Online journalism and the promises of new technology PART 4: Interactivity

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

In the fourth part of this series I will take a closer look at the research on interactivity  in online journalism and to what degree this asset of new technology has been and is utilized.

Content analysis studies

As with hypertext, the research on interactivity in online journalism is dominated by content analysis, even though a greater body of this research also relies on surveys and interviews with journalists. Kenny et al. (2000) concluded that only 10 percent of the online newspapers in their study offered “many opportunities for interpersonal communication” and noted that little had changed since the introduction of Videotex 25 years earlier: “Videotex wanted to electronically push news into people’s homes, and so do today’s online papers”.

Similar findings and conclusions are found in Pitts’ (2003), Jankowski and van Selm’s (2000) and Dimitrova and Neznanski’s (2006) studies of news sites in the US; in van der Wurff and Lauf’s (Eds) (2005) investigations of European online newspapers; in Quandt’s (2008) analysis of news sites in the US, France, the UK, Germany and Russia; in Paulussen’s (2004) investigation of Flemish online newspapers; Oblak’s (2005) study of Slovenian online news sites; O’Sullivan’s (2005) research on Irish online newspapers; Fortunati et al.’s (2005) (pdf) study of online newspapers in Bulgaria, Estonia, Ireland and Italy; and Spyridou and Veglis’(2008) study of Greek online newspapers.

Comparisons between these studies are, however, difficult to make, due to differences in both methodological approaches and theoretical understandings of what interactivity is. However, it might seem that the European online newspapers tend to offer slightly less interactivity than the online newspapers in the US.

In a longitudinal study of 83 online news sites in the US, Greer and Mensing (2006) found a slight increase in interactive features from 1997 to 2003. The possibility to customize news, however, decreased during the same period. Li and Ye (2006) found that 39.2 percent of 120 online newspapers in the US provided discussion forums – twice as many as in Kenney et al.’s study six years earlier. Hermida and Thurman (2008) found “substantial growth” (p. 346) in user-generated content in 12 British online newspapers from 2005 to 2006 (concerning features like comments to stories and “have your say”).

In an analysis of the level of participatory journalism in 16 online newspapers in the US, the UK, Spain, France, Germany, Belgium, Finland, Slovenia and Croatia, Domingo et al. (2008) concluded that interactive options promoting user participation “had not been widely adopted” (p. 334). However, their findings suggest a distinct increase in most such interactive options compared to earlier studies, especially regarding the possibility for users to comment on stories, which 11 of the 16 online newspapers allowed. The process of selecting and filtering news, however, remains the most closed area of journalistic practice, allowing the authors to conclude that: “[t]he core journalistic role of the ‘‘gatekeeper’’ who decides what makes news remained the monopoly of professionals even in the online newspapers that had taken openness to other stages beyond interpretation” (p. 335)”

Some content analysis studies offer insights into how interactive features such as discussion forums are used. Fortunati et al.’s (2005) (pdf) concluded that users “prefer to remain anonymous and silent” (p. 426). Li and Ye (2006) found similar results, and Thurman (2008) (pdf) found that the BBC News website’s comments system “Have Your Say” attracted contributions from not more than 0.05 percent of the site’s daily users.

J-blogs and interactivity

Some studies focus on interactivity in so called j-blogs, e.g. weblogs written by journalists and published on their online newspapers’ site. Singer (2005) found, in her research on 20 j-blogs in the US, that the journalists “are […] sticking to their traditional gatekeeper function even with a format that is explicitly about participatory communication” (p. 192). However, two other studies of j-blogs offer alternative findings. Wall (2005) investigated US j-blogs on the Iraq war in 2003 and found that these j-blogs emphasized audience participation to a much greater extent than the online newspapers in general. Robinson (2006) investigated 130 US j-blogs and found similar results.

Surveys and interviews

Studies relying on surveys and interviews with journalists contribute with similar findings as the content analysis studies. Riley’s qualitative interviews with journalists at a metropolitan US newspaper in the late 1990s offer some interesting insights into the attitude towards interactivity at the time. According to Riley (1998), most reporters were “horrified at the idea that readers would send them e-mail about a story they wrote and might even expect an answer”. In his 1999 PhD thesis (pdf), Heinonen found similar attitudes in his interviews with Finnish journalists during the same period.

However, this attitude seems to have changed. Schultz (2000) found a slightly more positive attitude towards interactivity among journalists at The New York Times, as did Quinn and Trench in their interviews with journalists in 24 online news organizations in Denmark, France, Ireland and the UK published in 2002 (MUDIA-report Online News Media and Their Audienc,e not available online). More recent studies suggest an even broader acceptance of interactivity among online journalists. In a survey of journalists in 11 European countries O’Sullivan and Heinonen (2008) found that 60 percent of the respondents agreed that linking with the audience is an important benefit of online journalism. O’Sullivan’s (2005) study in Ireland, Paulussen’s (2004) in Flanders, and Quandt et al.’s (2006) study in Germany and the US all found similar results.

In a broad scale study relying on 89 in-depth interviews with editors and journalists in newspapers and broadcasting stations in 11 European countries, Metykova (2008) (pdf) found that the relationship between journalists and their audience had indeed become more interactive, especially regarding email and text message interaction. However, this increase in interactivity “tended to be seen as empowering journalists to do their jobs better rather than blurring the distinction between content producers and content consumers” (p. 56).

Chung (2007) in interviews with website producers nominated for the Online Journalism Award in the US, and O’Sullivan’s (2005) found that online journalists, web producers and editors find it difficult to implement interactive features, even though they express a willingness to do so. O’Sullivan’s (2005) offers an interesting perspective: The use of freelancers may obstruct interactive features because freelancers cannot be expected to interact with readers to the same degree as the in-house editorial staff. Freelancers are generally not paid to participate in discussions with readers or initiate other kinds of interactivity.

Surveys of online newspaper users in Europe found that users lacked interest in participating on discussion forums and similar features (In Sweden: Bergström, 2008 (pdf); In Flandern: Beyers, 2004; 2005 (pdf); In Finland: Hujanen and Pietikainen, 2004; In Germany: Rathmann, 2002). The most important facility of online newspapers according to these survey studies seems to be that online newspapers are continuously updated. Already in the mid 1990s Singer (1997) found, in interviews with 27 journalists in the US, that those journalists who were positive towards the Internet and new technology emphasized the importance of immediacy in online journalism. Quandt et al.’s (2006)found that the online journalists in Germany and the US valued immediacy as the most important feature of online journalism. O’Sullivan’s (2005)found that immediacy was the “big thing” and that frequent updates was “the great strength of online media” (p. 62).

Interactivity summarized

To summarize the research on interactivity in online journalism, it seems clear that online news sites are becoming more and more interactive, first and foremost regarding human-to-human interactivity. Users are allowed to contribute to the content production by submitting photos and videos and by commenting on stories and participate in discussion forums. However, users are seldom allowed to participate in the selecting and filtering of news. The traditional norm of gatekeeping is thus still very much in place in the practice of online journalism. Fortunati et al.’s (2005) (pdf) concluded: “[…] the power relation between media organisations and readers is not in play” (p. 428).

Furthermore, the research reveals that online journalists and editors are becoming more eager to interact with readers, but organizational constraints like time pressure and the utilization of freelancers prevent them to a certain degree to do so. Last, but no least, user studies suggest an overwhelming indifference with interactivity – it seems that people prefer to be passive consumers, not active producers.

However, it seems that the picture might be slightly different when online newspapers report on major breaking news events, like natural disasters and other types of crises events. Several studies in recent years that focus on citizen journalism, like for instance Allan and Thorsen’s (Eds) compilation of case studies from around the world (2009), have demonstrated a boost in user participation and interactivity in the coverage of such events. In other words, it may seem that when crises strike, gatekeeping is to a certain degree abandoned.

In the next post in this series I’ll take a closer look at the third and final asset of new technology that was supposed to revolutionize journalism online: multimedia.


8 thoughts on “Online journalism and the promises of new technology PART 4: Interactivity

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  6. Tracy Boyer

    Hi Steen!

    Thanks for the great read. I look forward to checking out the last post in your series on multimedia. I was particularly interested in your thoughts on defining multimedia and interactivity, as that was something I tackled in my thesis at UNC Chapel Hill. I looked at short term retention rates and satisfaction levels of users consuming passive and interactive multimedia. You can view my full thesis here:

    I also wrote a brief synopsis of my findings over at my blog:

    Congrats on finishing up your dissertation and thanks again for also tackling the slippery topic of defining and analyzing interactive multimedia!

    Tracy Boyer

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