Interactive Features of Online Newspapers
First Monday

Interactive Features of Online Newspapers

Ritual and publicity models of communication provide a theoretical basis for studying interactivity of online newspapers. An operational definition of interactivity, including 18 measures, is developed and applied to an empirical study of 100 online newspapers. The study asks whether or not financing (profit vs. non-profit), type (pure Web-based vs. printed versions) and origin (U.S. vs. international) of online newspapers affect the degree of interactivity at the sites.


New Models of Communication and Audience
Defining Interactivity
Heeter's Theoretical Definition of Interactivity Adopted
Independent Variables and Hypotheses
Unit of Analysis
Operationalization of Concepts
Sampling and Procedure


U.S. videotex systems promised news and information that was more timely, more thorough and more personal than printed newspapers, writes Roger Fidler, a pioneer in electronic publishing (1997, 151). But the promises were hollow. Too often subscribers could get the information they wanted more easily and quickly from other sources. "Personal" information of local events and sports teams was often nonexistent or unreliable because online news services relied upon volunteers and seldom added staff journalists. Another problem was transmission speed. Despite efforts to optimize graphic elements and remove those that were nonessential, accessing information was often painfully slow. Even if customers were willing to wait, the medium could not compete with the compelling moving images of television or the ease of reading newspapers. Customers would "play" with the system for a short while and then quit. When Viewtron's researchers analyzed data about what customers wanted, they found that it wasn't "more news"; it was interaction with each other (Ashe, 1991). In fact, consumer demand for videotex was less than news corporations' desire to "push" the technology in order to reduce production and delivery costs. Videotex also was a defensive market strategy. News corporations wanted to electronically deliver news into people's homes before other information businesses, such as telephone companies, could do so (Ettema, 1989).

Twenty-five years later practically every major American newspaper has some form of online product. As of September 1998, 4,925 papers were online worldwide, including 1,563 newspapers from outside the United States (Meyer, 1999). Although the online market appears to be booming, profits are low or nonexistent, and few publishers seem to have learned any lessons the past years of experimentation with videotex. At many news sites, articles are posted that are exactly the same as those printed in regular newspapers (Johnson, 1997). At better news sites, journalists augment stories with hyperlinks, search engines and multimedia features, but the emphasis remains upon a one-way flow of information. Only a handful of sites include original news content designed specifically for the Web as a new medium of communication (Pavlik, 1997). As a result, except for major breaking news events, subscribers spend a remarkably small portion of their time retrieving news from online sources (Fidler, 1997: 152).

Why has the old mindset persisted? Two journalism professors write: "Newspaper companies are businesses first, and they are culturally and corporately unable to understand the egalitarian, decentralized, peer-to-peer, autonomous nature of communication on the Net" (Martin and Hansen, 1998: 46). Others mention newsrooms that breed aloofness, a reluctance to update antiquated computer systems and a lack of understanding about the nature of the Net, especially interactivity (see Wickham, 1997). Some reporters resist the idea of answering e-mail from readers, complaining they'd be busy working on their next assignments and wouldn't have time answering questions about old stories (Riley et al., 1997; Wolff, 1994). Such reporters just don't understand new media. According to McAdams, who helped create the Washington Post's online service, "A journalist with little online experience tends to think in terms of stories, news value, public service and things that are good to read, but a person with a lot of online experience thinks more about connection, organization, movement within and among sets of information and communication among different people" (1995: 84). Journalists today must choose. As gatekeepers they can transfer lots of information, or they can make users a smarter, more active and questioning audience for news events and issues (Singer, 1994). Making users smarter means involving them in a collaborative experience; i.e. interaction (Schlossberg, 1998: 71).

This paper uses communication models to explain why online newspapers must be different from their printed versions if they wish to survive. The authors then develop a theoretical and operational definition of interactivity, which is applied to an empirical study of online newspapers. The study asks whether or not three independent variables affect the levels of interactivity at online newspapers.

New Models of Communication and Audience

To make the Internet a news medium, journalists must fully exploit the medium's basic properties (Fredin, 1997). The features that distinguish Web sites from other media are: multimedia, speed for updating information, horizontal distribution, decentralization, accessibility, no hierarchy, no censorship and interactivity (Lasica, 1996). Interactivity is the primary characteristic of new technologies and it has caused a considerable reassessment of communication research (Rice and Williams, 1984: 35; Heeter, 1989: 221; Morris and Ogan, 1996; Pavlik, 1996; Rafeli and Sudweeks, 1997; Ha and James, 1998: 459).

Beginning with the statement: "Mass communication was originally modeled as the one-way transmission of a message from source to receiver," Heeter offers a concise review of the traditional conceptualization of mass communication. From Shannon and Weaver's model of communication, to the "magic bullet" theory, to the "two-step flow" model of media effects, to the principal of selective attention and perception, and finally the Westley and MacLean model, with its concepts of gatekeepers and feedback - all of these perspectives basically maintain a view of mass media as a one-way flow [1]. Interaction, on the other hand, demands a two-way (or multi-directional) model of communication. With the interactive features of new media, the receiver is recognized as an active participant. People seek information or select information more than they "receive" information sent by journalists. To understand why and how people expose themselves to information, communication scholars must consult selective exposure research rather than media effects research. At some Web sites, online readers can do more than actively select information - they also can add information. The distinction between source and receiver, therefore, is dissolving (see Steuer, 1992: 77ff). Editors of online newspapers, however, may be wary of allowing users to become a source of mass communication messages. Editors would lose control and their credibility could suffer.

Newhagen (1997) argues that computers are interaction machines useful for communicating news. His position is based on a theory that both the needs of users and the nature of information are extremely fluid, sometimes changing from moment to moment. As an interactive device, a computer could communicate information about a constantly changing environment to the user, and it could provide a channel of communication from the user back to the news source. Such rapid feedback ensures practical news.

With rapid feedback between equal communication "partners," the concept of a mass audience becomes archaic, even though mass production of messages does not. New media journalists cannot target a "mass audience," defined as a large aggregate of undifferentiated yet heterogeneous and anonymous people who are widely dispersed and not interactive (McQuail, 1994: 35-6). They cannot afford to take a distanced and undifferentiating view of the public. Now readers are linked to other readers directly, creating smaller, fragmented audiences who share much in common. They are a community rather than a mass audience, and research at the interpersonal level or the inter-group level (e.g. local community) may be more appropriate.

If interactive features of online newspapers encourage a two-way (or multi-directional) flow of communication amongst a community of users, then the ritual model of communication seems more appropriate than the traditional transmission model. The ritual model is linked to such terms as sharing, participation, association, fellowship and the possession of a common faith (Carey, 1975). A ritual view is not directed towards the extension of messages in space, but the maintenance of society in time; not the act of imparting information but the representation of shared beliefs. Its emphasis is on the intrinsic satisfaction of the sender or receiver, rather than on some instrumental purpose. Like videotex companies, newspapers started online editions as a defensive marketing strategy (McAdams, 1995). They seek to hold an audience's attention (or to avoid losing an audience's attention to other media). Interactive devices, for example, are added to capture and hold an audience's attention (McAdams, 1995; Paterno, 1998). Interactive devices also are used to stimulate public discussions and draw thousands (or millions) of people together in a virtual community (Tucher, 1997). By listening to readers and involving them in news collection, online journalists attempt to increase reader satisfaction, leading to repeat visits. The publicity model (McQuail, 1994: 50), therefore, also applies to online papers. By holding people's attention, digital newspapers charging a subscription fee [2] attain a direct economic goal, which is to gain audience revenue, and an indirect one, which is to sell the probability of audience attention to advertisers. Effects such as persuasion or selling are considered secondary goals under the publicity model.

Defining Interactivity

Designers of interactive media must offer choices that have some meaning and consequence (Pearce, 1997; Meadow, 1998: 200). At the same time, users must have an impact on the experience in some way (see also Steuer, 1992: 84; Bender, 1997; Fredin, 1997: 2; Henderson and Femback, 1998). As users have greater effect upon the experience, they become more absorbed (immersed) in the experience (see also Murray, 1997; Pavlik, 1997). What users do with content is more important than how content may affect users. Users are actively chasing discovery, rather than passively being informed. (Pearce, 1997: 486). Two journalism professors at Boston College, McMillan and Downes (1998) write that interactivity increases as:

  • the goal of communication is more to exchange information than to persuade participants have greater control of the communication environment
  • participants take an active role to fully benefit from the communication
  • participants act and react to messages via two-way communication
  • timing of communication is flexible and responsive to demands of participants
  • communication environment creates a sense of place

An early study of online newspapers, however, found that interactive features were scarce (Tankard and Ban, 1998). Despite the potential for hypertext, 94 percent of online newspaper articles contained no links. Only 49 percent of reporters answered their messages. Search engines were present at 64 percent of online newspapers, and readers seldom could add information to an online paper's Web site.

Ha and James (1998) studied interactive features at business Web sites rather than online newspaper sites, but their study is particularly relevant because they thoroughly examined the concept of interactivity, suggesting it has five dimensions: playfulness, choice, connectedness, information collection and reciprocal communication. They found a generally low use of interactive devices. Even when interactive features were available, they often created a false sense of empowerment, write Ha and James, because consumer choice was still defined by the company.

Heeter's Theoretical Definition of Interactivity Adopted

Ten years ago, Carrie Heeter (1989) identified six dimensions of interactivity: complexity of choice available, effort users must exert, responsiveness to the user, monitoring information use, ease of adding information and facilitation of interpersonal communication. Because Heeter's definition offers specific measurable dimensions that match the concept of interactivity found in the professional literature, it was adopted for this study.

Complexity of choice available

Designers of online newspapers realize that the more hyperlinks they add, the more choice users have to navigate through the newspaper site, and that these choices are important to interactivity. They also understand that users are empowered when they can choose to use a text or graphics browser, or to receive information in English or a different language, or if they can use a search engine to find the information they want.

Effort users must exert

Paisley (1983: 155) defined interactivity mathematically as "the ratio of user activity to system activity." At one extreme, users exert no effort beyond reading the text information which an online newspaper automatically "pushes" to them based upon information the users provided about themselves. At the other extreme, users select each "page" or screen to view, sending a message to the central computer asking to display the requested page. These extremes lead executives of online newspapers to ask: How much effort do users wish to exert? Some believe that computers that "push" the news to users will reduce user effort, and that such a reduction is desirable. Others believe that users like to "work" because they feel in control and because they can get the precise information they want.

Responsiveness to the user

Online newspapers can interpose a human who responds to user queries or they can use technology to respond. Usually, of course, reporters or editors simply answer e-mail questions from users of their online site. Computer response, however, is possible, and ultimate machine interactivity is achieved when communication roles of human and machine are interchangeable (Rafaeli, 1988; see also Bretz, 1983). Such intelligent interactivity is currently difficult or impossible for media systems to achieve, but online newspapers can achieve lesser levels of responsiveness by programming instructions, help pages and (informative) error messages.

Facilitation of interpersonal communication

E-mail addresses can make communication easy between users and workers at online newspapers. Discussion forums and live chat areas attract and keep readers at a Web site. In addition, a site may offer synchronous communication with data transfers occurring at fractions of a second, or at the other extreme, a mandatory time delay may be imposed, perhaps to allow editors to screen messages. Options concerning channels of communication, such as text, sound or full-motion video also can affect interpersonal communication.

Ease of adding information

In this case, the user becomes the reporter-editor, and the message intentionally is transmitted to a larger audience. If online Web sites make it easy for users to add information, then they empower users. They stimulate creativity and discovery. Some online newspapers allow users to add the following types of information: Web pages, hobby and special interest pages, announcements of births, marriages and deaths and reviews of movies, plays and other cultural and entertainment events. Some online newspapers also allow users to make contributions to reporters' stories.

Monitor system use

Unlike the other dimensions, this one derives from the perspective of the online newspaper. A monitoring device is defined as any explicit means by which a Web site operator can record who has visited the site and/or which part of the site they visited. The potential for continuous monitoring of system use has implications for billing and for programming system content to meet user interests. Of course, this information also is a valuable measure of how the site has attracted and maintained user's attention.

Sally McMillan (l998) used Heeter's dimensions of interactivity to test the hypothesis that Web sites funded by for-profit companies and advertising have lower levels of interactivity than sites that receive the majority of their funding from volunteer efforts, non-profit organizations, government/education and mixed funding sources. She found that levels of interactivity were relatively low. For example, only seven percent of sites included newsgroups, only 19 percent included search engines and only 34 percent provided a feedback form. The hypothesis was partially supported, with some of the interactive dimensions not showing a significant relationship to funding sources and one dimension showing a significant relationship counter to the hypothesis. However, McMillan concluded: "Sites created by for-profit sources consistently had the lowest scores for most interactivity measures".

Independent Variables and Hypotheses

This study also tests the relationship between funding sources and interactivity of Web sites. It differs from McMillan's study because we predict for-profit Web sites will have more interactive features. McMillan's operationalization differed in that she combined "ease of adding information" and "facilitation of interpersonal communication" into a single dimension. Another major difference between our studies is that she operationalized "effort users must exert" by the number of tools provided to navigate the site. If three navigation tools were provided, then a low level of interactivity was indicated. Her reasoning was: "While navigational tools might make the novice user more comfortable in using the site, they actually reduce the number of choices the user makes." Thus, the highest level of interactivity was awarded to sites with no navigational tools. We disagreed with this line of thinking. (See our operationalization below.) We also simplified the definition of funding to either for-profit or non-profit. We expected higher levels of interactivity at for-profit sites because so many interactive devices are created by marketing people rather than by journalists. In addition, we thought non-profit organizations would follow the transmission model of communication, and for-profit organizations would follow the ritual or publicity models; therefore,

H1: Profit-driven online newspapers will have more interactivity than nonprofit papers.

The second independent variable is "type of online newspaper." Online newspapers started by companies printing a similar newspaper were distinguished from Web-based newspapers. Independent online newspapers have audiences consisting of Web users, and their information distribution channels are completely Web-based. We believe that independent newspapers will have greater awareness of interactivity and a staff that is better trained to develop interactive features. We also believe that these newspapers exist to capture an audience's attention and to build community; there is no real desire to transmit messages concerning political opinion or political or economic news. The ritual model of communication applies as does the publicity model, so

H2: Purely Web-based newspapers will have more interactivity than online newspapers with printed counterparts.

The third independent variable is "geographic origin of online newspapers." Online newspapers originating in the United States were distinguished from papers originating in other countries. Higher levels of interactivity were expected from U.S. papers for several reasons. First, the United States adopted interactivity technology earlier than other countries, so more people have access to interactive computer technology, and the skill levels of interactive designers are higher. Because U.S. telephone company rates are affordable for U.S. citizens, users can enjoy more bandwidth and can stay online longer, so they can utilize interactive features more than in countries where the cost of connecting to computer networks is relatively higher. Finally, the U.S. press is more market driven than in many countries, where the government or industry provide direct or indirect subsidies, and interactive devices are usually marketing devices.

H3: U.S. based online newspapers will have more interactivity than newspapers originating from other countries.

Unit of Analysis

Web sites vary substantially in size, from one page to 50,000 pages, and coding an entire Web site could be extremely time consuming. To make coding feasible, the unit of analysis was the home page, which provides consistency across the sample. Online newspapers may not put their interactive devices on their home pages, and so we may miss these devices during our coding, but visitors to these Web sites also may miss the interactive devices because visitors, we assume, will not have the patience to hunt through many pages of a Web site to find what they want. This study, therefore, analyzes the key part of Web sites, their "front doors," but not the entire sites.

This study examines all of the news elements on the home page of an online newspaper, including news stories with their hyperlinks, photos, video, audio and other media supplied by journalists, as well as any text or other media supplied by users of the online newspaper, and any other features that serve to inform or entertain users. This study also examines advertising (display or classified) or related services (help in finding a house, help in matching people's vitae with classified job advertisements, ability to make travel reservations or to bank, etc.). "News" is not distinguished from "advertising" because both are important to understanding the interactivity of online newspapers.

Operationalization of Concepts

To determine whether online newspapers are purely Web-based or whether they have printed counterparts, we studied the Web site to identify the parent company of the online newspaper and then checked with the Editor & Publisher Yearbook to learn if the company owned a similar print newspaper. If this did not work, we sent an e-mail message to the designer of the Web site and asked a direct question. A similar procedure was followed to learn if the online paper was owned by a profit or non-profit organization, and to learn the online paper's country of origin.

Complexity of choice available was measured by the presence of options such as speed and language (as in Ha and James' study, 1998). In addition, we counted the hyperlinks that add information to a site. As mentioned earlier, some online newspapers allow users to add Web pages, hobby and special interest pages, announcements of births, marriages and deaths and reviews of movies, plays and other cultural and entertainment events. Some online newspapers also allow users to make contributions to reporters' stories.

Monitor system use was measured by the presence of three monitoring mechanisms: visitor registration, visitor counters that display the number of visitors to a site and cookie files. "Cookies" are packets of data transmitted by a Web server to the hard drive of a user's computer. They store the user's ID or Internet address when the user logs onto the Web server and provide information on the user's prior pattern of visits (Leibrock, 1997).

For each dimension, the various measures were combined to create a final score ranging from 0 to 3. Then the six dimension scores were added together to create a score for the dependent variable - interactivity. A Web site's interactivity score, therefore, could range from 0 (no interactivity possible) to 18 (extremely interactive).

Sampling and Procedure

To draw a sample of online newspapers, we went to "Newspapers Online!," a site established by the Newspaper Association of America at Then we clicked on "Newspapers within the United States" and for each state, we coded the sixth newspaper. Then we clicked on "Newspapers by Country" and coded the first newspaper we could read (given our language skills) for each country. This procedure yielded a sample size of 88 newspapers, but with few non-profit newspapers and few purely Web-based papers. We returned to the U.S. newspapers, therefore, and state-by-state searched for newspapers with these qualities until we had a sample of 100 papers.

Two independent coders already proficient in using the Web were trained for a week to code the online newspaper sites. Pre-test and post-test coder reliability were checked, but after some initial coding problems were resolved, the process was straightforward.


Of the 100 online newspapers coded, 85 percent were for-profit (and 15 percent were non-profit). Almost all (92 percent) of the Web papers had a printed version (eight percent were purely Web-based). A total of 62 percent were based in the United States, and 38 percent were from other countries. Inferences cannot be made to the population of all online newspapers because a random sample was not used.

Complexity of choice

Online newspapers made the following choices available to users:

  • 2 percent offered a choice of language;
  • 2 percent have taken into account users' browsers and connection speeds and offered a choice of frames or not frames;
  • 23 percent had search engines;
  • 83 percent had news stories prominently placed on the home page;
  • 33 percent had links within news stories; and
  • 52 percent had some type of hyperlinks.

Three measures were combined to create an index for the choice dimension. If a newspaper site had a search engine, it received one point. If it had more than 30 links (the mode), it received one point. If it had more than four stories (the mode), it received one point. Scores for the three measures were added, yielding an index ranging from 0 (low choice) to 3 (high complexity of choice available). Of the 100 sites,

  • 22 percent offered users very low choice;
  • 41 percent offered low choice;
  • 25 percent offered moderate choice; and,
  • 12 percent offered a high amount of choice.

Effort users must exert

When coders tried to find information about weather, stocks, movies, education and international news, they were unsuccessful 43 percent of the time. In other words, there were no indication on the home page that such information might be available within the site. At five to ten percent of the sites, the information was found with a single click. Depending upon which type of information was sought, two clicks were needed at 7-21 percent of the sites. Three clicks were needed at 25-40 percent of the sites. International news and weather were buried deepest within the online newspaper sites. An index for effort was created from the five scores, indicating that at:

  • 83 percent of the sites, information was difficult to find
  • 14 percent of the sites, information was found with moderate effort
  • 3 percent of the sites, users were empowered to find information quickly and easily.

Responsiveness to the user

At 36 percent of the Web sites, there was no way to send a question to the reporter of the main story. Of the 64 sites with reporters' e-mail addresses:

  • 69 percent of the reporters did not respond;
  • 28 percent sent a form letter; and,
  • 3 percent sent a personal response.

At 49 percent of the Web sites, there was no way to send a question to the Webmaster. Of the 51 sites with e-mail addresses for Webmasters:

  • 70 percent of the Web masters did not respond;
  • 20 percent sent a form letter; and,
  • 10 percent sent a personal response.

The papers that lacked their own server (i.e., their site was hosted by AOL or MindSpring) usually did not have a way to send a message to the Webmaster. One explanation is that such online newspapers would not want their users to send questions to Webmasters of other Internet Service Providers. An index was created by calculating the mean of the reporters' and Webmasters' responses, yielding the following:

  • 50 percent of newspapers did not respond;
  • 12 percent sent a form letter; and,
  • 2 percent sent a personal response.

Facilitation of interpersonal communication

The following interactive features related to interpersonal communication were available on the home pages of online newspapers:

  • 12 percent had chat rooms;
  • 17 percent had discussion groups;
  • 49 percent had feedback mechanisms; and,
  • 51 percent had at least one e-mail address displayed on the home page.

An index combining these measures indicated the following:

  • 15 percent had no means for interpersonal communication;
  • 43 percent had few opportunities;
  • 32 percent had moderate opportunities; and,
  • 10 percent had many opportunities for interpersonal communication.

Ease of adding information

Only seven percent of newspapers offered any means for users to add information to the newspapers' Web sites. None offered more than one way to add information.

Monitor system use

Newspaper results for the three measures were:

  • 37 percent used cookies;
  • 12 percent had counters; and,
  • 5 percent requested registration.

An index combining these three measures indicated that at online newspapers:

  • 56 percent did not monitor users;
  • 36 percent had one monitoring device;
  • 6 percent had two devices; and,
  • 2 percent had three devices.

These results indicate how much effort online newspapers exert to collect information about their users in order to customize their presentation of news.

H1: Profit-driven online newspapers will have more interactivity than nonprofit papers.

The hypothesis was not supported. The interactivity index for this study could range from 0 (no interactivity) to 18 (very high interactivity). It was created by adding the scores of the six dimensions, and each dimension was coded on a scale of 0 to 3, with 3 indicating high interactivity. The total interactivity score of all the papers ranged from 0 to 13. Interactive scores for non-profit papers clustered in the middle, ranging from 3 to 7, indicating that non-profit papers have a moderate amount of interactivity. On the other hand, the interactivity level of profit-driven online newspapers was relatively low. For example, half the papers had a score of 5 or less. Results, therefore, support McMillan's conclusions (1998) that non-profit papers would have higher levels of interactivity. Further testing is needed, however, because significance levels were not reached in either study.

H2: Purely Web-based newspapers will have more interactivity than online newspapers with printed counterparts.

Because the sample size was small, especially the sample of purely Web-based papers (7), results of the chi square test did not reach statistical significance, but they did indicate that Web-based newspapers are slightly more interactive. Their interactivity scores ranged from 5 to 8, whereas more than half of the online papers with printed versions had an interactivity score of 5 or less.

H3: U.S. based online newspapers will have more interactivity than newspapers originating from other countries.

Again, statistical significance was not achieved, but the results were in the expected direction. The international newspapers had the low-to-moderate interactivity scores, whereas the U.S. papers followed a normal distribution curve.

In addition to testing the hypotheses, cross tabulations of the three independent variables were completed with the six indexes of interactivity. In a few instances, high levels of significance were achieved (within 95 percent confidence level). Purely Web-based newspapers, as expected, were more likely to allow users to add information than online papers with printed versions. Purely Web-based papers also were more likely to facilitate interpersonal communication, and they were more likely to have at least one monitoring device. Non-profit newspapers were more likely to facilitate interpersonal communication (a surprise). As expected, they were less likely to respond to users, and less likely to have monitoring devices. U.S. newspapers were more likely to facilitate interpersonal communication and they were more likely to respond to users.


Previous research studies and the professional literature have indicated that online newspapers have low levels of interactivity, and this study supports that finding. In fact, little has changed in 25 years. Videotex wanted to electronically push news into people's homes, and so do today's online papers. Both promised more timely, thorough and personal news. Both largely ignored the basic properties that distinguished new media. Both have failed to earn profits. "Interactivity" has remained a buzzword that many people use, yet few define the concept.

Online newspapers seem to consider themselves interactive if they provide some hyperlinks and e-mail addresses. Even when more thought is given to interactivity, the concept is seldom integrated into a theory of mass communication. This study, in contrast, begins by recognizing interactivity as the primary characteristic of new media. Then we argue that interactivity involves a two-way, or multi-directional flow of information. This information flows amongst members of a community or amongst distinct individuals rather than to a mass audience. The traditional model of communication, with its one-way transmission of a message from a source to a receiver, does not fit interactive systems. The ritual model and the publicity model better explain this new hybrid of interpersonal communication and mass communication found in new media. Managers of new media should set goals of building a community that satisfies its members. They should ask whether their Web sites hold people's attention rather than whether they provide clear messages that inform and persuade readers.

Many scholars have attempted to define "interactivity," and any review of the literature would reveal multiple dimensions of this complex concept. Because Carrie Heeter's definition of interactivity was written to encompass all new media, it was relatively easy to adapt her six dimensions of the concept to online newspapers. One strength of Heeter's theoretical definition is that it considers interactivity from both sides of a two (or more) directional flow of information. Four of the dimensions clearly emphasize the role of the user. Interactivity empowers the user and this empowerment is what makes interactive new media so different from traditional mass media. Another dimension, "facilitation of interpersonal communication," treats both parties equally. The sixth dimension, "monitor system use," empowers the sender of messages from online newspapers.

Of course, there are many ways to operationalize such conceptual dimensions. An important contribution of this study is our creation of eighteen measures for the six dimensions of interactivity. An online newspaper that is highly interactive, therefore, has "met" many standards. A valuable side effect of using a complex measurement is that the findings produce rich descriptive data. Few people have studied interactive features of online newspapers, but the following comparisons with our findings are offered. Ha and James (1998) studied business Web sites and found a higher complexity of choice; 14.5 percent of business Web sites offered choice of speed (compared to 2 percent in our sample); 9 percent offered choice of language (compared to 2 percent), and the number of hyperlinks appeared to be similar to papers in our study. Other measures of interactivity were lower; 81 percent had no monitoring devices (versus 56 percent in our study), and 38 percent had no means for interpersonal communication (vs. 15 percent). Tankard and Ban (1998) found that 6 percent of articles in online newspapers contained hyperlinks (versus 33 percent in our study); 49 percent of reporters answered their e-mail messages (versus 31 percent), 64 percent had search engines (versus 23 percent in our study and 19 percent in McMillan, 1998). McMillan (1998) studied selected health sites and found that 7 percent of the sites had discussion groups (versus 17 percent in our study), 34 percent had feedback forms (versus 49 percent), and 34 percent had counters (versus 12 percent). No one dimension of interactivity was more prevalent in online newspaper sites than the others. The range for highly interactive scores among the six dimensions was 2 percent to 14 percent with an average of 6.4.

The first hypothesis, which predicts a relationship between funding and interactivity, may not have been supported because our theoretical linkage was not sound. We had expected that for-profit papers would use more interactive devices to attract and hold users' attention because we had expected such sites to be operated by marketing specialists. We also had expected non-profit papers to be operated by journalists intent upon informing or persuading an audience. Given the results, a revised linkage is required. Perhaps for-profit online papers remain wedded to their corporate ideology and the traditional transmission model of communication. Perhaps non-profit papers are smaller, more nimble and more motivated to build community through interactive devices. They certainly seem to offer more options for interpersonal communication.

The relationship between purely Web-based newspapers and interactivity would have been stronger if the concept of "online newspaper" had been more broadly defined and a larger sample had been used. If the concept of "news" and "newspaper" had been broadened to include e-zines such as Slate, Kiosk, Feed and Salon, then a strong relationship would appear between Web-based papers and interactivity. If our sample had not been drawn from the Newspaper Association of America and if it had included more than seven Web-based papers, significance may have been reached. Finding a suitable list of online newspapers is a worthy challenge; finding a way to draw a random sample of online papers from the universe of the Internet is an even greater and more worthy challenge.

The relationship between U.S. online papers and interactivity may be weak. When a group of designers in Europe, Latin America or Asia have a targeted audience for an online newspaper, they want to serve that audience, and probably impress that audience, with a variety of interactive features.

As Ha and James (1998: 471) wrote, "The transient nature of the Web argues for employing a longitudinal perspective to study the evolution of web sites. The current study is only a snapshot of the interactivity of the Web during its early stages." Of course, our study looked at newspaper sites rather than business sites, but the point remains relevant.

Two future studies appear obvious. First would be to interview executives of online newspaper sites to learn why some of the dimensions of interactivity have not been used extensively. A comparison of responses from marketing staff and journalists would be interesting. In addition, a participant observation study of a few different kinds of online newspapers would answer many questions about why the sites appear the way they do. The second study would explore the site experience of users. Do they use interactive features; do they like them, and why? What are the effects of using interactive devices? Answers to such questions would prove valuable to the executives of online sites and could affect the content and design of the sites.

About the Authors

Keith Kenney is Associate Professor in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina.

Alexander Gorelik is a doctoral student in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina.

Sam Mwangi is a doctoral student in the College of Journalism and Mass Communications at the University of South Carolina.


1. Heeter (1989: 221) explains that: "In traditional mass media, feedback takes such forms as letters to an editor or phone calls to a TV or radio station, or purchasing an advertised product. The majority of mass media receivers do not engage in feedback for the majority of messages."

2. As far as we know, only the Wall Street Journal currently charges a subscription fee for its online product.


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Editorial history

Paper received 17 December 1999; accepted for publication 27 December 1999

Contents Index

Copyright ©2000, First Monday

Interactive Features of Online Newspapers by Keith Kenney, Alexander Gorelik and Sam Mwangi
First Monday, volume 5, number 1 (January 2000),

A Great Cities Initiative of the University of Illinois at Chicago University Library.

© First Monday, 1995-2016.