Journalism as a Social Construction
The theoretical framework assumed in this study is the application to the journalistic field of the approach outlined by Jacoby and Ochs (1995, 171) and built on Berger's and Luckmann's work (1966). They see coconstruction as “the constitution and interpretation of culturally and historically situated social interactions”. For these authors, coconstruction is “the joint creation of a form, interpretation, stance, action, activity, identity, institution, skill, ideology, emotion, or other culturally meaningful reality.” We propose to look at journalism as a “social construction,” coconstructed meanings of which are rooted in the social relationship between journalists, publishers, and readers3. Conceptualizing journalism in this way allows us to see it as a phenomenon that is neither inevitable, unilateral, or absolute. In this framework, journalism is made up of different images, ideologies, and perspectives that are generated by various actors and negotiated along the different lines of power existing in their relationships. Many theories, analyses, and narratives intertwine in the attempt to describe the network of these relationships and their reciprocal influences, so giving concreteness to this notion of journalism as social construction (Tuchman, 1978).
The branch of theories on media effects, notwithstanding the criticisms which they have incurred in the course of time, might help us in understanding some of the issues relative to the relationship between authors and audiences: The effects (and so the power) of newspaper content on the audience. The cultivation theory (Gerbner & Gross, 1976) is still useful for capturing how the persistent exposure to news might have measurable effects on audience's perception of the world. Agenda-setting theory (McCombs & Shaw, 1972) still helps us to understand the dual nature of influence: newspapers do not tell us merely what to think, but, principally, what to think about. Media dependency theory, developed by Ball-Rokeach and DeFluer (1976), remains relevant in that, as social institutions and media systems address audiences to create interest, needs, and expectations, so audiences depend on the media information to meet their needs, while the theory on the spiral of silence advanced by Noelle-Neumann (1974) is still powerful in depicting the enormous impact that mass media have on how public opinion is constructed, in the sense that mass media tend to cover the majority opinion, which becomes the status quo, while the minority opinion is swallowed by silence. On the other hand, social action theory, developed by Anderson and Meyer (1988), is convincing in positioning the understanding of audiences in a more realistic perspective. Far from being passive or hapless, media audiences are seen as actively participating in journalists' communication by interpreting news content. In this context, the construction of meanings in the journalism comes from three sources and is negotiated among them: the intentions of the journalist, the conventions of the content, and the interpretations of the readership. This theory represents an important step of a long evolution of analyses and research on the role of the audience, which start from the hypodermic needle model, continue through the two-step flow theory (Katz & Lazersfield, 1955), the Uses and Gratifications theory (Blumler & Katz, 1974) and reception theory (Hall, 1973) and arrive to the current notion of active audience (Livingstone, 2000).
Clearly, there is an increasing understanding of the audiences' role and also of their practices, attitudes, and behaviours towards newspapers, and it is not by chance that these phenomena structure themselves in a clearer way along with the increase of audiences' power. Audiences slowly become true actors in the course of time (they are better educated, have more money to spend, have different media choices, are more individualized), as all the media system is based on the purchasing power, the selective capacity, and the hermeneutic ability and activity of the audience. The advent of the Internet potentially enhances the role of audiences even more and pushes scholars to revisit both media effect and audience theories.
Correctly, Singer (1998), in order to capture how journalism may be redescribing itself, invites us to challenge specifically the theories of gate-keeping (White, 1950) and diffusion of innovation (Rogers, 1995) along with approaches applied by the sociology of news work. These theories and approaches address work functions and practices, as well as attitudes and behaviour towards technology, which have been challenged by the Internet. Singer calls on us to re-examine them in the light of the changes generated by the diffusion of the Internet in the newsrooms and in the whole society: how gate-keeping is transforming itself in the face of competition from search engines, the personalization of news consumption, and so on; how we can understand the diffusion of ICT in newsrooms, since these are organizations and not single individuals. This analysis may benefit from the application of Orlikowski's work studying the implementation and activation of technologies within organizations, by drawing on Giddens' theory of structuration (Orlikowski & Baroudi, 1991; Orlikowski, 1992). Each of these theoretical strands remain valid in helping to form a framework in which to consider how the conceptualisation of news, the process of news gathering and dissemination, the career paths of journalists, and values and ethical issues change following the advent of the Internet.
Finally, to understand the changes occurring in the world of journalism after the Internet, we need to look at computer-mediated communication theories. Several of them, such as social presence theory (Short, Williams & Christie, 1976), media richness theory (Daft & Lengel, 1986), hyper-personal communication theory (Walther, 1996), are mainly focussed on the comparison with communication in copresence. However, a re-examination of these perspectives in the context of mass communication is warranted, in order to understand how the unidirectional message typical of mass media, and typically with many more structural limits if compared to communication in co-presence, may acquire a new life online. Here, at least potentially, the message can acquire the strengths of multimedia and of interactive communication between the readership and the editorial staff and even among readers. Boczkowski (1999) also underlines the necessity that a dialogue takes place between CMC and mass communication scholarship. In short, the social study of CMC has generated knowledge that must relevantly be applied to the development of online newspapers: Thus, CMC scholarship becomes crucial for analysing the electronic version of a medium that mass communication theorists have traditionally investigated.
Guided by this excursus on studies which help us to build upon the concept of journalism as a social construction, we further specify the idea of a journalism that, as the resultant of the negotiation process among journalists, publishers (and editors) and the readership, is always locally and temporally situated. In this perspective the ideal research should investigate the perspective of these three actors jointly. But it is evident that organizational constraints make it difficult to realize a research designed in this way across 11 countries. A more realistic approach is to investigate journalists' point of view and to provide publishers' and readers' point of view using other data. For these reasons, in the current study we focus mainly on the journalists' perspective, foregrounding their acceptance, use, and vision of the Internet. Publisher and readers, however, remain on the scene as actors who materially influence the work environment and whom journalists ideally confront (cf. the idea of imagined reader; Eco, 1979). We use secondary data to outline these actors' visions of what journalism is, as well as data that relates to journalists' perception of publishers and readers.
As recently shown by Domingo (2008), online journalism is characterized by myths (such as interactivity) that shape the discourse on how the profession should be renewed. But what is more interesting for us is that, as proposed again by Domingo, new professional features can be considered as coconstructed and situated practices which combine “material (staff size, technical resources) and social (professional culture, work organization) factors in the shaping of online news project” (Domingo, 2008, p.681). The social construction of journalism, moreover, depends also on different social and national contexts and situations. We therefore look also at differences at the level of societal contexts (across national spaces) and practices as generated by the power dynamics between journalists and other stakeholders such as publishers (and editors) and readers, in order to understand the different interpretations and evaluations of the influence of the Internet on journalism practices. In this context, “Power […] refers to being capable of: to be able to produce an effect, to construct a reality, to institute a meaning” (Campbell & Jovchelovitch, 2000, 267).
Changes in Journalism Practices
Conflicts and negotiations between social actors make up the narrative of continuous change that journalism has faced. Roughly two stages can be distinguished: in the first, journalism has been emptied of its critical, dynamic aspects that place it in balancing opposition to power; in other words, it has been domesticated by publishers and embodied in the macrophysics of power, becoming its “guardians” (Edwards & Cromwell, 2006). In the second stage, publishers have had the opportunity to de-structure journalism by using the Internet and the networked organization that globalization has provided (Castells, 1996-1998). From their perspective, the Internet has allowed for a rationalization of journalists' work, based on a typology of immaterial labour. As such, journalism is repositioning in the sociotechnical systems.
However, several meanings can lie under the concept of rationalization leading to different editorial strategies. For example, it can be conceived as an unstoppable tendency towards outsourcing, through which, according to Newsrooms Barometer survey (2008)4, editors aim to reduce direct and indirect labour costs, and that editors consider an increasing tendency for the near future (Fortunati & Sarrica, 2008). Rationalization could also mean the merging of offline and online newsrooms (Singer, 2004: Quinn, 2005; Quinn & Filak, 2005) with the construction of a new journalist, more multimedia-oriented and able to write, to interview and to produce a video at the same time (Deuze, 2004) In contrast, it could also mean keeping clearly differentiated, nonintegrated newsrooms, where professionals maintain different profiles but at the same time are asked to co-operate strongly, as discussed in the report Trends in Newsrooms 2008, the fourth annual report from the World Editors Forum5. These different editorial strategies must deal also with the fact that, while northern countries are characterized by a broad readership and a large diffusion of the Internet at social level, southern countries are characterized by a small readership and a limited diffusion of the Internet.
In conclusion, there is evidence that the application of IT logic in the organization of labour in newsrooms, as well as shifts in narratives and contexts, have brought many changes in the profession, and the need to assess the interplay between the net and journalism is dictated by these structural shifts. On the positive side, the Internet has been considered a source of new opportunities for journalists. It offers the possibility of enhancing their work; it enables a faster and wider interactivity with readers (Schultz, 2000); and it provides them a new mediation role, allowing them to shift from being information gatekeepers to facilitators (Boczkowski, 2004), whose new function could be to orient readers in the ever-increasing and overpowering stream of information (Kenney, Gorelik & Mwangi, 2000). From a pessimistic perspective, the Internet has introduced a new breed of professionals explicitly devoted to preparing online editions, often young and underpaid, with tight deadlines, and forced by time pressures to focus on copy-and-paste work rather than writing articles (van der Wurff, 2005; O'Sullivan, 2005; Neuberger, Tonnemacher, Biebl & Duck, 1998).
Journalists, thus far, show ambivalent patterns: They either acquiesce in technological innovation or they passively resist change (Ruggiero, 2004), or at best, as Deuze argues (2005), they seek, in the debates about quality of journalism, to reinvent themselves by incorporating a new outlook and an IT ideology. This brings us to a second issue: professional identity.
Changes in Professional Identities
The Internet also has opened a new chapter in the relationships between publishers and journalists as regards professional identity: a story of modest wages, of precarious jobs, and of extreme flexibility (Domingo, 2006). At the same time, the Internet has presented readers with an opportunity to redescribe their role. Readers use, or potentially can use, the Internet to redefine their relationships with information, news and newspapers, overcoming the impotence of their assigned role. However, contradictions arise in the historical dynamics of this relationship. On the one hand, readers have the wherewithal to become producers of news, ideas, and original reflexivity, and so they potentially have become competitors for both editors and journalists (within the limits of their individual competence); but on the other they potentially have become unpaid, external content producers. As in many other sectors, including the press industry, workers (journalists) have reacted with ambivalence towards the Internet and what this tool represents in their professional identity. They have been the first actors in many countries to inform readerships about computers and the Internet, and to help form a kind of information literacy (Fortunati, 2005). But they also have reacted with defensive attitudes and still refer to traditional professional role conceptions. Journalists, both print and online, continue to rate the interpretative/investigative role and the disseminator role as the most important (Weaver, Beam, Brownlee, Voakes & Wilhoit, 2006). Thus, even if journalists' tasks have changed, they continue to rate as crucial for their profession the investigation of governmental decisions, the analyses of complex issues, and the ability to get relevant and verified news to the public as quickly as possible.
If a few years ago the debate concerned the distinction between traditional journalists and new “online” journalists, more recently the focus has shifted to the potential demise of the reporter who risks being replaced, in print as well as online, by new kinds of worker, with less protection and fewer rights, who can be more accurately labelled news producers rather than journalists. As recently underlined (Lewis, Williams, Franklin, Thomas & Mosdell, 2007), these news workers find themselves caught between, the activities of public relations professionals, which represent a power which shapes news content (Fletcher 2006; Franklin 2006; Deuze, 2007), the time concerns and productivity demands of editors and publishers, and the inertia of a traditional journalistic culture (Domingo, 2008).
Changes in Ethics
From the perspective of readers, this scenario of shifts in journalism raises questions about news quality and independence. Research show that readers are increasingly concerned with the issue of online news credibility; when they select online news sources they, in fact, choose news. Websites that are considered almost as accurate as newspapers or television bulletins (Consumer Reports Web Watch, 2005). From the perspective of journalists, trust is linked to professional ethics. As already observed, the Internet has created a sense of discomfort and the need to reassess professional roles. Seen in this light, it is possible to understand why journalists sometimes express a critical perspective towards the ideal of investigative reporting, together with fears of an uncertain future (Cohen & Lévy, 2008). However, as Cassidy (2007) recently pointed out, the situation is complex. On the one hand, news information is far from being universally accepted by newspaper journalists as a credible source, particularly by print newspaper journalists (p.491). Moreover, print and online journalists differ in the evaluation of credibility of online news. On the other hand, journalists' acceptance of the Internet as a source of credible information is evolving. This could be related to the increase in the use of Internet by journalists, but also perhaps may be linked to the incorporation in the professional ideology of traditional journalists of the norms and values of online journalism (Cassidy, 2007, p. 491).
The ethics of journalism thus seem to be changing, and contemporary journalists seem to be able to mingle traditional and new normative values. The other side of the coin of this change is that with professional values coming to the centre of the debate, noxious practices may emerge. In this vein, ‘churnalism’ has been identified as the outcome of cost-cutting strategies that have transformed journalists into scoop seekers at any cost and have exposed them to the need to recycle content and manipulate stories in order to continuously provide readers with “new” content (Davies, 2008). But it may be that there are even more fundamental, structural, elements which contribute to the homogenization of news, as news outlets fear missing out on breaking stories, pushing them to monitor and appropriate each other's content and as competition for audience and for advertising revenues results in a convergence on a restricted news agenda.