On print and online journalism (again)

19 06 2009

UPDATED (June 20th, 2009)

Inspired by a number of recent blogs by Cody Brown, Jay Rosen, Charles Arthur, Robert Picard, Michael Arrington, I’ve tried to list a number of basic differences between print journalism and online journalism. This is very much a mind-mapping exercise, so feel free to comment and share your views.


I’m assuming that most of the list categories are rather straightforward, but let me elaborate on what I call ‘product’,  ‘authorship’, ‘authority’ and ‘context’. 

First, products. In print, readers are given sausages. Cody Brown really drives this point home in his post on batch versus real time processing (emphasis original)

The problem with branding the news product over the news process is that its readers see the NYT’s like this:

The messy, opinionated, incomplete, rumorladen, shit-show that is actual news production is hidden away.

In print, the presence and interventions of the journalist (for instance, how the story was negotiated between sources, reporters and editors) as well as overt source references are often backgrounded, minimized or obscured. In newspaper articles, intertextual links are often rendered implicit (‘In a statement released earlier today’) – the journalist simply reports news events as if s/he uncovered them for us. As Donald Matheson (2004: 455) writes:

While most news texts are the result of the processing and editing of other texts (Bell, 1991; van Dijk, 1988), they are constructed within a set of conventions that aim for ‘a unified text which conceals the editor’s intervention’ (Bell, 1991: 51). The sourcing of material in press releases or interview questions or news agencies is edited out.

It is exactly this element of ‘concealed intervention’ that makes the comparison between source texts and news texts a difficult exercise. It is the basis of my critique of Lewis et al.’s study of source transparency in British print journalism.

Online, ‘readers’ can see how the sausage is being made and promptly start making sausages themselves. This inevitably leads to discussions about sausage making. Einar Thorsen wrote a wonderful paper about this process. Drawing on the editorial history of selected Wikinews articles, he studied how a micro-community of Wikinews editors and collaborators negotiate the website’s neutral point of view policy.

Second, authorship. In a previous version of this post, I labeled this category ‘author’ and said that in print journalism the author is a ‘nice to know’ and a ‘need to know’ in online journalism. My point was that the status of the newspaper for which a journalist writes outweighs her initials or full name. Some articles don’t bother to identify an author. And for some articles, newspaper journalists do not want to take responsibility.

For instance, I know a financial journalist who writes a newspaper filler known as buy/sell advice. In these articles, he gives portfolio advice: sell this share, buy this share. He consistently refuses to byline these articles because there is no journalistic pride to be gained in this sort of coverage: it is by definition outdated, useless information that no financial decision-maker takes seriously for the simple reason that financial journalism looks to the immediate future (hence the importance of ‘rumors’ in finance) rather than what happened in yesterday’s markets.

In print journalism, authorship is a social construct; it is first negotiated between sources, reporters, editors and copy-editors, and then claimed (for instance, in the byline). Again, this process of ascribing authorship is invisible in print journalism. There are usually few traces in the final text that show how the reporter acquired the information presented. We also don’t get to see how the actual meaning was negotiated between say a source and a reporter.

Online, authorship is claimed and then negotiated. The Arrington piece is a nice example of how authorship is contested post-publication. Online, authorship is much more transparent and, given the range of media technologies freely available to the public, authorship does not involve a complex network of specialists (layout, pull-quotes, photo captions). Online journalism is very much a one woman operation.

Third, authority. One of the central ways in which print journalism establishes authority is by sourcing, here defined as a discursive practice sanctioning whose, which and how truth claims count as/in news. As one of my favorite authors, media anthropologist Mark Peterson, writes (2001: 209):

sourcing information allows journalists to displace some of the responsibility of truth claims onto other persons. In essence, the journalist is guaranteeing the “objective” accuracy of the mimetic reproduction in the story but not the truth of the assertions being made by the persons quoted or otherwise sourced.

This is the ‘myth of perfection’ that Jeff Jarvis talks about or ‘the voice of god’ that Cody Brown talks about. This infallibility is crucially tied to the brand reputation of the newspaper for which a journalist writes. A typo on the front page of the New York Times is nearly unfathomable.

Online, there is no myth of perfection. Instead, imperfection is embraced. This is not to say that accuracy and reliability are thrown out the window, it is just to say that online journalism is all about process (as opposed to finished, stand-alone products). Online, authority is link dependent. For instance, Clay Shirky’s Newspapers and Thinking the unthinkable post has garnered more than 1,000 comments since its publication in March of 2009.

Fourth, context. In print journalism, context is rather limited due to space constraints (column inches) and available resources (time, expertise, news values). Online, there are no space constraints and the issue of resources can be displaced; hyperlinks render context potentially infinite, creating endless and very transparent intertextual layers (this is exactly why I’m so excited about Google Wave as a platform for breaking news).



9 responses

20 06 2009

Really good list. Sadly, the new model makes it very difficult for writers to make a living while the print version means competing for limited space (so difficulot to make a living also, but for different reasons).

Thanks for the interesting post.

20 06 2009

It’s a good start. However, I’m not certain what you mean by:

author – nice to know, need to know

Can you expand?

20 06 2009
Tom Van Hout

You’re right, Bill. The list needs more context. I’ll expand asap.

23 06 2009

Ah yes, it’s much more sophisticated than it originally appeared to be.

And a lot of food for thought. I think, for the near future at least, there’s still going to be a place for traditional journalism skills:- news gathering, fact checking, presentation etc. but long-term I see the death of news as we currently know it.

I also fear online media is far more open to capture than is readily recognised.

25 06 2009
Print versus online journalism – the view from Belgium « Freelance Unbound

[…] Print versus online journalism – the view from Belgium Jump to Comments Here’s a very interesting post by, of all things, a Belgian linguistic researcher, about the differences between print and online journalism. […]

25 06 2009
26 06 2009
Freelance Unbound: Print and online differences – a view from Belgium | DAILYMAIL

[…] summary and the original post are worth a […]

29 06 2009
Churnalism as new media literacy « Tom Van Hout

[…] news is a process (rather than a finished product). This renders the practice of churnalism visible and hence turns […]

8 06 2010
Freelance Unbound» Blog Archive » Print versus online journalism – the view from Belgium

[…] Here’s a very interesting post by, of all things, a Belgian linguistic researcher, about the differences between print and online journalism. […]

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