Online journalism and the promises of new technology PART 3: Hypertext

This post is cross-published from my new journalism/new media-blog. Previous posts in this series:

In the third part of this series I will take a closer look at the research on hypertext in online journalism and to what degree this asset of new technology has been and is utilized in online journalism. The general assumption of researchers interested in hypertextual online journalism is that if hypertext is used innovatively it would provide a range of advantages over print journalism:

  • No limitations of space
  • The possibility to offer a variety of perspectives
  • No finite deadline
  • Direct access to sources
  • Personalized paths of news perception and reading
  • Contextualization of breaking news
  • Simultaneous targeting of different groups of readers – those only interest in the headlines and those interested in the deeper layers of information and sources

This list is generated from several sources, out of which the most important are:

Content analysis studies

Empirical research on the presence and relevance of hypertext in online journalism tends to rely on the methodology of quantitative content analysis to statistically count the amount of links present in online news sites. The findings are generally (but with many variations) categorized according to the three different types of hypertext identified by Chris Shipley and Matt Fish in their 1996 book “How the World Wide Web Works” ; Target links (links within documents), relative links (links to other pages within a site), and external links (links from one site to another site).

Most of the content analysis studies of hyperlinks in online journalism are snapshots of a situation at specific moments in time. A few of them are larger, cross-country studies, like Kenny et al (2000), who investigated 100 online newspapers (62 from the United States and 38 from “other countries”) at the end of the millennium and found that 33 percent of them offered links within news stories (target links) and only 52 percent of them offered some kinds of hyperlinks.

Jankowski and van Selm (2000) investigated 13 online news sites in the United States, The Netherlands and Canada and found similar results. A few years later, van der Wurff and Lauf (eds) (2005) presented studies of 72 European online newspapers and found that hyperlinks was the least developed “internet feature” (page 37). In their research on the front-pages of 26 leading online newspapers in 17 countries worldwide in 2003, Dimitrova and Neznanski (2006) found that use of hyperlinks had become “an established feature of online news”, but that the majority of the links was relative links (within-site links, mostly to archived material). Only eight percent of the online newspapers provided external links “despite the theoretically limitless possibilities for external linking”.

Compared to these studies, Quandt (2008) found in an extensive study of 10 online news sites in the United States, France, Germany, United Kingdom and Russia that hyperlinks were used to a somewhat greater extent: 73 percent of the 1600 full-text articles he analyzed had relative links, 14.3 percent had target links and 24.7 percent had external links.

Other, more nation-specific studies conclude that hyperlinks/hypertext is not utilized to its potential in online journalism, especially concerning the use of target links and external links (In Scandinavia: Engebretsen 2006; In Slovenia: Oblak 2005; In Ireland: O’Sullivan 2005; In Flandern: Paulussen 2004; In the United States: Pitts 2003; In Spain: Salaverria 2005).

A common explanation in these studies for the perceived lack of hypertext in the online news sites investigated is that a majority of the stories published online is shovel ware (stories that are originally published in print). Only a few studies offer more theoretically informed explanations of the findings, and even fewer offer a longitudinal approach.

One study that does both is Tremayne’s analysis of front-pages of ten online newspapers in the United States over a period of six years (1999-2004). He found that the amount of external links decreased during these years, while relative links increased. He explained this by network theory:

“[a]s each organization builds up its own archive of Web content, this material is being favored over content that is off-site. This is just one example of preferred attachment, which is the driving principle of network theory” (page 60).

Preferred attachment may be the result of a protectionist strategy aiming at keeping readers on-site, even though it is not portrayed as such in network theory. Such a strategy conflicts with the utilization of hypertext technology.


While content analysis has been the preferred method to investigate hyperlinks/hypertext in online journalism, other methods have also been utilized. In their2002  report Online News Media and Their Audience (which is not to be found online) Quinn and Trench presents a survey of 138 “media professionals” engaged in online news production in Denmark, France, Ireland and United Kingdom. The respondents agreed that providing hyperlinks could make stories more valuable to the readers. However, they were skeptical as to whether the readers “should be left to make their own judgment about the relevance of links, rather than […] having the news services provide guidance to users” (page  35).

O’Sullivan (2005) interviewed Irish online journalists and found that few of them found hyperlinks to be an important feature of online journalism. On the contrary, they expressed concerns as to whether (external) hyperlinks would lead readers away from their site. In his 2009 PhD thesis The Online News Factory: A Multi-Lens Investigation of the Strategy, Structure, and Process of Online News Production at CNN and NRK (not available online) Krumsvik found that hypertext was to a little extent utilized – external links were “ignored” (page  145).

User studies

In an experimental study of how readers in the United States evaluate in-text (target) links in news stories Eveland et al. (2004) found that only the experienced web users found such hypertext structured news stories valuable. For in-experienced users, the hypertext structure was a disadvantage. Sundar (2009) found similar result in his experimental study. However, users seem to be satisfied with relative links. According to a survey amongst readers of Flemish online newspapers, the utilization of links to archived material (relative links) is regarded as an important reason to read online newspapers.

Based on these studies, it seems that relative hyperlinks, i.e. hyperlinks to other stories within the online news site, is the most common form of hypertext structure found in online journalism, while target links (links within stories) and external links are used to a lesser degree. A protectionist attitude might prevent utilization of external links; while utilization of target links may be obstructed by a high degree of shovel ware material and uncertainty as to whether users actually benefit from such links.

In the next post I’ll take a closer look at what the research on interactivity in online journalism might tell us. Until then – please feel free to comment any thoughts/disagreements.

9 thoughts on “Online journalism and the promises of new technology PART 3: Hypertext

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  8. netBat

    I think there are a number of technologies/apps out there than can help publishers address these issues. Especially in terms of on-site engagement, finding ways to pull content withing rather than linking out is the key. The future of online content is creating interactive experiences.

  9. Pingback: Online journalism and the promises of new technology PART 6: Conclusion | Online Journalism Blog

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