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Abstract

  1. Top of page
  2. RésuméResumenZhaiYaoYo yak
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical framework: online journalism as an open innovation process
  5. Interactivity as an online journalism myth: a recontextualized literature review
  6. Case studies: interactivity in online newsrooms daily life
  7. Discussion: interactivity in context
  8. Conclusion: implications and further research
  9. References

This article analyzes interactivity in online journalism as a powerful myth with which journalists have to deal in their daily work. A constructivist approach to media innovation is used to explore the historical origins of the myth that predicted interactivity would change journalism and to confront it with the actual practices of online media projects through published empirical research and four case studies selected from an average European regional market. The analysis of the cases is based on ethnography of online newsrooms working routines and in-depth interviews with reporters, editors and web developers. The actual role of the myth of interactivity in shaping the development of these four online news projects is discussed taking into account the material and organizational context of the newsrooms. Findings suggest that the professional culture of traditional journalism has a strong inertia in the online newsrooms that prevents them from developing most of the ideals of interactivity, as they do not fit in the standardized news production routines.

Résumé

Interactivity in the daily routines of online newsrooms: dealing with an uncomfortable myth

This article analyzes interactivity in online journalism as a powerful myth with which journalists have to deal in their daily work. A constructivist approach to media innovation is used to explore the historical origins of the myth that predicted interactivity would change journalism and to confront it with the actual practices of online media projects through published empirical research and four case studies selected from an average European regional market. The analysis of the cases is based on ethnography of online newsrooms working routines and in-depth interviews with reporters, editors and web developers. The actual role of the myth of interactivity in shaping the development of these four online news projects is discussed taking into account the material and organizational context of the newsrooms. Findings suggest that the professional culture of traditional journalism has a strong inertia in the online newsrooms that prevents them from developing most of the ideals of interactivity, as they do not fit in the standardized news production routines.

Resumen

La Interactividad en las Rutinas Diarias de la Salas de Redacción de Noticias Online: Tratando con un Mito Incómodo

Este artículo analiza la interactividad en el periodismo online como un mito poderoso con el cual los periodistas tienen que tratar en su trabajo cotidiano. Un enfoque constructivista de la innovación de los medios fue usado para explorar los orígenes históricos del mito que predijeron la interactividad cambiaría al periodismo y para confrontarlo con las prácticas corrientes de los proyectos de los medios online a través de investigaciones empíricas publicadas y cuatro estudios de caso seleccionados de un promedio del mercado regional Europeo. Este análisis de los casos es basado en etnografías de las salas de redacción online trabajando en sus rutinas y de entrevistas en profundidad con reporteros, editores y creadores de la red. El rol actual del mito de la interactividad en el desarrollo de estos 4 proyectos de noticias online es discutido teniendo en cuenta el material y el contexto organizacional de las salas de redacción. Los resultados sugieren que la cultura profesional del periodismo tradicional tiene una inercia ponderosa sobre las salas de redacción de noticias previniéndolas de desarrollar muchos de los ideales de interactividad, dado que no encajan en las rutinas estandarizadas de la producción de noticias.

ZhaiYao

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Yo yak

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Introduction1

  1. Top of page
  2. RésuméResumenZhaiYaoYo yak
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical framework: online journalism as an open innovation process
  5. Interactivity as an online journalism myth: a recontextualized literature review
  6. Case studies: interactivity in online newsrooms daily life
  7. Discussion: interactivity in context
  8. Conclusion: implications and further research
  9. References

Weblogs and citizen media sites have revitalized the idea that the Internet will make journalism more dialogical, turning the audience into active collaborators of journalists’ news production work (Bruns, 2005). The buzzword in the 1990s was interactivity. Now it is participatory journalism. But the bottom line is the same: many professional and scholarly discourses tend to reproduce ideal models of what online journalism could be, taking them for granted as the path that news production on the Internet must walk. Empirical research has already offered evidence that the development of these ideals in online news sites tends to be limited (Kenney et al., 2000; Van der Wurff and Lauf, 2005) and has identified that there is “a gap between, on the one hand, online journalists’ perceptions of the Internet’s potential and, on the other hand, the actual use of interactive features” (Deuze et al., 2004: 22). The fact is that we know very little about how online journalists deal with interactivity in their daily working routines and what is the rationale behind the development of interactive options on online news sites.

This article advocates refocusing the analytical lens of online journalism studies in order to explore these questions. Borrowing concepts from disciplines that have a long tradition of analyzing technological innovation processes –from Social Shaping of Technology to Communication History–, we can get a perspective that acknowledges that any development in online journalism is the consequence of decisions taken in specific newsrooms in particular circumstances by journalists that have a professional culture, knowledge and expectations about the Internet as a news medium. This exercise of “historicizing and localizing new media” (Boczkowski, 2004a: 146) and understanding innovation as an open process unlocks the assumption that interactivity is a necessary goal for online journalism and lets the researcher turn the assumption into part of the object of study. Following Mosco’s (2004) analysis of discourses on the Internet and the information society, this paper proposes that there is a myth of interactivity in online journalism, embedded in the mindset and discourses of online journalists. This shift in the analytical lens allows to problematize interactivity as a concept that interplays with other material (staff size, technical resources) and social (professional culture, work organization) factors in the shaping of online news projects.

An ethnographic study of four online newsrooms was used to develop and test this research approach. Through the analysis of the working routines of online journalists and their discourses about their jobs, material and social constraints shaping the development of interactivity were explored. Results suggest that despite the diversity of definitions and strategies regarding interactivity among the studied online newsrooms, the professional culture of traditional journalism prevails over the myth and turns it into a problem to deal with instead of an opportunity for change.

Theoretical framework: online journalism as an open innovation process

  1. Top of page
  2. RésuméResumenZhaiYaoYo yak
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical framework: online journalism as an open innovation process
  5. Interactivity as an online journalism myth: a recontextualized literature review
  6. Case studies: interactivity in online newsrooms daily life
  7. Discussion: interactivity in context
  8. Conclusion: implications and further research
  9. References

The use of the Internet as a new medium for news diffusion motivated in the 1990s a strong wave of hope for change among journalists and scholars critical to the professional vices of the mass media industry. Authors decried the “waning of classical journalism” (Dahlgren, 1996:61) due to the business logic of media, the mixing of entertainment and information, the fragmentation of audiences and, mostly important, the self-referential nature of news production, more and more detached from the citizens’ concerns (Dahlgren, 1996; Hall, 2001:155; Lowrey and Anderson, 2005). Internet features such as its distributed anti-hierarchical network structure and multi-directional communication capabilities (Newhagen and Levy, 1998) were seen as the perfect triggers for a revolution that would bring “a fundamental transformation” of journalism (Pavlik, 2001:xi) and get it back to its original public service rationale. “Journalists and researchers alike seem to have developed some kind of (un)conscious consensus,” concluded Deuze in an early literature review (1999:385): interactivity, hypertext and multimedia were identified as the keywords to describe the changes the Internet will produce in journalism.

In order to fully understand current trends in online journalism, researchers need to put these ideals and their proponents into their historical context. While in the last decades Communication Studies has borrowed “sophisticated conceptual language and grounded methods” from Science and Technology Studies (Boczkowski and Lievrouw, 2007:3) in order to address technological innovation as an object of study, research on journalism has seldom taken such steps (Cottle, 2000:33; Boczkowski, 2004b:199). The rich tradition of newsroom ethnographies started in the 1970s (see Tuchman, 2002), which thoroughly analyzed the professional culture and working routines, needs new conceptual tools for a “second wave” (Cottle, 2000) that could study the current changes in journalism with the same critical attitude as journalistic culture was analyzed by those earlier ethnographers. In this section, the concept of myth applied by Mosco (2004) to the Internet as a technological innovation and the theoretical contributions of the research on Social Shaping of Technology and Communication History are used to place the utopian discourses regarding online journalism in the context of the actual development of online news, and explore their role in that process.

Myths

“Myths are stories that animate individuals and societies by providing paths to transcendence that lift people out of the banality of everyday life. They offer an entrance to another reality (…). Myths are not true or false, but living or dead” (Mosco, 2004:3). Online journalism has its own myths, proposals that tell the path to make the profession better, and they are surely alive. They have served as models for online newsrooms and scholars alike, to define products and working routines, training courses and research, even after the so-called “dotcom crash” at the beginning of the 2000s (see Bardoel, 2002).

The underlying “technological utopianism” (Katz, 2005) in these discourses on online journalism (Boczkowski, 2002:279) is quite a natural and historically coherent reaction to innovation: Since the beginning of the modern era, Western societies have tended to define technology as a leading force for social change, creating utopian (or dystopian) discourses on the benefits (and risks) of every new technology, believing they will be automatic consequences of the social adoption of the invention2. The Internet was also welcomed with myths about “the end of history, the end of geography and the end of politics” (Mosco, 2004:13). Journalism could not be set apart of this hope for change, and online journalism developed surrounded by many myths (re)produced in professional magazines, scholarly publications and conferences through the 1990s.

Talking about the Internet in general, Mosco argued that we need “to understand these myths in order to develop a deeper appreciation of the power and the limitations of computer communication” (2004:13). By understanding why the myths are created, what they mean to people and why they survive the proof of the harsh reality, we can make explicit the political and social program that lies beneath the myths and help to develop it from a much more solid base. Online journalism myths can be interpreted as a program for creating a more transparent, comprehensive and dialogical reporting that would strengthen democratic participation in plural societies. If we agree that this is a worthy aim, then we need to know more about the real context in which it has been formulated and adopted, so we can take the right decisions to make it real.

Rhetorical closure

Social Shaping of Technology3 (SST) has usually researched the social context of engineering inventions and how different social groups give different meanings to the same technology and decide its uses and rules (Williams and Edge, 1996; Lievrouw, 2006). Their main point is that there is always a degree of interpretative flexibility in any new technology, and different relevant social groups will put forward their definitions of the innovation trying to make them accepted by the rest of the group, achieving rhetorical closure (Bijker, 1995:46-). We can understand the myths of online journalism as proposed definitions for the development of the Internet as a news medium. Due to their powerful mythical construction, they were very pervasive in gaining the “consensus” detected by Deuze (1999) among all the relevant actors (media executives, journalists, scholars), but empirical research showed that this discursive hegemony was not easily incorporated into the actual development of news websites and online newsrooms routines. The reasons for this contradiction were empirically explored in the ethnographic study presented in this article, and will be discussed later.

Online journalism myths can, therefore, be understood as a socially constructed discourse that was shaped under the historical context of the social adoption of the Internet and the crisis of the social role of journalism. The myths do not naturally derive from the technological features of the Internet even if they are formulated like if they actually were: the features of the network are just (again) the social construction of a very flexible technology and therefore could have been different and have actually evolved over time (Abbate, 1999). Online journalism myths are the adaptation to journalism of the ideology of the “open Internet,” which was not, and still is not, the only interpretation available for the technology (Flichy, 1999). They are the meeting point between 1) the technoutopian paradigm of those who developed the Internet thinking that it would help the world to be more democratic by opening up the access to knowledge sharing and 2) the critical discourses on the crisis of journalism as public service in the era of entertainment (Dahlgren, 1996).

Inscription and translation

Taking SST to the field of anthropology with the help of semiotics, the Actor-Network Theory (ANT) offers a compelling framework to explain the dynamics of innovation (Callon, 1987; Latour, 2005). I cannot discuss the theory in full here nor debate some of its controversial proposals, but I will highlight the concepts that can be useful to answer the contradiction stated in the previous section. For ANT, every element (persons, institutions, material artifacts) related to a technological innovation is an actor in the process of defining it: while human actors propose definitions of a technology, material actors may limit the spectrum of possible definitions with their own material limitations. Actors are part of a network of relationships that shape the innovation. Inventors of the technology embed some expectations in the design of the artifact, i.e. there is an inscription (Akrich, 1992) of potential users, uses and rules. This may direct the actual uses, but the network of actors involved in the development of the technology is often complex and full of tensions. In the process of social adoption of the innovation, each actor in the network does an active (but usually unconscious) exercise of simplification of the whole structure of relations and competing definitions in order to be able to integrate the innovation “into the context of their specific work tasks and situations” (Monteiro, 2000:77). This process of adapting the definitions (uses, expectations) of a technology to the own needs of each actor is what ANT labels as translation.

To construct their proposals on what online journalism could be, the earlier proponents took the definitions inscribed in the features of the technology (hypertext, interactivity, multimedia) by the first developers and users. Those mythical definitions where then translated by each online newsroom to fit them into their working routines and professional culture. To explore this process, ANT would suggest an ethnographic approach based on specific case studies, to guarantee that the researcher is able to put actors’ decisions in the context (network) of their material and organizational circumstances. Obviously the network extends beyond the online newsroom to the rest of the company, the competitors, the professional literature and meetings; but without the “thick description” (Geertz, 1973; Lindlof and Taylor, 2002:16) of the smaller networks that are online newsrooms in the full actor network of online journalism, we would miss the most crucial moment of the translation of the myths into practical decisions for the organization of online news production.

The ‘law’ of the suppression of radical potential

From a closer perspective to journalism research, Communication History has stressed that technologies are a product of society: there is a social context where they are invented, which determines the “intention” of the researchers in developing them (Williams, 1975:7), and a social context where they are adopted, in which users negotiate with the proposed definitions of the technology to adapt them to their needs and adapt themselves to the requirements (see also Flichy, 2006). In the context of this process of “mutual shaping of technological and social change” (Boczkowski, 2004b:209), Winston (1998:11) suggested that there is a ‘law’ in “the histories of all telecommunications technologies”: there is empirical evidence that actions for the suppression of radical potential have been triggered by every innovation in mass communication. This resistance to change by the media institutions has allowed them to have enough time to adapt and change without losing their main attributes and power, thus suppressing the potentially dangerous effects of a radical innovation.

The analysis carried out by historians and sociologists of the media suggests that, despite of the wide diffusion of the myths of online journalism, the actual logic of media companies when entering the global network had more to do with mass communication than with the horizontal sharing of knowledge (Christopher, 1998; Riley et al., 1998; Scott, 2005). They mainly tried to reproduce the production model that was applied to the press or broadcasting, the one that they knew well. However, Boczkowski pointed out: “On the other hand, the cumulative transformations should not be underestimated. (…) It appears that in a relentless pursuit of permanence, newspapers ended up undertaking substantial change” (2004c:52). From the perspective of Winston’s ‘law’, the initial conservative attitude guaranteed the suppression of the radical potential of the Internet and let the media explore its possibilities inside the framework of their existing professional culture.

The theoretical concepts reviewed in this section have in common that they share a constructivist approach to innovation, which is understood as an open process that can have different outcomes in different settings. That is the best antidote to explore the myths of online journalism as a historical phenomenon that played a role in the development of online media.

Interactivity as an online journalism myth: a recontextualized literature review

  1. Top of page
  2. RésuméResumenZhaiYaoYo yak
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical framework: online journalism as an open innovation process
  5. Interactivity as an online journalism myth: a recontextualized literature review
  6. Case studies: interactivity in online newsrooms daily life
  7. Discussion: interactivity in context
  8. Conclusion: implications and further research
  9. References

Interactivity –the power of the user of a medium to control the communication flow or even alter the message sent by the producer (Downes and McMillan, 2000)– has always been the epicenter of online journalism myths: “The fact that the response of –and interaction with– the audience is the key element of the online news site could allow for a cultural change in journalism” (Deuze, 1999:378). This section explores the historical origins of and the proposals on interactivity as a key feature of online journalism and then confronts these mythical discourses with the actual practices of online media projects through published empirical research.

The rationale for the construction of the myth of interactivity was what researchers identified as a phenomenon of “disintermediation” (Hall, 2001:53) fostered by the horizontally distributed technology of the Internet: if journalists would not start to listen to their audiences, online users might look for other spaces to share information in a more horizontal, many-to-many way. “Everyone becomes a content producer” (Punie et al., 2001:7) and journalists “may find themselves increasingly irrelevant, left behind by a new generation of communicators” (Seib, 2002:14). Other authors argued that the sheer amount of information available online actually made journalists more necessary than ever to filter what is relevant (Singer, 1997), although their functions and their relationship to the audience might change quite dramatically4. “Journalism evolves from the provision of facts to the provision of meaning,” proposed Bardoel (1996: 297). Whether or not these predictions finally become real changes in journalism as a profession, “increased transparency between readers and journalists may weaken the occupation’s authority” and make it easier to new actors such as bloggers to claim some of the functions that used to be a monopoly of journalism (Lowrey and Anderson, 2005).

At the origin of these radical redefinitions of journalism in the second half of the 1990s there are principles borrowed from the development of the concept of interactivity in CMC studies (Rafaeli, 1988; Steur, 1992) and ideals inspired in the libertarian philosophy of the 1980s pioneering netizens (Rosenzweig, 1998; Flichy, 1999) and the movement of public journalism (Glasser, 1999; Haas, 2007), critical to the growing distance between the media and society.

McMillan (2006) identified three levels of interaction in new media: user-to-user, user-to-document and user-to-system. Potential changes in online journalism under the impulse of interactivity relate to these various facets, ranging from content customization, to users’ feedback to reporters and users’ discussion of current events, and direct involvement of citizens in the production processes of news. The wide range of options referred to under the label of interactivity actually makes the concept a bit too elastic. Meikle (2002:32) borrowed from Tim Berners-Lee (1999:182-183) the term intercreativity to distinguish those processes that push interactivity to its furthest development, where users and producers are co-creators. Intercreativity has been used to describe citizen journalism initiatives, but in this article I stick to the concept of interactivity as it is the common token in professional discourses to refer to the different degrees of audience participation developed in online journalism.

Content customization

The digital management of news makes it technically possible to filter content on the basis of the preferences of each user. This empowers users, who are able to customize the product and consume it in the way that best suits their needs (Kenney et al., 2000; Pavlik, 2001:22). Several authors stated concerns about the consequences of customization in a somewhat dystopian discourse: the social cohesive role of mass media might be in danger (Dahlgren, 1996:92; Jankowski and Van Selm, 2000:87). The use of RSS feeds and news aggregators can remove from the news diet of the citizens those current events that editors believe to be of general interest from journalistic criteria. Dahlgren wanted to believe that other forms of interactivity can compensate for the drawbacks of customization: “While such preselectivity may both eliminate elements of serendipity in user’s news experiences and further fragment the public, interactivity nonetheless does open up the potential for new relationships between journalists and their publics” (1996: 65).

Audience feedback

One of the specific materializations of these possibilities is enhanced audience feedback. The public availability of reporters’ email addresses on news websites, next to their news stories, turns readers and viewers into commentators, critics and collaborators. Even the old-fashioned letters to the editor have been sped up because they can now be submitted by email. The relationship between journalists and their audience can be richer, and for the first time reporters can systematically know what do their audiences expect from them (Deuze, 1999:378; Seib, 2002:89). Journalists have discovered that they are not the only watchdogs in the public sphere: Users can be the most demanding news quality checkers, pointing out wrong data or unsatisfactory coverage (Bowman and Willis, 2003:47). They can also be the eyes of the journalist, uncovering new hot topics and submitting first-hand accounts, photos and videos that can enhance a story.

Citizens’ debate

A second development that could counter the effects of customization and news aggregators is the promotion of citizens’ debate in online news sites, which bring to the public arena discussions that are often restricted to close family and friends (Kawamoto, 2003:13). Unlike mass media, the Internet can easily be a platform of many-to-many discussions, open to anybody and continued over time without limitations (Hall, 2001:53). This debate space can create solid virtual communities around news websites, increase user loyalty to the brand and increase knowledge of the audience’s mindset, interests and attitudes (Bowman and Willis, 2003:53). Journalists can take advantage of the content generated in the debates to decide what issues deserve more coverage, to explore new topics and to feed editorials.

Citizen journalists

Some authors push the interactivity myth a little bit further, to the limits of the concept. If online users can become “citizen journalists” (Gillmor, 2004), the media would better have them in the team rather than competing with them for the hard-earned reader attention: Users can be part of the professional news production process. The influential text We Media, by Bowman and Willis (2003) synthesized years of proposals about how to make this aspiration real. Online media can incorporate auto-publishing tools for NGO, and civic, cultural and sports associations so that they could produce news pieces in sections of the website. They can also encourage individuals to become neighborhood reporters or expert commentators on topics they are keen on. Journalists can also use the Internet to post the issues they are working on and to ask readers for personal experiences, ideas, data and suggestions that would improve the resulting news story.

Yet another step away from traditional journalism, advocated by pioneering online journalists, would be to transform the online publication (a unidirectional producer of news) into a fully horizontal virtual community, where sources/users (both will be readers and producers) would exchange information and opinions fluently (Guissani, 1997). In this context, journalists would just be the “conductors of the public debate” (Bardoel, 1996: 299), setting aside their monopoly as news producers. In this scenario, news would no longer be an “objective” story, but a heterogeneous narration made up of multiple voices (Bruns, 2005).

Participatory online journalism seems to be a very powerful and appealing myth, since it has emerged once again after being dismissed several times. The MUDIA Project (Punie et al., 2001; Punie, 2003) that analyzed new media developments in Europe moved participation of users in production from the first (in 1999) to the least (in 2001) important driving force in the evolution of online media. But the weblog phenomenon strongly reactivated the myth. Much of the discussion around weblogs has concentrated on defining whether this form of extremely easy personal publishing is or is not journalism, as it might finally make the theoretical many-to-many threat a reality (Matheson, 2004; Wall, 2005). Referential news websites have developed forms of participatory journalism (user weblogs, citizen stories) as part of their online presence in order to keep up with these trends. Again, online journalism is at a crossroads where myths seem to be the only possible path to the future, while empirical research shows that online editors still feel “uncomfortable” about it (Chung, 2007; Hermida and Thurman, in press).

What empirical research tells

Surveys of online journalists clearly show that they strongly adhere to the myth of interactivity: “More than two-thirds of the Flemish respondents believe that the future of online news production lies in interactivity” (Deuze et al., 2004: 22). In the Netherlands, 73 per cent “support the claim that building a stronger and interactive relationship with the public is the best way to do online journalism” (2004: 24). However, online news sites analyses show that the development of interactive features defined in the online journalism myths is generally poor. Kenney et al. (2000) measured several dimensions of interactivity through elements in the home page of 100 online news sites from around the world (62% were US based). The average level of interactivity was low and did not allow users to influence significantly on their information consumption experience. The aim of interactive elements was, in the eyes of the researchers, “to attract users’ attention.”Quinn and Trench (2002) found similar results in a cross-European comparison of 24 news websites and pointed out that purely-online news media ranked a little bit higher in interactivity features than those linked to traditional media.

Forums, the most commonly analyzed feature, were not a common option in 1999: 33% US online newspapers provided them (Schultz, 1999), 20% in Asian news sites (Massey and Levy, 1999). In the global sample of Kenney et al. (2000) only 17% of the sites had forums, while half of the Flemish sample of Paulussen (2004) offered this feature in 2000. Van der Wurff and Lauf (2005) stated that only 40% of the websites of the leading newspapers of sixteen European countries had a user forum in 2003. Interviews with US online editors (Paul, 2005) and content analysis of thirteen European online newspapers (Fortunati et al., 2005) highlighted that reporters were seldom involved in the users’ debates. Hermida and Thurman (in press) detected a dramatic increase of user participation features in UK online newspapers from 2005 to 2006, when the concept of participatory journalism gained widespread acknowledgment in the professional literature. Despite this acceleration trend in the development of interactivity in online media, that seems to be global, Hermida and Thurman (in press) assessed that the online editors they interviewed were very concerned with the risks for quality, relevance and credibility that user-generated content poses, and therefore their strategy tended to replicate the gatekeeper model also in this area: they filter it with costly human-resource consuming supervision and clearly separate it from the news produced by professionals.

The translation process from the myth to the daily practices seems to be a hard one in the case of interactivity. In another study based on in-depth interviews, 22 award-winning US online editors appreciated interactivity “to be a positive characteristic of online news” (Chung, 2007:50), but they defined it mainly as the user-to-document aspect defined by McMillan (2006). Chung (2007:52) classifies their attitudes in a continuum from innovators who “used their publication in creative ways to encourage the audience to ‘meet’ the online publication’s staff”(ibid.), to cautious traditionalists that stress the problems they encounter in this exploration, and purists, a minority “hesitant or even averse” to change (ibid.:55). Boczkowski (2004b), used a similar approach to the one proposed in this article and identified three main factors shaping the strategies to develop interactivity in three US online newspapers: the presence of print journalism working routines in the online newsrooms, the representation of the users as technically savvy (or not), and the prevalence of the gatekeeper model as the center of the production process in the cases studied. In the case where a citizen-journalism model was developed, the online project leaders were completely independent from the print newsroom, they did not rely on gatekeeping as the core production strategy, and users were represented as Internet savvy “producers,” not mere “consumers” (see also Boczkowski, 2004c:141-). The case studies presented in the following sections show that the factors identified by Boczkowski are not specific to US media, as they are also found in the sample of regional European media analyzed here. However, my research suggests that these factors are part of a wider web of strategic decisions and professional values usually overlooked by the existing literature.

Case studies: interactivity in online newsrooms daily life

  1. Top of page
  2. RésuméResumenZhaiYaoYo yak
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical framework: online journalism as an open innovation process
  5. Interactivity as an online journalism myth: a recontextualized literature review
  6. Case studies: interactivity in online newsrooms daily life
  7. Discussion: interactivity in context
  8. Conclusion: implications and further research
  9. References

The context for the negotiation and definition of the Internet as a news medium are media organizations and, more specifically online newsrooms, framed within the highly standardized set of rules and processes of the institution of mass media. Both the theoretical framework and the existing tradition of research inside newsrooms (Tuchman, 2002) recommend ethnography as an adequate method to address this object of study. While there is scarce ethnographic research on US online newsrooms (Singer, 1997; Martin, 1998; Boczkowski, 2004b, c), fewer studies have been published to date analyzing European cases (Eriksen and Ihlström, 2000; Paterson and Domingo, in press). This article contributes to fill in this void and aims to encourage other researchers to pursue its approach, as it helps in tracing the diversity and commonalities in the development of the Internet as a news medium.

As theories of innovation suggest that different settings may produce different developments of the same technology, it was considered adequate to conduct a comparative study of four cases with different media backgrounds. The common ground is that the four websites are part of the same European regional media system –Catalonia,5 in the Northeast of Spain– and are devoted to general interest news of the region, with a quasi-permanent update of information. The sameness in scope and objectives would help in finding differences due to their different media traditions. These are the cases chosen for the ethnographic study6:

  • • 
    laMalla.net: An online-only project, started in 1999 and funded by a regional government.
  • • 
    elPeriodico.cat: A regional newspaper online venture, started in 1995, the most veteran daily online in the region.
  • • 
    3cat24.cat: A public broadcaster online news portal, created in 2002 after initial experiments of teletext news feeding the broadcaster general website.
  • • 
    DiarideTarragona.com: A local newspaper online version, started in 2001.

Observation of the working routines was mainly conducted in 2003, consisting in 5 stages of 3 days in each of the four newsrooms. Longer stages (weeks and even months) in a single spot are common in ethnography (Lindlof & Taylor, 2002). Nevertheless, I decided to limit them to 3 days and scatter them in 6 months because of logistic and epistemological reasons. I wanted to have a time perspective in the ethnography, as in the whole research. This weekly rotation allowed me to visit every media company from month to month, and this helped to detect more easily if the product or the routines were evolving. The stages consisted in observing journalists at work, usually without interrupting their duties to ask questions. Informal conversations were undertaken in the newsroom to make explicit journalists definitions on their work and the technologies they used. During this phase documents defining the news websites and routines were retrieved in the field, specially the ones of the first stages of the projects.

In a second phase, in 2004, over 20 in-depth interviews where conducted with people related to the news websites in the past and present: editors, reporters, technical managers (see figure 1). They were asked to reconstruct the evolution of the project from their point of view and their definitions of online journalism in general and their online venture in particular were extracted. A follow-up observation of routines in the newsrooms was made during two days in 2006, once data analysis was underway. Even though a significant part of the staff had changed, most of the routines and discourses remained the same. This suggests a strong socialization of newcomers into the professional culture of the newsroom, very common in journalism (Schudson, 2003).

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Figure 1. Profiles of the professionals interviewed in the research

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The general aim of the ethnography was to detect the dynamics of innovation in the four cases, the working routines and professional values in place and the factors that have shaped them. I soon realized that journalists in the online newsrooms of the four case studies had incorporated the mythical discourses about interactivity as an ideal model to which compare their daily work. This article presents the qualitative analysis of the collected data regarding interactivity in the daily work of the online journalists and, based on the proposed theoretical framework, discusses the variety (and homogeneity) of strategies, decisions and expectations about interactivity of the studied online newsrooms and the role of the myth in these developments.

Users defined

Beyond material and organizational circumstances, the professional culture of journalism strongly shaped the representation of users in the online newsrooms. While interactivity was a usual keyword in the interviews with the online journalists when we discussed the differences between the Internet and traditional media, in daily routines there was a tendency towards reproducing mass media models, in which journalists were the sole producers, and users were regarded as a rather passive audience, consumers of the stories. In online newsrooms linked to traditional media companies, the strongest value for the online product was immediacy, publishing stories as quick as possible, and this fact strongly affected the development of interactivity. Actually, immediacy was another of the ideals of online journalism proposals in the 1990’s (Pavlik, 2001:21). Immediacy prevailed as the main strategy in the online newsrooms of traditional media because it was the easiest way of claiming that their product was valuable for their media company, as the traditional newsroom also shared immediacy as one of the main aims of news production. Active users, instead, was a concept that clashed with the journalistic culture and that would have required a complete redefinition of working routines.

The online-only portal seemed to be more sensitive to interactivity myths in their discourses and in some developments, even though the traditional model also dominated in most of their news production. They argued that Internet users were active consumers that would be willing to become co-producers if they were given the chance, but these more radical definitions of collaborative news production were mainly put into practice only in special coverages. For the editor of the online-only portal, interactivity features in the website were crucial to foster audience engagement, for them to feel part of the online project.

Online newsrooms had access to very detailed statistics about the times when more user visits concentrated and how many times a story had been opened. This was far more than what traditional media journalists could know about their users, but statistics did not tell much about the profile of the online users. In fact, the routines in the analyzed online newsrooms seemed to privilege professional criteria as their main reference for newsworthiness judgments, not users’ preferences. Nonetheless, journalists at the regional online newspaper and the online portal had the habit of looking at the news stories statistics at least a couple of times during the shift to see which were the most viewed today. When asked if user statistics influenced their decisions on the homepage, editors defended that newsworthiness criteria should prevail, but a reporter acknowledged: “You would not change the main story, but surely a popular piece will keep its place on the homepage rather than other secondary stories with fewer readers.” Reporters stated that curious and crime stories were the most visited ones, and those related to the Internet and sports ranked high as well. “Our users have already heard about the big stories at the TV newscasts, and they know more and more how to search what they want on the Internet. I guess this is more democratic. You will continue providing them a professional choice of relevant news, but they now have the chance of looking for what interests them”.

Customization: a little is too much

In the four analyzed cases, just the online portal had developed a flexible homepage that users could define. The regional online newspaper had a user registration system since the end of 2002, but it was just used to control access to the news archive. No customization or analysis of the gathered data was developed at the online newsroom, and the editor-in-chief openly stated that he did not find customization to be an adequate strategy: “It may make sense in specialized media, but big popular online newspapers have to offer broad thematic content and a journalistic selection of issues.”

The online-only portal developers envisioned its customization features in the initial phase of the project, in 1999, but did not actually created it until the mid-2002 revision. It allowed users to decide which sections and local news they wanted to be prioritized on the second block of the homepage (the upper right column). Nonetheless, users could not customize the main story, as the reporters deemed important to keep journalistic criteria visible to every user. Just 15% of registered users took advantage of the customization tool and the customization option was terminated in the last redesign of the web, in 2006.

RSS feeds of the main sections of the news sites, created during the redesigns of the websites between 2005 and 2006, were a much more comfortable option for the online newsrooms. They were regarded as an add-on to the web features rather than as a new publishing venue. Actually, online editors did not consider RSS as a customization option that may take editorial power from their hands: it was described as just a little convenient service for their users.

When audience feedback becomes overwhelming

Speaking in abstract terms, online journalists in the analyzed newsrooms seemed eager to foster audience participation: “At the newspaper you have few opportunities to interact. On the website you can offer a much broader range of participation options: forums, polls, email,” stated a reporter. However, direct audience feedback to the journalist was only a newsroom-wide habit at the online-only portal. Most online journalists in the traditional media companies were completely detached from audience contact. “I used to have email, but I received many press releases and spam, it was just overwhelming, so I forgot about it,” said a reporter.

The studied online newsrooms had practical strategies to manage audience feedback and avoid it to interfere the news production process. At the local online newspaper and the online broadcaster, editors read through the emails and answered or redirected them to the appropriate recipient, be it an online reporter or someone in the traditional newsroom. As there was just a generic email address on the website, the audience regarded it as the channel to communicate with all the media company. At the local outlet most of the messages were press releases, but also comments on articles in the print edition. Sometimes they received pictures of events, but they were seldom used. At the regional online newspaper one person per shift in the online team devoted to general web management (never the breaking news reporters) was in charge of checking the generic email inbox. They had many answer templates to make it easier to manage the interaction. Most of the messages asked for copies of articles and photos or they reported technical problems in accessing parts of the website. Some emails were forwarded to the online editor or even to journalists in the print newsroom.

The online-only portal was the only website in which every story was signed and the author’s email address was available. Reporters received many messages from their audience directly, but even more messages were addressed to the generic email managed by the adjunct editor: “We receive lots of queries, suggestions, corrections. It is amazing how much people use email to communicate with us. I try to answer all the messages as soon as possible and users are very grateful for this. Email just works.”

User comments: trouble or benefit

The fact that interactive policies of the online-only portal were significantly different from those in online newsrooms of traditional media was not only visible in the transparency act of having individual journalists’ email in every story. While the other websites had their forums as a separate service from news, the online-only outlet integrated most of the users’ commentaries right beneath each story, as in weblogs. This was a crucial conceptual difference: at the online portal journalists felt closer to their audience, as users could directly criticize, comment and suggest links on news stories. Reporters visited their stories regularly several times a day to check the comments and they engaged in small conversations in the comments area, answering the most direct proposals. “It is rewarding to see that your story promotes debate, and it is also challenging. Sometimes, there are quite strong comments on mistakes you make, but this only alerts you to be more concentrated on doing things better, in checking twice that everything in a story is all right before posting it,” explained a reporter. Participation at these micro-forums attached to news was completely open, and users could write without the need of revealing their real names. For the editor of the online portal, both the openness of debate space for comment and the fact that journalists write on them, were the keys for the quantity and quality of user participation.

This was a radically different experience from traditional media online forums. The online broadcaster and the local online newspaper forum spaces obliged users to register before posting a message. They did not have to reveal their names, but their nickname could be banned if their attitude was not adequate. In all the cases messages were reviewed after being published on the website, because journalists argued that moderation prior to publication “killed the debate.” The same roles that dealt with audience emails in each newsroom performed forum management routines. Thus, interaction with users tended to concentrate in few hands. This meant that, besides the case of the online-only portal, reporters seldom accessed the forums and user discussions had no effect on news content production.

Forum moderation could actually become a nightmare for online newsrooms. At the regional online newspaper, by far the website with more activity in its forums –which did not require registration–, web management journalists deemed it as one of the most boring routines. Every four or five hours, someone had to check the newly published messages. They had around twenty active forums on long-run issues, but only two or three were hot every week. The journalist systematically deleted offensive messages attacking a concrete person and those containing a website address, because they could not control the content of external webs. Before shift changes, the last reporter reviewing the forums sent an email so that the next reporter knew where to start. They did not provide explanations for deleted messages, but respected online messages complaining about deleted messages. A dozen users were always participating, all day long, picking on the other users and making it difficult to moderate. However, online managers valued the forum very positively: “I think users understand the forum as their own community, not a place to communicate with journalists. It is a public platform, to express themselves in front of many other people, and it is very popular!”.

Blogs made their way as a common publishing technology into the studied newsrooms later than in US or UK online media (Singer, 2005; Hermida and Thurman, in press). In the four cases, the approach was to “normalize” the format to adapt it to journalistic practices (Singer, 2005): blog was the new label for op-ed columns, with the change that in the new format user comments were allowed. The online-only portal already explored blogging in 2003, in a very specific occasion aside of the daily news production rhytm: the live coverage of a regional elections night. The three other media started exploring blogging in 2007, beyond the chronological scope of this article.

Technical departments were usually more eager to develop interactive features than journalists in the online newsrooms. The web development department at the broadcasting company once decided to set up over 900 forums for their online news portal, one for each of the municipalities having elections in two months time. The online editors-in-chief would initially replicate the discourse of the web development department, stating that this would foster local debates on the candidates, but as soon as they had to deal with the moderation of the forums they would usually complain that they were overwhelmed even if only 30% of them finally had some activity. “This was not a good idea, in the end”, concluded one of the editors.

Users as producers

Again, the only project that made an effort to offer users the chance of participating in content production was the online-only portal. Many special mini-sites designed to cover specific events included users’ production as a part of the content, and some were directly created around the idea of user-generated content. However, the editor was clear in separating journalists’ work from that from the users: “One thing is what the newsroom produces and another what users can produce. We can have an open dialog, but we cannot mix both things.” In fact, most of the proposals of the portal for users’ contributions were not related to current events: A literary space allowed users to send their short fiction stories or poems; a photo album organized around the world globe invited users to send in their holiday pictures; in the anniversary of historical events, users could send in their memories.

Hermida and Thurman (in press) pointed out a crucial factor for British online newspapers to develop participatory features in their websites was competition, doing what other online media were doing to avoid being “left behind”. However, for the idea of users as producers, the pressure of competition was minimal in the regional media market of the cases analyzed in this study: in 2006, only one online-only news portal and an online newspaper besides the analyzed sample had started some user-generated content initiatives in the form of audience blogs.

Discussion: interactivity in context

  1. Top of page
  2. RésuméResumenZhaiYaoYo yak
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical framework: online journalism as an open innovation process
  5. Interactivity as an online journalism myth: a recontextualized literature review
  6. Case studies: interactivity in online newsrooms daily life
  7. Discussion: interactivity in context
  8. Conclusion: implications and further research
  9. References

Online journalism myths are the product of a specific historical context, in the mid 1990s, when the Internet raised high expectations of change in the profession as it started to be explored as a news medium. As a social construction, the myth of interactivity could have evolved over time, but it has proven to be very pervasive and constant in the first decade of online journalism. Professionals in the four cases were very aware of this ideal model and they had developed a very homogeneous discourse in each newsroom to justify why their projects have not developed all the proposals of the myth. Online journalists were generally very critical about their current model, as they knew it was far from the ideal one, and systematically blamed their lack of resources for the distance between myth and reality. A constant complementary discourse was that the online project was work-in-progress and described the features and routines that the newsrooms wanted to develop in the future to get closer to the ideal model. There was an overwhelming rhetorical closure in each online newsroom about this future, but they argued that this would not be reached with the current human resources –from one to five reporters in the main shift, depending of the case.

Beyond the conscious discourse, the mechanisms for the translation of the myth into working routines are far more complex and small staffs are not the only factor involved. The professional culture of traditional journalism played a much more important and surely unconscious role, as demonstrated by the diversity in strategies between the online-only portal and the websites affiliated to traditional media. With similar staff sizes to the regional online broadcaster and newspaper, the portal shows that when the pressure of traditional journalism is not as present, immediacy as a value can be balanced with other priorities such as specialized and service reporting and leave room for the development, to some extent, of interactivity. While in the online newsrooms of traditional media journalists mostly produced stories based on agency wires as they came in, without any specialization, to keep up with the immediacy rule, at the online-only portal every journalist specialized in a range of topics and had first-hand sources rather than relying only on wires. As they had to position themselves as an alternative to traditional media, they privileged stories not linked to breaking news. They still covered breaking news, but reporters had more flexibility in their production pace. Compared to the stressful rhythm of breaking news reporters in the other newsrooms, the ones at the online-only venture had time to check users’ contributions.

In the traditional media online newsrooms, news production was strictly separated from interactivity management. Interactivity was developed because it was deemed as an ideal to be pursued by online journalism, but newsrooms tried it not to affect news production. While online newsrooms of traditional media understood user forums mostly as a problem they had to manage (to avoid inappropriate content), for the online-only portal editor interactivity was an opportunity to enrich news with quality input from users. Nonetheless, the professional culture also shaped the strategies of the portal. The desire for recognition among professionals also made them reproduce most of the traditional routines: Journalists defended their professional values in selecting current events and deciding the hierarchy of what stories were the most important. Customization and audience active involvement in newsworthiness decisions were not comfortable ideals, while users’ contributions as producers were restricted to special mini-sites.

The translations of the myths made by the online newsrooms when taking strategic decisions using their professional culture as their main framework explain the distance between discourse and reality. The ‘law’ of radical potential suppression was again relentless: The inertia of traditional journalistic culture and giving priority to some ideals, such as immediacy, over others guaranteed the survival of the old journalistic model and will surely have an important weight in the future development of interactivity in the analyzed cases. The online newsrooms made choices, conscious and unconscious, that shaped a production model that will be difficult to change in the future, even with more resources. Each newsroom assumed basic principles on what online journalism was and this has had profound implications on working routines, audience definition and product features. Current models had already been embodied as natural by the journalists and an evolution path had been traced for each of the projects. A historical perspective of the projects analyzed, based on the narratives of the interviewed professionals, confirms that they have been very stable on their definitions and development of interactivity.

Special coverage of events was the innovation edge of online news projects. Being outside the daily rhythm of work and mostly devoted to planned events, specials allowed online journalists to think ahead of features and concepts. The other facilitator of these innovation edges was the fact that they were necessarily short-term projects with a limited scope: while general website development was an open never-ending process that could be delayed (for years, in some cases), specials had to be ready when the event was scheduled. They were the space for utopian experimentation: participatory publishing where users could become content producers, multimedia-rich reports, complex hypertext structures with in-depth background on an issue. In a way, specials were the institutionalization of myths: what daily routines could not handle, specials offered a routinized way to develop.

Conclusion: implications and further research

  1. Top of page
  2. RésuméResumenZhaiYaoYo yak
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical framework: online journalism as an open innovation process
  5. Interactivity as an online journalism myth: a recontextualized literature review
  6. Case studies: interactivity in online newsrooms daily life
  7. Discussion: interactivity in context
  8. Conclusion: implications and further research
  9. References

Understanding interactivity as a myth opens up the black box of the very pervasive discourses about the future of online journalism. It lets the researchers detach the ideals from the daily routines and explain the mechanisms that mediate the influence of the myth and shape the actual uses of interactivity in online news. Journalists in the cases analyzed embraced interactivity as a crucial feature of their work, but in practice the professional culture and the priority given to immediacy -which fitted better the values and routines of traditional journalism– made them perceive audience participation as a problem to manage rather than a benefit for the news product, except for the case of the online-only portal. The fact that interactivity is counter-intuitive with the principles of traditional journalistic culture tended to diminish the willingness to explore audience participation.

A comparison of the factors found by Boczkowski (2004b) for the development of interactivity in three US online newspapers with the ones having a role in the European regional media of this study suggests that, regardless of the different cultural context, the prevalence of traditional journalism culture and the representation of the users as passive consumers or active producers had a strong influence in shaping the strategies of the different online newsrooms. In the study presented here, journalists embedded in print or broadcast media companies were more inclined to stress immediacy over interactivity and define their users as consumers. Even though the online-only portal was more eager to explore interactivity and understand their users as active netizens, the references to traditional journalistic norms were still very present. This demonstrates that the professional culture of journalism is very prevalent and actually overshadows the strength and pervasiveness of the interactivity myth. Nonetheless, besides the factors proposed by Boczkowski there are other material and organizational decisions that also worked as brakes for the development of interactivity: the small size of online teams made it impractical to deal with extensive participation opportunities as the priority in three of the four cases was publishing news stories as fast as possible; the separation of news production routines and interactivity management routines in most of the cases minimized the radical potential of audience participation. These decisions may be easily overlooked without observing online journalists at work, but on a day to day basis they are the actual constraints put in place by the somehow abstract inertia of professional culture. While the factors identified by Boczkowski seem to be central to understand the developments in the cases analyzed here, the data gathered suggests that there is a wider web of decisions the researcher needs to trace in order to understand how professional culture and online journalism ideals interplay and materialize in everyday routines. This materiality of the work of online journalists is a key aspect to consider when researching the evolution of innovations in the newsrooms. The professional culture and the Internet myths do not exist in a vacuum, but rather are recreated and renegotiated in every production task, in the design of the content management software or in the staffing decisions.

Even though the results of case studies cannot be directly generalized, the data gathered in the ethnography clearly resonates with trends also detected in the literature review. An ethnographic approach is useful to reveal contextual factors and the historical evolution of online news features (Boczkowski, 2004b). However, the research strategy in this study has also limitations: 1) taking the newsroom as the focus of the study may overlook external factors, that are only considered through the eyes of the online journalists analyzed; 2) as the intensive on-site observation was constrained to six months, some changes in the projects during the study period (2003-2006) may have been unnoticed, even thought the follow-up visits and interviews suggested a high degree of stability in the journalists’ routines and attitudes. A comparative cross-country study would be needed to further explore international differences, taking into account meso- and macro-context factors surrounding online newsrooms: the market context (size of the companies, ownership, competitors’ strategies –both professional and citizen media–) and the social context (public sphere history, information society policies, media laws) (Paulussen et al., 2007). It would be especially relevant to consider whether the ongoing development outside journalism of a digital culture that is based on the active production by the former audience of all sorts of content –from fan replicas of movie narratives to consumer reviews– (Deuze, 2006; Jenkins, 2006) and the multiplication of citizen journalism initiatives besides institutional media (Bruns, 2005; Schaffer, 2007) do change the perceptions regarding interactivity in online newsrooms and the power balance between the myth and professional culture.

Sharing this data with journalists can help them realize taken-for-granted values and empower them in deciding the future of their projects7. Providing them with critical reflections on the current material and social constraints that define online journalism and working routines in online newsrooms, online journalists can understand the role of myths in their daily lives and be able to revisit them or even reinvent them having the realistic starting point of a deep knowledge of the circumstances of their company and newsroom. There are many ways of doing online journalism, and the constraints of any given media company must be reinterpreted as a framework within which there are different options to provide outstanding online news products. Exploring these options successfully will be easier with a deep knowledge of the context and the factors that shaped the current situation. And understanding these factors will also help to channel the attempts to change the very framework of the media company, to shape it so that it can produce better online news. This is never simple to do, but taking informed decisions is a big step towards this ideal scenario. Whether interactivity or active participation of the users will be central to the future of journalism or not will be the result of decisions taken in every single online project.

Notes
  • 1

    A first version of this paper was presented to the ICA 2007 conference in San Francisco. The author is grateful to the comments and suggestions made by Ari Heinonen, Pablo Boczkowski, Mark Deuze and Steve Paulussen during the research process.

  • 2

    The parallelism between the rhetoric around the predictions made about the telegraph, the telephone, the radio or televison and the utopian discourses about the Internet is astonishing (Mosco, 2004: 117–140).

  • 3

    Social Shaping of Technology and Actor-Network Theory are research traditions born within the field of Science and Technology Studies.

  • 4

    See Singer (2007) for an update of this early debate on the redefinition of the role of journalists in the context of open publishing.

  • 5

    Catalonia was the pioneering region in Spain in the development of online journalism and Internet services in the 1990s (Moragas, Domingo and López, 2002; Domingo, 2004). It has its own language and culture, with a market of around 5 million Catalan-speaking Internet users (Díaz and Domingo, 2007).

  • 6

    More details on the history, organization and working routines of each medium are available at Domingo (2006).

  • 7

    I follow the spirit of research as a tool to design technological strategies proposed by SST (Pinch, 1996; Williams and Edge, 1996: 867).

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  2. RésuméResumenZhaiYaoYo yak
  3. Introduction
  4. Theoretical framework: online journalism as an open innovation process
  5. Interactivity as an online journalism myth: a recontextualized literature review
  6. Case studies: interactivity in online newsrooms daily life
  7. Discussion: interactivity in context
  8. Conclusion: implications and further research
  9. References
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About the Author
  1. David Domingo (david@dutopia.net) is Assistant Professor at the Communication Department of Universitat Rovira i Virgili (Tarragona, Catalonia) and Visiting Assistant Professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Iowa (USA). His research focuses on the development of online journalists’ working routines and values, and their adoption of convergence and audience participation.

    Address: W339 Adler Journalism Buliding, University of Iowa, Iowa City, IA 52242 USA