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Redefining the News Online 

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Journalists around the world have long agreed on a set of values that help define whether a story is newsworthy. But a new book about online news argues that these rules are in flux: "Newsworthy" is slowly being redefined online by an increasingly participatory audience.

 

Massachusetts Institute of Technology assistant professor Pablo J. Boczkowski isn't a media guy: He's a sociologist who studies how print news organizations deal with new digital media technologies.

Back in the late 1990s -- when the Web was first entering the public consciousness -- the newspaper industry's often pained attempts to launch online publications caught his eye. He decided to chronicle three major newspapers' efforts to incorporate online news into their operations.

Boczkowski's new book -- "Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers" -- examines how newsroom culture, technology and other factors affected the choices made by the New York Times technology section, HoustonChronicle.com's Virtual Voyager and New Jersey Online's Community Connection.

He found that new media emerge not in a burst of revolutionary technological change, but by merging the structures and practices of existing media with newly available technical capabilities. Innovation in online newspapers is an ongoing process in which different combinations of initial conditions and local factors lead publishers along different paths.

And he found that reader participation online is changing the definition of what is considered news. "Instead of being primarily journalist-centered, the news online appears increasingly to be also user-centered," writes Boczkowski. "In the online environment, users have a much greater direct effect on the news."

The following is an edited excerpt from the final chapter of Boczkowski's book, "Digitizing the News."

 

The Reconstruction of News in the Online Environment

The news is a culturally constructed category, as it has been demonstrated by work in two traditions of inquiry. First, social histories of the press have illuminated the institutional and technological factors that have shaped the news over the past 200 years.

Michael Schudson ("Discovering the News" 1978) has examined the institutional transformations linked to the emergence of the modern notion of news in the United States and argued that it was invented by the penny papers in the 1830s as a reaction to the growth of a democratic polity, a market economy, and an upwardly mobile middle class.

According to Schudson, these papers "began to reflect, not the affairs of an elite in a small trading society, but the activities of an increasingly varied, urban, and middle-class society of trade, transportation, and manufacturing."

Menahem Blondheim ("News over the Wires" 1994) has emphasized the role of technological changes, and shown that the development of the telegraph informed the evolution of the news in the second half of the 19th century: "The telegraph, by increasing the speed of news and making its continuous transmission possible, broke down the reporting of developing news stories into smaller and more frequent segments [It] also promised to expand the scope of the news.

Whether or not some of the conversational content online is considered "news" by currently working journalists, it may be becoming increasingly newsworthy to the audience of new-media news.

"Now it would be news from all over the country, not merely local events, that could capture the attention of the public and create expectations as to future developments and the resolution of events."

The second tradition of inquiry, ethnographic studies of news production, has shed light on the local contingencies that influence the reporting of current events. The fundamental premise of this tradition of inquiry has been that rather than having an essential quality to it, the news, as Walter Gieber (1964) has put it, "is what newspapermen make it."

James W. Carey ("Reading the News" 1986) has summarized the main contributions from these studies by stating that the news is not "some transparent glimpse at the world. News registers, on the one hand, the organizational constraints under which journalists labor [and] on the other hand, the literary forms and narrative devices journalists regularly use to manage the overwhelming flow of events."

In this section I will adopt the constructionist premise that news in the online environment is what those contributing to its production make it.

Although some of the groups seen as having agency (such as forum participants in the New York Times Technology section) and the content deemed as relevant (such as nonprofit organizations' publications in New Jersey Online's Community Connection) would not be included in traditional definitions of news makers and news products, I would like to underscore the value of "following the actors" (Bruno Latour, 1987) to reflect about the possible reconstruction of news online.

In so doing, at least two transformations appear to distinguish the production of new-media news from the typical case of print and broadcast media: The news seems to be shaped by greater and more varied groups of actors, and this places a premium on the practices that coordinate productive activities across these groups.

This, in turn, seems to influence the content and form of online news in three ways. The news moves from being mostly journalist-centered, communicated as a monologue, and primarily local, to also being increasingly audience-centered, part of multiple conversations, and micro-local.

In the online environment, a greater variety of groups of actors appear to be involved in, and have a more direct impact on, the production process than what is typically accounted for in studies of print and broadcast newsrooms. These studies have tended to focus on the work of editors and reporters. Based on the analysis presented in the previous chapters, it is reasonable to speculate that at least four additional groups of players may be having a growing degree of agency in new-media news production.

Micro-local content may gain prominence in online news as larger segments of the population have access to online technologies and become familiarized with a media culture of content coproduction.

First, in the case of the online operations of traditional media, the dynamics of not one but two newsrooms, the online one and its traditional media counterpart, as well as their interactions, may shape what constitutes the news, who reports it, and when it is made available to the public.

Second, advertising and marketing personnel may also influence what gets covered, via topic selection and budget allocation, to a greater extent than what is usually the case in print newspapers. This could constitute a deepening of the "market-driven journalism" (McManus, 1984) trend that has been growing in American media since the 1980s. 

Third, technical and design personnel also seem to inform how the news gets reported, from the use of multimedia and interactive tools to the adoption of a notion of the visual interface as an integral part of the storytelling effort.

Fourth, by voicing their opinions in forums, chat rooms, and publications housed within the new-media outlet, and hyperlinking these Web pages to other sites from personal Weblogs to the home pages of advocacy groups, users appear to shape what is seen as newsworthy, who gets to communicate about it, and how it gets covered.

This increase in the array of actors who shape the news in the online environment invites a shift in our understanding of the locus of news production.

In his research on the construction of art, Howard Becker ("Art Worlds," 1982) coined the expression "art world" to refer to "all the people whose activities are necessary to the production of the characteristic works which that world, and perhaps others as well, define as art."

Much as art is not only the product of artists, news in the online environment may not be (to paraphrase Gieber) "what newspaper people make it"; rather, it may be what emerges from "news worlds." The composition of a particular news world and the kinds of ties that bind the relevant groups of actors would vary from one setting to the other depending on what events are deemed newsworthy, who gets to report them, and using what communication means.

As with the case of art worlds, both newsness and worldness "are problematic, because the work that furnishes the starting point for the investigation may be produced in a variety of cooperating networks and under a variety of definitions" (Becker 1982).

Print newspapers' pursuit of nonprint delivery options has not been simply a technical change to the people involved, but a fundamental cultural transformation.

Thus, seeing the production of news in the online environment as emerging from complex and dynamic news worlds enables one to question strong a priori notions, mostly developed to make sense of print and broadcast media, of what counts as news and news makers.

This first transformation in the production processes brings us to the second one: the heightened importance that coordination practices across these multiple groups have in the construction of news.

Rather than arising mostly from exchanges between reporters and their sources, and negotiations between reporters and editors, the news online seems to be also significantly informed by the relationships among the other groups that increasingly populate the news world. This places a premium on the work that coordinates the tasks, goals, and values of the various groups that contribute to the production of news.

The increasing relevance of cross-boundary coordination also presents an analytical challenge to the traditional way of understanding news production, which has usually looked within the newsroom and studied the work relationships of members of the journalism occupation.

This book has shown the importance of resources that support the coordination of production activities across disparate groups, such as positions that bridge two otherwise disconnected work units, artifacts that are flexible enough to satisfy the informational needs of the various groups, and common linguistic tools that translate across the different meanings that groups attribute to means and ends of their joint action. Further research is needed to probe the value of these resources and elicit other resources utilized in other settings.

In relation to these transformations in the production process, there seem to be at least three potential effects in the content and form of news as it migrates to the online environment.

First, instead of being primarily journalist-centered, the news online appears increasingly to be also user-centered. Leon Sigal ("Reporters and Officials: The Organization and Politics of Newsmaking," 1973) wrote: "News is consensible: newspaper audiences, by their responses to news, actively shape its content. Yet the average reader has little impact on the consensual process."

In contrast, in the online environment, users have a much greater direct effect on the news, from a qualitative leap in the intensity of their exchanges with journalists via e-mail, to the presentation of their own views of journalist-authored stories on online papers' forums, to the publication of their own newsletter within the online paper.

A trend toward more user-centered online news could de facto deepen the "civic" or "public" journalism movement, which has sought a greater involvement of the citizenry in the editorial process and the publication of "all the news that citizens want to know" (Arthur Charity, "Doing Public Journalism,"  1995).

Furthermore, the growing influence of marketing and advertising personnel, usually sensitive to the preferences and needs of consumers, may also, directly or indirectly, add to a heightened user centeredness of news online. The aggregate effect may be an expansion in the news available to the users of a site, in terms of both events covered and perspectives adopted on any topic.

Second, instead of being fundamentally a monologue communicated unidirectionally and adding very few, if any, responses from readers in venues such as letters to the editor, the news online appears to increasingly include these unidirectional statements within a broader spectrum of ongoing conversations. That is, the online coverage of an event (especially, but not exclusively, a high-profile event) tends to elicit a wider spectrum of voices and the explicit and implicit exchanges among them.

This, in turn, opens the news to a higher degree of contestation, expressed either by direct conflict of opinions or indirect multiplicity of views, than the typical case of traditional media.

The news as conversation may be partly due to journalists' increased awareness of their audience's viewpoints. It may also be partly the result of the growing authorship of new media content by members of the public, housed both within traditional news sources such as online papers and nontraditional ones such as personal Weblogs.

Whether or not some of this conversational content is considered "news" by currently working journalists, my research provides enough grounds to suggest that it may be becoming increasingly newsworthy to the audience of new-media news.

The relevance assigned to e-mails from their audience by contributors of the New York Times Technology section, the exchanges between sailors and vicarious stowaways in HoustonChronicle.com's Virtual Voyager, and the nonprofit sites in New Jersey Online's Community Connection provide windows into the dynamics and value of the news as ongoing conversations.

Third, in addition to the local and national emphasis of most news reported in print and broadcast media, online news also appears to present a micro-local focus, featuring content of interest to small communities of users defined either by common interests or geographic location or both.

If innovations -- such as New Jersey Online's Community Connection -- are a good indication of the implications of this micro-local focus, the news online may also feature specialized and utility-based content that differs from the more generalist orientation of most mass media content.

In addition, at the geographic level, this micro-localization of the online news would expand the trend toward what is called "zoning," or the creation of specialized editions by area of distribution that many metropolitan dailies have implemented in response to the suburbanization of their readership since the 1970s. 

News of import to micro-local audiences, from high-school sports games to the activities of narrowly specialized nonprofit organizations, rarely get featured in traditional media, even in the pages of zoned editions of print dailies. In view of the economics of online communications and the increasing role of users in the dynamics of news worlds, micro-local content may gain prominence in online news as larger segments of the population have access to online technologies and become familiarized with a media culture of content coproduction.

To bring the book to an end, I would like to return to my first day of fieldwork in 1997. After almost two hours of talking about Virtual Voyager, newspapers, and the Web, David Galloway -- then content producer of Virtual Voyager -- said something to which I have been returning ever since: "In print journalism ... we wanted to go out and experience something and then come back and put it on a sheet of paper. We didn't notice the movement [or] hear the sound except in terms of something we could translate into a printed product.

"I think Virtual Voyager is making us open our eyes and ears to a form of journalism that we didn't need when we were print people."

There are two themes in Galloway's statement that get to the core of the accounts I have presented in this book.
First, print newspapers' pursuit of nonprint delivery options has not been simply a technical change to the people involved, but a fundamental cultural transformation.

This transformation has been expressed not only in terms of material culture, the information infrastructure that underpins the gathering, processing, and transmission of the news, but also in the editorial and work domains.

In Galloway's experience, making the news online has involved perception of new things or new interpretations of previously perceived things and communication of these perceptions and interpretations in a new fashion.

Echoes of this theme recur in many parts of this book, such as, for instance, when Sara Glines, who became editor of New Jersey Online after a two-decade career in print journalism, commented that user-authored content in online environments had begun to alter what "editorial" meant for her.

These transformations in material and communication culture have been tied to changes in the nature of work, such as challenges to the very identities of the occupations and organizations that constitute the newspaper industry.

To Galloway, an occupational identity alternative to print journalism has been enacted in relation to multimedia storytelling. Issues about the identities of newspaper organizations as they have ventured into nonprint territories also appear throughout this book such as, for example, when New York Times publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr., speaking at a Harvard University's Nieman Foundation Conference in 1995, reflected on the identity quandaries of his paper in its expansion from print to online.

The second theme raised by Galloway is making sense of this cultural transformation in relation to print: according to him, things were not the same "when we were print people."

I have wrestled throughout this book with this popular notion of the end of print in new-media spaces. My analysis has shown that American dailies have often tried to reproduce print's ways of doing things in their nonprint forays. But in doing this they have begun constructing a kind of newspaper that although it bears connections to its print predecessor, also differs qualitatively from it in its material infrastructure, editorial practices, and production routines.

Print has survived in the online environment, but, paradoxically, this survival has enabled the creation of a new medium increasingly dissimilar from the old one. At the time of writing this book, what will ultimately result from this process in which the pursuit of sameness has led to unintended novelty remains an open question. Which is why understanding its dynamics is so critical, both to capture a sense of contingency and indeterminacy that will be much more elusive when the dust settles and to try to influence its evolution in desired directions.

Pablo Boczkowski is Cecil and Ida Green Career Development Assistant Professor at MIT's Sloan School of Management. He studies "how the construction and use of new media technologies affect work practices, communication processes, and interaction with consumers, focusing on organizations and occupations that have traditionally been associated with print media." His book, "Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers," will be published by MIT Press in April.

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Read More
Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers
Case Studies
HoustonChronicle.com's Virtual Voyager
New Jersey Online's Community Connection
The New York Times on the Web's Technology section
Links
Actor-Network Theory
Art Worlds
Bruno Latour
Cultural constructs
Discovering the News
Doing Public Journalism
Houston Chronicle.com's Virtual Voyager: At Sea
HoustonChronicle.com
James W. Carey
Media Scholar Michael Schudson
MIT's Sloan School of Management
New Jersey Online
News over the Wires
Pablo Boczkowski
Reporters and Officials: The Organization and Politics of Newsmaking
Representation in Scientific Practice
The New York Times on the Web
The New York Times technology forum
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Pablo J. Boczkowski: "Print newspapers' pursuit of nonprint delivery options has not been simply a technical change to the people involved, but a fundamental cultural transformation."

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