Internet Impact on Media

Seema Shrikhande. Encyclopedia of Journalism. Editor: Christopher H Sterling. Sage Publication. 2009.

The Internet has had a tremendous impact on the traditional news media, especially in bringing about convergence (a blending of media forms). Virtually all news media have a web presence. Some of the key factors influencing online news media are personalization and interactivity, the reduced importance of geography, and the rise of the 24-hour news cycle, which puts pressure on all media outlets to cover breaking news.

Personalization allows users to select content that meets their interests and shifts the balance of power away from editors and reporters. Web users also have the opportunity to customize delivery of content of interest in the form of news feeds and e-mail newsletters and alerts. Interactive features such as discussion boards allow audiences an opportunity to be part of the conversation and sometimes even shape the content of news sites. In a sense, the Internet has made news media more democratic. But there is also concern that it isolates users by limiting their exposure to topics and points of view divergent from their own.

A major influence of the Internet has been to remove geographical limits on the reach of media outlets. No longer are news media restricted to one city or region; the Internet allows them to reach audiences nationwide and internationally—the online version of a local newspaper may find audiences all over the world. For example, when Hurricane Katrina hit the American Gulf Coast in 2005, online viewers could get up-to-the-minute information directly from the website of New Orleans’s Times Picayune, which continued to publish online editions even when the hurricane made print editions impossible. This extended reach can also influence changes to news media content; editorial decisions may strive to make the content more appealing to secondary audiences, such as emigrants or members of diasporic communities.

Newspapers

Newspapers began to establish a presence online after Netscape launched its Navigator browser in 1994. By 1997, about half of the dailies in the United States had a webpage. Initial newspaper websites were rather rudimentary, served mainly to introduce the newspaper, and in many instances were not updated more than once in 24 hours. As newspaper readership among those under 30 was declining, operating a website became one way to attract younger users.

By the early twenty-first century, online newspapers had evolved into constantly updated publications that are often richer in content than the print versions. News is usually presented in a series of layered pages, with the first containing headlines and news capsules and the second and third layers offering more in-depth content. Online newspapers vary from one another in their depth of content and degree of interactivity. They also vary in presentation: some retain the look of the print edition (such as the http://newyorktimes.com) while others have crafted a unique web identity (like http://washingtonpost.com). In most cases, the general concepts of newspaper organization have not changed in the online versions, with special sections devoted to topics such as arts and sports, as well as editorial pages. Even the traditional organization of the printed front page, with the most important stories being presented “above the fold,” is maintained in most website designs; however, some sites take advantage of web technology to present a series of top stories in rotation.

Online presence has enabled newspapers to become much more interactive. For example, many newspaper sites have their own blogs written by journalists on staff. Readers are invited to respond to journalists and offer feedback and express opinions about stories. This interactivity allows readers to participate in a conversation about news. Such interactivity both limits and expands the kind of reporting done by newspapers: local issues tend to get more coverage, at the cost of national or international issues.

Online newspapers also use multimedia—such as audio and video clips—to make their content livelier and less text based. As audio and video streaming technology improves and household broadband connections become more widespread, such multimedia applications will continue to expand. The blending of audio, video, and text allows for multiple levels of reporting as well as for the ability to link to original documents, which can make for greater transparency in reporting. The use of multimedia has the potential to engage younger readers more comfortable with an audiovisual culture than a purely text-based one.

Newspaper webpages can provide greater depth of information than print, with links to original documents, related stories, and background materials. Because there is no online space constraint, newspapers can post stories and features that did not make it into the print version. The ability to search through the newspapers archives gives online readers an opportunity to trace the development of an ongoing story.

Many newspapers have developed community sites such as http://philly.com (The Philadelphia Inquirer) and http://mysanantonio.com (The San Antonio Express News) that drive traffic to their sites from those seeking information about events in the community, thus keeping visitors on their sites for a longer period. Such websites provide a portal for arts and entertainment, as well as community and neighborhood news and information. This emphasis on “local” is also part of the strategy at Cox Newspapers (publisher of the Atlanta Journal and Constitution) whose online newspapers target specific demographic groups like young mothers and local sports fans who may be underserved by the printed newspaper. As online newspapers recognize that web users seek news from multiple sources, they are making it possible for users to aggregate this information in one place. The New York Times‘ “My Times” feature allows readers to create a personalized page containing their favorite blogs, pictures, and headlines from multiple news outlets.

Recognizing that there is a significant online readership has led some newspapers to reorganize their newsrooms to facilitate the creation of more online content This shift has given newspapers the ability to emphasize local news and events with interactive features that are updated throughout the day while leading to a greater reliance on wire services for some content such as arts reviews, features, and sports. The Gannett newspaper group is redefining newsrooms as “local information centers” that can gather and distribute information across a variety of media outlets including handheld electronic devices and mobile phones.

As with the printed edition, the main source of revenue for online newspapers is advertising. In the mid-1990s when newspapers were first going online, some experimented with charging readers for online content, but this subscription model did not succeed, mainly because Internet users had access to many sources of free news. The only newspaper that has been successful with the paid content model is The Wall Street Journal. This is possible because its readership sees a tremendous value in current and deep business news and is therefore willing to pay to access this content. In 2005 The New York Times tried a hybrid business model with some content available free, but Times Select, which included a search capability as well as current commentary by editorial writers, at a cost. Two years later the Times reverted to providing all content free, finding that advertising revenues more than made up the loss of subscription income.

The Internet has also led to experiments with new business models such as http://Politico.com, which is a hybrid of a print newspaper and an online news service. Moving away from a generalized product for a mass audience, it provides specialized coverage for an audience of lawmakers, lobbyists, and strategists on Capitol Hill. The print edition of the paper has a limited print circulation of about 25,000 and is available free in the Washington, D.C., area.

Magazines

The Internet has impacted magazines in two ways—existing magazines have, like newspapers, established a presence on the Internet, while new web-only magazines like http://Salon.com and http://Slate.com have appeared.

For newsweeklies the challenge is finding a way to continue to be meaningful to readers at time when there are a plethora of more current news sources on the Internet. Known for their analysis and lifestyle pieces, magazines such as Time and Newsweek are finding themselves competing with newspapers that are increasingly offering similar content. While most magazines have websites, the key issue remains determining what they can offer on a weekly basis that remains relevant in a 24-hour news environment. Related to this is the issue of deciding how much original content to offer on the website. Most weekly and monthly magazines offer more online content while at the same time offering multimedia features.

In 2007 Time announced changes in the way it determined its total readership by including online readers in its totals. This was accompanied by a change in its publication day for the print edition from Monday to Friday, in recognition that it was moving away from breaking news to more review and analysis. In January 2007, the website underwent significant redesign with continuously updated news, more prominence given to blogs and interactive features and less space given over to content from the print version of the magazine. The intent was to allow Time to have a presence in the 24/7 news space, while distinguishing itself from news aggregators like Yahoo and Google. The magazine seeks to combine more context (rather than just headlines) by relying on a stable of high-profile writers.

In 2007, Newsweek was the largest newsmagazine on the web (in terms of unique web visitors to its site), providing both original content and that from its partners MSN and http://MSNBC.com, as well as blogs authored by its correspondents. Newsweek‘s editors believe that the website should provide readers with a perspective on news as well as online exclusives in addition to breaking news. The magazine is in the process of trying to figure out what editor Jon Meacham in an interview with the American Journalism Review called the “polished narrative writing of the 21st century online.” The seriousness of Newsweek‘s investment in maximizing the interactive and visual value of the Internet is evident in the magazine’s investment in a video studio so that it can create multimedia content in-house.

The smallest of the newsweeklies, US News and World Report, has also turned its attention to the web. http://USNews.com showcases the magazine’s famous college and hospital rankings, as well as similar reports, keeping some of the content available on a premium paid basis. At the same time the website carries the usual breaking news and analysis. Reporters are being trained to add audio and visual elements to their web stories in a move to make the website more appealing.

An important creative way the Internet has impacted magazines is with the emergence of web-zines, also known as e-zines or zines, magazines published exclusively online. Two early entrants are Salon and Slate, which began in 1995 and 1996, respectively. Salon was launched with seed money from Apple, while Slate was funded by Microsoft. Each has established a unique identity, offering both political and cultural criticism, commentary, and exposés that have been both lauded and criticized. When Slate was launched, then-Editor Michael Kinsley made it clear that at some point readers would have to pay and thus share the cost of producing the magazine. This point came in 1998 but lasted only a year, as it did not gain sufficient subscribers to attract advertisers. After facing a decline in advertising revenues, in 2001 Salon created two tiers of content, a free version that is supplemented with advertising revenue, and a premium version, available by subscription.

The Internet has saved some struggling print magazines from disappearing. Some print magazines that face difficulty earning advertising revenues have turned to the Internet to continue to reach readers but to eliminate the huge costs of printing and distribution.

Radio

Radio has been less dramatically impacted by the Internet than other media. Internet Radio station websites, webcasting (broadcasting over the Internet), and podcasting (syndication of digital files for replay on computers and portable media players) are all evident. Some stations use their websites primarily to list programs, while others offer primarily local news. Most websites offer streaming, which enables audiences to listen to the station’s content online in real time.

The greatest impact of the Internet has been to remove the limits of geography that radio stations previously faced. Through webcasting, stations can reach listeners across the world. Not only have existing stations adopted webcasting, there are many web-only radio stations, whose content is almost always music. Web radio has made a much wider variety of content available to listeners, particularly for those living in rural areas. Unfortunately, problems with copyright have rendered the existence of many web radio stations precarious.

Another important development in radio’s relationship to the Internet is podcasting, in which specific “shows” can be created, posted to the Internet, and downloaded for listening later. With podcasting, limits of both geography and time can be overcome. National Public Radio is the leader among radio stations in the United States in providing podcasts of a variety of its programs.

Internationally, major radio providers like the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) have shifted their attention online. In 2001 BBC Radio replaced its shortwave broadcasts to the United States, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand with an online audio stream stating that in the developed world radio listening is in a decline. A few months later Deutsche Welle radio made a similar move. Early in 2008, the BBC ceased over-the-air English broadcasts to Europe, relying instead on Internet services.

Television and Cable

Network news divisions continue to explore ways of using the Internet to hold on to their audiences and attract new viewers. By establishing a presence on the Internet they hope to attract audiences to their website during the hours when they are not on the air while broadening their appeal to younger audiences. As with other media, their websites are another way to overcome limits of traditional media—in this case their evening newscast. Stories that are kept short for broadcast can be offered at greater length online and those that didn’t make it to the broadcast can find an audience on the website. At the same time there is also a push to create content that is made exclusively for a web audience.

The major television networks have increased the web-only content available on their websites and also offer blogs by their correspondents and anchors. In 2005 http://nbc.com began posting the Nightly News online after it had aired on the network. CBS News also makes its newscast available online in the hope of reaching viewers who may not have access to the broadcast when it airs. ABC News produces a separate webcast called World News. This 15-minute program is distinctly different in style and content from the on-air broadcast and is meant to appeal to a younger audience demographic. All news divisions recognize the potential for a new type of storytelling and are looking for ways to make content relevant online.

The website of each news organization is rich in content with breaking news headlines accompanied by videos, photo galleries, and comments. Stories on the CBS and NBC sites are flagged as exclusive to the web. With continuing topics like “Planet Earth” and “The World,” online visitors are given an opportunity to customize their news experience. Unbundling the newscast into individual stories as well as making news programming available as downloads on digital clearinghouse sites like iTunes is another way of giving greater control to the viewer. Blogs by correspondents and anchors (in the case of NBC and CBS) occupy a prominent place on each network’s website. Some of these, such as http://NBCnews.com’s “Daily Nightly,” offer a look at what goes on behind the scenes in putting together a newscast while at the same time promoting it.

The Internet was the impetus behind the formation of a hybrid news outlet, MSNBC, in 1996, the first online news outlet linking a traditional network and a software company (Microsoft) to create a cable news channel. The goal was to use NBC’s news-gathering resources to attract web users to the site and to create a cable channel that harnessed the interactivity of the Internet. MSNBC’s website has been very successful at incorporating elements of the new media. The “community” tag links visitors to a variety of blogs. The site makes it very easy for visitors to load and share pictures, video, and news. In 2007 MSNBC bought http://Newsvine.com, a website that combines traditional news content with user-ranked news stories and user-generated content, as a way to strengthen its online presence.

Cable news outlets such as CNN and Fox News have seen their round-the-clock advantage over broadcast network news erode with the availability of news on the Internet. Their websites provide breaking news, links to programs, and some ability to customize news while allowing viewers to generate content in the form of photos and videos. Both CNN and Fox allow viewers to upload unfiltered content in the form of videos that do not get evaluated by their editors. In 2008, Fox lagged behind CNN and MSNBC in terms of web viewers and announced a digital strategy that included an increase in videos and in Internet exclusive content as well as the opportunity for viewers to rate and recommend videos.

Their websites also allow them to feature content from media partners. For example, http://cnn.com has a link to Time magazine (both are owned by the same conglomerate) while MSNBC provides links to NBC’s news programs. Increasingly, these companies see themselves as news providers that use more than one platform to make their content available to PDAs, cell phones, and in the form of RSS feeds that can be picked up by news aggregators.

Blogs and Citizen Journalism

Of all that the Internet has brought about, the change that maximizes its democratic potential is the formation of weblogs, or blogs. Most observers agree blogs first appeared in 1998. By early 1999, there were 23 blogs online, the result of free software that made it possible for individuals to upload content. Since then, blogs have grown exponentially. The blog search engine Technorati estimated that there were over 100 million blogs worldwide in 2008.

Blogs have been described as diaries or journals written by individuals who want to establish an online presence. The authors of most early blogs were people who wrote highly personal material rather than news. The key characteristics of a blog include content that is updated frequently and that centers on a theme, while providing a user-friendly interface, discussion threads, and links to other webpages. This last feature—the interlinking of sites—is a distinguishing aspect of most blogs.

The huge and growing number of blogs has led to sites, such as the Huffington Post, Technorati, Slashdot, and Digg, that help users navigate the blogosphere. In addition to providing original content, Huffington Post serves as blog portal, organizing blogs by content category and providing links to the most popular ones. http://Technorati.com functions as a blog search tool and lists blogs in order of the attention they are getting on the web. Slashdot focuses on science and technology stories, and while the site provides links to the stories, its greatest value is in the editorial function it performs by choosing relevant material to feature. By contrast, there are no editors on Digg; users rate news stories and blog posts, and the ratings determine what appears on the home page.

One aspect of blogs many find exciting is their potential to counterbalance the power of mainstream corporate media by creating free-flowing electronic communities. The tremendous popularity of blogs suggests that news gathering and commentary can be successfully democratized. By linking to other sites, blogs demonstrated their ability to gather information from a variety of sources in order to form an opinion or reach a conclusion. Even as blogs have grown in popularity, however, there is considerable debate over whether bloggers are journalists. Many see bloggers’ lack of objectivity or editing as a serious drawback.

While many in traditional media are fascinated by what blogs offer, there are others who question blog authority and credibility. But bloggers have showed their ability to go after unreported stories and make news in a number of high-profile instances. For example, bloggers focused attention on remarks made by Republican Senator Trent Lott in 2002, in which he reminisced with apparent fondness about a segregationist presidential campaign. Although traditional news media initially ignored the story, blog stories led to more widespread coverage and to Lott’s ultimate resignation as Senate Majority Leader. Similarly, bloggers’ questions about the authenticity of documents used by CBS news in 2004, which suggested President George W. Bush had avoided service during the Vietnam War, led to closer scrutiny of those documents and to CBS ultimately retracting the story. In a 2006 Virginia campaign for the U.S. Senate, blogging about a video of Sen. George Allen making an ethnic slur cost him an expected reelection.

Starting around 2002, traditional news media outlets began to add blogs to their sites. These blogs tackle a range of subjects and encourage ongoing dialogue to drive more traffic to news sites. Many of these blogs are written by journalists and columnists at news organizations but others are provided by freelancers and special guests.

Blogs make it possible for the average citizen to highlight issues that he or she feels are important and thus to become a part of a more widespread public debate. Blogs have transformed the news business by giving any individual the power to be a reporter, thus creating the citizen journalist. Citizen journalism aims to connect journalism directly to issues that the public is interested in debating. Citizen journalists have often played a central role in situations where professional journalists have had limited access to the news scene (at least initially) such as in the London terrorist bombings of 2005 and in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in the same year.

YouTube, with its user-generated videos, has developed into a key site for citizen journalism. Videos of events that are politically significant and that document important trends contributed by citizens enter the public domain and can be accessed by the millions of users of the website. As a testament to the impact of YouTube journalism, some repressive governments have blocked access to the site. Podcasts that deal with politics and news are also a form of citizen journalism. With a minor investment in equipment anyone can create a podcast and reach a wide audience over the Internet without needing an established news outlet to carry it.

Citizen journalists have joined to form groups like ePluribus Media and the Independent Media Center (IMC or Indymedia) that aim to counter mainstream reporting and shift to a bottom up rather than top down model of news gathering and production. ePluribus is a cooperative of citizen volunteers who are interested in similar issues and who are committed to the ethical practice of journalism. Indymedia is a news collective composed of a range of independent media organizations and professional and amateur journalists who are committed to social change. Its mission statement on its website states that it is a “democratic media outlet for the creation of radical, accurate and passionate tellings of truth.”

Another citizen journalist success, Korea’s OhMyNews, calls on citizen journalists to provide reporting for an online newspaper that serves as an alternative to mainstream conservative media. The site has become a household name in Korea and in 2004 added an international edition in English that draws on the service of “world citizen reporters” for its content.

Conclusion

It is clear that the Internet has transformed the media while at the same time giving rise to new forms of news media. Some traditional media formats like newspapers have seen considerable alteration because of the Internet while others are only beginning to use the Internet to extend their audience and their brand. The Internet has made media producers think differently about what constitutes news and journalism and about how it can best be practiced and presented. Audiences can now access most media content irrespective of place or time and now can customize content—this has made media more democratic by giving users the opportunity to define their own news agenda and by providing content. The impact of the Internet continues to evolve as technologies develop and as legacy news media experiment with the possibilities the online world provides.