Online journalism and the promises of new technology PART 6: Conclusion

I totally forgot to wrap up this series – but here it is; the conclusion. Sorry about the delay. And by the way; the whole series is now published (in a slightly different version) as an article in the journal Journalism Studies (restricted access).

Here are the previous posts:

  • The revolution that never happened (part 1)
  • The three main assets of new technology to online journalism — interactivity, hypertext and multimedia (part 2)
  • Online journalism as hypertext (part 3)
  • Online journalism and interactivity (part 4)
  • Online journalism and multimedia (part 5)

The previous posts of this series have left an impression that online journalism is left behind by the technological developments in new media. Linear text is preferred over hypertext and multimedia (hypermedia). Traditional norms of gatekeeping are preferred over participatory journalism and alternative flows of information, albeit interactivity seems to play a larger role when it comes to how major breaking news events, like crises events, are researched and covered.

Journalists and editors seem, at least to some extent, eager to embrace change brought forward by new technology, while users don’t seem to care. All in all; it seems that technology may not be the main driving force of developments in online journalism. The question is therefore: how can research on online journalism better grasp why online journalism develops as it does?

Some researchers suggest that ethnography and a closer look at the practices and routines of online news production is the answer. Pablo Boczkowski is a premier example of this trend, first with his 2004 “classic” Digitizing the News, and now with the newly released News at Work — a book in which he investigates online journalism from multiple perspectives (from inside the newsroom to audience perception).

The case studies presented in Domingo and Paterson (eds) Making Online News (2008) — a book which comes in a new edition with new studies next year — are also examples of this ethnography-trend. However, both Boczkowski’s work and the studies in Making Online News are quite  dominated by the technological discourse.

Some other studies also utilize ethnographic methodology, but from a broader, albeit still technology oriented, approach that aim at finding out how convergence of newsrooms affect the production of journalism (Dupagne and Garrison, 2006 (pdf); Erdal, 2009 (PhD dissertation as pdf); Klinenberg, 2005 (restricted access); Lawson-Borders, 2006 (preview in Google books).

These studies provide valuable insights into the complexity of online journalism production and put forward findings that shed light on why technology is not utilized to the degree that has been previously postulated.

Notwithstanding the significant contributions of these studies, there are still many shortcomings of the research on online journalism. I will conclude this series with six suggestions for further research.

First, studies of online journalism could benefit from a broader contextualization Mitchelstein and Boczkowski (2009) (restricted access) argue that the research on online journalism lacks historical dimensions. Relating online journalism to developments in journalism prior to the Internet boom could therefore be a suggestion. Viewing online journalism in reliance to media theory and how media and media products transform over time could be another. Mitchelstein and Boczkowski (2009) also identify a need for more cross-national studies, and for online journalism researchers to look beyond the newsroom and the news industry and take into account structural factors of for instance the labor market and comparable processes in other industries in order to better understand “who gets to produce online news, how that production takes place, and what stories result from these dynamics” (2009, 576). It should however be noted that Mark Deuze’s 2007 book Media Work (preview in Google books) and a special issue of the journal Journalism on Newsworkto some extent address these shortcomings.

Second, the research on online journalism is flooded by a range of theoretical concepts that are either interchangeable or are interpreted differently by different researchers. Concepts like interactivity, hypertext and multimedia are understood in different ways, and other concept, like genre and innovation are generally used without any theoretical discussion on what they represent and how they might inform the research on online journalism. A stronger emphasis on conceptualization is therefore needed

Third, most of the research on online journalism is limited to a focus on the presentation and to some degree the production and reception of hard/breaking news and the rhetoric of online news sites’ front-pages. The development of other genres therefore seems to have been downplayed in the research, even though some studies have been conducted on online feature journalism (Boczkowski 2009 (restricted access); and some of my own research (my PhD as pdf)). Furthermore, sections and stories that are reached by other means than via links from the front-page (e.g. traffic to stories and sections generated from search engines) seem to be under-represented in the research. A stronger emphasis on the diversification of online journalism is therefore needed.

Fourth, research on online journalism could benefit from a greater recognition of and reflection on the text as a research unit. Although most research on online journalism deals with text in one way or the other, there is a striking neglect of theoretical and methodological reflections on what texts are, how they facilitate communication, how they relate to media, and how they connect media with society. Genre theory and discourse analysis could for instance be valuable tools to establish research approaches that aim at investigating online journalism as communication. Lüders et al. (2010) (restricted access), for instance, show how the concept of genre provides vital insights into the emergence of new media like the personal weblog.

Fifth, although some of the research mentioned in this series makes longitudinal claims, the empirical material is seldom of longitudinal character. This seems to be a flaw considering the swift development of online journalism and the lack of common theoretical and methodological approaches, which makes comparisons between findings difficult.

And finally, sixth, research of online journalism suffers from a methodological deficiency. The research is dominated by content analysis, surveys and interviews. Qualitative approaches are rarely utilized, even though ethnographic news production studies seem to gain popularity. However, given the limited cases that are possible to investigate with such a methodology, more ethnographic research is need. Furthermore, content analysis should to a greater extent be combined with qualitative textual analysis of online journalism texts – all in order to uncover the complexity of online journalism.

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