Who would have thought, back in the 1990s, that by 2010, online newspapers would still be mainly about publishing written text to a mass audience?
Not many. The general assumption shared by academics, practitioners and media executives alike was that journalism would be revolutionized by new technology. Online journalism would be all about multimedia, hypertext and interactivity. Some even believed that the Internet would cause the the end of journalism (pdf). And the discourse surrounding both the practice of and research on online journalism is still quite preoccupied with how new technology will fundamentally change journalism.
So why, then, is online journalism still mostly all about producing written text to a mass audience? Why is use of multimedia, hypertext and interactivity still so rare? (If you believe online journalism in fact is technologically innovative – keep on reading.) Is it only because online newsrooms don’t have the resources they need to be innovative? Or are there other reasons?
In a series of posts I will take a closer look at online journalism and the promises of new technology. I will do this by a close examination of the technologically oriented research on online journalism in Europe and the US that has been published during the last decade. This review will show that online journalism indeed is mostly all about text and traditional mass media thinking. Furthermore, it will show that new technology might not be the main driving force behind changes in journalism. The questions therefore are: why do online journalism develop as it does? How can we best understand the evolution of journalism in new media? The last part of this series will address these questions.
First, however, it is useful to be reminded of a simple fact: revolution prophesying has been quite common upon the entry of new technology throughout history. The telephone, television, the radio and computers were all supposed to cause “the end of history, the end of geography and the end of politics”, according to professor Vincent Mosco in his brilliant 2004 book The Digital Sublime: Myth, Power, and Cyberspace. Needless to say, these technological inventions did change the world dramatically, but not in such a quick and radical fashion the fortune-tellers seemed to believe. People tended to use these technologies quite differently than how many of the revolutionists predicted.
Take television: who would have thought in the 1950s and 1960s that radio would still be a powerful technological platform several decades later? Imagine the argument: who would want only sound, when you could have both sound and vision? It seems like a powerful argument (and please feel free to start hum that Bowie tune…). Then consider the fact that television was much more of a revolution than the Internet has been. It took only a few years for television to diffuse in society (8 years in the US), while it has taken the Internet 20 years to gain the same kind of penetration. Television did change journalism. But it didn’t kill it, or fundamentally change the social function of journalism and the role of the journalist. Likewise, the Internet will not kill journalism. It will change it, but perhaps no so radically as one would expect.
Things tend to transform slowly. Journalism transforms slowly. For instance, I recently read a 1925 book on feature journalism by American Harry Franklin Harrington. If I didn’t know better, I’d guess it was written 20 years ago. It portrayed feature journalism very much as it still is practiced today.
On that note I’ll end this introduction. In the next part of this series I will look at the the three assets of new technology that are generally considered to have the (potentially) greatest impact on online journalism: multimedia, hypertext and interactivity. What are they? And how do they fit with the wide range of concepts that flood the discourse on online journalism, concepts like crowdsourcing, wikijournalism, UGC, partucipatory journalism, citizen journalism, hypermedia, immediacy, etc?