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«IRISH COMMUNICATIONS REVIEW VOL 9 2003 Brian Trench is a Online news and changing senior lecturer and Head of School in the models of journalism ...»

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Brian Trench is a

Online news and changing senior lecturer and

Head of School in the

models of journalism School of


Dublin City University,

with special research

Brian Trench and Gary Quinn interests in online

journalism, and in

social representations

and perceptions of The move to Internet news publishing is the latest in a series of technological shifts science. He managed which have required journalists not merely to adapt their daily practice but which have the DCU participation also – at least in the view of some – recast their role in society. For over a decade, in the EU-funded MUDIA (Multimedia proponents of the networked society as a new way of life have argued that responsibility Content in the Digital for news selection and production will shift from publishers, editors and reporters to Age). He was a

individual consumers, as in the scenario offered by Nicholas Negroponte:

journalist in print and broadcast media Instead of reading what other people think is news and what other before joining DCU in people justify as worthy of the space it takes, being digital will 1992.

change the economic model of news selecti

–  –  –

Among established journalists, those who have crossed over into new media frequently castigate their erstwhile colleagues for being blinkered. At the extreme, journalism is seen as redundant, because “everyone becomes a journalist” (M.F.Wilson, executive editor of The San Francisco Chronicle, quoted in Bardoel, 1996). Steve Yelvington, of Cox Interactive Media, criticises journalists for failing to see that they are no longer the gatekeepers. He insists that the content of sites like slashdot.com that are based on users’ contributions should be seen as news: “If Slashdot were a mammal, most of our news sites would be the dinosaurs. Many journalists don’t understand this and don’t think it’s journalism” (Yelvington, 1999).

In more grounded analyses, online journalism is widely taken to represent a new model of journalism. In this view, a challenge to the ‘vertical’ model of journalism arises from the development of ‘horizontal’ means of mass communication (Bardoel, 1996). But

journalism is redefined rather than replaced:

More than ever, the task of journalism will be in filtering relevant issues from an increasing supply of information in a crowded public domain and its fragmented segments...On the one hand, there is a need for information brokers, on the other, for directors and conductors of the public debate (Bardoel, 1996).

ARTICLES Similarly, Schudson has suggested that people would seek help to identify which sources were legitimate and would do so from news professionals who were thus required to “conceive their tasks” differently from previously, as interpreters and guides rather than as gatherers and disseminators (Schudson, 1995). Even a new media enthusiast like Jon Katz insisted: “We need journalism probably more than we’ve ever needed it.” But he went on: “Journalism has been asleep at the switches … young people see it as irrelevant, they see it as clueless, and they see it as fundamentally dishonest” (Kees, 1999).

In one of the few books attempting to synthesise the experiences and implications of online jour nalism, Jim Hall addresses the change of jour nalism’s r ole as “disintermediation”, arguing that “the web itself has taken over the role of mediating those [primary news] sources for audiences”. As a result, “journalists add cartographer to the role of news-worker but, in the universal library that is the web, they also become authenticators and designers for those who follow the maps they draw” (Hall, 2001).

This may be part of an answer to the question posed by John Pavlik, of Columbia University’s New Media Center, who, in a discussion of the research agenda relating to online journalism, asks: What are the most effective roles for journalists in an age where citizens can increasingly go directly to the source of news? (Pavlik, 2000). Pavlik has been developing a view of a new journalism that “will allow news consumers to understand the meaning of the day’s events in a personalised context that makes better sense to them than traditional media do now” (Pavlik, 1997). He has argued that journalism should embrace the new media “since [they] can build new communities based on shared interests and concerns; and since [they have] the almost unlimited space to offer levels of reportorial depth, texture, and context that are impossible in any other medium … new media can transform journalism”.

Through selected Irish case studies, we shall later examine the forms of journalism growing up in the new media. In the following section, however, we consider some aspects of the online environment that have the potential to influence, and may already be influencing, the practice and profession of journalism.

The Internet as news medium The Internet offers itself as a vehicle for news not just in the form of network technologies, or as a storehouse of information, or as a means of diverse forms of communication, but also as a cultural space with its own rituals and norms. It presents itself with a diversity of cultural practices and values inscribed into it. The strongest of those practices and values resist the kind of paternalistic, top-down communication that has defined the professional culture of journalism.

Many years before existing news organisations had seen the potential of the Internet as a publishing and income-generating vehicle, academic and other communities had been using it to distribute and exchange what they called news. By the early 1990s the number of “newsgroups” on the Internet was estimated at over 10,000. These openaccess services catered for serious scholars, political activists, hobbyists, rumourmongers and the idly curious. They developed their own norms for the methods for setting up new groups and for the manner of posting items and responding to those already posted. Through the alt. newsgroups, a new public space, defined by freedom of expression, was established. Most newsgroups were text-only but as the means of digitising images and compressing those digital files became more widely available, many news groups were also used to distribute images. Not for the first or last time, aficionados of pornography were to the fore in extending the scope of the technologies.

IRISH COMMUNICATIONS REVIEW VOL 9 2003 “News” is used in two ways in everyday discourse. It can refer to what has happened to individuals, as in the conversational opening, “Any news?” It can also refer to information about significant events on the public stage. On the Internet, in the newsgroups, these two meanings intersected. News of both kinds became the mortar of online “virtual” communities, many of them brought together and sustained by a sense of social solidarity for which the traditional media were not considered a suitable or available channel. Others were driven by prejudice, bigotry and hatred, for which the traditional media quite understandably did not wish to be a channel.

Newsgroups were also used for the rapid dissemination of information that conformed to traditional media criteria of news but which the traditional media, for one reason or another, could not or would not distribute. Matt Drudge – whose muck-raking Drudge Report represents one recognisable type of Internet journalism – began his publishing activities posting news from Hollywood on newsgroups and mailing lists. On the strength of these activities, “the ensuing Web site practically launched itself” (Hiscock, 2000).

The defining characteristic of this news practice, notwithstanding its actual and potential abuse, has been that it represented a mainly “horizontal” communication among peers, whereas traditional news represented an essentially “vertical” communication from authoritative sources, through the media, to the publics.

The information ecology within which news is produced and consumed online is substantially different from that in print and broadcasting and it continues to change within the new media. Many of the sources used in journalism are themselves active as direct publishers. Many individuals within the publics addressed by journalism are active as information-seekers, some too as information-providers. The ‘audience’ may have access to the source material used in generating the news reports published in newspapers, magazines, and broadcast on television and radio.

“Journalism has serious competition with other sources of information” (Houston, 2000). More than that, it faces the possibility of being exposed. Many government and commercial organisations who are among the most-used sources of news publish their statements on the Internet at the same time as they release them to the media. Net users can not only view material released to the media and, if they wish, compare the published news stories with them, they can, and do, also redistribute the original material and the resulting reports, inviting comment and discussion. More active Net users can work their way through official documentation, parliamentary reports, and ministers’ speeches to construct their own versions of the story. In this way, according to Hall, “the relationship between reader and author undergoes a shift that inverts traditional understandings of the construction of meaning and reshapes some of the values that underpin it” (Hall, 2001). He argues that an “impossible objectivity” is replaced by “reasoned subjectivity”, within which “readers will be able to make up their minds for themselves” (ibid.).

The space for producers to add context and explanation is, for all practical purposes, unlimited. The hyperlinking capability of the Web provides the means to provide additional information alongside a “best-available” version of the latest development.

Arguably, the Web removes or relaxes the constraint of audience ability or expectation frequently cited by news professionals in defence of established practices. It is possible to present material in a manner that allows users to work different routes through it, according to their own previous knowledge of the topic.

Even if not all of these facilities are used in any given example of online news publishing, it is apparent that the received notion of a bounded relationship between author or producer, at one pole, and reader, consumer, audience or user, at the other pole, is no longer very helpful. That relationship also shifts due to the possibilities the Web offers for users to contact authors or publishers of the displayed material, to post queries or comments to the originators of the information on which it is based, or raise issues for other users to respond to.

ARTICLES Empirical studies of interactivity as applied by Web news publishers indicate that only a minority implement these possibilities (see, for example, Schultz, 1999, and Schultz, 2000). Reflections on the application of interactivity suggest its social value has been over -rated (see, for example, King, 1998). But the mere fact that these opportunities arise to present news material in new ways and to engage differently with the users, and that publishers, editors and writers have to decide whether or not to take up these opportunities has implications for professional values. Jay Black has suggested that a new model of journalism may be emerging in which journalists’ conclusions should be “publicly verifiable and replicable”, journalists should be more willing to accept feedback, give expression to more voices and, overall, be more accountable in their work practices (Black, 1998).

Techno-culturalists remain sceptical about journalists’ capacity to change in this direction but some see that journalists could recover lost ground in credibility and trust

by responding to the expectations of ‘netizens’:

Reporters should be required to disclose their hidden incomes … Reporters should be required to put e-mail addresses on their work, and should be taught how to converse once again with the people who read them (Katz, 1997).

Those who have developed this capacity for conversation see it as a bonus for journalism rather than a workload burden. A BBC News Online executive noted that “the people in the story itself” were more involved in its telling. “This makes for better reporting and a better relationship between the news organization and its readers. Right now there are four people just sorting through readers’ e-mails, so every day we have this immense interaction with our readers. This is fundamentally changing journalism” (International Labour Organisation, 2000). The editor-in-chief of the magazine, The Onion, said “we do feel more in touch with our readers on the Web, just because we get feedback from them, whereas our print version readers don’t really write” (Mackintosh, 2000). David Talbot, pioneer Web magazine editor, described his publication Salon as part of a constant feedback loop. “We receive e-mails from around the world that challenge us and provide us with corrections and criticisms. It keeps us honest” (Power, 2000).

The practice of Web news has not been quite what the optimists would have wished.

Many Web publications that began with a commitment to explore new forms of storytelling, and to produce multi-layered features using multiple formats and sources have retreated from that commitment (Houston, 1999). Under the pressure of economic constraints, but also in response to the purported preferences of Web site users, information is increasingly published in conventional news-story formats, notably as ‘breaking news’. One of the paradoxical effects of the drift in this direction is the reinforcement of the historically pre-eminent role of the news agencies. According to former Guardian editor, Peter Preston, the “biggest remaining Net smile in town” belongs to the head of the Press Association’s online services (Preston, 2001).

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