Online journalism involves the delivery of news content through a networked, digital medium. The Internet and world wide web are primary vehicles for online journalism, but other options include mobile phones, personal digital assistants, and other devices. The question of whether those not traditionally considered journalists can or do produce journalism is important but unresolved.
Online journalism dates to the development of prototypes in the late 1970s and early 1980s, a period when the Internet was a cumbersome, text-based system mostly for scientists and researchers. Proprietary online services intended for general public use evolved separately and in tandem with a growing consumer market in personal computers. Early forms included teletext, which transmitted information through a portion of the television broadcast signal, and videotex, which sent information to an individual terminal via telephone lines (Sigel 1983).
Videotex services, many of them government-supported, attracted media participants throughout western Europe, notably in Britain, France, and Germany, as well as in Japan, Canada, Brazil, and Australia (Branscomb 1988). Early journalistic information providers for these online services included the BBC and Financial Times in Britain. In the United States, media companies that owned videotex ventures supplemented their own content with information from wire services, major newspapers, and other sources.
Online journalism gained traction once a structure for hyperlinking Internet documents developed in the late 1980s and a graphic interface allowed easy navigation around the rapidly growing network. Its growth in the United States illustrates similar trends throughout the developed world: About 20 US newspapers offered some sort of online product at the start of 1994, mostly bulletin boards plus a handful of alliances with proprietary commercial services such as America Online. The first consumer web browser, Netscape Navigator, launched that year; by December, about 100 online newspaper services were either operating or in development, and the first online advertisement had appeared, on the Wired magazine site, hotwired.com. The number of US newspapers online climbed to several hundred by mid-1995.
Newer browsers and ongoing technological developments made it easier to use the Internet and the web. More users started getting news online, and the more they did so, the more media companies and marketers could reach them there. News media executives quickly realized that an exclusive arrangement with a closed, proprietary service was unnecessarily limiting: They could create and maintain their own websites and reach the expanding online market no matter which service provider users favored. By the mid-2000s, almost all news outlets in the developed world had an online presence.
After moving to the web in the 1990s, it took nearly a decade for most media organizations to turn a profit there. The two primary revenue sources for commercial media, subscriptions and advertising, did not transfer easily to the emerging medium. With millions of information sources available for free, users were reluctant to pay for content. And advertisers struggled to adapt their placement and pricing strategies to fit the online environment.
At first, parent organizations subsidized online journalism sites. They saw them largely as vehicles for extending their brand name and geographic reach. Some major organizations employed dozens of journalists to maintain their websites, but most online staffs remained small. Content online originated in the parent outlet, which then repurposed it, commonly through an automated process, for digital delivery. A few editors typically worked in a separate location, handling whatever the parent outlet could not automate, such as adding links or rewriting headlines. Online content was otherwise identical to offline content.
By the mid-2000s, changes were apparent. In the US market, 95 percent of newspaper websites reported that they were profitable by 2005. Although most broadcast-affiliated sites remained in the red, revenue was rising. Enhanced placement, tracking, and targeting tools bolstered advertising, which generated most of the profit. Keyword search ads generated the greatest revenue, followed by display and classified advertising.
Major news media also succeeded, to varying degrees, in charging consumers for some content. For example, the New York Times offered paid access to archives, a Sunday preview feature, and selected columnists through the Times Select service. The Wall Street Journal, one of the only online journalism sites to charge for access from the start, in mid- 2005 reported making more profit from its online news division than from its print counterpart.
Economic challenges remained. Print media sites competed for classified ads with sites such as monster.com, ebay.com, and craigslist.org. News aggregators such as Google News and Yahoo! News were popular and attracted commensurate numbers of advertisers. Local ad revenue that once went either to local media or to telephone directories now divided among more competitors; newspaper sites no longer received a majority of it.
Although its contribution to the bottom line increased through the mid-2000s, online news still accounted for a small fraction of revenue at most mainstream media outlets, and traditional sources of revenue were down. Even strong online growth seemed unlikely to make up for the losses buffeting parent companies. Whether they would invest in technology or in journalists was of particular concern because journalists provide the investigative power and creativity that companies require to move beyond headline services.
News outlets throughout the world now not only maintain websites but also are expanding use of newer digital formats, such as RSS (really simple syndication) feeds, reporter blogs, and podcasts. The digital media environment has also become central to journalists’ view of what they do (Teeling 2006).
Creating online journalism differs from traditional media production in at least three ways. Many of those producing online journalism also work for other, affiliated media. Growing amounts of what they produce does not translate across platforms. And much of the online content does not come from journalists at all.
A majority of the most widely used online news sites are affiliates of traditional media organizations, and the stories that journalists produce for print or television also typically are disseminated online. The process works in the opposite direction as well, particularly for breaking news: Stories reported first on the Internet subsequently appear in the traditional product.
However, journalists contributing material to the web handle increasingly diverse content. Newspaper sites, for example, offer audio, video, and other multimedia content. Many also provide user-generated material, from blog entries to audience members’ texts and visuals. An online newspaper is no longer simply the newspaper online; it has evolved into something unique to the Internet.
For journalists, this shift has called for gathering information in multiple formats, such as audio clips along with written notes or video along with still images. Online staffers create multimedia story components, and develop and oversee interactive elements. The result is a trend toward an integrated newsroom, where journalists produce content for several types of media. Many organizations are desegregating the print and online newsrooms, creating a platform agnostic environment where journalists with good ideas for telling a story in a different medium can do more than suggest that someone else develop those ideas for online publication (Glaser 2005).
Such transitions are not necessarily smooth. Reports on newsroom convergence have suggested problems related to everything from differences in newsroom cultures to a lack of training with new tools and techniques. Some journalists see the cross-platform trend enhancing professional goals for public service as well as personal goals for career advancement. Others disdain the emphasis on branding and promotion, dislike the demand for more content without more pay, and suspect organizational motives that may lead to staff reductions.
The growth of online information from outside any newsroom may exacerbate these misgivings. News aggregators generate a lot of traffic with little or no editorial input, relying instead on sophisticated technology to collect, organize, and present stories targeted at the individual user. Bloggers share the role that opinion columnists, news analysts, and television commentators once held. Social networking sites such as myspace.com and opensource publishing sites such as ohmynews.com or YouTube.com enable users to publish their own version of news. Journalists at traditional news organizations debate whether or when none, some, or all of this output is journalism, but acknowledge the undeniable competition for user time and attention, as well as for advertising revenue.
Roles And Norms
Journalism has never been a perfect fit for the sociological construct of professionalism, which entails autonomy, prestige, and a particular set of criterion skills and normative values. Nonetheless, journalists generally consider themselves professionals in the important sense of their loyalty to the ideals of a profession and to a particular set of norms. They also share conceptions of broad professional roles, such as being a watchdog of the government and a gatekeeper of information.
Online journalism most obviously challenges the role of determining which stories reach the public. There is simply no gate to keep when anyone can be a publisher, and the notion of guarding one becomes absurd (Williams & Delli Carpini 2000). The emerging forms of political and government communication, transmitted to and from the public, also are at least partially displacing journalists as information providers and interpreters (Tumber 2001).
The change may shift the conceptualization of such professional roles away from the practical realm and into the normative one (Singer 2006). Rather than keeping an item out of circulation, journalists may focus more on vetting items for veracity and illuminating the context. As other online information providers challenge their role, status, and autonomy in deciding what is news and what makes it so, journalists may find that their self-definitions revolve less around the job they do and increasingly around the standards they apply in doing it.
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- Teeling, R. (2006). The use of the Internet by America’s newspapers. Bivings Report (August 1). At www.bivingsreport.com/2006/the-use-of-the-Internet-by-america’s-newspapers, accessed October 22, 2006.
- Tumber, H. (2001). Democracy in the information age: The role of the fourth estate in cyberspace.
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