Outside influences: Extramedia forces and the newsworthiness conceptions of online newspaper journalists
by William P. Cassidy
This article examines the influence of extramedia (outside) forces on the newsworthiness conceptions of U.S. online and print daily newspaper journalists. A national survey (N=655) found that while extramedia forces exerted only a moderate influence overall, they were more influential on the online group. Online daily newspaper journalists rated Audience Research, Advertisers, Public Opinion Polls, Wire Service Budgets and Prestige Publications are significantly more influential than did print daily newspaper journalists. The findings suggest that journalists in the online environment are reconceptualizing their gatekeeping roles.
Weaver and Wilhoit (1996) assert that Nothing in the [journalism] field is more important than decisions about what is worthy of publication or broadcast , noting that much of the criticism about the news media concerns the selection of news stories. Kovach and Rosenstiel (2001) state that with the advent of the Internet, the concepts of journalists’ applying judgment as to what constitutes news is more important than ever. Journalists, they say, no longer decide what information the public should know, but instead, help audiences make sense of it. Similarly, Singer (1998) suggests that the Internet could prompt a fundamental shift in journalists roles, while a report by the Project for Excellence in Journalism (2004) notes that the increasing availability of news from reliable and unreliable sources makes the demand for the journalist as referee, watchdog and interpreter all the greater.
During the past decade, the Internet has emerged as a major source of news, with more than 50 million Americans obtaining news from the Web on a typical day (Pew Internet & American Life Project, 2006). As a result, online journalism has been analyzed extensively by critics and scholars, particularly in terms of content and audience (Singer and Thiel, 2002). However, despite the increasing prominence of the Internet as a news medium, less scholarly attention has been paid to online journalists (Weaver, et al., 2006).
Research investigating how journalists perform their jobs is important to understanding the profession (Brill, 2001). Thus, this project seeks to add to our knowledge of online journalists by examining the influence of several factors on U. S. online daily newspaper journalists conceptions of newsworthiness and comparing their responses to those of print daily newspaper journalists. Data for this study were gathered via a nationwide survey.
Weaver, Wilhoit and colleagues (1986, 1996, 2006), in their extensive chronicles of the profession, asked journalists to rate the influence of a number of factors on their conceptions of newsworthiness.
Generally speaking, their research has found that journalistic training exerted the biggest influence on conceptions of newsworthiness, followed by editors and peers on staff. For example, 79 percent of daily newspaper journalists ranked journalistic training as being very influential, followed by staff supervisors at 60 percent, and staff peers at 40 percent (Weaver, et al., 2006).
A bit less influential were factors from outside the news organization such as sources (39 percent of daily newspaper journalists rating them as very influential), audience research (29 percent), wire service budgets (27 percent), local competitors (21 percent) and large newspapers or network television news (12 percent) (Weaver, et al., 2006).
However, Boczkowski (2004a) in his ethnographic study of the development of online newspapers, suggests that they differ from their print counterparts in editorial practices. He believes that in the online environment the news seems to be shaped by a greater and more varied group of actors , and that factors outside the newsroom such as advertisers and the audience may have more influence on online newspaper journalists conceptions of newsworthiness. Therefore, this study focuses on external influences on online daily and print daily newspaper journalists conceptions of newsworthiness.
Inherent in this research is the assumption that journalists themselves are at the heart of decisions regarding newsworthiness (Weaver, et al., 2006). This assumption is directly tied to the concept of the journalist as a gatekeeper — someone who selects what to cover and how to cover it (Bennett, 2007). Gatekeeping theory, combined with Shoemaker and Reeses (1996) hierarchical model of news influences serves as the framework for this study.
Gatekeeping theory, as developed by psychologist Kurt Lewin, states that there are forces which can either facilitate or constrain the passage of news stories through the gatekeeping process (Shoemaker, 1991). Early inquiries into gatekeeping theory concentrated on the decisions of a single gatekeeper. For example, David Manning White (1950) examined the decisions made by a newspaper wire editor in selecting stories to publish. White concluded that the wire editors decisions were subjective and based on his beliefs concerning newsworthiness. Studies by Snider (1967) and Bleske (1991) found similar results.
However, later analyses of that research found that the work of those individual gatekeepers was influenced by other levels of gatekeeping forces, such as the professional routines of journalists, as well as the policies of the news organization (Ettema and Whitney, 1987; Hirsch, 1977; Reese and Ballinger 2001). For example, Hirsch (1977) said the reasons for the decisions made by the wire editor in Whites (1950) study were primarily based on commonly held views among the journalism profession about whether or not a story is newsworthy. These norms, according to Hirsch better explained the decisions made. Such work revealed gatekeeping to be more complex than previously thought.
A pair of studies (Cassidy, 2006; Shoemaker, et al., 2001) have utilized gatekeeping theory in conjunction with Shoemaker and Reeses (1996) hierarchical model of news influences. The model describes five levels of forces that influence news media content individual, routine, organizational characteristics, extramedia and ideological. Cassidy (2006) found that routine level forces (professional norms) exerted more influence than individual forces (factors intrinsic to the individual journalists) on the role conceptions of print and online newspaper journalists. Results of the Shoemaker, et al. (2001) study showed that the individual characteristics of journalists who reported on major U.S. Congressional bills were not related to coverage, while the routine force of editors assessments of the bills were significantly correlated with the amount of coverage.
The focus here is on forces at the extramedia level. Extramedia forces are those that come from outside of the individual media organization (Shoemaker and Reese, 1996). Included at this level are sources, special interest groups, other media organizations, the audience, and advertisers.
Sources are important because they determine what image of society is presented as well as what information is transmitted to the public (Soloski, 1989) and the sources journalists choose to utilize can impact the way a story is written (Shoemaker and Reese, 1996). Gans (1979) wrote that the sources journalists use reflect societys desire for moral order. Research has shown a consistent pattern of official sources dominating news reports (Bennett, 1990; Gans, 1979; Sigal, 1973). Tuchman (1978) says this is because the power structure of society is perceived as the legitimate site for gathering news.
Special interest groups regularly try to influence media content, in hopes of influencing public policy (Gandy, 1982). However, as Shoemaker and Reese (1996) note, their success is mixed at best. Thrall (2006) found that special interest groups with extensive resources were the ones covered most often in the news media, and received more positive coverage than resourcepoor groups.
Research has shown that journalists routinely use journalists from other media organizations, as well as other publications as points of reference (Bennett, 2007; Crouse, 1972; Dunwoody, 1997; Kiernan, 2003; Reineman, 2004). This pack mentality provides journalists with what Sigal (1973) calls a modicum of certitude and aids them in performing their jobs in an uncertain environment. Gans (1979) found that editors often read prestige publications such as the New York Times for story ideas and that reporters stood a better chance of having their story ideas accepted if the subject had already been covered in such a publication. Similarly, wire service budgets have been shown to act as a gatekeeping force by suggesting to newspapers the proper mix of news (Whitney and Becker, 1982). In fact, Hirsch (1977), when examining the initial gatekeeping study by White (1950), discovered that the types and proportions of stories selected by the gatekeeper were very similar to those sent to him by the wire services.
Shoemaker and Reese (1996) contend that the audience has less influence on content than many routine and organizational forces. In fact, they say Journalists write primarily for themselves, for their editors, and for other journalists . However, as noted earlier, Boczkowski (2004a) believes the audience has a greater effect on the news in the online environment due to the increased interactions between them and journalists. Indeed, Weaver, et al. (2006) found that online journalists were much more likely to hear regularly from audience members than their traditional counterparts.
Advertisers have long attempted to influence content, but their success in doing so is mixed (DeLorme and Fedler, 2005). However, in a survey of daily newspaper editors Soley and Craig (1992) found nearly 90 percent had been pressured by advertisers and that more than onethird (37 percent) of editors said they had acquiesced to pressure from advertisers. Nearly all the editors said advertisers had withdrawn advertising because of conflicts over content.
While no previous research has investigated influences on online journalists conceptions of newsworthiness, several studies of the roles and professional practices of online journalists have appeared in recent years. A survey of the online editors at more than 200 daily newspapers found that nearly all agreed that journalism ethics and standards should be the same for both the print and online editions. However, nearly half (47 percent) felt that less time was spent verifying the facts of a story before it is published online and that the online edition was not as likely to follow general ethical standards of the profession (Arant and Anderson, 2001).
Singer (1997) found evidence in her study of online personnel at three newspapers found evidence that online journalists see their gatekeeping roles as evolving with the advent of the Internet. Journalists regarded themselves as credible interpreters and assessors of the quality of the large amounts of information available to the online audience. In another study of gatekeeping roles, Singer (2001b) discovered that the online editions of six Colorado newspapers concentrated on posting local stories, at the expense of nonlocal ones, thereby giving readers a much smaller view of the world. Such action, she said, signifies online journalists are giving up an important gatekeeping function.
In a more recent study, Singer (2006) found that online newspaper editors were reconceptualizing their gatekeeping roles by incorporating the interactive features of the Web into their coverage of the 2004 political campaign. The editors, she said, provided content that users could manipulate to suit personal needs , such as interactive voter guides and ballot builders. These accommodations are a step toward what Singer calls a partnership between editors and users.
Brill (2001) reported the professional role conceptions of 66 online daily newspaper journalists and compared her results to those of newspaper journalists in Weaver and Wilhoits (1996) study. Both groups were similar in their perceptions of the disseminator role conception, which emphasizes getting information to the public as quickly as possible, and avoiding stories with unverifiable facts. Cassidy (2005) found that both online and print daily newspaper journalists placed greater importance on the disseminator role conception, as well as the interpretive/investigative role conception, which emphasizes investigating government claims, analyzing complex problems, and discussing public policy in a timely manner. Weaver, et al., (2006) included a separate sample of 100 online journalists in their most recent study. Like their counterparts in other mediums, online journalists rated the interpretive and disseminator role conceptions more important than the populist mobilizer and adversarial role conception.
The research questions examined in this study are:
RQ1: How influential are extramedia level factors on U. S. online and print daily newspaper journalists conceptions of newsworthiness?
RQ2: Are there significant differences between U. S. online and print daily newspaper journalists in the level of influence extramedia level factors exert on their conceptions of newsworthiness?
This study is an analysis of data gathered as part of a larger project (Cassidy, 2003) and other results have been reported elsewhere (Cassidy, 2005; 2006; 2007). The sample of daily newspaper journalists was drawn from the 1,191 daily newspapers included as of February 2003 in Newslink, a major database listing of online newspapers and designed to provide a systematic probability sample of newspapers proportionate to the size of daily circulation . Print circulation figures were used in compiling the sample because it is likely that familiarity with the print edition is what leads readers to seek out a newspaper online (Singer, 2006). The majority of daily newspapers provide staff lists with email contact information (Singer, 2001a) and the author visited the Web sites of each newspaper to see if a list was available. Newspapers with no staff list posted were contacted to see if one could be provided. If a newspaper did not provide a list, the author randomly examined stories on the newspapers Web site to see if contact information for the reporter was available .
Data were gathered through a Webbased survey, an effective method of gathering information from people with email addresses and access to the Internet (Dillman, 2000). Invitations to participate in the survey were sent via email messages to 3,330 newspaper journalists (2,050 print and 1,280 online) from 15 July 2003 to 25 August 2003 . A total of 444 invitations (13.3 percent) 325 from the print sample and 119 to the online sample were undeliverable. Of those who received the invitation, 51 37 print and 14 online newspaper journalists declined to participate.
A message with the URL of the survey was emailed to the sample within three days after sending the invitations. In all, 2,835 messages (1,688 to print and 1,147 to online newspaper journalists) were sent between 17 July 2003 and 27 August 2003. Reminder messages were sent one and two weeks, respectively, after the initial message.
Responses were received from 656 individuals, for a 23.1 percent response rate. One response was so incomplete that it could not be used and was eliminated from the study. Thus the final sample size was 655 (456 print and 199 online newspaper journalists). Respondents hailed from all 50 states, as well as the District of Columbia and were employed by 271 daily newspapers. The distribution of the sample is similar demographically to other recent studies of U. S. journalists. For example, males comprised 61 percent and females 39 percent of the sample, compared to 62 percent and 38 percent respectively in the latest American Society of Newspaper Editors (2006) census. Minorities made up 11.4 percent of respondents here, while 13.9 percent of respondents in the ASNE (2006) census were minorities. Nearly 93 percent of respondents in this study are college graduates, compared to 92 percent of newspaper journalists surveyed by Weaver, et al. (2006). In addition, 54.3 percent of respondents here were between ages 2544, and 56.1 percent of newspaper journalists in Weaver, et al. (2006) were in that age group.
Utilizing questions adapted from Weaver and Wilhoit (1996), respondents were assessed how influential nine extramedia forces are on their concept of what is newsworthy. The level of influence respondents assigned each extramedia force was measured using a 7point Likerttype scale (1=not at all influential, 7=very influential). The extramedia forces examined were:
- Interest Groups
- Prestige Publications
- Local Competing News Media
- Wire Service Budgets
- Audience Research
- Public Opinion Polls
RQ1 asks how influential extramedia forces are on online and print newspaper journalists conceptions of newsworthiness. Table 1 shows that most of the nine extramedia force variables examined here exerted, at best, only a moderate level of influence. Both groups ranked Readers as most important. In fact, Readers was the only extramedia force scoring higher than 5 on a 7point scale for the print group (M=5.45). Readers also ranked highest for the online group (M=5.63). Sources was also rated as relatively important by both groups with means of 5.03 for the online group and 4.76 for the print group. Local Competing News Media was the only other extramedia force with a mean greater than 4 for both groups. The mean level of influence for this force on the online group was 4.31, while the mean for the print group was 4.07.
Table 1: Means of extramedia forces.
Note: N=655; df=653. Based on a 7point scale (1=not at all influential, 7=very influential)
SD ρ Sources 5.03 1.30 4.76 1.43 .078 Interest Groups 3.22 1.50 3.16 1.50 .619 Prestige Publications 4.08 1.32 3.75 1.58 .029 Local Competitors 4.31 1.54 4.07 1.56 .153 Wire Service Budgets 4.10 1.39 3.74 1.56 .021 Readers 5.63 1.23 5.45 1.26 .180 Audience Research 4.39 1.67 3.44 1.78 <.001 Public Opinion Polls 3.63 1.59 3.16 1.60 .007 Advertisers 1.94 1.28 1.58 1.05 .003
RQ2 concerns whether significant differences exist between online and print newspaper journalists in the level of influence extramedia forces have on their conceptions of newsworthiness. As shown in Table 1, five of the extramedia forces were significantly more influential to online newspaper journalists conceptions of newsworthiness.
The mean score for Sources was 5.03 (SD=1.30) for the online group and 4.76 (SD=1.43) for the print group. This difference was not significant (t=1.76, df=653, ρ=.078). No significant differences were found between the online and print newspaper journalists regarding the Interest Groups variable (t=.498, df=653, ρ=.619). The mean for this variable among the online group was 3.14 (SD=1.50), and was 3.22 (SD=1.50) for the print group.
Online newspaper journalists rated Prestige Publications significantly more influential on their conceptions of newsworthiness than did print newspaper journalists (t=2.20, df=653, ρ=.029). The mean score for the online group was 4.08 (SD=1.32) compared to 3.75 (SD=1.58) for the print group.
Online newspaper journalists gave the Local Competing News Media variable a mean of 4.31 (SD=1.56), while the mean for the print group was 4.07 (SD=1.56). This difference was not significant (t=1.43, df=653, ρ=.153).
The mean score for Wire Service Budgets was 4.10 (SD=1.39) for the online group and 3.74 (SD=1.56) for the print group. Online newspaper journalists rated this variable as significantly more influential than print newspaper journalists (t=2.33, df=653, ρ=.021).
As noted earlier, both groups rated Readers as having more influence than the other variables analyzed here. The mean score for the online group was 5.64 (SD=1.23), and 5.45 (SD=1.26) for the print group. The difference was not significant (t=1.34, df=653, ρ=.180).
The most significant difference between the two groups was the influence of Audience Research, with online newspaper journalists rating this variable as more important than print newspaper journalists (t=5.05, df=653, ρ <.001) on their conceptions of newsworthiness. The mean for the online group was 4.39 (SD=1.67) for the online group and 3.44 (SD=1.78) for the print group.
Online newspaper journalists also rated Public Opinion Polls as having significantly more influence on their conceptions of newsworthiness (t=2.73, df=653, ρ=.007), reporting a mean score of 3.63 (SD=1.59) compared to a mean of 3.16 (SD=1.60) for print newspaper journalists.
While exerting little influence overall, Advertisers proved significantly more influential on the online group (t=2.99, df=653, ρ=.003) with a mean of 1.94 (SD=1.28). The mean for the print group was 1.58 (SD=1.05).
This study compared the influence of nine extramedia forces on online and print newspaper journalists conceptions of newsworthiness. As one of the first to look at influences on the newsworthiness decisions of a nationwide sample of online and print newspaper journalists, the results provide additional information on the changing gatekeeping role of journalists in the online environment.
Overall, both groups rated the extramedia forces examined here as having a moderate influence on their conceptions of newsworthiness. These findings are in line with recent research. As noted earlier, Weaver and colleagues (2006) found extramedia forces were less influential on conceptions of newsworthiness than routine level forces such as supervisors, or peers on staff.
However, upon closer examination, the results also show support for Boczkowskis (2004a) contention that online newspaper journalists are influenced more by outside forces than their print counterparts. Online newspaper journalists rated each of the extramedia forces in this study has being more influential than did print newspaper journalists, with five of those differences reaching levels of significance.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the online group rated the Prestige Press and Wire Service Budgets as significantly more influential on their conceptions of newsworthiness than did the print group. Online newspapers are still a relatively new phenomenon. It is only within the last decade that many newspapers began establishing an online presence (Singer, et al., 1999). Thus, it seems logical that journalists in such a new and developing medium would look to more traditional entities for guidance in this area. Similarly, it comes as no surprise that Advertisers, while exerting little influence overall, were significantly more influential on the newsworthiness conceptions of online newspaper journalists. The amount of money spent by advertisers online pales in comparison to other mediums (Project for Excellence in Journalism, 2007). Perhaps online newspaper journalists feel it is in their best interest to pay more attention to their needs and concerns.
Boczkowski (2004a) stressed the influence of the audience on journalists conceptions of newsworthiness. He writes that in the online environment the news moves from being mostly journalistcentered [and] communicated as a monologue ... to also being increasingly audiencecentered. 
The results here support that statement. While no significant differences were found between the two groups regarding the influence of Readers, this study found a very significant difference between online and print newspaper journalists in their assessments of the influence of Audience Research on their conceptions of newsworthiness (ρ <.001) Similarly, the online group rated Public Opinion Polls as significantly more important than did the print group (ρ=.007).
A reason for these differences may be a result of the technological characteristics of the Internet as a news medium, which challenge more traditional journalistic ways of reporting. For example, Deuze (2001) says that online journalists must make allowances for interactivity in their stories. As a result, online coverage of a story tends to elicit a wider spectrum of voices and ... explicit and implicit exchanges among them , resulting in coverage more resembling a conversation and online journalists being more aware of the audience. As noted earlier, Singer (2006) found that online newspaper editors produced more content that could be personalized by the audience during the 2004 election campaign.
There are several limitations to this study. Although the 23.1 percent response rate is similar to that in other studies of newspaper journalists (e.g., Arant and Anderson, 2001; Singer, et al., 1999) it is possible the responses from nonrespondents would differ from those who participated in this study. In particular, the lack of responses from online newspaper journalists is a concern. Only 199 newspaper journalists responded to this survey. While it is not possible to report the exact response rate for each group because the author had no way of knowing if a respondent originally targeted as a member of one group was instead a member of the other, it appears that online newspaper journalists were less likely to respond.
Accordingly, the results are limited by the sampling design. This study followed the example of Arant and Meyer (1997) and was designed to provide a systematic probability sample of daily newspapers proportionate to circulation size. Therefore, the larger the circulation of the newspaper, the more survey invitations sent to staff members of that paper. However, it was discovered that some newspapers have small online journalism staffs in relation to paid circulation. As a result, some newspapers were unable to fulfill the number of survey recipients accorded them in the sampling design. This limited the number of online newspaper journalists receiving the survey.
Another possible limitation is that the data were gathered in 2003. However, it can also be argued that this was a noteworthy period in American journalism history. Respondents completed the survey just a few months after news of the Jayson Blair scandal broke. Blair, a young reporter for the New York Times was fired after it was discovered he committed plagiarism and fabricated a number of stories. According to Weaver, et al., (2006) the scandal raised questions about the standards, values, and ethics of the journalism profession. Data such as that presented here provides information about Blairs contemporaries.
Also, this study took place during a significant period in the development of online journalism, which has been referred to as the third wave (Pryor, 2003). Online news organizations and journalists were more knowledgeable and better trained and began to develop a better understanding of their audience. In addition, the online news audience began to grow during this period after a tumultuous period a few years earlier, which saw news organizations withdraw much of their support for online endeavors.
However, despite the above limitations, this study provides additional information about a growing segment of the journalist population, as well as insight into their professional roles and values. As noted earlier, despite some differences, both online and print newspaper journalists rated the extramedia forces examined here as only moderately influential overall on their conceptions of newsworthiness. A potential reason for this could lie in the fact that the online journalists studied here are associated with a traditional media entity: the print version of the newspaper. Sociology of news media research contends that journalists adapt the norms and values of the profession, as well as those of the organization employing them. Indeed, Boczkowski (2004a) said many online newspaper journalists in his study exhibited an occupational identity that resembled the one of their print counterparts, as defined partly by a traditional gatekeeping function and a disregard for userauthored content. .
Nevertheless, some significant differences were found. The newsworthiness conceptions of online newspaper journalists tend to be more influenced by extramedia forces in particular, those related to the audience which, in turn, can impact what content is published (Boczkowski, 2004b). Thus, the results here provide further evidence that journalists are reshaping their gatekeeping roles in the online environment. Future research should examine online newspaper content, especially given that online editions may be offering content for the print edition (Singer, 2006). In addition, journalists working for Webonly media outlets, as well as bloggers, should be examined. It is possible the differences between those journalists and the more traditional journalists surveyed here, might be more extensive.
About the author
William P. Cassidy is an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Northern Illinois University. His major research interests are online journalism, influences on news media content, and media coverage of the AIDS epidemic.
Email: bcassidy [at] niu [dot] edu
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5. Arant and Meyer (1997) contend that a purely random sample of newspapers overrepresents the readers of smaller newspapers and excludes many who read larger newspapers. Therefore, to best represent readers in the sampling design, Arant and Meyers (1997) methods were employed. The 2 September 2002 circulation figures from the Audit Bureau of Circulation of the 1,191 dailies listed in Newslink were hypothetically stacked for a total weekday circulation of 52,870,276. A random starting point was chosen, and after consulting research examining the print and online newspaper journalist population, a newspaper from the stack was pulled at every 25,790th copy for the print newspaper journalist sample and every 30,211th for the online newspaper journalist sample.
6. Contact information for a reporter was provided in all cases. Arant and Meyer (1997) used this method to select a portion of the newspaper journalists sampled in their study. To obtain responses from online staffers, generic email messages were sent to the organization asking that the message be forwarded to the newspapers online staff.
7. When drawing the online newspaper journalist sample, it became apparent that significant variance existed in the number of online staff members at daily newspapers. Previous research made no explicit distinction between journalistic online staffers and those in other types of positions. As a result, some newspapers, because they had small online journalistic staffs in relation to print circulation, were unable to provide the number of survey respondents accorded them in the sampling design. In addition, there were cases when a group of newspapers shared a single Web site manned by a small staff. Therefore, the number in the online newspaper journalist sample was only 1,280.
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Paper received 26 November 2007; accepted 4 January 2008.
Copyright © 2008, First Monday.
Copyright © 2008, William P. Cassidy.
Outside influences: Extramedia forces and the newsworthiness conceptions of online newspaper journalists
by William P. Cassidy
First Monday, Volume 13 Number 1 - 7 January 2008
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