some sort of gate keeper. For instance, with the Communication Decency Act thrown out as unconstitutional, one of the hottest topics for Internet access providers today is how to keep children from seeing certain content online. The perceived solution, so far, has largely been a technological one: filtering software such as CyberSitter or NetNanny to carry out, in effect, editorial decisions about what is appropriate and what is not. It seems that people do still want someone or something to make – or help them make – judgments about content.
Or consider “knowbots,” the little personalizable pieces of software that will go rooting around like truffle-hunting pigs in the incomprehensible, and exponentially expanding, vastness of the online universe to find content that matches users' identified interests. In addition to help making judgments, people are searching for help in finding information.
Indeed, they also may be looking for help of a more human nature – from, in fact, the very journalists whose influence they can, if they choose, escape online. Aside from the search engines, the most popular and widely used sites on the Web include many of those produced by employees of traditional media outlets, from CNN to USA Today to ESPN. People are even willing to pay $49 a year for access to the online Wall Street Journal. In other words, they are turning to their favorite selectors, organizers and packagers of information – ones whose brand identity they know and, at least to some extent, trust. Matt Drudge, the pseudonymous online scribe who boasts of having no editor, also has no credibility.
Michael Schudson began his recent book, The Power of News [(1995)], by inviting readers to imagine a world in which everyone is able to deliver information directly to everyone else through a computer, a world in which everyone can be his or her own journalist. He suggests that people would quickly become desperate to figure out which sources were legitimate and would soon be begging for help in sorting through the endless information. Furthermore, he said, they would prefer to have that help come from a source who was at least relatively savvy about what all those other people were talking about, relatively nonpartisan and therefore relatively trustworthy.
Journalism, in short, would pretty quickly be reinvented.
The world Schudson describes is, of course, more or less the world in which we live, one in which every politician, advertiser, hobbyist and lunatic is able to communicate with us directly through our computers. So perhaps it is time to revisit gate-keeping theory in this new environment. Though the role is undoubtedly changing, it seems unlikely to lose all relevance any time soon. Potential questions for additional intellectual exploration might include:
- *Who are the gate keepers online? What attributes or skills will online gate keepers need?
- *How does the concept of news judgment, which underlies gate-keeping theory, change as the media change? Does it become a matter of personal taste or does it encompass a broader, more public-minded component?
- *If users do want gate keepers – at least of some sort, at least some of the time – what sorts of functions might those gate keepers perform? Do users prefer that role be performed by humans or by software? Are the ideal functions different for each?
- *The original need for gate-keeping journalists, in White's conception and the studies that followed his, came about because of the limited space (or time, for broadcasters) available in traditional media. Online media such as the Internet have unlimited space. Are there other limits, such as the user's time and patience, or the media organization's resources, that create comparable constraints? If so, how can they best be handled?
- *How is the gate-keeping function influenced by the interactive nature of this medium? For instance, “push” technology lets users specify their interests and receive updates about them in an e- mailbox. There is already concern that online journalists' news decisions are being perhaps unduly influenced by user feedback [(Tucher, 1997)]. Will those influences continue to escalate?
A re-examination of gate-keeping theory, then, can generate questions that are both plentiful and meaty. They offer opportunities to connect some of the existing scholarly emphasis on online users to studies whose focus lies within the newsroom. The following two approaches also can shine light in the same vicinity.
Diffusion of Innovation
Diffusion of innovation, a theory applied most directly to communication studies by Rogers [(1995)] and those who have built on his work, deals specifically with the spread of change through a social system; it therefore is a natural for this field of study. Again, much of the emphasis has been on diffusion among members of the media audience, ranging from an exploration of readership characteristics of early adopters [(Schweitzer, 1991)] to the degree to which the Internet is being incorporated into consumers' information-gathering patterns [(Stempel and Hargrove, 1996)] to a examination of likely predictors of personal computer adoption ([Lin, 1997], and earlier work). Studies within the newsroom also have been undertaken; the adoption of such new technologies as computer pagination, to offer an example from the world of print journalism, has received considerable attention (see, for instance, Russial, ; Underwood, Giffard and Stamm, ).
Researchers also have begun to trace the use of computers within the newsroom for a variety of information-gathering tasks, from data analysis [(Friend, 1994)] to searches of online records [(Davenport, Fico and Weinstock, 1996)]. Garrison, who did extensive earlier work with the adoption of computer-assisted reporting, has been at the forefront of efforts to trace the increasing use of the Internet and other interactive media by journalists ([Garrison, 1997a], [1997b]). He has documented, among other things, a steady rise in the use of online information sources by reporters and a strong perception that such sources can be valuable journalistic tools.
Studies such as these provide solid data from within the newsroom, involving changes in journalists' use of and attitudes toward new communication technology, on which to continue building. More explicitly theoretical approaches would enable researchers to draw connections with the diffusion of other innovations, particularly within a fairly narrowly defined social system such as that created by journalism professionals. Studies such as those cited above indicate that the use and acceptance of online media are spreading, but we don't have a clear picture of just how that process is taking place. Specific aspects of diffusion theory raise a number of questions that have not yet been addressed.
For example, innovations likely to gain a more rapid acceptance are those perceived as having a high relative advantage, or as being better than the idea they supersede, and as being highly compatible with the existing values of potential adopters. What are the perceived advantages of online information sources over more traditional news-gathering methods? How do such sources mesh with the value that journalists continue to place on investigating government claims – or on avoiding stories with unverified content, a media role deemed “extremely important” by almost half the journalists in Weaver and Wilhoit's [(1996)] latest study?
The role of opinion leaders, individuals within a social system who provide informal information and advice about innovations to others within the system, also raises intriguing questions. Who are the people within the newsroom whom others will follow? And what gives them the social status that marks them as leaders in this area? Are they the same people seen as leaders in other facets of newsroom life, or do different opinion leaders emerge for technological innovations? For instance, the investigative reporters who are already at the top of the newsroom food chain may now be winning prizes for stories based on online sources, stimulating interest in other reporters seeking to advance. Or leaders may simply emerge as random individuals, perhaps caught up in the diffusion of computer-based media outside the newsroom, become excited and spread the word among their colleagues. Or maybe the opinion leaders are journalists at other media outlets, such as the ones that serve as either real or ideal destinations for large numbers of working professionals: “If it's good enough for The New York Times, it's good enough for me.” What role, if any, do reports carried in trade journals play? The answers to such questions are not just of academic interest; they have significant implications for managers seeking to encourage adoption of computer-based tools.
These are examples of diffusion-related questions to ask in looking within the newsroom at journalists' use of interactive media to carry out traditional functions, primarily reporting. But journalists are beginning to use interactive media not only to gather information but also to disseminate it. There are numerous questions to be raised relating to diffusion of the idea of online media services as acceptable places for journalists to work. Indications are that online journalists have not yet achieved parity with their traditional peers. Some report being denied equal access to news events [(Quick, 1997)]. Pay and benefits for a media outlet's online staff vary widely, but online staffers often are young and relatively inexperienced, and their compensation reflects that status. How to treat them is a subject of ongoing debate among union and management negotiators in many newsrooms [(“On-Line: Guild Work, Guild Jurisdiction,” 1996)]. In general, traditional journalists have seemed reluctant, in these early years, to consider online counterparts as peers. Among the questions that spring from this situation are:
- *How does acceptance of the idea of working in a non-traditional environment diffuse within the traditional newsroom? Again, who are the opinion leaders, and what factors are significant in the process? Right now is an ideal time to launch studies in this because right now is when the process is occurring … or not. Are online media going to become separate entities, as television became separate from print? Or will they become arms of existing media forms?
- *Can the innovation-decision process for new or current journalists considering a career in interactive media be identified? Rogers [(1995)] lists a series of steps, starting with knowledge and ending with implementation and confirmation. What do these steps look like for journalists faced with a new wrinkle on their jobs and professional roles? What factors might affect where an individual is in this adoption sequence?
- *Another key element of diffusion theory is the idea of reinvention, or the degree to which an innovation is modified as it is adopted and implemented. What sorts of reinventions – of roles, of content, of values, of practices – are taking place as journalists become involved in online delivery of information?
- *Ultimately, Rogers suggests, the components involved in the diffusion process come down to an evaluation of consequences: What will happen if an innovation is adopted or rejected? Today's journalists are, consciously or not, weighing that question in considering whether to become involved in online media. A better understanding of the factors that go into that judgment may lead to a better understanding not just of tomorrow's media but of today's media, as well.
Such questions only scratch the surface of possibilities for applying diffusion theory to the exploration of how journalists and journalism are affected by interactive media. But even this brief overview raises questions that point to a third fruitful approach to studying the changing newsroom environment, drawing on a different body of work.
Sociology of News Work
When communication researchers look at the culture of journalism, they begin to ask sociological questions. One of the best contemporary articulators of the sociology of news has been Gaye Tuchman, who has provided an in-depth look at the ways that journalists make news. Tuchman builds on the idea that reality is socially constructed [(Berger and Luckmann, 1967)] to propose that news itself is a social institution – an institutionally developed and sanctioned method of making information available to an audience [(Tuchman, 1978)].
But many of the constructs that she has identified, and other researchers have built on, are tied to traditional media; they may well be challenged by new media forms. For example, she proposed the existence of an invisible but very real “news net” that emphasizes stories that can be placed in time (for instance, ahead of the medium's deadline but not so far ahead that the story will be “old” by the time it is published or broadcast) and space (for instance, events that occur in public, and thus easily accessible, places). The result is that journalists apprehend reality in small pieces; the emphasis tends to be on “the concrete, the particular and the individual as opposed to the structural, the abstract and the universal” [(Phillips, 1976, 89)]. Interactive media have the potential to tear huge holes in this news net. Deadlines are erased – or, perhaps more accurately, become continuous. Geographical territory becomes globally expandable; in terms of news beats, the move toward rejection of the tangible (city hall, the courthouse, the schools) in favor of the thematic (politics, law, education) accelerates.
Indeed, a great many facets of news work seem vulnerable to technological change, or at least to change hastened by the spread of online technology and online media forms. Journalists have reported feeling isolated from their audience, either by tradition, choice or circumstances such as odd working hours [(Burgoon et al., 1987)]; how does the interactive nature of online media affect this isolation? As far back as the 1950s, researchers documented the fact that journalists assimilate the norms of the profession not just from people in their immediate environment but from influential others, particularly from more prestigious practitioners of their craft [(Breed, 1955)]. With the Internet, journalists have at their fingertips every influential news organization not just in the nation but on the planet; does that expanded, easily accessible reference group affect their work in any identifiable way? Are news values such as those outlined by media sociologist Herbert Gans [(1979)] almost a generation ago, such as journalists' underlying belief in moderatism and social order, affected by the ease with which proponents of outlying, even revolutionary, views can be found and communicated with online? How about the effect that companies such as Microsoft, which has matured and prospered well outside the realm of journalism, will have on traditional media practitioners, as information products such as the “Sidewalk” city sites spread across the country?
The questions about whether the process of making news is different online – and, if so, the nature of that difference – go on and on, but few media scholars have begun to seek the answers yet. At least one reason may be that for most news organizations, the process currently is not very different at all. Online newsroom staffs tend to be small [(Harper, 1996)]. “Shovelware,” content simply lifted from its printed or broadcast form and shoveled wholesale onto the Internet, still dominates the sites produced by most media outlets. But the more successful media ventures into cyberspace, the ones backed by institutions committed to spending resources on online staffs and products before they turn a profit, are offering unique, often highly interactive content that clearly takes some effort to create. The Chicago Tribune, for instance, has a staff of well over 100 people working on its online service, which it sees as an alternative news-gathering and news-producing entity, just as WGN-TV is separate from the newspaper. Its managers label interactivity as the “change element” that, while it may make some journalists uncomfortable, means “we can no longer hide behind the Gothic facade of the Tribune Tower. We have to be responsible, ready to hear what people say” [(Youngman, 1997)]. In fact, interactivity is only one aspect of the way the production and construction of news may be changing. The very nature of storytelling may shift because of this new media form; hypertext may challenge the journalistic role by creating a personally involving narrative experience that brings “a more flexible and profound understanding of issues than many people are currently able to get as a practical matter from existing media” [(Fredin, 1997, 39)].
Changes in the nature of storytelling may point to more subtle changes in the sociology of news work, changes in the ways journalists perceive themselves and their jobs. A recent study by Arant and Meyer [(1997)] indicates sensitivity to ethical concerns is increasing in today's college-educated newsrooms. Weaver and Wilhoit's latest study [(1996)] also found strongly held ethical beliefs – beliefs that may be challenged by the ease of shedding constraints online. To cite just one example, about 80 percent of the journalists in the Indiana researchers' national survey said they would never pretend to be somebody else in order to gather information. But online, in a faceless community whose members are cloaked in virtual anonymity, it is remarkably easy to assume other identities. It takes even less effort to simply listen in, undetected, to discussions that can be chock-full of sensational quotes – electronic eavesdropping (roundly criticized by respondents in the Arant and Meyer study) with a vengeance. Public denunciations of such practices have begun to be issued by ethicists familiar with interactive media (for instance, [Bruckman, 1997]), but there have been no published academic studies exploring their effect of such capabilities on journalistic practice.
Issues related to media management objectives, notably those relating to current or future profitability of online ventures, also can be placed under the “media sociology” category. Though these certainly affect working journalists, often in direct ways, there are at least four other broad categories of questions that relate directly to the ways in which the social construction and practice of journalism may be affected by interactive media and their attendant sociological and cultural changes. All offer promising, and as yet largely untrod, avenues for scholarly exploration, many in connection with the diffusion or gate-keeping theories discussed above:
- *The conceptualization of news. How is the definition of what constitutes a news story affected by changes in the delivery mechanism through which it reaches the public? And are there changes in the way the story, once defined, is actually told?
- *The process of news-gathering and dissemination. What effect do interactive media forms have on newsroom routines of collecting and disseminating information? What traditional methods apply in the online world, and what new ones are emerging?
- *The careers and career paths of journalists. What sorts of jobs do online journalists do? Do online management structures resemble those of traditional newsrooms, or are they different? What sorts of backgrounds do online journalists bring to their jobs; are they socialized as journalists or do they identify more strongly with other professions? What advancement opportunities are available to them? Who are their role models and reference groups? As a community, does the online newsroom differ in significant ways from the traditional one?
- *Values of online journalists, including prevailing ethics and professional norms. What sorts of ethical issues do they face, and how do they respond (or think they should respond)? How does the nature of interactive technology affect perceptions of what professional behavior is proper or desirable? Do online staffers feel pressures less commonly felt by journalists in traditional newsrooms – for instance, from commercial clients or users?
These sorts of questions suggest a broad conceptualization of journalists' jobs and roles within the “society” created by their profession. The final foundation that researchers may find valuable looks at their role within the larger society to which they belong.
A number of varied theoretical and conceptual approaches deal with the connection between the journalist and society as a whole, many of them using media-effects models and others with a wider scope. Agenda-setting theory suggests that although the media do not tell people what to think, they do tell people what to think about and perhaps even how to think about it ([McCombs and Shaw, 1972]; see also [McCombs, 1992]). Another tack has been taken in the 1990s by proponents of civic or public journalism, variously defined but generally encompassing the idea that journalists can and should use the power of their institution to bring about specific beneficial changes for members of their audience.
A different, broader perspective has come from the contributions of cultural studies scholars to our understanding of the interaction among communication, technology and social change. Although Marshall McLuhan – newly resurrected as the “patron saint” of Wired magazine – may be the household name, some of the most interesting writing on this topic has come from more recent and more cogent examinations of technology as an agency that alters ideas themselves. Among the key thinkers about the connections between communication and culture is James Carey, who suggests that “computer time, computer space and computer memory, notions we dimly understand, are reworking practical consciousness, coordinating and controlling life” in today's world (Carey, 1989, 229).
The fourth approach suggested by this paper to the study of how journalists and journalism may be changing in a new media environment draws on all of these, as well as on the three foundations already discussed, most notably the idea of the journalist as sense-maker. It does not yet have a formal name; “social cohesion” is suggested here merely as a starting point. It seeks to explore the idea of the media as a potential force of cohesion in a period of rapidly accelerating social fragmentation augmented in part (as other such periods have been in the past) by technological change. It is, perhaps, a more philosophical framework than those previously cited, yet it lends itself to exploration through the methods of social science.
The knowbot, or digital truffle hog referred to earlier, can quite happily burrow through the World Wide Web and find anything there is to find about whatever topic it has been sent in search of. It is, in a way, a personal gate keeper, screening out everything its master has indicated no interest in. But CNN and The Los Angeles Times and other traditional journalistic entities perform a far more important service beyond that search-and-retrieve function. They are – contrary to the bad reputation of the cynical, divisive, back-biting “media”– vital forces of social and cultural connection. Though a number of media organizations are now offering customization options on their Web sites, their traditional function has been to convey information of general, rather than personal, importance.
At a general level, two major avenues of thought run through much of the current writing about interactive media from an audience perspective. Both are equally valid although they have so far been driven at from quite different theoretical directions. One is to look at the Web as the ultimate in individualism, a medium with the capability to empower the individual in terms of both the information he or she seeks and the information he or she creates. This mind set often leads researchers to apply uses and gratifications theory, though there are other possibilities; an example might be Stephenson's play theory, the idea that people use media because doing so is pleasurable in and of itself [(Stephenson, 1988)].
The other avenue of thought looks at the Web as the ultimate in community-building and enrichment. People can forge links online in ways that have never been possible through traditional media – or, given the costs and other logistical concerns, through any medium of communication, from telephone to satellite. With these attributes in mind, researchers draw on everything from network analysis approaches to investigations of Markus' [(1991)] critical mass idea to explorations of social conformity and the formation of normative groups online.
But online, even when one is talking about a community, the community is one defined and selected by an individual. Individuals choose which communities of interest they want to be a part of online. In doing so, they also choose which communities they do not want to be a part of, what they choose not to be interested in. That choice can lead to powerful bonds, the formation of personally relevant connections with no geographic or other logistical limitations, the building of bridges in an updated incarnation of McLuhan's “global village” (though one that still excludes those who cannot pay the hefty toll) and all those other attributes that aficionados of the “virtual community” (see [Rheingold, 1993)] like to point out.
But there is a danger if those are the only communities that people choose to identify with. And it's a danger that journalism has always been a buffer against. Journalism, or maybe more specifically, news – whether in traditional or new interactive forms – offers communities of interest defined more broadly, or at least differently. Communities of news are defined largely on a social unity based on geography – by, in a major way, the traditional news value of proximity. One of the benefits of the Web is that through it, people can break the bonds of geography; they can “meet” and “talk” electronically, if not face to face, with people with similar interests all over the world. But there is something to be said for maintaining ties to a geographical place, to a home that becomes spiritual partly because of the simple fact that it is physical. That home includes not only people who are just like us but people who are not just like us. Both history and literature indicate that one of the things people seek as they mature – be they people as individuals or people in the sense of a society or a culture – is rootedness, a connection to a place that is a home.
And so while the communities of interest that people can form online are valuable and potentially rewarding, users do still need to know about the place where they live, the other people who live there and the events that affect them all. That need is equally valid whether geographic place is defined as a city or a state or a nation or even an entire planet. And it is a need that is filled by the traditional media, by the local news radio station, the metropolitan newspaper, the national TV network news broadcast.
There is an opportunity, then, for researchers to synthesize a theoretical approach that explores the role of journalism as a community builder – not exclusively in the pro-active way that civic journalism envisions but also in the sense that community building is inherent in the nature of journalism itself. Journalism does address an audience that is composed of a multi-individual public, collectively rather than personally defined. That is not a minus; it is a plus. News, in particular, relates to a geographic community, however narrowly (the town) or broadly (the nation or even the world) that community is defined. In a way, our communities are delimited by the circulation area of our favorite newspaper, the reach of our local network affiliates; our community is made up of the people the print and broadcast journalists talk to and about. And while people may choose to seek information online about whatever happens to interest them as individuals, they also need information about what interests them as inhabitants of a real, physical place.
They especially need it in a period, such as the current one, of increasing social fragmentation. There is a trend among the media and the texts they carry – from niche magazines, to cable and direct broadcast satellite, to the Web – to contribute mightily to that fragmentation. Economic feasibility, fueled by technological capability, enables and encourages appeals to audience segments in smaller and smaller, more and more narrowly defined units. The Web takes that to the ultimate, for now, extreme. There probably are no two people among the millions online who use it exactly the same way.
Indeed, a number of traditional media are using their online sites to facilitate this individual customization. At the same time, entrepreneurs are developing services such as PointCast and the Personal News Page that will draw selected information, and only selected information, from among the most trustworthy of those traditional news sources. Still other products, such as the Massachusetts Institute of Technology's student-developed “FishWrap,” allow subscribers to choose both what they want to see and what they think all other subscribers should also see – a community creating its own shared interests on the fly [(Harper, 1997)]. Even in the exuberance over computer-aided individuation, there is a perceived need for a base of common knowledge. And the source of that common knowledge continues to be the traditional media, albeit wearing new clothes stitched of bits rather than atoms.
What theories, then, might be useful in a scientific exploration of this inherent attribute of journalism in creating and maintaining a communally shared knowledge base? Returning to the ideas used to introduce the start of this section, here are a few suggestions:
- *Agenda-setting. How do Internet users think about particular issues as compared with non-users? Almost everyone still gets at least some information from traditional media; most users still get the vast majority of their news from printed and televised sources ([Stempel and Hargrove, 1996]; see also [“One in 10 Voters,” 1996], for a discussion of use of the Internet as a political information source during the 1996 election). Can we begin to identify discernible differences in perceived salience among those who also use customized services and those who don't?
Another approach might lead researchers to explore what effect, if any, access to vastly expanded information within the newsroom is having on journalists. The wire services were their primary link to the outside world until very recently, but the wires provide a world view solidly within the social construct of journalism; a whole lot of different constructs are available through the Internet.
Still another approach might involve looking at differences between online and traditional-format products provided by the same media outlet. Are different stories given more prominent display? Regional or local newspapers, for example, may see their online franchise as being authorities in a relatively small market and choose to downplay or even ignore national or international stories in their online “editions,” perhaps merely offering links to wire service feeds rather than performing the traditional wire editor role as gate keeper to the world. If so, can we identify any agenda differences among online and “offline” readers of a single media company's products?
- *Cultural studies. Journalists and journalism are both the products and the generators of the culture in which they exist. As such, they are inextricably bound up in the technologies of that culture, technologies that affect not just what we do and how we do it, but what we think – and how we do that. How does technology – this technology, interactive, non-linear, instantaneous, multi-sensory – affect the culture of journalism?
To offer just one example, we have a great deal of information about journalists' traditional news values and their processes of deciding what news is. There is both historical and contemporary concern about the influence of market forces on those decisions. But the “market” has been defined largely in the abstract, with perceived influences coming from such aggregations as corporate stockholders, audience shares and advertising revenue. Interactive media potentially personalize that market, with individual audience members able to do everything from e-mailing reporters about particular stories to “voting” on the types of stories they want to see. How are journalists responding to these new pressures? Do audience members now have a greatly expanded ability to determine what news is? If so, how is that ability changing the nature of news and the relatively broad, community-based context in which it has traditionally been defined?
- *Civic journalism. Although we have yet to fully explore the details, it would be hard to argue that technology is not somehow affecting journalists and journalism. How, then, does the technologically affected culture of journalism affect the larger community that it has, at least traditionally, helped to cohere? How can journalists best continue to form their traditional service of providing the links that bind citizens in a functioning democracy together?
Given their ability to connect users and to organize social efforts, interactive media offer unparalleled opportunities for the active, problem-solving approaches to community problems that public journalism proponents recommend; to date, none apparently has been tried. Is the online “community” so individuated that a sense of civic identity or purpose has been lost? Or is that identity simply being redefined, perhaps in a way that leaves journalists – already suffering from an abominable public image (see, among many other studies, [Fitzsimon and McGill, 1995]) and seen by many as part of the problem rather than the solution – out of the new definition?
The questions about online journalism have many facets, and multi-disciplinary, wide-ranging approaches may work best in attempting to answer them. The foundations offered here are just potential starting points. Interactive media offer a wonderful opportunity for researchers to learn from, and build on, theories and ideas from all kinds of fields – even ideas that may at first seem to be from left field! The message of the liberal arts training with which most communication students and scholars are imbued is that there are innumerable ways of asking many of the same essential questions about where we came from, where we find ourselves today and where we're going. The issues raised by this new form of communication in general and journalism in particular invite us not only to make better use of what we already know but also to be open to new way of asking those vital questions.