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With a worldwide growing interest in journalism and journalists came an upswing in cross-national survey research among journalists from the print and broadcast media in the last five years. Since 1994 a new type of communicator is on the World Wide Web: the online journalist. Research into online journalism and journalists has been understandably scarce - the medium is young. Those studies that do exist suffer from a kind of anachronistic approach: explaining the new by using the old. This paper offers a brief overview of the existing literature and makes some suggestions to develop a comprehensive research instrument for the online news environment that can both stand the test of time as well as offer researchers anywhere a model for cross-national research.


Theory and Research
Writing on the Topic
Research Design
Research Context
Research Topic: The Newspaper
Research Projects
Suggestions for Descriptive and Normative Analysis of Online Newsmedia


Content is King. Content is an important influence in setting the public agenda. Content determines to an extent the way we perceive the world around us. Journalists are responsible for the content of the media. Therefore journalists influence our agenda, which fully justifies an examination of these communicators - knowing who they are and why they do what they do. Yet communication researchers have shied away from journalists for a long time. With cross-national survey research among journalists from the print and broadcast media on the uprise (global overviews in Weaver, 1997; Patterson and Donsbach, 1996), a new type of communicator has arrived: the online journalist.

The Internet is both hype and reality; both an elitist playground of freaks and the ultimate synergy of communication-related phenomena. It is the network of networks, the only medium where access, abundance and citizenship blur the lines of the public and private sphere into chaos - but fascinating and - from time to time - highly relevant and important chaos.

Research into the role of journalists in this chaos is scarce. The development of research is marred by traditional concepts and the literature dealing with such issues is inevitably new and fragmented. This paper aims to bridge these gaps and to develop some suggestions on starting an effective, Net-wide research project into online journalism and journalists.


Theory and Research

The International Communication Association devoted an entire issue of its journal (Journal of Communication for Winter 1996) to the question "Why study the Internet?" - and basically came up with a single conclusion: to approach the medium in terms of its novelty, equipped with instruments such as established communication theories equals embarking upon a road headed for disaster (Newhagen and Rafaeli, 1996; Morris and Ogan, 1996). None of the authors mentioned online journalists in a research context. Some attention was paid to displacement theory, a common response to the advent of new media technology. Will the newspaper disappear with the rising popularity of television? Will traditional television disappear with personalized superior Webcasts and Web-TV? Questions such as these belong to the novelty theory - and are therefore a waste of time. The focus should be on understanding these new media, figuring out what they are made up with and who provides them with content. In other words: online news publications should be seen as journalistic products and analyzed as such. The foremost goal of communication researchers must be to provide insight and understanding - to make sense of all forms of communication.

Several journals are planning specials on the topic of online journalism; Convergence (1998), Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication (1998), Gazette (1999). Only one author, Jane Singer of the University of Colorado, has addressed issues related to research into online journalism and journalists explicitly (Singer, 1998). She tied a number of existing theoretical frameworks from the U.S.-based journalism research literature together. These gave her four possible approaches to journalism in the online environment: gatekeeping theory, diffusion of innovation theory, sociology of newswork theory and social cohesion theory. Although the author admitted that the best approach in the end is a multi-discplinary, wide-ranging one, she still did not succeed to escape from the problem that each of these theoretical concepts alone seems anachronistic; aiming to explain something which defies the rules and definitions that are part of the theory. There is also the problem of selection; Singer's sources are all American and therefore do little justice to the global nature of the research topic of online journalism.

Writing on the Topic: Trade Journals, Online Mags and Scholarly Publications

Publications on online journalism have appeared in trade journals, online magazines and scholarly journals. In trade journals, articles with titles such as "The future of online journalism" (Columbia Journalism Review, July/August 1997) are dominant. Although these articles are insightful, their conclusions are based on anecdotal evidence - "the Net is great, look what this radio station accomplished with their Website" - or opinions of technologists, focusing solely on engineering aspect of the medium - "look what can be done with ActiveX and streaming video".

Online sources and magazines - such as the CMC Magazine, AJR Newslink, Netly News, WebWeek, Newslink Network, CJR Online, Editor & Publisher Interactive - generally come up with specials and statistics, providing practical answers to issues concerning online journalism. These may include trends and figures, characteristics of online news ventures and the interplay between commercial and editorial content. No theoretical framework for analysis is given. The informal and fastpaced nature of the Web might not be the best possible platform for theoretical debate, but there lies the challenge for communication researchers aiming for relevance: to provide insight through clear communication aimed at an audience consisting of (online) journalists, technologists, scholars, students of new media and average Net users alike. With this in mind one has to point out that online publications were already putting out insightful and well-documented specials on Web journalism and its consequences as early as July 1995 (Lapham, 1995) and April 1996 (Fulton, 1996).

Scholarly journals are lagging behind. Research that has been done was aimed at redefining the role of the journalist under the influence of a perceived "information overload" by the Net (Bardoel, 1996; Singer, 1997), editorial and managerial policies of online newspapers (Harper, 1997; Singer, 1998) and inventarisation of journalists' responses to the development of their profession online (Singer, 1997 and 1998). Although these studies are all highly relevant, they seem to lack a contextual and historical foundation. They look at online newsmedia with a focus on assumed changes in the function and presentation of the traditional newspaper.

Research Design: Standing Alone

Although online journalism is still very young, research into the profession should be guided by the same notion that makes the Net a mass medium: its global nature. Evaluation of results from a single country makes more sense when compared with findings from other countries where the same research methodology was used (see, for example, Edelstein, 1982). The fact that exchange of datasets on the Net is extremely simple and reliable supports this argument. The replication of survey research for example could uncover general trends and/or nationally, locally or even culturally specific aspects of online newsmedia and the journalists involved.

Research Context: The Problem of Definition

Online journalism is of course just another form of journalism - and should be treated as such. The context of new media journalism is journalism, so any study on the topic should start with defining exactly what makes an online journalist. This does pose the researcher for several problems, since the debate in the literature has been on issues of definition for most of this century. In the most recent publications on journalists and journalism, scholars either decide not to go into issues of definition at all (this goes for all publications on online journalism up to date), or to replicate definitions used in survey research, such as the authoritative definition chosen by Weaver and Wilhoit in their 1982-1983 and 1992 surveys of American journalists. These surveys described the population under study as "... those who had responsibility for the preparation or transmission of news stories or other information - all full-time reporters, writers, correspondents, columnists, photojournalists, news people, and editors. In broadcast organizations, only those in news and public affairs departments were included."

This definition allowed the researchers to exclude free lancers, tabloid writers and editorial staff, talk show hosts, (comic strip) cartoonists, librarians, camera operators, and video/audio technicians from their study. Furthermore one misses the inclusion (in the operationalization of the definition) of online writers and journalists - those responsible for the Web content of newspapers, periodicals and broadcast organizations. In the 1971 and 1981/1982 studies this may seem more or less irrelevant, but with the explosive developments on the Internet a further definition for future reference is warranted. In replications of this study, the restriction to only full-time employees was abandoned and also picture desk staff, graphics operators and broadcast news producers were included (Henningham and Delano, 1995). In a contemporary study among students of journalism in 21 countries, considerable attention was paid to the question, why a clearcut definition of journalists or what makes a journalist has no answer in the international body of literature (Sparks and Splichal, 1994). The basic problem with a definition is the fact that journalism globally lacks the objective criteria which would place it in the same social position like medicine and law.

An answer to the question of what makes a journalist (occupation role of a journalist) can also be considered as a definition of the journalistic profession and in some recent studies this position has been adopted to avoid lengthy classifications (Karmasin, 1996). One problem here is that what makes a journalist can differ from news organization to news organization. The reference to a news organization has been put central in a different approach to defining the profession of a journalist in a sociological study (Beam, 1990). Here the author argues that a profession is an occupation in which members collectively (or rather: collegially) have secured authority to control the substance, performance and goals of their work. This means that a profession is not so much a general and distinct occupational group, but an organizational-level construct from within a news media organization. This approach may be valid, but is problematic when one wants to compare journalists in different countries and cultures, as is the intention of this research project. A possible solution to this problem is the general definition chosen by yet another transnational study into journalists done under the flag of the U.S.-based Mass Media and Democracy project. Here a journalist is defined as "a person who makes decisions directly affecting news content", further delimited by the criterion of participating in "daily news decisions about politics and public affairs" (Donsbach and Klett, 1993; Patterson and Donsbach, 1996).

Concluding this brief discussion of definition mention is made of the only definition, found in the literature, wherein the technological component of journalism is explicitly incorporated (Bardoel, 1997). Journalism is defined there as the professional selection of actual news facts to an audience by means of technological distribution methods. Especially in recent years the role of technology in effectively distributing media messages has changed and has taken center stage in the modern journalistic theater and should therefore serve as essential or even starting point of any scholarly venture into online journalism.

Research Topic: The Newspaper

A final point of critique has to be on the choice of research topic. Generally speaking, the little research that has been done was aimed at newspaper journalists or traditional print media journalism. The justification for this can possibly be traced to a number of attitudes towards the Net. First one could point out the fact that one perceives the 'threats' to the print versions of the profession as the most important aspect of the Net. Secondly, the historical nature of the newspaper business makes it the most logical topic for research. Thirdly, print journalism operates under a completely different set of rules - almost no rules rather - than the broadcast media industry (in most countries), which makes it a chaotic and thus challenging topic.

The essence of news publications on the Net is their integrated character: online journalism is the convergence of sound, image and text, Webcasting is the combination of all journalistic genres plus the advantage of push-pull technology and therefore justifies the choice for an integrated research approach. When studying online journalism, communicators from all "previous" genres of the profession should be considered as respondents. An online newspaper is not an example of newspaper journalism, but of integrated or perhaps 'total' journalism (Bardoel and Deuze, forthcoming).

Research Projects: Examples of Recent and Current Research Initiatives

There is a great need for communication among various efforts around the world to understand online journalism, in order to compare results in similar studies. Some perspectives about online media among newspapers journalists (Singer, 1997) - the enthusiastic and positive 'benevolent revolutionary', the negative or even scared 'nervous traditionalist' and the neutral 'rational realist' - render themselves perfectly for cross-national comparison. They need to be extended to cover journalists from all media in order to gain some understanding into how those responsible for the current development of the online profession perceive the medium - and their role in it.

There are other projects which lend themselves to replication and comparison cross-nationally though the Net. For example the Canadian Institute for New Media, Research and Development is currently running a project among their graduate students to develop a model for the online newspaper of the 21st century. At the Berkeley Graduate School for Journalism a project is establishing a new media historical archive for the benefit of media historians and scholars. At the Carleton University School of Journalism a project is on the way to develop an online interactive resource to explore the issues and information needs of print journalists, editors and publishers, containing an online style guide for writers and journalists. Several students internationally are conducting online journalism surveys, such as Kim Griggs at the Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia and Timo Luege at the Institut für Kommunikationswissenschaft in Munich, Germany. The Center for New Media of the Columbia School for Journalism is offering students opportunities to graduate as fully fledged online journalists, an effort which is also on the way at the Tilburg School for Journalism in the Netherlands. One might suggest that some of these educational institutions in could get together online to form a practical as well as theoretical 'think-tank' to develop a new curriculum for the profession.

Suggestions for Descriptive and Normative Analysis of Online Newsmedia

To end this brief essay on issues in research into online journalism and journalists, let me provide some remarks on the content of online news ventures. To make sense of what online content is made up of and to be able to classify this content - for evaluation, comparison and qualification - one needs a model or point of analytical departure. There are some examples and starting points available online for such a model, which are all used here (Zollman, 1997; Alexander and Tate, 1998; Rich, 1998). Below a possible model for descriptive analysis of content of online newsmedia is given.

In figure I a longitudinal descriptive way of analysis is suggested, meaning that it should be possible with a model like this in hand to not only classify a current or recent Web site, but also one that will be possible in the near future. Assume that a Web page consists of three core elements: content, layout and technology. A problem with this division is the interplay and interchangeability of these concepts. For instance, is a hyperlink layout (the way it is presented), technology (will the referring page use frames or alternate windows) or content (will the referred page be a substantial element of the story and where is the link inserted in the original body of text)? For this purpose, technology and layout should be used as limited categories. Simply, on the Net everything is content. Aspects of technology are also prone to change every couple of months due to the fast developments in the software and hardware industry, which allows for possible contemporary subdivisions (such as Java, ActiveX, DirectX, Shockwave) to be irrelevant in less than a year. Layout can be seen not so much as a description of traditional aspects such as font or colors (especially since browsers allow users to set their own preferences), but as a description of page length (scroll size) and the way in which all aspects of the content are scattered through the page and site, using a subcategory like 'non-linear writing'.

Describing content becomes a much more intricate process, since everything is content (following the line of reasoning that online journalism is total journalism: the integration of all other forms of journalism). A first division can obviously be made between (real) audio and (streaming) video and text. Within each of these categories one can make a distinction between factual and contextual content. Factual content is what the user directly sees, hears and reads. Contextual content goes a step further and answers questions about audio and video such as: does the supplied sound fragment stand on its own; is it the sound or image version of the text (both factual); or, is it a recording of a band for a review or a fragment of streetnoises or for a story (both contextual)? In terms of text contextual content are hyperlinks and other references to previous and alternate sources of content. Finally, a further subdivision can be made between editorial, advertorial and commercial content. This is one of the more hotly debated topics within online journalism and involves the credibility of the journalist in a medium where it is practically impossible to determine the reliability of sources (Koch, 1991; Reddick and King, 1996). By classifying content - where this is possible - into three categories without pretending that the lines between them cannot be blurred, one can determine whether a site's content is more commercial or editorial in nature.

This last point leans towards a normative approach towards content, meaning that one assumes pure editorial content to be (journalistically) superior to a mix between editorial and commercial content. A point must be made here that this author does not agree with that; 'advertorial' content is not necessarily of lesser quality. When reviewing the literature of this essay, one can find examples of what is seen as 'good' online journalism. These examples then can be used to set up a second, normative model of analysis.

Although most elements of this model may seem obvious or need no further elaboration for the daily Web surfer looking for a reliable news site, some remarks must be made. The importance given to 'original content' for instance comes from the general notion that the online newscast is a new medium and therefore requires original content instead of supplying the user with mere copies of its print version ('shovelware'). Though this may be a valid opinion, the underlying assumption - online newsmedia are just an arm of their respective print, television or radio bodies - can be criticized. One can wonder why this has to be the case, especially since more online news ventures are popping up without a print, television or radio as counterpart or single source (Driveway, After Dark Online, and Nando Times to name but a few in the U.S.). Elements such as 'reference material', 'resources', 'archive' and so on can be seen as the typical advantages of the Net. An online publication which does not make use of these elements, can be seen as not optimally using its possibilities. Several authors point out that the news story on the Net has to follow a whole new set of writing style guidelines or formulae. Although no single formula for the perfect online story has been developed, a 'good' online journalist must realize that the Net requires experiments with language and other style protocols (see Chris Lapham's Web site at for some introductory guidelines; see also the comments made by Columbia's Center for New Media Coordinator Josh Schroeter in Pavlik, 1997).

Another qualitative aspect is the unique possibility of the Net to supply links to the story sources - since the user can check up on these sources themselves, why not helping them out? This way the journalist can establish credibility by pointing out how he/she got to the story - or selection of statements, facts and analysis - and possibly keep the audience by showing them that looking on their own takes more time than actually visiting the online journalists' site. Finally, with 'layers of content' a publication allows its original stories to be supplemented with other aspects of content in layered form (the user can navigate with the browsers' directional buttons), for original documents, transcripts of interviews, pictures or other graphical tools, background material and so on.


With the remarks, made in this essay, the author wants to put research into online journalism and journalists on the map, with the explicit goal of getting scholars and journalists alike together through the Net. The given models for analysis are meant for discussion - there is no claim to academic completeness. Without a critical, cross-national and open-minded approach, understanding and insight into the exciting but sometimes also elitist and freaky nature of the Net will be limited to a few enthusiasts or experts, instead of the millions the Net sets out to reach every day. As suggested in the body of literature, the journalist of the future will most likely be the one that makes sense of all the information that reaches our eyes and ears. To give these professionals something to go on is an acceptable, relevant and exciting prospect - especially for communication researchers.

About the Author

Mark Deuze is a Ph.D. student at the Amsterdam School of Communications Research (ASCoR), the Netherlands. This paper serves as a follow-up on a paper presented to the Napier University Journalism Conference of 4-5 September 1998 (Edinburgh, Scotland). The issues regarding journalism and the Internet form part of a larger research project into contemporary journalism in the Netherlands, a project which will run from 1997 to 2001. This project has four main themes: journalism in The Netherlands in terms of [1] an international comparative perspective, [2] the multicultural society, [3] infotainment and [4] the Internet. More information on the project can be found on the project's site. The author got his BA in Journalism at the Tilburg School for Journalism, the Netherlands and his M.Phil in History and Communication Studies at the Rand Afrikaans University in Johannesburg, South Africa.


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