Rational reflections: An illustrative examination of news Web sites in two countries as workers reach towards digitally mediated changes
First Monday

Rational reflections: An illustrative examination of news Web sites in two countries as workers reach towards digitally mediated changes by Phil M. MacGregor

This research examines the practices and beliefs of journalists at three news Web sites as they integrate new communication technologies in the workplace. The results of interviews with journalists at Abendblatt, Germany, Northern Echo in the U.K., and MSN.co.uk (U.K. Web site), suggest that existing institutional cultures can sometimes affect the way Web 2.0 technologies are used and understood by occupational journalists. Market perceptions influenced specific Web attitudes and practices at both newspapers. Thus Abendblatt.de and the Northern Echo have retreated from immediacy online in order to protect their print sales, whereas net–native MSN.co.uk has developed a rapid–response style of journalism that is seemingly enabled by its digital–only presentation. The research also indicates that institutional influence on practices can be unpredictable. The English newspaper sought a mostly local Web audience whereas the German site focused nationally, mirroring the net–native MSN.co.uk. The English newspaper spurned Web analytics while the other two sites used them avidly. The strong effects of Google on editorial gatekeeping and Web optimization reported by Abendblatt.de and Msn.co.uk journalists were not reflected in the English newspaper. For the theoretical discussion, Weber’s versions of rationality are used to distinguish the journalists’ approaches to innovation and technological practice. The research suggests means–end ‘practical’ rationality that concentrates on short–term advantage is shown at all three sites to be on the ascendant at the expense of more principle–based ‘substantive’ rationality.


Introduction — The online dilemmas
Literature and context
Method and justifications
Findings, and themes of discourse at the sites
Discussion and conclusions



Introduction — The online dilemmas

It is something of a truism that existing journalism cultures influence the uptake of new technologies, but the intricacy of the relationships need to be unraveled further. This research studies three news organisations to consider journalism innovation, new technologies, and the associated reasoning processes of the journalists who use them.

Perceptions of journalists about digital innovations usually hover between means–ends market advantage on one side, and values and beliefs about wider social concerns, on the other. The analysis discusses in an illustrative way how these themes might be taking shape in conjunction with perceived innovations. It considers whether the rationalisations reflect a specific professional viewpoint formed by an institution, such as either print–based or net–native media, or whether rationality and innovation interact with external factors in the wider news culture of a country. Two illustrative newspaper Web site examples are taken from print media in England and Germany, and contrasted with a digital native Web site with no legacy activity. Hamburger Abendblatt in Germany, the Northern Echo newspaper in England, and the English news Web site of the global brand MSN are used to display attitudes, perceptions and reasoning towards digital technologies.



Literature and context

Considerable uncertainty surrounds conceptualising how digital journalism is evolving (Steensen, 2011). There is little agreement on methods or theories to schematize attitudes and reasoning processes on innovation. Much interest has been shown in the uses of Internet tools and new forms like blogs but it might now be argued the question is not so much one of how news media integrate the Internet, but rather, how they are integrated into the digital social world of which they form only a fragmentary part. To date, the issue of integration in news sites is mostly framed as one of progressive though incomplete incorporation of Internet possibilities, with much of the focus on attitudes of journalists.

The digital revolution is cast as a progressive, liberating democratic force by Pavlik (2001), Jarvis (2009), and Gillmor (2004) for the field of journalism, but their visions have had only a patchy incarnation in occupational news practices. While their ideas reflect a sea change in the dynamics of information and news, Steensen (2011) and others have demonstrated how the optimism has not easily converted into journalists’ professional practices. The kind of trust in the digital crowd — wisdom of the people — championed by Jarvis (2009), that he experienced as a kind of personal conversion, is reflected at institutional levels in much more cautious ways.

Even where they are at first professionally distrusted, Internet tools are seen to be incorporated into newsrooms only gradually and often the result falls far short of the first utopian visions for Web technology (e.g., van der Wurff and Lauf, 2005; Fortunati, et al., 2009; Boczkowski, 2004; Michelstein and Boczkowski, 2009; Steensen, 2009; Chung, 2007; Karlsson, 2011). Steensen (2011) alludes to the debunking of those idealistic myths as a theme running through recent journalism scholarship. His article entitled ‘What’s stopping them’ (Steensen, 2009) captures a widely held sense of partial arrest in the innovation processes, which is sometimes overtly rationalized by journalists, and at other times results from habits and ingrained attitudes. In many early studies, hypertext, interactivity and multimedia were said to be under–exploited as newsrooms were seen to fall short of achieving a predicted convergence. As a modification of this teleological model, a more pragmatically derived ‘convergence continuum’, or spectrum of possibilities for multimedia adoption in newsrooms is sometimes suggested (Singer, 2008; Deuze, 2004), each newsroom providing a different degree of innovation within a range. Newsrooms can reverse direction away from convergence. Tameling and Broersma (2013) report a case of de–convergence at the Dutch newspaper de Volkskrant which has disunited its print and online newsrooms, outputs and practices. Most studies modify the early utopianism and high expectations for journalism and the Internet and strongly suggest that the imagined potential has not been reached (e.g., Domingo, 2008b). According to Michelstein and Boczkowski (2009), the defence of existing territories rather than new conquests marks much online journalism practice.

Reasons given for the partial arrest are sketchy, but some drag effects include lack of skills and resources (Singer, 2008), protectionism of the brand, the influence of freelancers (O’Sullivan, 2005) the wish to guard the profession by keeping control, and professional inertia and preference for familiar routines (Steensen, 2011; Domingo, 2008b). In sum, there is a vigorous narrative that challenges claims of a step change in digital journalistic practices.

Pushing against the ‘slow change’ narrative, advocates of transformation point to a strong influence of citizen media and user–generated content on institutional journalism especially in times of crisis. Seen in this perspective, Allan [1] alludes to the Internet ‘recasting the conventions of mainstream media.’ Schudson (2012) summarises some game–changing features of Web 2.0 news. He points to blurring lines — between audience and journalist, between amateur and professional, between new and old media, and between editorial and commercial departments. In this picture the definition of journalism is in transition. A more chaotic but creative scene appears, reminiscent of the re–ordering of knowledge outlined by Weinberger (2008), who finds positives in the decentering of Web–based knowledge from classic institutions and old classification methods. From Web disorder arises a supra–institutional meta–order, as mass endorsement and tagging concentrate attention through acts of networked gatekeeping.

Twitter is now making formidable impressions on existing news practices, bringing speed, new connectivity, and ephemeral audiences which test journalists’ powers of engagement. Vis (2012) charts how journalists ingeniously used Twitter in London’s riots to identify locations to attend. The influence of clickstream data on news values (Anderson, 2011; MacGregor, 2007) creates new tensions and a tendency towards a calculating mode of judgment. Data journalism, crowdsourcing, and Web analytics together form a matrix of opportunities and dilemmas for the occupational journalist while the digital options for institutions are now freighted with threats to survival — as recent media history testifies.

Google’s rising power

One of the key technologies of change in journalism is the power of search. Google’s disturbing potential to invade and realign digital culture globally and locally is argued by Vaidhyanathan [2]. ‘Googlization,’ he says, ‘fractures the world in new ways just as it unites it in other new ways.’ Its ability to determine what is important and true on a global scale competes with some traditional roles of journalism. Its power to direct news flow is exacerbated by the way it de–privileges quality news sites and buries them in clutter. Google has become a vast content distribution system (Turow and Tsui, 2009) and acts as ‘a massive editorial filter.’ What is becoming more apparent — and is reinforced in this study — is how closely some journalists gear their work to the dictat of its algorithms [3]. Dick’s study concluded that search engine optimisation (SEO) is applying pressure to news standards, not through the perceived interest of the reader, but ‘in the interests of a third party arbiter in online distribution — Google’.

On the New York Times Web site, at least 60 percent of traffic comes from the Web and a third of that from Google (Turow and Tsui, 2009). On the positive side, Schroeder and Kralemann (2005) argue that in Germany Google News is not culled only from narrow mainstream sources and may introduce an international discourse to German news consumers.

National news environments

This discussion covers news media in Germany and the U.K. In the U.K., studies of online journalism are sparse for regional newspapers — Dickinson (2011) looks at social media, while Williams and Franklin (2007) present a view of regional journalists under extreme financial and time pressure, who nevertheless have an avid interest in new media tools, and social media especially. The national press and broadcast online has had more attention in Britain (e.g., Hermida and Thurman, 2008; Singer and Ashman, 2009) but the national papers’ competitive environments make them unreliable as models for press activity outside London. Even so, results indicate journalists regard online technologies with optimism while audience participation is reasoned as beneficial so long as journalistic autonomy and gatekeeping control are retained.

Much work indicates divergences in journalism cultures across nations (e.g., Esser, 2008, 1999; Donsbach and Patterson, 2004; Hallin and Mancini, 2004b; Sanders, et al., 2008; Preston, 2009). One of the most influential recent studies, Hallin and Mancini (2004a), divides northern and southern Europe and U.S. into three journalistic types: the liberal (U.K. and U.S.), the democratic corporatist (northern Europe including Germany) and the polarised pluralist (southern Europe). Evidence for variation in online journalism across Europe includes signs of clustering of attitudes between north and south (Sarrica, et al., 2010; MacGregor, 2011) though van der Wurff and Lauf (2005) found surprising uniformity in online content presentation and in the participatory tools offered to audiences.

Quandt [4] studied five German online sites and concluded that a conservative pattern of online journalism prevailed in that country: ‘Overall the basic orientation pattern is traditional (print/news agency) journalism,’ by which he meant that news agency material underpinned the Web content online. His earlier study (Quandt, et al., 2006) suggests that German online journalists use the Internet more frequently than those in the U.S. and the different economic, cultural and social environments influenced attitudes in the two countries more than one might expect. Another study of newsroom organization (Meier, 2007) highlights the atypical way German online news is organized in contrast to many other countries. As in Britain, German publishers have been stymied by the economic challenges of the Internet. In 2009, a new copyright law was proposed to try to stem the power of Google, supported by Axel Springer, the owners of Hamburger Abendblatt (Pfanner, 2009).

Adoption of technologies and innovation

The concept of innovation sits at the nexus between organizational structure and individual agency and sociologists have investigated several theoretical approaches to it (Slappendel, 1996). An appropriate background here is the interactive process view that associates structure and agency together within a ‘dynamic continuous conception of change over time.’ [5] A non–linear model endorsed by Nguyen (2008) advances and modifies this view, seeing adoption as ‘a continually progressive and self–reflexive process.’ Attempts to define innovative aspects of journalism online highlight interactivity, multimedia, and hyperlinks (e.g., Deuze, 2004; Bui, 2010; Steensen, 2011; Zamith, 2008). Karlsson (2011), Chung (2007) and Steensen (2009) point up immediacy as another distinctive development. To these a subset of features such as archiving, ubiquity and personalization have been suggested (Zamith, 2008). It must be said that there has been a normative idealistic slant given to concepts like interactivity that implies they are ethical and linked to potential democratic gains. The notions have dominated much early discussion of internet journalism (Steensen, 2011) and reached a familiar conclusion of unrealized potential. However, these concepts are not only open to multiple overlapping definitions (Steensen, 2011), but are reductive, formal, and lacking in sensitivity to the complexity of different interactions within media. They obscure many possibilities of the real meaning of what is happening to journalism.

Social media are an illustrative case of the difficulty of limiting discussion to qualities like ‘interactivity’. Social media are tools and platforms in their own right that are becoming integrated into the journalistic environment. To constrict their interpretation to the formal characteristics such as ‘interactivity’ does insufficient justice to their potentials to transform the journalistic environment, either through physical practices or in journalists’ conceptions of the audience. The approach in this discussion attempts to capture the multiple dimensions of new media, social media, and Internet tools as they are used and rationalized together in the workplace. Even the term ‘technology clusters’ used by Rogers (1995) seems too specific and limited to describe the evolving network of meanings entailed in new media. In this regard, the concept of curation, as a refinement of the editing process, has begun to enter discourse about professional role innovation, while social media like Twitter and YouTube are increasingly included in discussion around novel practices (e.g., Dickinson, 2011; Vis, 2012). Metric data and analytics form another cluster of tools meshed into many aspects of the new environment which proliferate day by day.

It is a contention of this discussion that organizational context and journalistic culture help to determine the interpretation of internet features. The overarching perspective of the organizational culture of journalism is developed from such works as Schudson’s (2012) The sociology of news [6], though he depicts a trend towards less institution–based journalism today. Domingo (2008b) suggests the existence of a parent medium — print or broadcast in his example — may conservatively influence adoption and integration of online practices, whereas net–native sites may venture into reflective and less event–driven content. O’Sullivan (2005), notes how online–only sites in Ireland tended to stick to syndicated and aggregated material rather than original researched journalism. Broadcast media are sometimes considered to favour multimedia presentation compared to print media (Steensen, 2011).

Theoretical framework

In the approach chosen here, a theoretical framework independent of the understandings and terminologies of the journalists is developed to reduce reliance on verbal markers like ‘interactivity’ and ‘multimedia’. Since they exist at the level of ideas as well as material facts, notions of innovation entail reasoning processes of actors and, therefore, versions of rationality. Journalists overtly use them on occasion: Bockzowski [7] quotes an online news journalist who describes a phase of Internet adoption as ‘the phase of rationality’ where ‘we said, let’s focus on what works ... let’s discover what our niche is, what our public is, and what works for them.’ Although the term ‘rationality’ may rouse objections, it can classify both perception and motives of journalists in productive ways.

Weber’s versions of rationality are derived from a sweep of world history and human action. He suggests four rational types: ‘practical’, ‘substantive’, ‘theoretical’, and ‘formal’.

Weber’s (1970) ‘practical rationality’ contrasts with ‘substantive rationality’. The former is short–term and self–interested while the latter strives towards ideals without regard to individual egotistical gain (see Kalberg, 1980). The resemblance to an extent reflects the division between market–oriented journalism and public service ideals but approaches the issues from a different direction.

‘Theoretical’ rationality, the third type, is barely linked to action, but strives for an intellectually found world–view that provides meaning, such as in philosophy and some aspects of religious doctrine. It is as Weber puts it: ‘An increasing theoretical mastery of reality by means of increasingly precise abstract concepts.’ [8]. The fourth type is ‘formal rationality’, which is driven by abstract processual rules found in modern bureaucracies, such as law, and is considered by Weber, alone of the four, to be new to modern societies. It differs from ‘practical rationality’ in being disconnected from self–interest, and from ‘substantive rationality’ by being unconcerned with ‘ultimate’ values. At the same time it has an unreflective ‘automatic’ quality of ‘habitual’ action [9]. It is possible that we might consider journalistic routines and journalists’ enculturation into professional practices, as being features of this version of reasoning and as deriving from a kind of bureaucratic instinct. That might be a preference for print and text rather than multimedia and audiovideo. Weber makes an important point covering all four types of reasoning:

It would be very unusual to find concrete cases of action, especially of social action, which were oriented only to one or another of these ways. [10]

Means–ends ‘practical rationality’ contrasts with unthinking tradition as it is not due to norms but just advantage (Weber, 1978). Its potential for innovation is clear when he says it is the ‘methodical attainment of a definitely given and practical end by means of an increasingly precise calculation of adequate means’ [11]. ‘Substantive rationality’, on the other hand, is defined as being shaped by ‘economically oriented social action under some criterion ... of ultimate values regardless of the nature of those ends’ [12]. Among these ultimate ends are included ethical, political, utilitarian or egalitarian values [13].

Weber’s rational being is not a free agent. Weber (1970) refers to ‘formal rationality’ specifically as a structure of domination, a view which would surely apply also to ‘practical rationality’ reflecting the coercive nature of market forces. The Frankfurt School developed formal rationality as a key concept, phrased as instrumental reason, which was a guiding force in mentalities of capitalism that could lead potentially to extreme repression.

Rational dispositions in Weber’s scheme are rarely unambiguous and require interpretive judgments. As a rule of thumb, if an action appears based on short–term interest it is taken as ‘practical’. If it has a principle that conflicts with or rides above the short–term, it may be ‘substantive’, and if it is an action based on routines and habits, it is probably ‘formal’. These divisions partly mirror some familiar perspectives on journalism as being either market–driven, or based on public service, or displaying enculturated professional norms. An important advantage of Weber’s rational distinctions is that they embrace these three tendencies in one framework.

In journalistic terms, Michelstein and Boczkowski (2009) and many others highlight the pragmatic actions of journalists towards short–term profit rather than long–term ideals. Rationality as such has been used as a filter to investigate journalism. Lowrey (2012) takes ‘bounded rationality’ to analyse innovation, a theory arguing that informational and cognitive limitations restrict perfect choice, which is effectively an aspect of Weber’s practical version. Lowrey found that ‘change in news product is due to coercion from above, to resources, and to weak tie connectivity with the organisation’s markets and readers’ [14]



Method and justifications

This discussion examines the claimed technological choices of journalists and their modes of reasoning about them. A motive for the choice of Web sites was that media type may be significant in shaping the way technology is taken up, that organisational forces are as potent as those of technology. A parent or legacy medium might be a guide to professional behaviours online and may influence institutions and actors towards specific professional perceptions and rationales.

Five journalists at, or linked with, Hamburger Abendblatt, 12 at MSN’s U.K. office, and 12 journalists at the Northern Echo were interviewed face–to–face at each site, with semi–structured interviews held between 2010 and 2013. Each interview lasted between 30 and 60 minutes. More senior editorial staff linked to the Web were chosen on the assumption that they are information–rich and can articulate policy and actions. Three section Web editors in Germany were interviewed in 2010 as was the paper’s design and content editor. The paper’s online section was merged with Die Welt in Berlin in 2012, and an hour–long interview with the digital manager was conducted in 2013 to help assess recent changes. At the Northern Echo, the editor, newsdesk and online editors were consulted with nine other journalists. At MSN, nine section editors and two overall editorial controllers were interviewed in 2010 and 2013. The author is a former occupational journalist with editing experience at the Northern Echo (departed 1989) and other newspapers, a background that helped understand terms and procedures. Critical distance from journalism is arguably preserved by the reflective processes of research conducted within a body of analytical literature and theory.

Advantages of using personal testimony of journalists include the ability to frame aspiration, to estimate proportional importance to Internet features, to contextualize difficulties, to choose terms, and to rationalise the uses of technology. However, journalists under scrutiny from outsiders may not reveal every aspect of their working practices, or may present themselves and their actions in a favourable light, or may be ignorant. One respondent from Abendblatt, who was leaving her job, was noticeably more critical than the others in that organization. The interviews were conducted on visits to the newsrooms spread over one or two days. Recorded interviews and observation were the key on–site activities.

Innovation is often defined in the sense of what is perceived to be new by an individual or individuals (Rogers, 1995; Slappendel, 1996). A slippery concept, innovation is defined here not always and not only as something perceived as ‘new’ but as actions, perceptions or procedures that transcend normal boundaries of logic and expectation. A routine software development is not necessarily innovative, while its social and occupational application might be.

This discussion examines both convergence and divergence in descriptions and rationalisations of the journalists, linked to the hypotheses that:

  1. The newspaper cultures may display a degree of uniformity in rationales and attitudes towards digital innovation. (RH1)
  2. Distinctive practices and rationales may develop at the net–native Msn.co.uk, having no print legacy. (RH2)
  3. Editorial reasonings at any sites might reflect versions of means–ends ‘practical rationality’, or idealistic ‘substantive rationality’, or the ‘formal rationality’ of bureaucratic dominance. (RH3)
  4. There might be differences in perceptions and actions based on journalistic culture between German and English newspapers. (RH4)
  5. In synthesis of 1–4 above, the material may allow consideration of problems of generalization about perceptions of journalistic innovation, institutional organization, and reasoning processes. (RH5)

Problems of comparability

The two newspapers chosen are Hamburger Abendblatt in Germany, and the Northern Echo, in the U.K. The choice was made partly because of the potential for access, especially in the British case, as the author is a former Northern Echo journalist (departed 1989). Achieving reliable comparability between international news media is hampered by various contextual factors: the news ecologies of the countries have marked historical contrasts. German newspapers reflect the federal political structure of the country so there are almost no ‘nationals’ as in the U.K. The Northern Echo is a medium to large regional morning in its country context, and Hamburger Abendblatt is arguably the same in its own media landscape. Both focus on regional identity, production of original local content, an up–market target audience and style. Both are market financed, and owned by capitalist news conglomerates, Gannett and Axel Springer respectively.

These chosen papers have particular points of interest. Hamburger Abendblatt, which claimed in 2011 to be the most modern newsroom in Germany, had begun a subscription experiment in its online journalism from 2010. The Northern Echo, a morning paper in northeast England, had just started a digital partnership to share content, staff and technology with Tyne Tees Television, an independent regional television company.

The third selected site for comparison, Msn.co.uk, is a net–native Web site based in London, owned by Microsoft in the U.S. The Web site includes Hotmail e–mail accounts and a search engine, Bing, and is a default home page for Internet Explorer. Its 70 or so staff is considerable for a net–native Web site. In 2013 staff claimed that with 20–25 million unique users a month, it was the third biggest news Web site in the U.K., and Nielsen (2011) U.K. research claimed the site was No. 2 in the U.K.

Northern Echo and Hamburger Abendblatt share some predicaments and challenges, especially those posed by the Internet, digitization, and declining circulation. In the economic climate of 2010 and 2011, each perceived itself as facing a crisis in print circulation. Ten or 15 years in the fully digital era it might be expected, from the institutional point of view, that there are some convergent attitudes and practices in digitizing their businesses, notwithstanding the country separation. Such a contention forms a hypothesis for this discussion.

The net–native Msn.co.uk serves as a contrast to the papers. Any weak version of technological, market, or historical shaping of technology might provide grounds for expecting some differences in rationales of journalism and its practices when put beside traditional newspapers’ Web sites. Owing nothing to the imagined or real needs of local users/readers, journalists might frame their constraints differently in regard to target audience and style of presentation.

In this study, specific elements of the perceptions of journalists were considered: their attitudes to web analytics and metric data, their appreciation of Web potential, and their views of quality of journalism, editorial aims, audience propositions, the visions of multimedia, uses of social media technologies, and the Web effect on business conceptions.

The background history to the sites is as follows: The London base of the global Microsoft brand MSN, creating news for Msn.co.uk, employs dozens of journalists and a number of freelancers, including paid bloggers. The news element of the site grew by 50 percent in the year before interviews in 2010 ‘but doesn’t monetise well,’ (Editor–in–chief, 2010). By 2013 it was claimed by the managing editor that the site’s income surplus was in double figures despite recession. The Northern Echo had a 40,000 print circulation that had halved in the last decade and was still falling. Editions have been cut from five to two over recent years, and the editorial staff of about 80 has been reduced, especially on the production side.

In 2011, with a falling circulation at 120,000, Hamburger Abendblatt employed upward of 150 journalists, and 50 Web staff including freelance and part–time contributors. The online contingent had grown from two in 2006, according to one respondent. The broadsheet also faced deep uncertainty embracing a digital future, but, according to the business online editor, aimed to get 50 percent of revenue from digital services within 10 years.



Findings, and themes of discourse at the sites

The sites will be taken in sequence and discussed studying journalists’ rationalisations on editorial quality, participation, uses of social media, multimedia, and attitudes to online innovation and tools.

1. MSN — A net–native experiment with the audience

The picture in 2010: The editor–in–chief and content editors declared their editorial ethos as ‘curators’. This they define as gathering Web ‘assets’ for a multimedia story and presenting them to best effect. Although original content was valued highly, the most important activity was presentation, and putting the “icing on the cake”. Content came from their 20 or so ‘partners’. As the entertainment content editor said:

I describe it as a cake. The Press Association ... all our partners ... it is a cake. Our editors provide the icing — it may be thin but if you don’t make it look great, nobody is going to come along.

Anyone can tell a story but not everybody can pull in the best assets of the Internet to create a richer experience and that is what we do — we curate content. (Senior content manager).

The editors were “taking the best bits of the Web and put them there”, adding ‘layers’. The amount of original content was given between five percent and 90 percent, depending on the site channel. “Something that is not our skillset, we pull in more, but for X Factor, it’s 100 percent.” But the editor–in–chief (2010) explained, they see other sites’ activity and then:

We say how can we add value — by polling audiences, or by picture galleries bought from agencies, or photo–syntheses, or taking lots of crowd–sourced pictures, and also mapping, where we can invest to show the origin of stories and illustrate where they are coming from. [editor–in–chief]

His true enthusiasm was for Web tools: ‘Search engines, Web cams here, Web cams under water, these new methods of telling stories’.

Mapping seemed exciting and innovative to the editor–in–chief, rationalized as a new way to tell a story online. He also felt the tone and style of neutral ‘straight news’ at MSN was innovative, contrasting with the ‘bias’ of the British press.

Site design and its supporting technology was given higher priority at MSN than at the newspapers. Flexibility of design options and use of emergent software was prized, and user preferences were said to be given great attention. This area reflected more enthusiasm than in the newspapers.

Metric data and Web analytics were given higher priority than at either newspaper. MSN journalists learned as much as they could about their audiences, gleaned from a variety of software, feedback, online audience behaviour, and analytic data. Monitoring was intense, hourly at least, and constantly evolving. Headlines were tested and changed, responding to audience uptake. In this aspect, we can see an emphasis on empirical method and ‘practical rationality’. What was rational, in the journalists’ opinion, was based on the logic of audience growth.

However the editor–in–chief and entertainment editor in 2010 put some ethical and public interest constraints on chasing clicks, perhaps indicating a form of ‘substantive rationality’, though with overlapping ‘practical’ concerns. Because of its wide ranges of ages and tastes driven via Hotmail, two editors said the site aims to avoid causing offence to audiences. The need for “decency and restraint” on Msn.co.uk was also perceived to derive from being part of the Microsoft brand. “We want to be respectable ... we have to be everything to everybody” (Home page content editor).

Like the Northern Echo and Abendblatt, MSN narratives suggest the user/reader preferences are not always paramount. Less accessible stories such as the U.K. government budget will be included at MSN.co.uk because the journalists think people ought to know the issues, a form of ’substantive rationality‘.

While we may get a lot of traffic from Katy Price [a famous U.K. model] ... the real thing is disaster news, and information — plus good news things like Hubble, which are incredibly inspiring and powerful. People need good news, not just ethically, but they want it. [editor–in–chief]

The MSN journalists portrayed themselves as avid users of Twitter, such as for finding stories and to maintain what they termed “social currency“. They considered the recruitment of their first Tweeter onto the payroll as a sign of innovation. Respondents prized feedback on stories as a sign of effective online work — “on a good story the feedback can be hundreds of pages long” was a view uttered with approval. The story following the death of U.K. ‘reality TV’ star Jade Goody from cancer gained 15,000 comments. Unlike the Northern Echo accounts, there was no ambivalence, no caveats on uses of comments.

The editor–in–chief (2010) wanted to ensure the audience was ‘British’: ‘Englishness is worth preserving for our audience, and what doesn’t work is the American approach to the U.K.’ Unlike the newspapers, the Microsoft site has no off–line audience. The editorial staff understand Hotmail could provide users of any age, 13–60+. “We have a very large number of people moving through our Web site, and my job is to keep them on it” (editor–in–chief). The site definer is that it is national — all the United Kingdom, many other countries being served by their own MSN offices. The national audience is key and MSN is “very U.K. centric”, from practical rational considerations.

Nation is always going to be a factor, certain stories are global but actually not that many — in the last ten years only a handful in every country. [Senior content manager]

The picture in 2012/13

A significant proportion of editorial staff had changed, including many senior figures. The Microsoft respondents’ declared fewer openly stated tensions than those at the legacy media. While they did not speak with one voice, their variations were in emphasis rather than of perceived contradictions between practical options. Tensions were most marked around how theory really played in practice. For example, the new stress on creativity — to tell a story to best effect — was admitted to be constrained by time and a need to meet click rate targets. At the level of practice there were concerns about blurring lines with advertising, and about becoming too reactive on news gathering. Managers disclosed less uncertainty than editors and other staff about the way ahead.

The overall editorial manager aimed to do “fewer things better” (Executive Producer). Editorial aims were crucially geared towards real–time coverage with a slogan, ‘The Best of Now’. Many key aspects of the site were said to have sharply evolved — especially the emphasis on cross–platform delivery. The focus on liveness and immediacy, the design of the site linked to Windows 8, the site’s constant evolution to incorporate new apps (applications), and more original, rather than curated, content were stated by managers as new aspirations. There was also a more overt commercial focus to exploit more than 20 MSN overseas markets, and a more intense stress on social media participation than in 2010.

The site now ran more than 100 news liveblogs per year, because “people expect immediacy now.” The most recently introduced feature was a live football automated quiz called Liveplay, trialled since 2012. MSN editors testified to the popularity of their innovation, which was measured by the 75 percent approval rating, compared with the rating of a normal page at about 35 percent. The ‘dwell time’ score of 11 minutes per view was considered to be exceptionally good. Social media were exploited to promote celebrity links and live performances.

The new social media editor emphasized how journalistic work had become knowledge–driven. The key to success was “understanding the dynamics” of the Web, and reaching out to build trends, adapting practices in the light of experience. In his view, professional conduct was no longer “touchy feely” but coming ever closer to the science of analytics. The calculating process was taking charge — the principle of ‘practical rationality’. To this end a new search engine optimization (SEO) post was created in 2012. Site metrics were indeed being bled ever closer to the heart of editorial practices, with an eye to Twitter and Google trends.

We are trying to get our site higher up in Google to get more traffic so more from search engines the more revenue we get. We are more focused on that and mostly look at Google now [new SEO staffer]

Google ranking of stories took high priority in that all editors were informed by it, and all were advised each morning and during the day which SEO keywords to prefer, and which stories were trending on Google and in MSN’s search engine, Bing. Keyword statistics were used to provide angles for story updates. This search engine trending information was delivered to editors within minutes.

Although this metrics–driven behaviour dominated, there lay another weaker narrative of the need to preserve journalistic autonomy. Several editors still cited gut feeling or journalistic nous as a means to evaluate news choices, and they would retain less popular but important stories.

As a news and sports journalist it is still my job to use my nous, my news sense and if that goes, we might as well give over to the robots completely ... It is so multi–faceted, there will be an SEO imperative and a news one. [senior editor news and sport]

Only the MSN journalists regarded the danger of ‘robotic’ journalism so succinctly as a danger of metric–driven news. It could be seen either as a despairing prediction based on MSN’s slide towards analytical technologies, or, by being so clearly identified, as representing an enduring professional resolve to preserve principled independent action.

The conversation of the most senior editors consulted on the 2012/13 visits frequently included the word ‘innovation’, which had become a tenet of their journalistic ethos. “Innovating and being creative” were goals of action that were defined by their ability to “affect” or “engage” users. With multiple initiatives, the operation was a “plate–spinning exercise”. Part of the juggling act was a focus on “making money” that had also become more pronounced by 2012. Editors noted the need to appeal to advertisers or commercial partners, which was regarded as another central aspect of their new direction. “Amid all our editorial ambitions, making revenue is a crucial part of our business.” (Executive Producer).

At the level of channel editor, tensions with sponsors, advertising, and targets were seen to pose some threats to editorial integrity. Sainsbury’s had a sponsorship deal allowing some control of the food channel, for which they produce editorial content. The journalists independently wrote some food stories. The channel editor speculated that if the horsemeat scandal of 2013 had implicated Sainsbury’s or:

If something came up where Sainsbury’s were the bad man, we would have to be very careful about how that played out. That hasn’t happened. But we are fine to talk about other brands — fine to talk about news stories and things like that. (lifestyle channel editor, March 2013)

In another case, the multimedia commercial manager claimed that product reviews were not influenced by commercial interest. However the lifestyle channel editor cited a contradictory case of a film review being toned down when the company advertised on MSN. The commercial manager himself, while flagging up integrity, said at the same time MSN had to be smarter about what makes money. He felt there were legitimate ways to have “funded solutions around content,” and total separation of commerce and editorial was a sure way to let a business die.

Money–making was the objective of some editorial experiments such as a new tab called social voices. Twitter writers with a certain style and large following were hired to provoke controversy emphatically to build traffic.

We started doing social voices — a strand to generate more conversation on channels and they are supposed to be unique user drivers and supposed to get people disagreeing or whatever. [Lifestyle channel editor]

Less senior editors stressed some different words to those of managers. They rarely used the word innovation, depicting themselves as curators and aggregators as in 2010. The news editor defined the MSN role as one of catching trends, identifying what is current via discussions on Twitter and Facebook, and then using formats such as liveblogs [a blog devoted to a single topical issue] to build audiences around those topics. “We focus a lot on dwell time,” he said, adding that they had specific traffic targets set by Microsoft in the U.S. for each of the site’s channels. These targets themselves create tensions with editorial aims. The executive producer’s guidelines couldn’t be easily realized, according to the lifestyle editor:

[We’d been told:] ‘I want you to react in a way that best suits the story. I want you to go out and do more creative things’ but having the time is a bit of a conflict. [Lifestyle channel editor] (Italics added)

Tensions between competitive needs, and the principles of serious journalism were acknowledged. For example the lifestyle channel editor admitted the pressure to be first online means pictures may be run without text for short time. The editors in 2013 still made claims to preserve independent and distinctive editorial coverage.

I see our job is to serve popular readership, not to get too bogged down in a lot of the issues that maybe a broadsheet might go for. We are not a newspaper — we don’t have that history — but we are a serious operator. Where issues are major and need addressing we go in [senior editor — news and sport]

This respondent volunteered several similar remarks describing differences to newspaper journalism styles — including the benefit of not being “hamstrung” by the need to take political sides, perceived as a feature of the U.K. national press. This enabled a “balanced, informative view” at MSN.

Both he and the SEO staffer highlighted dangers to journalism arising from being too “reactive”. The loss of the ability to set an agenda — a possible site for acts of substantive rationality — was seen to result from the increasing use of analytics. Thus optimization techniques came at a cost of higher ideals in decision–making:

You get the demand leading what you write to a certain extent, and there is some discomfort in that ... it is more of a conversation, now, and we can see the demand very clearly. [new SEO staffer]

There was a view that MSN understood the online digital world better than newspapers. The senior news editor phrased it as riding “the conversation” and becoming part of it, rather than trying to “own the Internet”, as the newspapers were said to do. In this perception lay a significant shift in the notion of journalism style as it becomes a coexistent, and even subservient, element within the wider transactions on social media. That shift might be parasitic, but on the positive side, it could be said to be a version of journalism that has recognized the miscellany of digital information as presented by Weinberger (2008).

If reactivity marked one trend in style changes, aggregation and curation were also being driven by an overwhelming stress on visual elements. Every story was worked on to become “visually compelling,” just as in 2010.

If you cannot present it well visually people don’t spend a lot of time on the Internet. You need to make the video or images really compelling. [senior editor news and sport]

Practices regarded as innovative included new content ties with several U.K. news providers like Sky, Reuters, the Guardian, and the Daily Telegraph and it was intended to secure local content partners in due course. The content was used for a new Windows 8 app to cull ‘the best’ of other news media in the U.K. in a so–called ‘news stand’ of roughly 70 current stories a day, suited to the tablet format. In this work, staff concentrate most time on visualization of received material.

There were frustrations with technology. The U.S.–based Microsoft developers were said to lack knowledge of U.K. journalistic needs, or were slower to respond to ideas than journalists would like. Most of all, journalists admitted time and click target pressures prevented them from experimenting on story treatment and trapped them into existing routines (Editor — news and sport, Lifestyle channel editor).

In the time elapse between visits, MSN’s editorial had become more aware that their commercial and business strengths were global, even if the target audience was still identified as national. In their editorial power to entice stars to come to studios to perform, or talk to them, MSN used leverage from other prime and secondary markets in dozens of countries.

These activities show an organization working its partnerships and using Web opportunities to define a particular Web identity. Using Web assets, joining with others, milking social media, using promotional activity on Twitter, Facebook, and the Web, and exploiting the newly acquired Skype business, amounts to a specific bureaucratic configuration in the midst of Web 2.0. The site’s relation with traditional definitions of journalism is asserted in managers’ rhetoric. In terms of speed and reactivity it may be so. Yet a parallel withdrawal from investigative critical journalism at MSN can be sensed in several ways. Only six journalists cover all news and sport, while the rest are engaged on apps, Or in leisure channels such as food and cars, or curating the ‘news stand’ app. Those six news and sport workers develop only two or three stories a day for deep treatment. The majority of stories on the site are run from the Press Association. MSN’s innovatory techniques, and intentions (the focus on surfing trends), mask heavy dependence on outside content. The idea of curation effectively means aestheticisation of content supplied by other sources. Even in the ‘news stand’ app the game is “all about getting the images spot on.”

2. Ambivalence at the Northern Echo

Narratives at the Northern Echo revealed ambivalence and each one contained elements of tension. There was a newly invigorated perception that, as conceived since 2011, the Internet was a threat to newspaper sales through free online offerings. Rational behaviour towards the Web was conceived in terms both of opportunity and innovation in capturing audiences, but also in reducing damage to print sales.

This preservation tendency had suddenly come to the fore in 2011. The editors agreed to carry only a light version of their stories, probably only one–third of the whole. The former ‘Web first’ policy that began in 2006, aiming to publish all content immediately, was being rescinded because, in the editors’ view, the drop in newspaper sales was critically affected by the Web. As the deputy online editor put it:

That’s changed in the last 18 months I would say and certainly in the last couple of months several people have come up to me and said ‘I used to get the newspaper but I don’t buy it anymore’ and I said ‘why’ and they said ‘I know I can get everything I want from about 8/9 o’clock on your Web site for free’. (deputy news editor online)

Though journalists acknowledge the reach of the Web is wider than the paper’s, there was no attempt to cultivate this difference:

We have to make sure the [print] audience is protected as much as possible at the same time we have to grow our digital audience in the hope that we will grow advertising revenue ... so it is a kind of balancing trick, I think.

There was also a mindset to privilege text above video and audio, a view that derived from the opinion that the Echo was ‘a newspaper.’ The deputy news Web editor stressed that video content should invariably be accompanied by a text story. In regard to multimedia, the journalists rarely described themselves as attempting innovatory practices. Often their dominant concern was about time and effort. The deputy news Web editor and the Web technical journalist pinpointed the way they had shifted from using packages online to the quicker and more Web–friendly use of clips.

The editor Peter Barron said:

We are still learning. It is a question of resource. When we first started we were trying to do Stephen Spielberg kind of stuff and spending a lot of time doing showcase videos. You just cannot afford to do that and we have slowly learned that what really works on a Web site is the snatches of video that puts the reader there.

Since 2006 there had been editorial training for video and some staff use video cameras daily. The Echo editor considered his paper was making a considerable innovation in forming a partnership with Tyne Tees Television, to share video content and staff. He was enthusiastic about the potential to increase volume and quality of video, and to share news lists, resources, and cameras. In general, original video work was most overtly stated and finely tuned at the English newspaper. Its potential to enhance journalism was the best articulated in the three sites: “It has taken us in directions we couldn’t have gone in” (editor). A campaign for fireproof pyjamas run by the Echo was greatly improved by video, adding impact and drama, according to the editor. Few journalists, by contrast, mentioned audio or podcasting, which, when this was pointed out, was attributed simply to having nobody with a special wish to do so. Such a view is an example of the ad hoc way some aspects of the Web were being incorporated by Echo staff.

As one 26–year–old reporter said:

It’s more a case of picking it up as you go along. Some have been trained in video production by the Web site plus social media ... I don’t think there is as much strategy as there could be we are just finding our way, waiting to see what works and doesn’t work.

The editor agreed:

We are finding our way as it unfolds really. We are trying to keep pace with it without really knowing what we are doing, to be honest.

This experimental attitude revealed itself in the declared uses of social media. Great enthusiasm existed for social media, embraced by at least half the editorial staff, who saw them as ideal ways to promote print content. The editor considered the Echo’s 10,000 Twitter followers as part of the brand ‘circulation’. Newsroom journalists said they used the social media because it is the “way things are going” and also as a method of attracting attention to print content via Twitter links. Uses included comment on activity, trails to published print stories, discovery of stories from the public, and promotion of personal identity of reporters.

I tweet my own stories. I have one account that I put all my stuff on, either what I like personally or music I like or a story I have written. People like a personal touch. (reporter)

But there were adverse feelings too. The news editor said:

I don’t have time to Twitter. Physically the amount of copy we have to get through there is pressure to work our hours and get out of here.

Behind the enthusiasms of the advocates, an economic theme emerged that questioned its purpose.

It is interesting just to see how in the teeth of recession how the focus was on new media and how the focus has shifted — the new media hasn’t given us the instant return that someone somewhere thought it might, so we better have a look at our traditional products. [online news editor]

The news editor added:

The company wants everything to go onto the Internet but at the same time it’s the newspaper that earns the money. There are good economic reasons to have everything on the Internet in terms of staffing and buildings, the lot, but my question would be ‘will the newspaper still be here when we have reached that tipping point’ ...

You have a mantra that comes from the top and the people at the coalface don’t always see that reality and there is a massive uncertainty about what we are doing and where we are going. (news editor)

Here we see the innovation motif being reasoned into a subordinate position in the context of a creaking business model. Rational action is apparently perceived differently by the company and the journalist.

Quality and innovation at the Echo

There is a narrative too of suspicion towards company ideas — for example the news editor was critical of Gannett for introducing terminologies of new ‘information hubs’ which he felt downgraded news. The Web deputy editor criticised the company for designing the Web site for a 56k modem that ruled out high definition. “Why are we pitching to the lowest common denominator? Some people have high quality ADSL lines, so why not give them the fireworks?” (deputy editor online). The Web technical editor complained that innovation was hampered by central control of the Web site, that restricted freedom to “go in a radical direction’.

On the uses of Web analytics, the Echo journalists revealed comparatively little interest. Knowledge of story strength (news value) is taken as an instinctive given among journalists, not supplemented by analytics and metric data from servers. The editor said he chose the lead on the paper based on his hunch of what would sell. Although data of hits and page impressions is supplied by the parent company, Newsquest, and available on computers in the newsroom, (seen by the interviewer) journalists said they rarely consulted it. If they did, they claimed it simply bears out what they already knew. The top read stories were displayed on the Web site so perhaps this information was considered adequate. “To be honest all I see is the most read and most commented” (on the Web site). One of the frustrations is that “it is very hard to get that kind of data out of central,” the editor said.

True or not, this view reflected that of all the journalists and contrasts significantly with MSN narratives about their behaviours. The Echo was taking a less statistical, more intuitive approach. The traditional culture of print seemed to affect their way of thinking in a way that reveals ‘formal rationality’, the dependence on ingrained bureaucratic ways.

Interaction with readers was favoured by some as a sign of success, but the Web editor considered more could be done to acquire reader feedback. However, the time taken to monitor posts, and the difficulties fielding unsavory remarks gave one journalist a negative opinion of reader comments.

3. Contrasting policies in Hamburg

Rather than revealing a breathless sense of urgency or conceiving of innovation as a key to survival, perceptions of the Hamburger Abendblatt respondents tended to be low key and routinized — demonstrating an influence of the bureaucratic mentality of ‘formal rationality’.

Themes raised by the journalists on the other sites were indeed echoed in the German situation, especially the concern about protecting the regional exclusive content for print editions. A distinctive part of the journalists’ thinking was that the Web site’s free channels would be primarily national and international in focus. The Web journalists were acquiring national content from agencies and wire services, while the local journalists were said to be gathering news solely for the print editions or, if it was to go online, for the ‘home channel’ only, the one that carried the subscription content. The paywall was created in 2010, while the online sections had apparently been reorganised in 2009. The paywall entailed a price for access to each Hamburg section story or a subscription for permanent access to the home channel giving local content. One free view of a story was allowed, however, if the user arrived at the site from a Google search. Each ‘channel’ had its own dedicated editor and staff. Online editors were responsible for the content on their channel. The politics channel editor described the wary way exclusive angles were handled since this change:

It has changed dramatically in terms of how we approach stories, and routines like interviews. We think ‘what do we put on the Web first, where does the exclusive angle lie?’ What we put on the Web can be seen by competitors, so it is a very difficult and delicate issue. We do keep most delicate or angles for exclusives, we do keep them for the print edition.

Thus, like the Northern Echo, the Abendblatt respondents said their company feared depriving the paper of sales by ‘giving away’ local content. By using a paywall, the policy differs from that of the Northern Echo.

An important new practice was linked to the non–local focus for news presented online, according to the editor of the largest online channel ‘From all over the world’. As was the case with the politics and business editors, her content came 90 percent from agencies and general Web sources. A key mark of success for the Web offering was that it should appear high in Google News for Germany. The journalist described this as a reality of life, rather than as an innovation, and one reflected in peer pressure on her, so she was pleased to say that stories topped Google News in Germany two or three times a day. These would not be exclusives — but reworked national or international wire stories. In fact the fate of exclusives was deplored by the business channel respondent:

If you have an exclusive story you are ranked very low because Google thinks it is only that paper that has that story, so it cannot be very important. If we have a story about a murder in Hamburg we might be ranked very low while a paper from Munich, which copies the agency stuff, will go on top. Somehow Google thinks that paper knows more than us. (Business Web editor)

Google was said to drive 60 percent of all site traffic, so every means are sought to maximize its uptake. “Google is God,” said the world channel editor, indicating she would change her content repeatedly to get on to media stories doing well on the search engine news site.

Sometimes people say ‘there is a topic on Google please get that on our site’. For my channel I would say it is pretty much popularity driven. I have to orientate on that. You always try to be on top in Google News ... most of the users don’t come via home page, they go to Google and search. [world channel editor]

That this might restrict news diversity, originality, or any transcendent values of journalism’s mission was ignored.

In March 2011 the editorial staff apparently celebrated a record 11 million per month online so the Web policy is regarded as successful. (This is compared to two million at the Echo, also declared as respectable). The paywall had been in place for a year, and the overall site hit rate nevertheless increased. Google searches drive more than 60 percent of traffic, and even the subscription–only ‘home’ news section gave one click free to anyone who arrives from a search engine.

‘Tabloid’ pressures at Abendblatt.de

User demand seemed to have stimulated journalists to give the Web site a more visual focus than on its print editions. The world channel editor estimated 40 percent of journalists’ time was spent on creating picture galleries from agency photo stocks, and writing captions. “Text is important but not so important as pictures and video.” Video did not feature strongly in the narratives at Abendblatt, and content was apparently derived mostly from wires and agencies.

Innovation, or a certain pressure for change, seemed to arise in the way stories were handled online — not only in being made shorter to avoid leaking exclusive material to competitors. The business channel editor commented that audience preferences also influenced a move to more ‘tabloid’ values, even in the business section. More leisure, gossip and women’s material amounted to a softer news agenda. A new channel had just been started devoted to shopping.

Pressures for change, if not always uncritically described, were rationalized as coming from technology itself, which is thus a way of thinking serving as a proxy for a form of ‘practical rationality’. As the politics channel editor said:

Technology is one of the biggest motors in what we have to do — like the iPhone, iPad — I am not kidding, we have to do it because there are a lot of customers using this hardware. [politics channel editor]

iPad and iPhone platforms were taken seriously. Since January 2011, a separate desk of journalists was set up to deal exclusively with them. Their content was said to be Hamburg local news and thus inside the subscription system. If these technological adaptations were regarded as driving forces for innovation, two journalists voiced concerns — the politics channel editor worried that too much focus on novelty could lose touch with general public wishes:

I would be more conservative in terms of not focusing on new target groups too much. I think majority of readers and users are not following so fast, because of the demographics. We should consider these facts more. We are absolutely self–critical, we are in a different orbit and it changes dramatically and our customers are not news junkies like we are. We find very often they write e–mails etc. to the editor and want more detail. We realize we don’t give enough context, need more summary.

The business editor complained that the trend to follow clicks stimulated uncritical advertisement–style stories. She scorned the accuracy and editorial standards of Abendblatt online saying they fell far below criteria of print. On the other hand, strict editorial principles featured strongly in the politics channel editor’s remarks suggesting that the Axel Springer group’s ideals of pluralism were being maintained.

We have a lot of principles, it is important. They come first. It [the group] has been criticized a lot for its policies, but there are the five principles of the publishing house written into every editor’s contract. Everything you do has to be in accordance with the German constitution and nothing you do must be against the right to live. [politics channel editor]

In terms of uses of analytics and traffic measurement tools, the German paper’s journalists said twice daily consultation of statistical data was normal. For the most popular online channel, Google was the most monitored site (“every 15 minutes”). Search engine optimization (SEO) was said to be avidly practised to improve Google uptake — the company was even reported as being reprimanded by Google for having attempting ‘sharp’ practice.

Abendblatt respondents in 2011 seemed least interested in social media. No respondent reported that Abendblatt content was being put on Twitter or that Twitter was used to find stories and sources. Multimedia, such as audio and video, were given comparatively little emphasis, and, for example, no mention was made of YouTube. Such reticence could be accidental but it tends to indicate that these were not being perceived as engines for innovatory journalism practice at that time.

But evolution was apparent by 2013. Then the digital manager explained the way Axel Springer at the Berlin hub of Abendblatt was moving. The concept of journalism was seen to be changing in ‘revolutionary’ ways. Online first was seen as a new and complete doctrine. Twitter and Facebook were becoming central to news definitions.

So you have a totally different concept of journalism. The living story is following the Twitter and Facebook thinking that nothing is static, everything is moving, news is living with the people and with the way people get the news, and the way they try to understand it, or interpret it and we follow the user by this process of interpreting and reflecting. That is the secret of journalism, we think.

Such a concept was not yet universally applied or understood but the operations online in Hamburg and Berlin were said to be harmonised. By 2013 the split between online and print audiences was as sharp as two years earlier. The differences were rationalized in terms of market forces and market demand. Pressures from Google rankings and metrics provided evidence for the shift to popular journalism.

Online the “yellow stuff” is much more popular than serious economic and political news, so to get acceptance in the online area, we have to go near the border of the “yellow press” sometimes, which might affect the brand. That is a problem not only for us. That is a big problem of the split market, print and online.

This “yellow press” tendency noted here reflected a restricted public appetite. The economics of ‘failed states’ like Greece and immigration were popular serious stories “and then it is very difficult to sell public stories, after these big stories.” Google was still a dominant driver in 2013:

High Google ranking means push, enormous push. It is just the way the world will go we have to live with it. If it wasn’t Google it would be somebody else. I mean, the mechanism is inside the Web logic so you cannot help it. You have to live with it. [multichannel manager, 2013]



Discussion and conclusions

The fit with Weber’s ‘rationalities’

Taken together, these examples serve to illustrate the pervasive element of ‘practical rationality’ infusing journalists as they negotiate perceived innovations, with occasional inflexions towards ‘substantive rationality’ (RH3). A form of ‘practical rationality’ guided most technology–based decision–making based mostly on commercial viability. The mentality included short–termism, pragmatism, and a fusion of individual or professional values to meet goals of the market. Much of the communication was constrained by market–style ideologies and very often by criteria of performativity. Rarely did journalists idealise any aspect of new technology or innovative actions other than for perceived means–ends, short–term benefit. Seldom was it cited, for example, as a means to enchance a democratic function of journalism.

However, the ideals concerning journalistic quality reflect at times a vein of ‘substantive rationality’ in respondents’ minds. A strand of ‘substantive rationality’ may be seen in the attempts to serve democratic ideals, evidenced both by the MSN stress on publishing serious news like the U.K. budget, and one Abendblatt editor’s citation of Axel Springer principles to underpin the social welfare of the post–war German state. While recognition of allegiance to community good and civic ideals is still present, it is however clearly under pressure. The case of Google at Abendblatt, and the paper’s moves to a popular style online seem to indicate that the battle with conscience was going in one direction. Indeed, a respondent who was leaving Abendblatt was deeply concerned about losses of quality, citing them as a reason for leaving.

As to Weber’s ‘formal rationality’, elements of bureaucratic routine affected all respondents. It was more sharply observable at the newspapers due to their aim to preserve a particular media identity. The Northern Echo Web editors recoiled from promoting video without text. Consistently they saw a story as being something suitable to print (with some ‘practical rationality’ in that it also made financial sense). The Echo journalists’ mindset of targeting a local audience also seemed to signify a frame of mind based on habit. Professional actions at MSN, however, were less routinized and thus less ‘formal’, as the journalists appeared keener to innovate in their style of journalism to tune with audiences and technologies. The reliance on ingrained responses was less evident in their rhetoric. Their journalistic culture in this respect seem also to mirror the one found by Boczkowski (2010).

It is difficult always to differentiate between the three types of rationality. The agreement of all journalists on the desire for editorial autonomy and ideals of neutrality can appear both as market drivers to assist in credibility, (practical rationality) and also as a form of ‘substantive rationality’, in the wish to remain aloof from every dictat of the technologies that tell them of audience preferences. And again, even the desire for autonomy can be read as a professional inclination for agency (‘practical rationality’) as much as to preserve their freedom to serve the public. In the case of the Northern Echo the desire for autonomy might be shaded more to the substantive side, but much less so at MSN with its preordained audience targets set by the U.S. centres. If anything, innovatory technological practices at the three sites were displacing substantive ideals with those of ‘practical rationality’, best seen in the effects of Google at MSN and Abendblatt.de.

Innovative tendencies

Although their style entailed a departure from the path of critical journalism, MSN’s U.K. journalists idealized innovation online in ways that were noticeably different to those on the newspapers. The site claimed to be pressing the style of the journalism towards participation and immediacy. MSN might even be argued to have innovated in their stress on what one editor termed ‘reactivity’. While the journalists displayed nostalgia for ‘original’ content creation, and indeed managers in 2013 aspired to increase its share, the frequent emphasis on the extra resources being put into social media are significant. Seen in the terms of Shirky (2009) or Weinberger (2008), MSN’s editorial roles can be said to be edging from journalistic gatekeeping to a model that accepts that the public be a first filter defining public priorities. Hence their use of trending material from social media is not so much a sign of passivity, as a recognition of the new Web 2.0 network in which filtration is first done by the public on social media (RH2 supported). Such an argument is perhaps unduly optimistic — since the public may prefer trash to truth — and investigative journalism is not in MSN’s armory at all. MSN journalists are, however, engaging social media realities and are seeking a new route to define their specific professional value within them.

Superficial though they may seem, aspects of curation can also be cast as an innovative move to define a role for journalism. The interpretation is problematic because curation depends on an outside supply of content or social media sources because in the ‘news stand’ and in the site’s prolific use of news agencies, MSN just recycles material.

It was an active departure, if not an innovation, when MSN used Twitter to induce trends to build audiences for their celebrity–based activities, or in focusing on liveblogs. In using these and similar techniques they were breaking from pure syndication, noted by O’Sullivan (2005) as being typical of net–native sites, and were developing concepts of curation (RH2). The Echo and Abendblatt were more sometimes constrained by past procedures in their interpretation of the Web (RH1).

The typical journalist to emerge from these interviews at the three sites is of an institutional character influenced by, but helping to shape, site–specific journalism cultures. That said, some general attributes of this occupational role in transition can be identified. The first is a shared new stress on visuals online that can be described as a wish to aestheticise content with pictures, graphics and video. The tendency was strongest at MSN but apparent in discourse at the newspapers too. The second is a growing recognition of social media power, least apparent in 2010 at Abendblatt, strongest at MSN. A third is acknowledgement and sometimes resignation to the forces of a more statistical environment and especially Google. A fourth is the preservation of a distinction between ideas of quality and popularity even if it is being blurred. And a fifth one is that journalists are increasingly comfortable with the idea their actions have, and should have, economic value (‘practical rationality’).

At the smaller scale, the inference to be drawn from this illustration is that when technologies were taken singly, Web assimilation did not set similar institutions on convergent paths. Many differences and parallels existed at the micro–scale between all of the three sites. The resemblances between the sites depended on which innovation is observed. The newspapers’ uptake of technologies took non–identical forms, (RH1 unsupported) which contrasts with studies that statistically estimate journalists’ role perceptions (e.g., O’Sullivan and Heinonen, 2008). This observation falls more in line with Deuze, Singer and others who describe a convergence continuum. Seen close up, the inclusion of Web–based potentials was experimental, and liable to drastic alteration. Expediency was paramount, and tensions were experienced daily. Qualitative studies that pursue one technology (e.g., MacGregor, 2007; Hermida and Thurman, 2008) may also miss the chaotic uneven–ness when technology clusters are being tested and adopted simultaneously. For example, the Northern Echo journalists reportedly shunned Web analytics, but seemed more alert to social media exploitation compared to Abendblatt.de; Echo journalists omitted podcasts but explored original video creation especially before the connection with Tyne Tees Television (RH1 unsupported).

Thus it appears the development of technology is subject to a degree of editorial will and agency, as Steensen (2009) suggested. Even the common financial pressures faced by print journalists (as opposed to the MSN staff) provoked rival accounts of what seemed expedient, useful, or obvious. While the newspapers’ journalists agreed that the Web endangered print sales, they had different remedies: They developed contrasting Web site editorial policies, most sharply shown in Abendblatt’s split market for print and online activity. Its journalists did not see this as remarkable. (RH1 unsupported).

Northern Echo journalists had evolved their online audience based closely on the print version. This is not to say their ‘innovatory’ mindset was restricted — for in uses of social media, their journalists seemed keener than the continentals to see its relevance. But the option to focus the website to a national audience that differed from the traditional readership did not present itself in the English journalistic culture. Some form of normative cultural inertia held sway (Domingo, 2008a; O’Sullivan, 2005), that can be seen as ‘formal rationality’ at work in social action. There was some effect of media specialization on attitudes.

The most striking resemblance between the newspaper respondents in both countries was the retreat from immediacy online. In England, Web content was reduced, in Germany home content was guarded by a paywall. Many previous studies assume that however ‘incomplete’ the incorporation of the Internet at a media organization, the trend is towards increased immediacy (Domingo, et al., 2008; Karlsson, 2011; Fortunati, et al., 2009). This view may need refining because, as Tameling and Broersma (2013) suggest, Web publishing practices can be inhibited by a strained or collapsing business model. While Abendblatt’s paywall can be seen as a strategic innovation, the Echo’s restrictive policy was seen as a ‘balancing act’. As to MSN, its tendency was to intensify its immediacy to the sharpest point possible, geared towards audience maximization, which is a consequence of the site’s freedom from a legacy media (RH3). In all three responses we see ’practical rationality‘ infusing innovatory action (RH5).

Workers at both newspapers shared concerns about aspects of editorial quality online. Taking their definitions of accuracy, balance, and fairness, as signs of quality, the two newspapers admitted that their digital activities put such values at risk. (RH1 supported). MSN was not concerned in the same way (RH2, RH3 supported). In chasing popularity, the Abendblatt.de site had departed from the brand’s traditional definitions of quality as reflecting superior liberal values, by the subservience of some site channels to Google ranking. Thus the ‘substantive rationality’ contained in the defence of quality journalism was giving way to the practical version. In consequence the definitions of Hallin and Mancini (2004a) about the principled democratic corporatist ideals of northern European journalism are not mirrored in this single German context online. The ‘Liberal’ market model of U.S. and U.K. journalism seems to fit the online German practices more neatly.

Crossover trends between institutions

An appreciable crossover in aims and rationales can be seen between the raisons d’être for the German newspaper’s free Web site, and those of the net–native Microsoft outfit: both garner a national audience, and show a barely restrained avidness to define content that gets hits (RH3). Thus an online–only Web site workers (MSN) and a print–based Web site converged strongly on aspects of digital presentation and stated target audience. These trends are much stronger than at the English newspaper, whose journalists were ready to sacrifice online hits to protect the paper’s circulation figures. All cases fall broadly into the category of ‘practical rationality’ being self–interested, pragmatic, and subjective solutions of perceived problems.

The stated uses of metrics and analytics, social media, and new platforms varied considerably between the three sites. Analytics were most assiduously utilised at MSN, closely followed by Abendblatt, while the Northern Echo barely took them seriously. Agency was influential. Irregularity characterised the introduction and uses of social media, with a strong endorsements of potential at both the Northern Echo and MSN, but much less at the German site. By contrast, iPad and iPhone technologies were prioritized at Abendblatt. If the respondents are to be believed, this illustration provisionally indicates that media organizational type does not guarantee that journalism cultures move into convergent patterns (RH1 unsupported). A better picture seems to be that although technological opportunity presents itself in some common ways across media, digital responses proceed unevenly between different newsrooms (RH5). It tallies with Tameling and Broersma’s observation of an intuitive search for ways to implement opportunities.

Thus the multiple play of factors and forces in the lived context of journalists leaves an impression of random, casual, or partly controlled experiment, far removed from any supposed convergent influence of technology, and reflecting Steensen’s [15] comment that “technology may not be the driving force of developments in online journalism.”

Although in most cases based on ‘practical rationality’, the evaluative frame for assessing technologies varied. At the Northern Echo it was especially tied to perceived economic harm or benefit to the organisation. The journalists’ definition of what was rational often reflected commercial values, couched in terms of sales of paper sales rather than growth of the online audience. MSN defined audience share as an unqualified benefit, and at Hamburger Abendblatt, the framework was set by the dual arrangements for a free and protected Web site, with an eye on maximization for Web–only traffic.

The overall picture tallies with the view that news cultures vary between nations (RH4). The German site differs in organization and practices compared to the U.K. print example, but both resemble their national neighbours: English print journalists mirror attitudes reported by Williams and Franklin (2007) and Dickinson (2011), while the continental outfit appears typical of reports on the German press (e.g., Quandt, 2008; Quandt, et al., 2006). Domingo, et al. (2008) stress the importance of contextual factors in participatory practices, and nation is certainly a strong contender. To say more is not possible from only two examples, but national variation in digital practices is a ripe field for future research following Quandt’s comment [16] that “research from one country cannot be easily transferred to another.”

Finally, in the drive towards metrics, in the need and reverence for Google at two of the sites, and in the corrosive effects of audience demand for popular and usually trivial material, the extension of ‘practical rationality’ that these moves signify raises significant alarms for journalism as a force to protect or develop social ideals. Technological arguments and robotic technologies are tied into a ‘practical rationality’ that is tending to limit the scope to serve social ideals based on ‘substantive rationality’. The latter often forms a ground for quality judgments used to defend against pressures of new technologies, a matrix of arguments that is sometimes assisted by those ‘formal rational’ qualities arising from journalistic routines (RH5). This interaction of types of rationality within the framework of innovation seems to suggest a movement from both ‘formal’ and ‘substantive’ rationalities towards the ‘practical’. MSN is the example of the digital journalist inventing a type of market–based professionalism owing less to established routines; at Abendblatt we see substantive ideals under pressure too. Newsroom cultures are changing as journalists interpret technological opportunities in ways that are subtly transforming journalism. End of article


About the author

Phil M. MacGregor is Senior Lecturer in Journalism at Bournemouth University.
E–mail: pmacgreg [at] bournemouth [dot] ac [dot] uk



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2. Vaidhyanathan, 2011, p. 155.

3. Dick, 2011, p. 475.

4. Quandt, 2008, p. 95.

5. Van der Ven and Rogers, 1988, in Slappendel, 1996, p. 118.

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11. Weber, 1970, p. 293.

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13. Weber, 1978, pp. 85–86.

14. Lowrey, 2012, p.74.

15. Steensen, 2011, p. 321.

16. Quandt, et al., 2006, p. 182.



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Editorial history

Received 12 March 2013; revised 9 July 2013; accepted 22 August 2013.

Copyright © 2013, First Monday.
Copyright © 2013, Phil M. MacGregor.

Rational reflections: An illustrative examination of news Web sites in two countries as workers reach towards digitally mediated changes
by Phil M. MacGregor.
First Monday, Volume 18, Number 9 - 2 September 2013

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