The internet has been a major revolutionary force over the last 15 to 20 years. News media has been as dramatically affected as any other industry. In many ways the media has struggled to adapt to the changing landscape within which it must now operate. While the internet provides a multitude of benefits for the user, such as interactivity, it also poses a number of problems for media organizations. Many news organizations would rather avoid online content all together but they no longer have a choice. They cannot be seen to be lagging behind the times and so must offer all of things which the audience now come to expect from new media. But what if these features compromise the practices or values of the journalists involved? In this essay I will look at the rising use of interactivity in news media and its affect, both positive and negative, on the modern journalist.

Online news is now well into its 3rd generation. In the early 90s the first generation of online news consisted of simple pages filled with text, often taken directly from the newspaper edition (Kiousis, 2002). The second generation, in the mid 90s saw online news moving towards a more independent footing as websites began producing their own content (Bucy, 2009). During this period many news websites were set up that had no affiliation with newspaper or other pre-existing organizations. Streaming audio and video began appearing, although at much lower volumes than we are used to today. Interactivity has been the focus of the 3rd generation of online news People can now comment on stories and enter discussions, often with the journalists themselves. ‘Online news sites are assumed to be evolving from a non interactive, passive model of information delivery into an environment of increased immediacy, content richness, and user control’ (Bucy, p.102, 2009).

While reading a newspaper or watching television is arguably a one way process, the net offers endless possibilities for the user to interact with content. This interactivity comes in many different forms. The most common is simple comments sections which follow the content and allow users to discuss the piece of media presented to them. The discussions are mainly participated in by the audience but on some news sites the journalist themselves will join in. Other interactive features include allowing the user to generate their own content. Reader’s features or reader’s reviews as well as blogging opportunities are examples of this.

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Another example is the amount of user content featured on the Sky News website. They will regularly encourage viewers to send in their own videos and comments. Some sites also allow the user to customize how the media is presented to them, by changing the layout or design of the website itself. Videos on YouTube will often have thousands of comments as people debate with one another about the content, or more often than not, about everything apart from the content! Steuer (p.46, 1995) describes interactivity as “the extent to which users can participate in modifying the form and content of a mediated environment in real time” (p. 46). In this sense, websites like Storyful are going further than has been gone before. This website allows the audience to actually further the story and contribute in an organic and open way. This level of interactivity is unique to the internet and is something which other forms of media simply cannot compete with.

With all this in mind, why then have the media been so slow to adopt these new ways of engaging with their audiences? From the early days of the internet, the media have taken on the role of ‘cautious traditionalists’ (Chung, p.52, 2004). The main reason is that along with the exciting potential of interactivity, there exists a number of possibly pitfalls and unanswered questions. For example, is it now the journalists job to monitor and moderate the comments section of the website? Are they obliged to engage with their audience? And is this empowering the journalist or simply turning him into a facilitator of news? On Storyful journalists are even referred to as curators, a title many are likely to issue with. In a sense journalists may feel torn between traditional practices and rapidly changing expectations of what new media is or should be.

For many journalists, the idea of the audience being given a forum to reply is an unappealing one. Some argue that untrained journalists should not be given a platform to publish uninformed opinion as it carries less weight. To these journalists opening up a news story for discussion is seen as devaluing the product as a whole and they simply do not want to spend time engaging with the audience or defending the views expressed in their articles. While this may be true of certain comment sections, such as Youtube, which includes an unusually large amount of racism, homophobia and other non productive content, it is not true unanimously across all media sites. For example, the comments sections of Guardian are often more enlightening and engaging than the articles themselves. It is possible, in these cases, that the journalists could feel intimidated. Instead of viewing people as an audience, they can now almost be seen as competitors (Gerpott & Wanke, 2004). While this is not a view I associate myself with, I do understand a certain level of intimidation surrounding comment sections. The idea that your work is instantly open to review, critique and possibly even ridicule is an unnerving thought.

While the media has been slow to fully adapt – In recent years the drop in newspaper circulation has forced their hand. Even if companies don’t want to provide content online, they don’t really have much of a choice.

As print circulations continue to fall in most markets, and Net adoption strengthens, there is a degree of inevitability in the belief that, at some point, newspapers will need to unshackle themselves from their print origins and redefine themselves as online entities, potentially with attendant fundamental changes in practice, culture and content (O’Sullivan & Heinonen, p.367, 2008).

Many journalists are extremely cautious of the move to online and the changes entailed. While for some it is simply the idea of adapting to a new way of engaging with their readers, for others it is more serious. Some old fashioned journalists even look upon the online edition of their paper and the online journalists who staff it as a lesser.

Newspapers have been quick to embrace the Net and to publish and develop Web editions, but within this movement online there clearly are tensions, as illustrated in no small way by the provision of free content, or by the internal political economies of news organisations that see online journalism and journalists as marginal or of lower status (O’Sullivan & Heinonen, p.359, 2008).

In recent years online media organizations have begun to accept that they simply must offer interactivity, even if they don’t want to. The audience expects it and as a result, news organizations, along with their reluctant journalists, need to move with the times.

There are benefits to interactivity beyond simply doing it to keep up. Being open and allowing discussion and input for an audiences can improve the reputation and credibility of a media organization.

‘Net news operations can enhance media credibility. Beyond stimulating interest in the news and keeping users captivated, interactive experiences may cultivate impressions of news responsiveness and informativeness, at least for young audiences’ (Bucy, p.111, 2009)

There are also numerous studies which show that audiences have more positive attitudes to websites which offer interactivity (Larsson, 2011). Many users will never actually engage with these features, but they still like to know they are there.

‘Indeed, web surfers seem to have more favorable attitudes towards sites that they perceive to be rich with interactive features. For newspaper websites, it has been suggested that an increase in interactivity will lead to more visitors and more on-site activity by these visitors’ (Larsson, p.3, 2011)

There is also an argument that interactivity has the potential to improve journalistic practice. In my opinion keeping in touch with ones audience can only be a good thing.

Many media organizations have made the move to the online sphere reluctantly. For a number of years they have been dipping their toe in the water rather than diving in. However, that period has now passed and media organizations are left with no choice but to dive in or be left behind. Journalists have had to turn their back on more traditional forms of content generation and adapt to the new demands of the industry. Interactivity is definitely here to stay and while it does pose certain problems, I believe it will be a positive element of news media in future. Websites like The Guardian do an excellent job of engaging with their audiences and as a result I believe they have gained credibility as well as tapping into new and younger audiences. It is up to news organizations to find new ways to change along with technology and journalists simply have to accept that. Audiences will no longer accept the passive storytelling experience and why should they? Traditionally journalists are seen as the watchdog of the people – in a way, now the people can be seen as watchdogs of the journalists. While this is something which may make some journalists uncomfortable there is no avoiding it in the new media age.

Bibliography

Bucy, Erik P.(2004) ‘Second Generation Net News: Interactivity and Information Accessibility in the Online Environment’, International Journal on Media Management, 6(1), p102-113.

Chung, H. and X. Zhao (2004) ‘Effects of Perceived Interactivity on Web Site Preference and Memory: Role of Personal Motivation’, Journal of Computer Mediated Communication 10(1), URL (consulted January 2006): http://jcmc.indiana.edu/vol10/issue1/chung.html

Crowston, Kevin and Williams, Marie(2000) ‘Reproduced and Emergent Genres of Communication on the World Wide Web’, The Information Society, 16(3), p201 – 215.

Gerpott, Torsten J. and Wanke, Hendrik(2004) ‘Interactivity Potentials and Usage of German Press-Title Web Sites: An Empirical Investigation’, Journal of Media Economics, 17(4), p241 – 260.

Kiousis, Spiro. (2002). Interactivity: a concept explication. New media & society. 4 (3), 355-383.

Larsson, Olof, Anders. (2011). Interactive to me – interactive to you? A study of use and appreciation of interactivity on Swedish newspaper websites. New media & society. 1 (1), p1-18.

O’Sullivan, John and Heinonen, Ari(2008) ‘OLD VALUES, NEW MEDIA’, Journalism Practice, 2 (3) p357-371.

Quiring, Oliver. (2009). What do users associate with ‘interactivity’? A qualitative study on user schemata. New media ; society. 11 (6), 899-920.

Steuer, J. (1995). Defining virtual reality: Dimensions determining telepresence. In F. Biocca ; M. R. Levy (Eds.), Communication in the age of virtual reality (pp. 33–56). Hillsdale, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates, Inc.

Tremayne, Mark. (2008). Manipulating interactivity with thematically hyperlinked news texts: a media learning experiment. New media ; society. 10 (5), 703-727.

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