When Online Journalists Contemplate Their New Medium
Mark Deuze (bio)
Department of Telecommunications
Online journalists are considered to be a distinct group of news media professionals, as their characteristics and activities are generally seen as determined by the technological framework of their workplace. In this paper a further step is taken: the views, perceptions and beliefs of the first generation (1995-1999) of Dutch online journalists are explored through a series of in-depth expert interviews, conducted in 1999, documenting their experiences using (and producing) this ‘new’ medium. What emerged was a professional group of news people at once optimistic and pessimistic about the role internet plays and will play in the future of journalism. The emerging consensus about new technologies and the newsroom is not particular to online journalists, but it is particular to the undetermined character of the new medium, internet. By revisiting these ‘old’ transcripts we are able to reconsider some of the key debates and assumptions on the ‘impact’ of new media on the professional praxis of journalism.
Utopia versus Dystopia: When Online Journalists Contemplate Their New Medium
Online journalists are a specific group of journalists. At least, that is the way they tend to think of themselves, and it seems to be the consensus among researchers interviewing and profiling them as a distinct group within the profession (Heinonen, 1999; Deuze & Dimoudi, 2002; Neuberger, 2002; Löffelholz, Quandt, Hanitzsch, & Altmeppen, 2003). As a distinct professional practice online journalism should be seen as journalism produced more or less exclusively for the World Wide Web. The online journalist has to make decisions on which media format or formats best tell a certain story (multimediality), has to consider options for the public to respond, interact, or even customize certain stories (interactivity), and thinks about ways to connect the story to other stories, archives, resources, and so on through hyperlinks (hypertextuality) (Deuze, 2003). In an overview of scholarly journal publications in the 1990s, Singer and Thiel (2002) identified more than one hundred articles on issues specifically related to online journalism. One can safely say the field of online journalism has achieved a separate status both in the profession and in academia, and furthermore, is considered to be important by the institutions of the field: schools, universities, research centers, professional organizations, and news media companies. In various countries this has led scholars to develop specific textbooks and handbooks to cover the field of online journalism (some examples are: Hall, 2001 and Ward, 2002 in the UK; Meier, 2002 in Germany; Jager & Van Twisk, 2001 in The Netherlands, De Wolk, 2001 and Stovall, 2003 in the US).
What seems to be missing from this emerging body of literature is an investigation of the first generation of online journalists themselves beyond who they are in terms of how they think. In other words: what are the views of online journalists and how do they give meaning to their work? If they are such a distinct group, what kind of ideas and perceptions do they use to define themselves and their professional practice? How do they distinguish their work from the things their colleagues in offline news media do? In order to answer these questions, I revisited a dataset (transcripts) of in-depth interviews, conducted in the second half of 1999, with the first generation of online editors in my country; The Netherlands (see also Deuze & Yeshua, 2001). In this paper I will let them speak as much as possible, after historically situating online journalists in The Netherlands at the end of the last century using statistical data from a 1998 web survey (Deuze & Dimoudi, 2002).
Journalism and internet
Studies which focus explicitly on online journalism and journalists suggest a combination of excitement and apprehension among journalists working for and within an online environment (Singer, 1997a and 1997b), less than clearly formulated approaches in terms of theory and operationalization on who in fact can be called an online journalist (Dahlgren, 1996; Singer, 1998), and finally several issues are raised concerning the perceived lack of institutional credibility of the journalist in an online environment where everyone is both producer and consumer of content (see for example Bardoel, 1996; Arant & Anderson, 2001; Deuze & Yeshua, 2001). Investigating newspaper journalists’ responses to new media technologies in their work, Singer (1997a and 1997b) identified three ‘archetypes’. The Benevolent Revolutionary, who was very enthusiastic about the new technology and found many opportunities in online media, especially chances for journalists to do their jobs better. The Nervous Traditionalist, being someone more likely to fear the new technology — either because he was burned out and saw new media as one more example that journalism isn't any good anymore, or because he mistrusts new media and believes journalists have to be mindful of the dangers it brings. And, thirdly, The Rational Realist was typified as a journalist with a neutral perspective because she or he didn't foresee a significant change in his journalistic role or product in the near future as a result of online media. In a replication of Singer’s work in The Netherlands, Schimmel (2001) found that Dutch newspaper journalists share similar notions regarding internet, although the rational realist – Harper (1998) calls this type of reporter a ‘serene separatist’ – came out as the dominant type in the newsroom.
The field of online journalism studies can be characterized – according to scholars like Singer and Thiel (2002), Kopper, Kolthoff, and Czepek (2000), and Kawamoto (1998) – as having a research agenda largely dominated by existing methods, models, theories, and paradigms. Research tends to look at internet in terms of the classical tripod of communication studies, examining how the production, content, and consumption of media messages evolve online. Such approaches inspired Pavlik and Ross (2000) to discuss the impact of new media on news and society in terms of four distinct ‘implications’: (1) how it affects news content, (2) how it affects newsroom and media industry structures, (3) how it affects the way journalists do their work, and (4) how it affects relationships between stakeholders in the news: media companies, journalists, publics, competitors, advertisers, sources, and so on. Effect-driven perspectives dominate practitioner’s agendas and are present in quite a few scholarly works, as for example Kling (1996), Slevin (2000), Silver (2002), and Agre (2002) effectively summarize. This means that, at the moment, we still predominantly understand and analyze the role of internet in society and journalism in terms of the role news media have traditionally played in society, and thus we look at the consequences of internet on journalism and journalistic practice. Even though I am critical of this approach – as it excludes the evidence that ‘journalism’ is an increasingly contested terrain, whereas new media such as internet have functioned to open up the field for user intervention and media democratization – I want to carry this perspective through for the purposes of the project at hand as it takes the (self-) perceptions of working professionals in the mainstream online news media as a point of departure. Kling (1996) summarizes in this context two dominant trains of thought in the discourse on computerization and society: a utopian versus anti-utopian outlook. Generally studies are framed or empirical data is analyzed in terms of whether internet is good or bad for society. Agre (2002: 317) talks in this respect of a reinforcement model of study, where researchers take up normative positions by asking whether internet corrects a certain problem or not. Agre offers another perspective: an amplification model, which suggests internet does not change anything on its own but rather amplifies or accelerates existing trends and changes large and small – so one should seek to describe those changes (both quantitatively and qualitatively), and only then move on to consider the consequences thereof. Indeed, online journalism studies should continuously question the extent to which journalism, internet, and society interact and how these interactions can be considered to be consequential for the journalism profession as a whole. For the study at hand this means that in my analysis of survey data (as explored in earlier publications) and in-depth interviews, I have tried to look for patterns of results and speech which shed light both on the particular – that which is specific about online journalists – and on the general – that which can be attributed to journalism as a whole. The latter may lead to further insight into how ‘journalism’ as a profession is opening up to critical interventions online (for example: weblogs, Indymedia), and offline (such as the so-called ‘alternative’ press).
Online Journalists in The Netherlands
Online journalists can be operationally defined as those media professionals who are directly responsible for the Internet content of news ventures (be it existing print or broadcast media or be it independent online ventures). In The Netherlands a web survey was established in 1998 among journalists working for the first generation of online news media, as Dutch news sites started in 1995 but only emerged in full during 1998 (Deuze & Dimoudi, 2002). These news websites could be either ‘online-only’ (stand-alone, ‘Net-native’) or related to an existing (mainstream, corporate) print or broadcast. At the time, a total of 67 news media with Websites were indexed, which represented the majority of mainstream national and local newspapers, national broadcast organizations, and online companies (such as Internet Service Providers, ISPs) offering independent news services. Through a round of phone calls to all online services, it was established that the total number of online journalists in The Netherlands at the time of the survey was 155 – out of roughly 15,000 professional journalists in The Netherlands (based on estimations of the Dutch association for journalists, the NVJ). The demographics of the participating online journalists showed that most respondents were males within the 26 to 35 years of age range. Only journalists working for the Websites of Dutch broadcasters are both younger and more equally balanced in terms of gender representation. The respondents were highly educated (54 percent holding professional degrees, 37 percent academic degrees), with younger journalists more likely to have a higher education than their older colleagues.
In terms of work, half of the respondents were employed by newspaper organizations, with 20 percent working for broadcast media and 27 percent for ‘online only’ services. More than half of the journalists mentioned working exclusively for the online medium; the rest divided their time between a parent medium and an online edition – which shifting to and from particularly happens in print media. For roughly one-third of respondents, this was their first job as a journalist but these are not the youngest journalists: 71 percent within the age group of 16-25 years already had two or more employers as a journalist. This suggests high job mobility within this new profession. On average, a Dutch online news desk consisted of four editors. The organization of labor showed a picture of an isolated, relatively autonomous group of people. The online departments of broadcasters operate as a separate branch of the main organization, whereas newspapers tend to integrate internet desks within the regular newsroom(s). Most online journalists claimed to produce up to a maximum of 50 percent original content. More than 90 percent of respondents agreed wholeheartedly with the statement: “The development of additional technological skills is a necessary precondition for the online journalist”. Concluding the Web survey, the 78% of the participating online journalists indicated that online journalism is developing next to print and broadcast journalism as a new and distinct professional type of journalism. These findings show a first generation of online news professionals with an emerging self-awareness and a more or less distinct organization of labor. The findings do not significantly differ from similar studies among online journalists in other countries such as Belgium, Germany, and the United States (Deuze, Neuberger & Paulussen, 2004; Löffelholz, Weaver, Quandt, Hanitzsch, & Altmeppen, 2004).
Extensive in-depth interviews were held with (14) experts in the field of online reporting in which transcripts were coded and analyzed loosely following the grounded theory method as put forward by Strauss and Corbin (1990) with an additional thematic analysis of recurring interpretative repertoires based on the work of Potter and Wetherell (1987). Using this approach, I explored a bandwidth of relationships between issues related to internet and online reporting on the one hand and professional journalism on the other. The relationships that can be found in (transcripts of) interviews are conceptualized here as the different and sometimes inconsistent ways in which journalists give meaning to their work, thereby constantly negotiating their professional identity with elements of structure (cf. the context in which they work, the journalistic field) and subjectivity (cf. what they bring to the job). By opting for interviews with experts, I consider that what these reporters and editors say effectively constitutes the wide variety of meanings they bring to the phenomena under investigation.
During the summer of 1999, editors-in-chief of the main online news operations in The Netherlands were determined as the leading experts in the field and invited to participate with the project. The interviews were semi-structured and open-ended and were conducted and transcribed by two graduate students and the author. First, the editors of the online editions of the five Dutch national daily mainstream newspapers were contacted: Algemeen Dagblad, De Telegraaf, Trouw, Volkskrant and the NRC Handelsblad. Secondly, the online editors of the two public broadcast organizations with specific online news departments were selected: the VPRO and the NOS. As a third step we invited the two main Dutch ISPs that featured an independent news service on their Websites at the time to participate: Worldonline and Planet Internet. All of the editors agreed to do an interview, and they suggested several other journalists to be invited as experts as well, resulting in fourteen expert interviews. On several occasions, the interviewees would remark that the issues at hand are just not part of the daily reality of working as an online journalist in The Netherlands (yet), especially more advanced types of online journalism – producing multimedia content for example – and discussions on changing ethics of newsgathering practices on internet would generate such responses. This led me to reconsider coining the various ways in which the informants talk about their work and experiences as distinctive repertoires but instead opt for a categorization of more or less developed general attitudes. A repertoire presupposes the existence of a somewhat developed and ‘lived’ belief system regarding a certain issue or situation. The relatively short history of online journalism (in The Netherlands and elsewhere) does not provide enough grounds to make such an assumption acceptable for the study at hand. This does not mean one cannot apply the concept of interpretative repertoires as a method for transcript analysis; it means one has to interpret the different attitudes as emergent, as potential building blocks of a developing mindset regarding the (impact of) internet on journalism.
As a general remark, made by almost all participants, one should mention the fact that these journalists made it very clear that they were new at the game, which several website editors would painstakingly explain.
"What we are doing, is taking it step-by-step. It is without question that you cannot give away scoops on the website – that would mean that everyone has got them. Then you have to choose for the newspaper readers. On the other hand, sometimes you cannot wait for stories to appear in print before putting them online. So between those two extremes – exclusive scoops and breaking news – there are a lot of possibilities, and that is what we are investigating […] it means trying, collecting, communicating and once you have made a decision, putting it down on paper […] But it primarily means talking talking talking, and making sure your back is covered by the editor-in-chief."
This participant explains the daily business on the online workfloor as an ongoing process of negotiation between internet ideals (speed, immediacy), business interests (getting the scoop before the competition), and as of yet rather undetermined principles of online newswork (cf. Poster, 1999). He also describes the complex framework of this process, as it is located somewhere in between the print and online newsrooms. In short, one could argue that what the technology of the networked computer environment makes possible poses conflicts and complexities for what journalists can do and in what kind of organization of newswork these technologies and competences are embedded.
The first coding process of the transcripts resulted in eight more or less distinct topical categories:  editorial autonomy,  e-commerce,  ethics,  regulation,  translation of old journalistic standards to new online standards of newsgathering and reporting,  speed,  trust (and related issues such as legitimacy, credibility, trustworthiness of journalists vis-à-vis their audiences online), and  finding your own way online. The online journalists were furthermore found to apply statements from three coherent attitudes towards the impact of the Internet on their work and professional identity: a pragmatic, pessimistic, and optimistic attitude. Following the general remarks the informants made, it was found that several topical categories (most notably the editorial-advertising division online, its relationship with journalism ethics, and the development of ‘new’ standards) tend to overlap to some extent. Yet I decided to maintain such overlapping categories as distinct sets of statements, considering the fact that the topics and attitudes derived from these transcripts should be seen as emergent, meaning that what interviewees talk about can be seen as underdeveloped accounts of the issues online journalists are facing. In other words, I did not want to feel like the arrogant scholar organizing meaning for the participants in my study – well, at least not too much.
Category I: Editorial Autonomy
The vast majority (95%) of online journalists participating in the Web survey reported feeling autonomous in their work (Deuze & Dimoudi, 2002). In the in-depth interviews, informants indicated this predominantly means the online newsroom has its own editor-in-chief, who can make independent decisions on what kind of content to publish on the Web. What this additionally means in terms of daily practices is furthermore reflected in the various ways the experts talk about editorial autonomy in our interviews – as one editor explains:
"As editorial department which have been able to more or less work on our own until now. This mainly has to do with the fact that the Website is not the core business of our company. So we have never really been bothered by anyone." [print]
On the other hand, this business-like approach can equally impair autonomy, or so it seems:
"We cannot really function as a distinct medium, this has to do with our organizational dependency on our parent medium – and with the fact that we are not able to fully exploit all options the Internet has to offer, to communicate with the audience. It is of course my personal opinion, but I think there is a great potential to do other things than what we are doing now." [print]
Autonomy does not necessarily mean producing one's own stories – nor does it mean deciding which sources to include or exclude. It has to do with making decisions about what has been called 'tertiary content': deciding which of the material the offline medium produces to shovel or repurpose onto the site (Friedrichsen, Ehe, Janneck, & Wysterski, 1999).
Category II: E-commerce
Several authors have expressed concerns that the already blurring distinction between editorial and commercial content in offline journalisms is vanishing online. The journalists working for ISPs addressed this topic in particular. Instead of consistently signaling increased commercialism as a potential threat to journalism online, the participants clearly differentiated the issue between opportunity and danger. A Net-native news operation is inherently in conflict with the commercial interests of the ISP, as one editor explains:
"In the past there have been several instances where people in marketing got involved with the editorial policy regarding our homepage. This resulted in an agreement: our homepage serves both our commercial business of providing access, as well as offering a platform for editorial content. But in the practice of daily work it is not a problem […] we have never taken advertiser interests into account." [ISP]
At the newspapers a website is not part of the company's core business, which context gives (e-)commerce a different meaning, allowing the journalist to think of the commercial possibilities when writing a story online:
"It is a problem for sites and advertisers alike: how to attract people? I am not an advertiser so it is not really my problem but I know that there are several attempts to offer something interesting […] like for example a 'top 10' of books where editorial reviews are coupled with hyperlinks to places within our site where you can buy the book […] to me this is like providing a service. You do not have to leave the site, we keep the people inside." [print]
Some participants take these issues even further but distinguish between how the website develops and what role they see for themselves. In this respect, one might add that editorial autonomy, the editorial-advertising divide, and newsroom standards are all part of the way online journalists discuss e-commerce.
Category III: 'New' Ethics
As an additional example of how editorial autonomy relates to commercialism online, one online broadcast editor describes news sites around existing television shows as: "it is a bit like advertising maybe, but we do our own little thing." This suggests somewhat of a conflict between the ethics of other journalisms – in which ideology commercialism can be seen as a severe threat to 'real' journalism (see for example McManus, 1994; Hallin, 1996). Elsewhere we have identified a number of ethical dilemmas for online journalists which can be seen as specific to the online working environment, several of which have been mentioned already: commercial pressures, the use of hyperlinks, verifying information online, using (anonymous) electronic sources, privacy, absence of any kind of regulation, and electronic news gathering methods (Deuze & Yeshua, 2001). The interviews show that ethical dilemmas for journalists online present themselves in two ways: one as these pertain to specific internet-related features of the website (interactive options, hyperlinks), the other as more general dilemmas related to the credibility of journalists online and to discussions about codes, statutes, or other kinds of regulatory arrangements in the online newsroom.
Regarding interactivity, interviewees would express concerns regarding, for example, allowing the server to respond to user's previous behavior on the website through the use of so-called 'cookies' (little bits of text stored on the user's computer each time he or she visits a particular site, containing information on what that user did on that site):
"The profile of your subscribers is the capital of your newspaper. It's the power you have in relation to the advertiser: 'this is exactly the target group you want to reach.' Dutch people are very careful to protect their privacy, much more than Americans. One should always keep that in mind. But you cannot escape the fact that, when you try to do something new, you want to know you could reach your potential visitors.” [print]
The ethical dilemma in this particular case could be described as the urgency of developing a knowledge base regarding online activity and customers versus the tradition of protecting personal information and working completely independently of advertisers’ concerns. Adding hyperlinks to stories on the website also causes some dilemmas, as several participants explain through specific examples:
"You cannot just put a link somewhere on a page. It is located somewhere in your text and from that text it should be clear what this link is all about. If you for example link in your text to sites offering 'for' and 'against' stances in certain issues, or these are for example the opponents – like in cases such as the Kurds in Turkey or the Palestinians in Israel – then it would be relevant to include links. But is has to be related to your message. Because it is part of your editorial responsibility to guide people elsewhere on the Internet." [print]
Category IV: Regulation
Autonomy, e-commerce, and ethical dilemmas are all also discussed by the participants in terms of regulatory instruments. Dutch media have a tradition – as many European news media and, to a lesser extent, Anglo-Saxon media – of putting editorial guidelines regarding policies towards minorities, relationship with advertisers, and ways of dealing with corrections in a formal code or mission statement. Such statements, or 'statuten' as they are called, were non-existent in the Dutch online newsrooms of 1999, even though some mentioned initiatives in this regard. Most of the journalists consider it absolutely necessary to have separate editorial statutes. Such statutes should provide information regarding ethical accountability and the protection of editorial independence, participants would say. The literature suggests that a specific issue regarding regulations or ethical codes on the Internet is the difficulty of standardizing and implementing values in a constantly changing technological environment with no central control point (Cooper, 1998: 73). This issue has been indicated in the interviews as well:
"Online journalism sometimes has a bad reputation, it is something different. It uses facts much more easily, attributing truth to events long before they have been verified or checked properly […] you do not put every story you hear about on the Web, but it can be done, so it happens. You can come up with a professional code of conduct, but the risk that people will not follow it, is quite big. How do you address those people?" [broadcast]
Participants would therefore say that, because of the 'nature' of internet, some kind of self-regulation would be preferred instead of a new set of rules and regulations. But this is definitely an issue under debate.
Category V: 'Old' to 'New' Standards
Journalists' work online is partly the same 'good old' journalism as it can be seen elsewhere, but the daily practice also differs to some extent. Certain skills and standards have different meanings and applications online (Deuze, 1999). Participants were found to be particularly struggling with the transition of established standards to these supposedly new elements of the online work experience.
"I guess I am still a newspaper man. Yes, I am not so fond of… I am not an IT [Information Technology, MD] specialist. I know a lot of things about the technology behind the Internet, because right now I have to have knowledge to build this website, but first and foremost I am a journalist […] can’t it be both? I mean, it is a new medium, like radio or TV, but the Internet is a medium which combines all previous media and this has been a discussion we have had in this building […] We decided not to use multimedia, we are not used to these technologies and we do not have the organization or the money to make those movies or audio clips on the website." [print]
This particular journalist clearly distinguishes the new media technological experience from his role as a journalist. His colleagues at the broadcasting side of the online operations in The Netherlands share similar problems addressing the new standards:
"I definitely think that it is a new kind of journalism that is very different from magazine or newspaper or TV or radio journalism, because on the Internet you can integrate all these things, you know, you edit audio, you edit video sometimes, you make pictures and of course you write… it is about finding the best way to make your point, so if you need audio, you use audio, if you do not need it, you do not use it… and… it is pretty hard to explain this actually." [broadcast]
Category VI: Speed
Central to the understanding of many dilemmas of professionals working on or with the Internet is the concept of speed. Internet is a ‘hasty’ medium with a minute-to-minute, 24/7 deadline. It can be considered difficult to perform a checks and balances procedure under constant time pressure (Arant & Anderson, 2001). Speed and immediacy are critical to success online and this affects journalists’ daily work practices. When talking about speed, the informants reiterated statements regarding ethical guidelines as ‘work in progress’.
"The Internet is a rapid medium and we use the Internet for 99% of our sources. Anything our journalists read on a website can be published. We do not really have a verification procedure – we just mention our source. I guess you could say we opt more for speed than for checking and verifying the stories of our sources." [ISP]
A colleague at a newspaper website disagrees with the emphasis put on speed and reveals a different, more critical way of dealing with immediacy:
"I do not have this urge to get the news 'out there' as soon as possible. I think it has to do with what your goal is, of course you can publish the news as fast as possible on the website, but if you have an audience that looks at the website just once a week it does not matter if you get the news one hour later." [print]
An interesting aspect of the ways in which online editors talk about speed and their work is the attempts they make to explain their views of internet by association with what they know about other journalisms (like quite a few scholars do):
"We are a medium that goes on the entire day, we have no deadlines and the interaction with the audience is most important, so we have faster and shorter stories, I mean we do not have such longer stories. Sometimes the news is not more than just a headline, it is much more like radio journalism than print journalism. That interaction and that 24-hours rhythm, that has much more to do with radio." [ISP]
Category VII: Trust
A recurring, though not very popular (as follow-up questions often remained unanswered) point made by the participants is their role perception as trustworthy gatherers and disseminators of news and information online. This particularly relates to the notion of working fast:
"You should write the story as fast as possible but you should also make it correct and trustworthy, well-written and double checked […] and maybe you will not be the first to publish that story, but if you publish five minutes later than the others, but offer a better written and more reliable story, the audience will know that your website is better than the others." [print]
This notion of trust, of being reliable, coincides for the participants with working for an established brand, which in the literature is referred to as institutional credibility (Bardoel, 1996):
"Journalists who do not work for a news brand do not have the image or the trustworthiness of existing media, and things can change but I do not think that one individual editor can compete with existing publishers online. So I do not think that this development within the next couple of years will have much implications for us, professional journalists." [print]
Most of the interviewees more or less agree with such propositions; few online journalists seem to feel that the suggested blurring of the information producer-consumer distinction may have an effect on the trustworthiness of their medium when it goes online.
Category VIII: Finding Own Way
What the discussion of all topics mentioned clearly reveals, is that all editors and journalists at the time were still very much exploring, experimenting and finding their own way online. The two sides to the issue of autonomy (organizational dependency versus being left alone, see category I) are a specific context for online journalists to discuss the still ongoing process of finding their way as an online newsroom.
"Because you have all these media – radio, TV, print – together, there should not be a separate digital journalist department to make content especially for the Internet, because you should start with the content and then just see what medium is best to put out the content. So we are asking ourselves at the moment where should we go..." [broadcast]
One editor stated that using more direct interactivity could be seen as the second or next phase in online journalism. In fact most online journalists mentioned adding interactive options as a near-future goal for their news site:
"The main characteristic online is the Internet as a network, so ideally you would use that network and have people interact, like user input or something, that is what I would really like to have. So that people who log onto our website don't just receive information but can actively add-on to the information, but it is often very hard to realize that." [broadcast]
The way the participants discussed these eight topics in their work can be seen as a reflection of the fact that many of them just started recently with a news site, as well as an emerging appreciation of the unique characteristics the medium has or may have for journalism. All of the topics were discussed in several ways – ways that are sometimes even contradictory, and more often overlap. The repertoire analysis aims to show the full range of ways into the discussion. As mentioned above, this revealed three distinct attitudes rather than repertoires the participants applied to the discussion of the topics: an optimistic (or: utopian), pessimistic (or: dystopian), and a pragmatic attitude. All interviewees used these attitudes. An optimistic set of propositions – as in foreseeing a future of online (and offline) journalism where everything will be better – was often implicitly assumed, but then tackled by quickly introducing pragmatic arguments (as in: "… if only we would have the money to get there"). It was fun to brainstorm, though.
Issues regarding editorial autonomy, dealing with (e-)commerce and new professional dilemmas, are commonly addressed more or less simultaneously by the participating online journalists. When discussing these issues in the context of professional competences, remarks were made about how internet potentially impacts upon journalistic standards – and sets new ones.
"I've got the feeling that we are not using the website the way we should use it […] Yes, it is of course my personal opinion, but I think there is a great potential to do other things than what we are doing now. But I see this happening in the future, the more technology and new business models develop, we will have a new medium, which will probably create its own audience." [broadcast]
Most participants share this rather utopian vision on the possible future of online journalism, although it means different things to them. For the 'online only'-journalists it seems to mean options to further explore newsgathering and fact-finding online, while the broadcast journalists envision more interactivity with users/viewers, and the newspaper journalists mention adding and maintaining multimedia and (annotated) archival content to their site. What seems to be of particular relevance for a vision on journalism and internet as promising a better world is the discussion about new business models for news sites:
"Nowadays everyone knows what is going on in China but no one knows what is going on around the corner. So the news that you actually dig out yourself, in your own country, your own city or regional newspaper, will become more of an asset to your title. And that will change the nature of how an editorial organization works, is organized, how its hierarchy is shaped. I think in the future it will become more and more important to produce original content, content that is not offered by anyone else. That is the only thing you can sell for money on the Internet, I mean there is no way that you can get people to pay to get access to information that they can get for free somewhere else." [print]
It is important to note here the implicit and somewhat technical notion the participants seem to share about the promise of multimedia journalism in the future, as the convergence of media modalities will most likely facilitate better storytelling:
"We want people who are experienced or think they are experienced, to make a shift through all this material and make a selection of audio, video, pictures and text, put it all together and make it coherent, stronger." [ISP]
This Dutch optimism – however unarticulated – coincides with the American type of the benevolent revolutionary, found in Singer’s work (1997a). Like Singer concludes, the keyword in this repertoire is we: ‘we the journalists’ are key players in the new media world, journalism can only become better by using new technologies, ‘we’ just need the time, money, experience, and infrastructure – and then it will be inevitable that things will improve and innovate across the board.
If the participants are sometimes rather implicit about the brave new world internet might offer to journalism, they are quite vocal in their doubts, disbeliefs, and outright skepticism about some of the Internet's features.
"Why did I leave a newspaper website? Because I got a better offer, I knew that what I was doing in the newspaper was not… there would not be a great future in it. The offer I got to work with a broadcasting company implied that I could work on the Internet with moving pictures, with sound and not only with text, which is what would happen if I stayed with the newspaper." [broadcast]
A pessimistic view also relates to the use of the Internet by offline colleagues, who are generally considered to be ignorant and unaware of what the Internet “really can do” for journalism. Yet internet can also be seen as a threat to journalistic principles. This problem is signaled in different propositions, often related to the ethics of newsgathering online, but also more specifically connected with editorial storytelling:
"If you look at the Internet everything is different, because of the incredible pace it is much more difficult to judge if something is relevant to the public, and you are less capable to fully verify information. It happens often that we have to publish additional material or corrections to stories we put online. In short, the kind of stories will become a trend which we see now on CNN: this is the update so far, to be continued." [print]
The editors-in-chief we interviewed voiced such concerns in particular, seeing the future of news online as a potentially problematic place where the reader will not be able to distinguish 'good' from 'bad' content. The brightest future of online journalism for some would be adding much more interactivity to the news site – something that, from a pessimistic viewpoint, would be the end of 'real' journalism:
"This community thinking, yes, well, I have a double feeling about that. I don't give a damn, really. It does not interest me who reads the articles and what they have to say about that. I think journalism should be a supply side activity. We decide what is news and if you do not agree, well, buy another newspaper. We have our own set of values and ideas about how we should report about the world […] I don't give a damn what people think because it is our newspaper, not theirs […] Technically the Internet is more suited to develop a community like that. But it is not clear for me yet what the consequences of that will be for reporting. It is simply another task of a newspaper which I would hardly call journalism." [print]
Clearly this attitude reflects a much more skeptical approach to the wonders of the new media world. Singer (1997a) typified this attitude as nervous traditionalism: a journalist strictly emphasizing the basics of good journalism, refusing to let the enthusiasm of the new run away from the establishment of the old. On the other hand, this repertoire analysis adds a dimension to Singer’s type (which may have to do with the fact that our study was conducted five years later): this is also a journalist who is to some extent disillusioned with the kind of text-only shovelware being reproduced in most journalism online.
What characterizes the approach most, if not all, participants eventually take is pragmatism. Singer (1997a: 12-15) describes this attitude as a journalist considering him- or herself a rational realist, as they do not have anything for or against new technology, primarily because the changes are not seen as having much to do with their work at all. This attitude can be seen as the use of similar propositions to explain daily practices in the workplace, without addressing changes internet brings as either threats or challenges:
"Our department sort of has an experimental way of dealing with the Internet and that is our goal to try and find out how to do this. And sometimes it does not work at all and sometimes it functions really well." [broadcast]
This attitude can be also explained – according to the journalists themselves – by a lack of professional knowledge and training in how to ‘do’ online journalism: “almost no educators in The Netherlands or out there are teaching specifically what skills online journalism needs." On the other hand, some participants make the pragmatic point that such skills are perhaps not that different online, as compared to offline media – and in doing so participants would again naturalize the existing way of doing journalism:
"For a reporter the Internet does not really make much difference, because the nature of reporting does not change. You still have to find good sources, you have to be able to check your facts, you have to be able to write a good story, find news or judge news or make news or whatever you call it." [print]
The survey among online journalists showed that many of these new media professionals are in fact older, experienced journalists coming from other offline departments. This is also reflected in the pragmatic repertoire, as one editor commented:
"I am not the prophet of the Internet. No, I am too old for that, leave that to the young boys and girls who have not been working half their life for a newspaper. Anyway, the Internet is still very young, I mean I am only beginning to understand my own daughter of 14." [print]
Journalists who share this attitude can also be seen as shifting to and from optimistic beliefs to pessimistic concerns about the future of journalism online. Instrumental in this shifting are concerns about ways for journalism online to make money, to develop a working business model, which may guarantee the development of features that seem to be promising (such as multimedia, services, interactivity for some). The pragmatics typically would not address this issue in great detail, as one journalist would shrug and say: "We are just not ready for this discussion yet."
Even though online journalism was only around for approximately four years at the time of this study, it is possible to see a more or less distinct professional group and self-awareness emerging – similar to what Dahlgren (1996) has called online media logic. The analysis of the attitudes online journalists share in the discussions about a wide range of topics regarding journalism and internet shows a professional group of people trying to get to grips with the changes and challenges of the wired workplace. These online professionals apply preconceived notions of what is considered to be 'real' journalism or 'the' core journalistic principles to the practices and concepts they are faced with – and find that these notions are under pressure. This seems to inspire them to either look forward to the new options internet has to offer or to be quite skeptical of the potential threat internet poses to the traditional role of the journalist as autonomous storyteller. At the same time these online journalists seem to be rather pragmatic about it all, as their news sites are moving from a shovelware-based operation to functioning as a new platform for (the exchange of) content, perhaps even multimedia content. There seems to be no consensus among the participating experts on whether this will make for a 'better' or 'worse' kind of journalism – but it will further shape a distinctly different journalism, so much the interviewees agree upon. In this sense one could consider the attitudes (rather than repertoires) of these online journalists instrumental for them to distinguish themselves as a separate professional group in the Dutch media system.
In the beginning of this paper, I have argued that scholars of online journalism should question the extent to which journalism and new technologies such as internet interact and how these interactions can be considered to be consequential for journalism as a profession. Citing Kling (1996) and Agre (2002), I warned against a falsely dichotomous way of studying computerization and digitalization of society. Although conceptually I would like to maintain that position, it is inevitable from the study at hand that online journalists themselves are very much caught in the grip of technologically deterministic and replacement-type arguments, while their attitudes towards internet show that generally they seem to be torn between utopian and dystopian views on their profession. Online journalists legitimize the distinct character of their work and identity as a subgroup within the profession of journalism by claiming that the technological enabler of this identity – internet – either makes things better or worse. They seem to solve this almost schizophrenic dilemma by making things up as they go along, largely ignoring the implicit routinization of all aspects of newswork that journalists bring to their job (see Tuchman, 1978 for a classic reference). As scholars, we can bring a more complex vocabulary to this, as well as to the handbooks, textbooks, and studies we are writing about the emerging profession of online journalism. Online journalism ultimately is not about the technology, but about the reconfiguration of journalists and their publics – which is something the first generation of online journalists realized, but also had difficulty with – and understandably so.
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i. The author would like to thank and compliment Christina Dimoudi (thesis: 1999) and Daphna Yeshua (thesis: 2000) for their hard work on conducting and transcribing the interviews.
ii. At the time of this study all Dutch journalism schools were experimenting with online journalism. In recent years (up to 2004) several educators have embraced the new medium but also had to scale back because students were never very enthusiastic about it (which situation was amplified by the fact that most educators also do not seem to see much value in online journalism classes; see Deuze et al, 2004 for details).