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date: 29 May 2017

Journalism on the Web

Summary and Keywords

In the early 21st century, almost everyone takes journalism on the web for granted. However, it was not many years ago that journalism moved online and a distinct form of journalism began to develop. Ranging from online doubles of the paper editions to publications exclusively produced for the web, the evolvement of web journalism has entailed both dramatic and not-so-dramatic changes in the way that journalistic products are produced, disseminated, and received. Online journalism has usually been demarcated from traditional journalism by four traits: interactivity, immediacy, hypertextuality, and multimodality. These characteristics are generally identified by scholars as points where journalism on the web brings added value in comparison to the old print newspapers. Interactivity involves various aspects of user activity and participation in the processes of consuming, contributing to, and disseminating news afforded by the web. Immediacy refers to the nature and consequences of the faster pace of publication in web news. Hypertextuality has to do with the possibilities of linking journalistic texts to other texts, which makes the text more transparent and open. Multimodality denotes the telling of news with the use of many different modes at the same time. When studying research about these aspects of web journalism, three general observations can be made. First, researchers have approached these characteristics unevenly in terms of scope and interest. The interactive aspects of web journalism are by far the most investigated. Second, the four characteristics have been studied through the lenses of different theoretical frameworks. Third, empirical research shows that change in journalism is slow and not always as radical as many predicted when journalism on the web was in its infancy.

Keywords: web journalism, news, journalism, immediacy, interactivity, multimodality, hypertextuality, participation


In November 1994, the Daily Telegraph launched Britain’s first web newspaper—then known as the Electronic Telegraph. Since then, virtually every major or minor newspaper has taken the same road. Industry and researchers alike have predicted that journalism and the news business will be much changed by this move (Heinonen, 1999). Web journalism has usually been distinguished from traditional journalism by four traits—interactivity, immediacy, hypertextuality, and multimodality (Deuze, 2003; Massey & Levy, 1999). These traits are each by themselves and put together potentially disruptive to journalistic norms and practices and have made an impact on production, distribution, and consumption of journalistic material. Online possibilities for interactivity are seen as something that can bridge the producer–consumer boundary. Consequently, they can also challenge the status of professional journalists while empowering regular users. Tougher demands for immediacy invite concerns about the risk for journalism characterized by less reflection, less verification, and more superficiality. Hypertextuality, on the other hand, is considered to open up journalism to the outside world, offer a richer narrative, and increase credibility. Finally, multimodality implies a move from predominantly textual journalism towards visually and/or aurally oriented journalism or journalism with completely new modes of storytelling, which requires more flexibility and multi-competence on the part of individual journalists.

Of necessity, this text is limited to describing research on web journalism undertaken by or, as in the case of citizen journalism, in contrast to legacy news media. This has both a practical reason, as any text must focus, and a historical one, seeing that the bulk of research has, since the beginning, studied these news outlets in general and newspapers in particular (see, for instance, the seminal work of Boczkowski, 2004; Massey & Levy, 1999; Schultz, 1999). Since the inception of web journalism, much has happened in terms of the digitalization of journalism as a whole and the status and role of news media in society. Web journalism provides a unique outlook with its short- to medium-term historical perspective on how new technology is appropriated by industry, society, and researchers. In that sense, it may even provide a sort of blueprint for more general and novel observations of the technology-journalism relation as this (once) new form of journalism is becoming the new “old journalism” in view of the mix of third-party intermediaries, robot journalists, aggregators, curators, and algorithms.

Following Deuze (2003) and Massey and Levy (1999), a working definition for web journalism may be employed: web journalism is a journalism marked by interactivity, immediacy, hypertextuality, and multimodality produced for, distributed by, and consumed in a graphical web browser (such as Firefox, Safari, or Internet Explorer). Departing from these four characteristics, implies a constraint as they all explicitly relate to how and in what form content is published, produced, and distributed at a micro-level. While any limitation will hamper the analysis, it is necessary to keep the discussion focused on a few key areas. Thus, the discussion will not go into depth about issues regarding, for instance, how the media industry is reorganized, how different business models work, or how the public sphere is affected. These issues are indeed relevant in relation to the digitalization of journalism in general but lie beyond the scope of this article.

Journalism research has not treated the different characteristics of web journalism equally in terms of attention, theoretical framework, or empirical studies. Consequently, there will be slightly different focus in and between the four different sections. However, all sections highlight the key theoretical debate within each area and are illustrated by empirical studies.

Interactivity and Journalism

One of the most fascinating things that happened when journalism migrated to the web environment is that readers/users/consumers found themselves no longer limited to merely reading/watching or listening to journalistic material. With web journalism, a range of new options of interactivity arrived such as the possibility of leaving comments and discussing articles with other readers as well as sharing them through social media. Also, through social media and alternative publication platforms, anyone can now fairly easily publish journalistic or quasi-journalistic material. This has opened up an arena of interactivity that involves not only the traditional media houses and their audiences, but a range of other channels of publication and the networks in which their content circulates. Without competition, the interactive aspects of web journalism are the most researched.

Before proceeding, it is important to point out that it is far from new for others besides professional journalists to contribute content to journalistic publications. Although the possibilities for this have increased greatly since the advent of the web and social media, contribution of content from the public has been a constant feature since the dawn of journalism (Conboy, 2004; Harrison & Barthel, 2009). In the age of one-to-many media, however, both space and opportunities for ordinary people to participate were limited compared to the interactive opportunities of early-21st-century journalism on the web.

Interactivity and Participation

A clear trend in research is that focus has been directed to the central question of how the ability of users to actively participate in the production and dissemination of news and opinions can stimulate citizens’ participation in public debate (Deuze, Bruns, & Neuberger, 2007; Jenkins, 2008; Paulussen & Ugille, 2008; Rebillard & Touboul, 2010). Research has largely been characterized by an interest in what this means from a democratic perspective—especially how improved possibilities for participation in newsmaking and opinion formation can translate into political participation and civic engagement (Deuze et al., 2007; Harcup, 2011, 2015). For democracy to work and gain legitimacy it is required that society is characterized by active civic involvement in major social issues, at least in those models of democracy that Dahlgren (2015) calls “republican” (p. 18). The lack of active participation (especially among the young) has often been identified as a major problem in many western democracies (Norris, 2011). Traditional journalism, through its ability to “drop the same thought into a thousand minds” (Tocqueville, 1945, p. 119) is typically described as a cornerstone of the public sphere, the Agora. But it has the limitation of only being able of inviting passive consumption by spectators rather than the active participation of citizens (Meadows, 2013). Against this background, scholars have argued that democratic society would benefit from an extension of the public horizon in which more voices than professional journalists and their usual elite sources may be heard in the debate (Bruns, 2008; Gillmor, 2004). Alternative and more interactive forms of journalism may “challenge the passive role of audience members as receivers and to foster active citizenship among alternative journalists and audiences” (Harcup, 2015, p. 1). Bruns points to the “potential of a reinvigoration of discussion, debate, and deliberation on political matters, beyond the polarized and polarizing coverage of mainstream news media” (Bruns, 2008, p. 248). If the hope for a democratic boost has been the main guiding principle, the research about web journalism and interactivity has focused on various questions related to this.

Different Types of Interactivity

There have been many attempts of distinguishing between different types of interactivity. Thurman’s (2015) threefold division is representative of an established view on what comprises interactivity in web journalism: First, navigational interactivity involves the way the content is presented to the user on the site. Such interactivity is universal to all websites in the shape of “Back to Top” buttons for example (Deuze, 2001). Second, conversational interactivity includes the possibilities for the user to interact with other users or the journalists/editors. Features of conversational interactivity allow users to interact with content in a participatory manner and enable processes of dialogue or deliberation. One example is the option of leaving a comment that will be visible in close connection to the news item and that other readers then can respond to. Theoretically, this form of interactivity has attracted most attention since it is directly linked to the possibilities of engagement and participation. The third is called adaptive interactivity, where a “set of technological features” are used to “adapt the content, delivery, and arrangement” to suit the tastes of the users (Thurman & Schifferes, 2012, p. 776). This has also been called “selective interactivity” (Masip & Suau, 2014) and refers to moments of interaction related to how the user gets in contact with the content on the newspaper site—through Rich Site Summary (RSS), by signing in, through links from newsletters, and so forth. Theoretically, it is interesting because it allows studies of how interactive features of web news facilitate increasing personalization of the news that reaches the user.

Quality of News, Journalistic Professionalism, and Gatecrashing

The following will focus on conversational and adaptive types of interactivity in relation to specific questions they have caused researchers to pose: When non-journalists participate in the interactive options on news sites, questions about how it will affect the quality of the news are inevitable (Singer, 2006). The quality of news is closely related to journalistic professionalism—which is also affected when nonprofessionals get a say in the conversation (Singer & Ashman, 2009). However, professionalism is a two-edged sword—it can serve as guarantor of quality and of ethical news work, but it can also serve as a conservatory force that habitually molds news in predictable ways and tends to include the same items on the agenda, while overlooking other subjects and sources. Therefore, interactivity in journalism can empower non-journalists and add new perspectives to the traditional journalistic worldview (Carpenter, 2010).

While initially hailed as having great promise for journalism both in terms of news quality and for the evolution of journalistic professionalism, interactivity has proven to be somewhat difficult for traditional journalists to embrace. Symptomatic of this is that many newspapers, after enthusiastically supporting the opportunity of dialogue with the reader, now have limited the ability to comment on articles (Karlsson, Bergström, Clerwall, & Fast, 2015a). When the threshold to publicity has been lowered through interactive opportunities in journalism, the possibility of circumventing the traditional gatekeepers of the journalistic institutions, “gatecrashing,” has opened new ways for non-journalists to introduce alternative themes and topics into public discourse (Bruns, 2008). However, a number of studies have demonstrated that journalists tend to be reluctant towards material submitted by the public (Deuze et al., 2007; Domingo et al., 2008; Karlsson, 2011a; Paulussen & Ugille, 2008; Singer, 2011; Thurman & Hermida, 2010). Major newspapers provide opportunities for interactivity in various forms, but not in a way that seriously challenges their own editorial control (Borger, Van Hoof, Costera Meijer, & Sanders, 2013). Although it is possible to upload videos or comment on articles, it is difficult to go beyond that. Journalists cannot maintain a genuine dialogue with all readers and it is virtually impossible to allow them to gain control over how their contributions are edited and presented (Thurman, 2008). There is an internal conflict between the ideal of interactivity and professional journalistic principles (Lewis, 2012). Therefore, journalists and editors tend to uphold their gatekeeper role and maintain control over what is published and promote traditional journalistic assessments of what is and is not relevant news. Singer et al. concludes that the democratic ideal of more involvement from users in the creation of news is therefore often not realized (Singer, 2011; Borger et al., 2013). Where scientists hoped for a more inclusive public dialogue, traditional journalistic principles and practices rather seem to perpetuate the kind of logic that has governed journalism before (Lewis, 2012). At the same time there is a corresponding unwillingness from the public to engage in journalism beyond sharing links to articles, participating in polls, and writing comments (Bergström, 2008; Hindman, 2009; Holt & Karlsson, 2014; Rebillard & Touboul, 2010). The promising possibilities for participation and interactivity have not been embraced by the many on a scale (and certainly not in the truly engaged, balanced, and polite way) that many hoped for.

When it comes to the adaptive interactive qualities of web news, however, there is evidence in research for a couple of disrupting developments. First, adaptive interactivity not only lets individual users customize their daily dosage and channels of presentation of news via various options (such as using news aggregators, RSS, or clicking on links from friends in social media networks). The industry itself also seeks actively to tailor the content they offer based on algorithmic analyses of user behavior in order to make their content more relevant (Thurman & Schifferes, 2012). This means that the adaptive interactivity is mutual in the sense that both user and producer adapt to the moves made by the other. This could, according to some (for example Pariser, 2011; Sunstein, 2007), lead to increased individualization in the sense that people may tend to box themselves in enclaves where only content that reaffirms one’s own standpoints or deal with subjects of personal interest are consumed. Such a development would then counteract, rather than boost, a richer public debate. Second, the fact that much traffic to the newspapers’ websites comes from readers who have shared links to their social networks entails a significant redistribution of power over what reaches out to people and what does not. Singer believes that this situation, what Bruns (2008) calls “gatewatching,” has led to an expanded user role, in which readers have become “secondary gatekeepers” by choosing to share or not to share. By the comments that they add when sharing an article (positive/negative), they also frame the news that they share (Singer, 2014).

Web Journalism Beyond the Mainstream

Interactivity in journalism is not, however, limited to journalism in the traditional sense. If we look outside the traditional outlets for professional journalism, much of what people write on their blogs and in their social media networks can be characterized as “random acts of journalism” (Lasica, 2003) committed by nonprofessionals in a haphazard and unsystematic fashion. As such, we must also take them into account. If interactivity has not been wholeheartedly embraced by journalists or citizens in the context of traditional journalism, independent citizen journalism is entirely dependent on voluntary contributions, often from unpaid laymen. The tension between professional ideals and participation in newsmaking is less important in such alternative settings. Research suggests that while citizen journalism may be even more promising in terms of conversational interactivity than the interactive options on traditional news sites, the many and varied cases of citizen journalism that have been researched show signs of struggling to uphold systematic coverage of society in a way that contributes to the forming of an “informed citizenry” in the way that is expected of professional/traditional journalism (Kaufhold, Valenzuela, & De Zúñiga, 2010).

The nature of citizen journalism outlets differs between different parts of the world, and these outlets serve different functions depending on the surrounding media climate. In countries where traditional journalism is corrupt, heavily censored, or nonexistent, citizen-operated alternatives may serve a crucial function by providing information and opinions, while in other countries where there is a relatively functioning press, the need for alternatives becomes less crucial. Alternative journalism produced by citizens in different contexts on the web does not have much to offer in terms of a substantive, socially relevant, critical, and informative content (Fico et al., 2013; Holt & Karlsson, 2014). Still, there is great potential for ordinary people without journalism degrees and jobs in the media industry: in the event that you happen to be there when something happens, such as disasters or crimes in progress, it is possible to document and disseminate this information quickly via social media and other platforms (Antony & Thomas, 2010). This makes it difficult for stakeholders to put a lid on and control the flow of information.

Adaptive interactivity has, to summarize, affected the ways in which consumers get in contact with news. This is a radical change from the days of paper editions and also the early days of web news. Not only can consumers customize how they want to approach or be approached by the news, but in the early 21st century news organizations increasingly utilize “software algorithms to predict readers’ content preferences” (Thurman & Schifferes, 2012). This has led to an increasing empowerment of citizens because a) their behavior when approaching news is analyzed and used by the news industry in order to tailor their product to suit the individual and b) the choices that newsreaders do when it comes to sharing and commenting on content through social networks affects how it is received by others (secondary gatekeepers) (Singer, 2014).

When it comes to conversational interactivity, the verdict is still out on how it has affected public discourse. It is still debated whether or not citizen participation in journalism has changed much. In participatory journalism, contributions from the public have been somewhat coolly received by professionals and tend to cause problems related to moderation (for example in the case of hate speech in news comments). Also, there is still a reluctance from the audience to fully take advantage of the interactive options available to them (Karlsson et al., 2015a; Larsson, 2012b). When it comes to alternative citizen journalism, the problems are related to the fact that the active contributors are few and the sites tend to have low publication rates. The choice of topics tends to imitate and echo mainstream media rather than challenging and introducing diversity. Instead, these sites tend to put the focus on a few (and often not so socially relevant) topics, and the quality of the texts is often poor (Holt & Karlsson, 2014; Fico et al., 2013).

Immediacy and Journalism

While “immediacy” in web journalism has been strongly linked, and rightly so, with the quality of news, this approach is too limited to explain the underlying logic of it as well as some of its consequences. Rather than being solely an issue of “speed,” as immediacy is often understood in the literature, it is first and foremost a question of a fundamental change in the temporal and spatial qualities of the medium in which journalism is published. Instead of being churned out linearly at recurring windows of dissemination, web journalism can be published at will. Instead of content leaving the media organization, it is summoned up from a database when the user enters the interface of, for instance, a website. Thus, the content and the structure of the database can be programmed and reprogrammed by the media corporation hosting the website (Bordewijk & van Kaam, 2002). This, in turn, makes web news a continuous and reversible flow of information without a definitive form. One of the consequences of this process is that content can be pushed out much faster than previously, which produces a stronger sense of immediacy. This is the main issue of the research in the area. Another related issue is that of imitation and homogeneity in news. Both debates derive from the changeability of the digital medium and the desire of the database owner (e.g., news organization) not to lose control over its content.

Quality, Accuracy, and Diversity

The key theoretical debate concerns news as an ongoing process in relation to two dimensions of quality—quality as accuracy in content and quality as diversity in content.

Starting with accuracy, it is fundamental for the truth-telling ambitions of journalism to present verified information (Kovach & Rosenstiehl, 2001). Rigorous journalistic scrutiny determines what information will be published as true. The traditional publishing rhythm produces a deadline towards one can work. On the web it is possible to publish as fast or slow as one wants. Since there are strong incentives (both professionally journalistic and crudely economic) to be first to publish, concerns are raised that the time for fact checking will de facto decrease in web journalism (Hall, 2001). Rigorous scrutiny will, consequently, be harder to maintain, which may result in less accurate information being published, and ultimately lead to a less informed citizenry and decreasing trust in news institutions (Karlsson, 2011a).

While these concerns have been voiced frequently for a long time both within academia and the profession, empirical evidence is rather scarce. A major reason for the lack of results is methodological. Traditional methods assume that content is static while web researchers have to capture a “moving target,” as aptly labeled by McMillan (2000) . Since few feasible methodological tools have been available to researchers, the empirical studies have been rare and case oriented. However, given that the results (e.g., Karlsson, 2011a; Lim, 2013; Salaverria, 2005; Saltzis, 2012) quite coherently show a decrease in accuracy, it seems reasonable to suggest that quality has been suffering. Journalists consider immediacy as one of the (if not the) most central and valuable aspects of web journalism, while they also feel that quality is threatened (Bivens, 2008; O’Sullivan & Heinonen, 2008; Robinson, 2007).

Moving on to imitation and homogeneity, it has been argued that since there is no limitation to space in the online environment journalists are no longer constrained by space. In theory this allows for more and news and a broader variety of it. However, physical space is not the only journalistic resource that needs to be managed; time is another one. Producing original news consumes a lot of time. Since resources are increasingly becoming scarce and can be subject to cost-benefit analysis, it becomes essential to prioritize how resources are spent (Dunaway, 2011; Mierzejewska, 2011). Web publishing entails easy continuous access to other news outlets, and the reprogrammable character of digital media allows news editors to adjust news selection and presentation in light of the competition (Boczkowski & de Santos, 2007). Thus, it may be tempting and cost-effective to feed off other news outlets rather than produce one’s own new stories.

Empirical research is not in abundance but convincingly illustrates that web news is more homogenous than analogue news and that smaller sites monitor and adjust to bigger sites (Boczkowski, 2010; Boczkowski & de Santos, 2007; Lim, 2013). Accordingly, what was limitless in theory ended up being even more homogeneous than analogue news in practice.

The immediacy dimension of web news is probably the least explored of the four that are dealt with here. Yet, the research done indicates that there are really big changes going on, as web news is possibly lower in both variety and quality than analogue news. This provides a challenge for journalists, as correct verified information is a pillar of the journalistic profession, as is useful, relevant, and balanced information. It is also a concern for society at large since liberal democracies rest on the assumption that its citizens need to be informed in order to make sensible judgments when holding officials in power responsible (Patterson, 2013; Strömbäck, 2005).

Hypertextuality and Journalism

Hypertextuality, or put simply, the practice of hyperlinking, is not only a key dimension in web journalism but also fundamental to the entire Internet architecture (Berners-Lee, Cailliau, Groff, & Pollerman, 1992). Without them there would be no “web” at all as hyperlinks facilitate navigation and imply relationships between different sites. So far, hyperlinks have not been thoroughly studied within journalism studies (Coddington, 2012; Weber, Chung, & Park, 2012) but they are generally seen as assets, if they are properly managed.

Compared to analogue media there are no spatial limitations in digital media. Journalism, usually confined within the pages of a newspaper or the time of a newscast, can utilize hyperlinks to open up to the outside world (De Maeyer, 2012; Deuze, 2003; Robinson, 2009; Steensen, 2011). Consequently, this changes how truth is told because hyperlinking allows connecting the text to documents and other source material that there was no space for previously (Matheson, 2004). As journalism becomes part of a wider network, news can be more in-depth and provide much more context than its printed ancestors (Carpenter, 2010; Dimitrova, Connolly-Ahern, Williams, Kaid, & Reid, 2003; Quandt, 2008a). News consumers can get a better insight into journalistic work processes and source materials, which leads to greater transparency and trust in journalism (De Maeyer, 2012; Karlsson, 2010; Sjøvaag, Moe, & Stavelin, 2012).

While theorizing on the roles of hyperlinks has been rich and varied, empirical research return results illustrating that actual hyperlinking on news sites is conditioned. There are, for example, specific restraining factors that condition the use of hyperlinking: economy (or more precisely revenue), resource management, and audience preferences (Karlsson, Clerwall, & Örnebring, 2015b).

Since one of the key theoretical arguments of hyperlinks is to connect journalism externally, one recurring theme in studies is the ratio of internal and external links. All studies made so far show, without exception, that internal links are far more common than external regardless of when or where the study has been conducted (Dimitrova et al., 2003; Himelboim, 2010; Karlsson et al., 2015b; Larsson, 2012a; Oblak, 2005; Quandt, 2008a; Sjøvaag et al., 2012). This lack of external links can be explained by the bad business it would be to direct users away from one’s own site (Chang, Himelboim, & Dong, 2009; Chang, Southwell, Lee, & Hong, 2011). Thus, it will be a sensible financial decision keeping the audience within the (internal) walled garden although journalism and citizens could benefit from opening up the news. However, recent research indicates that external links can also provide an economic value either indirectly by being a node in a network (Weber, 2012) or directly by linking to business partners (Karlsson et al., 2015b; Ryfe, Mensing, & Kelley, 2016). Although this could entail more extensive external hyperlinking it would not change revenue as a guiding principle for hyperlinking practices.

Resource management is a related restrainer. Though the digital format implies that journalism is without spatial limitations, there are limits (and increasingly so) to resources. Hyperlinks consume resources as they are to be found, deemed relevant, and then possibly incorporated into the text of news stories (Carpenter, 2010; Dimitrova et al., 2003). Resource management is a crucial aspect of news production and in a shrinking market, cost-benefit analysis and prioritizing become key (Dunaway, 2011; Mierzejewska, 2011). With this in mind it comes as no surprise that several studies (Chang et al., 2011; De Maeyer, 2012; Larsson, 2012a) have highlighted the practice of automation in hyperlinks (e.g., links created and included in the news without direct or little human intervention) as this cuts costs.

Since hyperlinks consume resources and potentially direct the audience away from the news site, audience perspectives on hyperlinks become imperative to study. To what extent do hyperlinks add, journalistically or commercially, to user experiences? Existing research does not provide a coherent enough image to answer this question in a direct way. On the one hand there is research that suggests that hyperlinks positively affect user satisfaction (Chung & Nah, 2009) and credibility in news stories (Karlsson, Clerwall, & Nord, 2014). On the other hand there is a larger body of research suggesting that hyperlinks do not affect trustworthiness of mainstream news sites (Chung, Nam, & Stefanone, 2012) and that they don’t make sense or are appreciated by users (Chyi & Yang, 2009; Wilson & Tan, 2005). Although much more research is needed in this area before it is known under what circumstances and contexts hyperlinks produce a certain kind of effect or response (or not), it is fairly safe to say that hyperlinks have not been a great success among users.

While links are considered to open up journalism and point to a plethora of sources, research shows that mainstream media is still central as the bulk of links—even in alternative media—go to established actors (Kenix, 2009; Meraz, 2009; Reese, Rutigliano, Hyun, & Jeong, 2007).

Despite the potential of adding to journalism in several areas, hyperlinks have not made that much of an impact yet. Instead, compared to the great expectations, the overall impression is that hyperlinks are not central or even that important to web journalism despite being a defining feature. Still, they may be vital outside a strictly editorial context as hyperlinking allows spreading the news through networks and makes the news easily available through search engines.

Multimodality and Journalism

Multimodality has primarily been considered to revitalize journalistic storytelling as previously separated modalities—text, audio, moving images—are combined in a digital medium. In addition digital media allows for new forms such as interactive graphics, previously not available. Thus, multimodality provides journalists with tools that ultimately could improve how news is told (Deuze, 2004; Singer, 2004).

Multimodality is a somewhat muddy concept, as different nomenclatures—multimedia, multimodality, and convergence—are used interchangeably. At the same time scholars mean different things and talk about convergence on different levels, as some refer to, for instance, publishing on multiple converging platforms, while others speak of modalities in storytelling (Vobic, 2011). To make it even more difficult, empirical researchers investigating multimodality sometimes use newspapers as a specific point of departure when they study the implementation of newer forms of multimodality. Effectively, this means that text and photos has been treated as old modalities while moving images and audio has been viewed as new modalities, although they actually have been used in broadcasting for years (e.g., Massey & Levy, 1999). A part of the explanation for this seemingly haphazard and unclear approach to multimodality is that it was primarily newspapers that were first to go digital and, because of that, it was interesting to see if and how they would change their operations (Boczkowski, 2004; Salaverria, 2005; Schultz, 1999). Thus, a working definition of multimodality as it has been applied would be, following Steensen (2011), something in the line of “the use of new or a new combination of old modalities, in relation to print media, applied on digital publishing platforms.”

Implementations of Multimodality

Most empirical research, although there are exceptions, focuses on the perspectives of journalists themselves or, to some extent, the implementation of multimodality in web publishing. Very few studies carried out so far have probed the perspectives of the public.

The key theoretical debate has basically been limited to the multi-skilling of the journalistic profession and its consequences (e.g., Martyn, 2009; Scott, 2005; Singer, 2004). Four overlapping strands can be observed. The first strand concerns to what extent there is change in journalistic practice and content. The second strand relates to the blurring of distinct journalistic traditions (e.g., TV vs. newspaper) and divisions of labor (e.g., researcher, writer, photographer, editor, etc.). The third strand discusses the quality of the journalistic output. Finally, the fourth strand comprises the autonomy of both the individual journalist and the journalistic profession.

Regarding the change, early research found that there was an almost complete absence of multimodality (Colson & Heinderyckx, 2008; MacGregor, 2003; O’Sullivan, 2005; Quandt, 2008b). However, more recent longitudinal research indicates there is a slow but clear movement towards more multimodality in web news (Greer & Mensing, 2006; Karlsson & Clerwall, 2012; MacGregor, 2014; Tremayne, Weiss, & Alves, 2007). Together with lack of vision among management (Vobic, 2011) and with attitudes varying from slightly positive to hostile among journalists (Larrondo, Domingo, Erdal, Masip, & Van del Bulck, 2014; O’Sullivan & Heinonen, 2008; Thurman & Lupton, 2010), it is not surprising that it has taken quite some time for multimodality to have impact. However, talking about multimodality in general is inaccurate as research found that it is mostly audiovisuals or Web-TV that is used (Doudaki & Spyridou, 2015; Karlsson & Clerwall, 2012; MacGregor, 2014).

Concerning the second strand, there is a terminology that captures the development—the “mojo” or mobile journalist (Blankenship, 2015; Martyn, 2009). These are mobile journalist one-man bands that report for several platforms and do most of the tasks themselves. With this comes fear of pushing journalists into doing too much—tasks they are not skilled in and in too little time. Empirical research in which journalists have been interviewed confirms that they often perceive their work situation as a place where they are asked to produce more with equal or smaller resources.

Related to the ascent of the mojo comes the third strand: concerns about poorer quality of the news product. As journalists are doing more and new tasks they end up with less time to scrutinize and put the story together. Most research, primarily based on interviews and surveys with journalists, agrees that this is the case (Martyn, 2009; Perez & Cremedas, 2014).

Fourth and finally comes the issue of the development towards mojos as a challenge to journalistic autonomy (Blankenship, 2015). There are two dimensions to this. The first relates to the individual journalists and to what extent managers can impose more or less control over them. Mojos could, on one hand, be under less control since they are out of sight of the managers when out in the field. On the other hand, as they are asked to perform many tasks in which they have little expertise, they may be considered to be more at the mercy of managers (Huang, Rademakers, Fayemiwo, & Dunlap, 2004; Larrondo et al., 2014). Empirical research gives no straight answer to this, as there seems to be merit in both points, but in general there is more support for the hypothesis that predicts more managerial control over the journalists. The second debate, following the increased pace, solo work, and decreased time allocated, is to what extent stakeholders outside the editorial office (e.g., information subsidiaries) will be able to influence news coverage more. Here too, journalists point towards an increased likelihood that journalism will lose some autonomy.

To summarize: journalism is, it seems, moving in a direction where the audiovisual gains momentum and where fewer journalists should provide more content. While this change is tangible there is, at the same time, an obvious lack of spectacular innovation that could have been sprung out of the new possibilities that multimodality entailed. There are concerns on what the development may lead to in the long run but there is need of more research, especially on the actual content and audience perspectives, and a widening of theoretical perspectives.

Research on Web Journalism

Web journalism has, at the time of writing, been around for roughly twenty years. If we compare this to the history of TV we are currently in the 1970s. TV has developed a lot since then but had also established certain program formats and patterns that have remained since. Similarly, web journalism will certainly develop further while some things will probably persist. Although great changes have been predicted by theory, empirical research from all over the world illustrates that changes take time, and, in general, journalism and the media industries are far from fulfilling the radical potential of digital media. Based on the development so far it seems that only certain aspects of the digital characteristics have materialized in a profound way. In terms of adaptive interactivity, users have been empowered compared to the days of the paper editions. The selection of type of content and routes of delivery can be personalized effectively, which gives the user power over what to read as well as how and when. Furthermore, by increasingly becoming involved in the circulation of news, user decisions to share and/or add comments or judgments to shared news items shape the media landscape in regards to what reaches larger audiences—they act as secondary gatekeepers. In turn, this also affects the news industry as it constantly analyzes user behavior, not only in relation the specific news site but also in social media such as Twitter and Facebook. In terms of conversational interactivity, some features have emerged as standard where interactions between users and/or journalists are enabled. The extent to which this is actually embraced by audiences and journalists varies across the field, and the verdict is still out on how this affects public discourse from a democratic perspective. Research on immediacy illustrates that there are quality issues with web journalism, although more research and method development is necessary to further explore the area.

Hyperlinks have, so far, predominantly been used to guide the user to other sites within the same domain. Recent research indicate that there may be economic incentives to include more external links and that linking may, due to resource shortage, be more or less automated in the future.

When it comes to multimodality, the scholarship rather coherently illustrates that there is indeed a de- or multi-skilling (depending on perspective) of journalists going on and that this development is, on balance, seen as problematic by journalists themselves.

More research is needed in general in this rather young research field but, at the micro-level of analysis, there should be many more studies incorporating or departing from a citizen perspective, as journalism is a social contract between journalists and citizens, among other stakeholders. One example of such a study can be found in Harcup (2015). Harcup interviewed users of citizen journalism outlets in order to find out what they were expecting from it and what their reasons were for reading such news. His results show, among other things, that one of the main reasons is dissatisfaction with regular news (Harcup, 2015). We currently do not know much about citizen’s perspectives and without a strong agreement or at least an overlap between what citizens expect and journalists deliver, journalism will struggle for legitimacy, credibility, and relevance. An undercurrent in web journalism research is that technology will somehow have an impact on the production, distribution, and consumption of journalism. Yet, the aggregate results from the research done show slow and sometimes little change. These findings point towards the importance of the, broadly speaking, socio-material context in which journalism is produced, distributed, and consumed.

Discussion of the Literature

Research about web journalism can be divided into three different waves (Boczkowski, 2004; Domingo, 2006; Steensen, 2011). The short historiography of web journalism research starts in the 1990s departing from very pessimistic or very optimistic assumptions about what the Internet would bring to news and society. Whether hopeful (Lapham, 1995) or critical (Bardoel, 1996; Høyer, 1996) many of the first researchers put a strong emphasis on technology. Especially the more utopian accounts of the future of journalism invited criticism by later scholars who spotted technological determinism in many of the predictions. The second wave of research had a stronger empirical emphasis and studied the extent to which different digital characteristics had been implemented (see for example Deuze, 2001). The third wave had a more constructivist approach, placing a larger emphasis on the socio-material context in which web journalism is appropriated (Robinson, 2011). In addition to this, there is need for a fourth wave of research. The fourth wave could be considered to have a methodological focus and an acknowledgement of ontological and epistemological differences between analogue and digital journalism. That is, when old categories (such as sender, channel, message, and receiver) are less certain than before, the methods used to explore these categories (surveys, content analysis, interviews, ethnography, and experiments) become increasingly insufficient. This concerns not only the digital objects themselves, such as content management systems, algorithms, and third-party intermediaries (e.g., Google, Facebook, etc.) that affect journalism, but also the consequences of digitalization and reorganization, such as fragmentation of audience and outsourcing of news production (Parasie, 2015).

An important aspect of web journalism that lies beyond the scope of this article but nevertheless deserves to be mentioned is how it has affected the journalistic profession in regards to the new ethical challenges it faces in the digital environment. Ethics is a major concern in all areas of journalistic work, from information gathering to interactions with readers and sources (Friend & Singer, 2015). The new ways in which these aspects of journalism are performed in the web environment, and the new challenges that this entails, have been a concern for scholars since the beginning (see for example Ess, 2009).

Further Reading

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Steensen, S., & Ahva, L. (2015a). Special issue: Theories of journalism in a digital age. Digital Journalism, 3(1), 1–139.Find this resource:

Steensen, S., & Ahva, L. (2015b). Special issue: Theories of journalism in a digital age. Journalism Practice, 9(1), 1–122.Find this resource:


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