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Text and Genre in Reconstruction

Willard McCarty

9. ’I Read the News Today, Oh Boy!’1: Newspaper Publishing in the Online World

Marilyn Deegan et Kathryn Sutherland

Texte intégral

1. News Media Inherited and in Flux

  • 1 The first line of the Beatles’s song ’A Day in the Life’, written by John Lennon and Paul McCartne (...)

1The desire to receive and impart news is part of our social fabric: we all want to know ’what’s new?’ or ’what’s up?’ with our friends, families, or neighbours; as well as what is happening on a local, national, or international scale. As Mitchell Stephens (1990) observes, ’the frenzied, obsessive exchange of news is one of the oldest human activities’. News is also information with a time stamp: if it is not new, it is not news but something else. The oldest form of news is oral: word of mouth, which, before the advent of electronic media, could be conveyed only as fast as the fastest form of transport. Even before mechanization, this could be fast, and the stuff of legends: Pheidippides’ two-day run in 490 BC from Marathon to Sparta (150 miles) to bring news of the Persian attack; the ride of Paul Revere, in the American War of Independence, to alert his compatriots that the British Redcoats were on the march. Jungle drums, smoke signals, yodelling have all been used over time and in different societies to communicate news faster than the human body; in recent ages, better roads, trains, and boats have accelerated word-of-mouth communication. The complexities of production and delivery processes mean that newspapers cannot, and never could, compete with the speed with which individual items of news can be delivered by direct means. Where newspapers excel is in the comprehensiveness, variety, and range of their content, in the expansiveness of their comment on events and current affairs, and in their low cost, convenience, and portability. It is many decades since anyone relied upon newspapers for the football results, but sports pages remain hugely popular in all general daily and weekly newspapers, with football the most popular sport, and readers almost as eager for opinion, comment, nuance, gossip and even bias, as they are for the bare news. Though the advent of the telegraph in the nineteenth century (the first technology to convey news and information across vast distances instantaneously) and of radio and television in the twentieth century changed news reporting, they have not yet obviated the need for newspapers.

2Periodical newsbooks, the ancestor of the modern newspaper, appeared in England in the 1620s, while London newspapers became widely available throughout the country during the course of the eighteenth century. For the last 200 years newspapers, magazines, and journals have been among the most widely and regularly consumed and the most influential print objects. Over this time, newspapers have been the threshold for our adult relationship to print, the basic tool of our literacy that we all aspire to: people who never read anything else will read newspapers. It is estimated that some 500 million newspapers are sold every day worldwide, though their circulation is likely to be much higher than this, with papers passed around within the home, the workplace, and other public spaces. In regions where literacy levels are low, the literate will read newspapers aloud to the illiterate. At the same time, printed news has always shared porous boundaries with other, higher literary forms: poetry, fiction, and criticism have regularly found a place, and often a first articulation, in the columns of a daily or weekly paper. In the newspaper, and its allied forms the journal and periodical, distinctions between high and low culture that might operate elsewhere have conventionally broken down under the pressure of variety in voice and subject, but also in authority: a common editorial practice dating back to the eighteenth century was the collapse of the writer-reader distinction in letters and opinions pages. Newspapers can thus claim to represent the demotic reach of the printed word: we all read or, perhaps, we must now say we all used to read news.

3Over the same 200 year period, the newspaper industry has been at the frontier of technological innovation. It is important to register the inter-connectedness of the two phenomena – the mass appeal of newspapers and technical development – because the one fuelled the other. It was the offices of the London Times, not of some book-industry entrepreneur (though such existed) that installed in 1814 the first steam-driven press for commercial use. The book trade, generally untroubled by the need to produce long high-speed print runs, lagged comfortably behind by several decades. By 1816 press production on The Times accelerated from 250 to 900 perfected sheets an hour. It is difficult to overestimate the consequences of such growth: the high-circulation newspaper and a mass-reading public together represented an explosive information alliance. A repository of current events and organ of opinions, the newspaper’s regular punctuation of the working week and its centralizing overview formatted its readership, for good or ill, as a collective consciousness; both were the direct consequence of steam-power. The last twenty years have seen similar momentous technological and distributive change, and equally momentous shifts in how we relate to news. Change began in the 1980s with the move to an almost totally electronic workflow, in which production processes – from submission of copy, editing and typesetting, to page composition – were streamlined. Though constituting a major high-cost investment, this switch was practically invisible to the readership because the final product was still a printed paper. But electronic production meant that the industry was poised to move relatively rapidly into electronic delivery of various kinds; for example, e-papers are derived from the same files as those for the printed paper. The whole point of a paper, especially a daily, is that it reacts fast to news and new developments; it stays ahead of the competition or its sales wither. The pursuit of the scoop, the exclusive interview, the fastest breaking news are all aimed at outwitting rival papers, stimulating the readership and keeping circulation up, generating advertising revenue, and making money. If one paper implements a new feature, others soon follow. But currently the fear is that the Internet is changing reading and communication habits, and with them newspaper production and consumption, beyond all recognition, to the point where some fear newspapers as printed products may soon be a thing of the past.

4The developed world has seen a slow but steady decline in printed newspaper production in the last ten years, though over the same time span some countries in the developing world have experienced an equivalent upsurge. Declining circulation is not the consequence of a diminished hunger for news but of a rapid increase in different sources of news, in particular online sources, and in the availability of portable devices, such as mobile phones, to which news can be delivered directly. The driving factor for these recent developments is the Internet: the pervasiveness of broadband connections, the increased capacity of processors, and improving quality of screens on desktop and mobile devices mean that the Internet is fast becoming the medium of choice for news and information. Some of this news and information is supplied by the traditional public and commercial broadcasting and publishing organizations, which have diversified their operations and established an online presence, but the new technologies have also ushered in a huge increase in alternative providers. There is a predictable demographic division in this narrative of changing news access, with younger age groups turning to the Internet more regularly for news than older.

5The key to the health or otherwise of newspapers is of course economics; they are hugely profitable and many fortunes have been built in newspaper publishing over the last 200 years. They are also hugely expensive enterprises. Indeed, the cost of newsprint is so high that the cover price does not even pay for the paper the news is printed on. Content, journalism, analysis, comment, etc, are all funded from advertising revenues; if these revenues decline, corners must be cut. Since the mid-1990s and the early days of the Web, most major national newspapers throughout the world have established a serious online presence, delivering a version of the daily paper together with other enhancements such as audio versions, blogs, and premium content for subscribers. Initially, such web sites acted as little more than trailers for print. For example, the WayBackMachine, the Internet Archive’s access point for archived web sites,2 has a version of The Guardian newspaper’s web site from 5 November 1996, referred to as ’a jumping off point for Guardian web projects’. The interface is plain, and the content a greatly curtailed version of the paper. The Guardian launched its full news site, Guardian Unlimited, three years later in 1999, by which time it had developed from a print ’taster’ into a digital repurposing of the print object; far more extensive than its 1996 e-presence, it incorporated, for instance, a ’Breaking news’ facility updated throughout the day. By 2003/2004, Guardian Unlimited was Britain’s second most visited news site, after the BBC. Its print newspaper, a serious, left-of-centre broadsheet, then had a circulation under 400,000, but Guardian Unlimited had 7.5 million unique visitors per month, 2 million of those from overseas; it now reaches 12 million readers each month.

6Online sites are highly successful, clearly achieving the market penetration (for advertisers) and user satisfaction (for readers) they seek. They are largely free to readers and these days most do not even require registration. Revenue comes, as it long has with printed news, from advertising (with such massive hit rates they are hugely attractive display cases) and from charging for premium services like the daily crossword. In the case of Guardian Unlimited, readers can also opt for an ad-free site for only £20 per year. The impetus for creating a strong online presence for newspapers is partly visibility and partly falling print sales, especially during the working week. In common with other newspapers, The Guardian and its Sunday sibling, The Observer, see an upturn in paper sales for weekend editions, when readers have more leisure to peruse comment, analysis, reviews, and all the other supplementary materials.

  • 3 SGML, or Standard Generalized Markup Language, is a standard for how to specify a document markup (...)

7How do we classify online versions of newspapers? They share visual features with the printed product – banner and layout – though contrary to print, they all use sanserif typefaces. But they also share visual and structural characteristics with news sites that do not have a print counterpart: BBC, CNN, Fox News, Yahoo News, for example. They are hybrids, clearly related to their parent printed publications but because material is not bounded by the confines of the physical page, whether broadsheet or tabloid, stories can be longer; in some cases items are published online when space constraints dictate they do not make it into the print paper. Conversely, if the information supplied by online news sources may be ’unlimited’, only a fraction of it is visible; by contrast, a five-minute scan of the whole edition of the print version can give a good overview of what is available. Once the workflow was electronic and text for newspapers was marked up in some form of SGML3 (originally for print purposes) it could be directed down two different channels with little extra cost in terms of finance or time. The next step is a decoupling of print and online versions: they are clearly related products, share the same copy and similar design, but they are not two manifestations of the same thing. Unlike print, online news can be updated throughout the day, so it begins to be a news site, not a newspaper. Another way to think about the relationship might be to invoke the ’Stop Press’ column, that small section once a regular feature of twentieth-century newspapers, by convention reserved on the front page of a paper issue for very late or breaking news items. Though now discarded from print, what online papers permit is the burgeoning of ’Stop Press’ into a leading characteristic of news delivery and a further refinement of the underlying principle that news is information with a time stamp.

8Besides offering an online edition of a newspaper, a large number of titles now also offer ’e-papers’, also called ’digital papers’ or ’smart editions’. These are surrogate newspapers with all the presentational features of print, but available online for viewing or printing. Full pages are displayed in single- or double-page view, and individual features can be magnified (zoomed) for reading. All the various supplements and magazines are available as with the printed version, and a number of e-tools are provided – searching, bookmarking, and ’smart’ navigation. But this digital paper is (largely) identical to its paper form, costs more for access to the same information, and is not updated as regularly as online news. It is difficult to know what to make of e-papers. Do they represent a failure of confidence, a temporary blip in digital progress? They purposefully recouple what online delivery decouples – digital and paper characteristics – and from the technological point of view they make little sense. But they do make limited economic sense in terms of an overseas market anxious to replicate some of the comforts of paper while avoiding the freightage costs of the real thing. British daily newspapers cost around three euros throughout Europe, and weekend newspapers up to five euros, but a oneoff payment of £1.50 (at the time of writing, around 2.20 euros) will give 24-hours of electronic access to the last thirteen issues of The Guardian and the last four issues of The Observer. Thus British e-papers are currently targeted at an expatriate rather than a home audience. The Guardian group, for example, states:

Now you can read the Guardian and the Observer anywhere in the world, just as we do in the UK. Page by page. Picture by picture. Exactly as it appears in print.4

9What the e-paper claims to offer is a newspaper reading experience as close as possible to that of a print edition from a traditional source; what it does not offer is up-to-the minute electronic currency, as generally only one edition is available per day.

10The difference between an online newspaper and an e-paper seems to be the degree to which the one publication is customized to the latitude of the online environment and the other simulates the print object. The two e-forms represent an uneasy accommodation – to the old technology, to the new, and to each other. E-papers are a back-formation, after the development of online news sites, and represent, however bizarrely given their electronic delivery, a nostalgia for paper and print. David Crow, writing in The Business, suggests that:

while newspaper websites are constantly improving, some customers dislike viewing content online and miss the feel and design of the printed product (Crow 2007).

11With this particular print object, the familiar formula may be as valuable as the content it carries; or as Harold Evans, a former editor of The Sunday Times and The Times, pointed out in his 1973 book Newspaper Design, ’the design cannot be separated from the product. The format, the typography and the printing are as integral a part of a newspaper as the words’ (McKitterick 2002: 7). This is a point worth dwelling on: much of any newspaper’s significance or message has long been acknowledged to lie in its form; form has always played a constitutive role in structuring content and guiding the reader’s interpretation. We need only think of paper size (tabloid or broadsheet), the ordering and layout of an article on the page, the mix of font sizes, width of columns, and the interposition of photographs in the text block, to realize how rich in connotation such visual signals are – far richer and far louder than the visual signals incorporated in other common print objects, like novels, for instance.5 To confuse things further, some online newspapers now offer a print version as a kind of crossover between the two digital formats, giving readers the chance to print off a PDF of a section with stories updated all day. The Guardian, for example, announces the G24 service with the invitation ’Print your own PDF’.6 There are five PDFs to choose from: Top stories, World, Media, Business, and Sport. The Daily Telegraph, whose stated aim is the creation of a ’digital universe, without distinction between print, podcast or pdf’ produced TelegraphPM (described as ’your multimedia afternoon newspaper’) in September 2006. It was made available at 4.00pm and updated at 5.30pm, and offered a 10-page digest to be downloaded as a PDF; the reader was encouraged to, ’Read it on screen or print it out to read on the way home.’ This was discontinued as a daily service in January 2008.

12These examples would seem to indicate that, just as early printed books simulated features of manuscript copies, in moving from a print to an online world we too are reluctant to lose functions familiar to us from the older technology, even though in this case the shift is larger, and the fit between the old and new technologies less evident. News publishers, traditionally in the vanguard of print developments, may be taking advantage of new possibilities, but they are also hedging their bets. This is particularly true when it comes to evaluating the look of a site in relation to its functionality: should online news sites look like web sites or like print papers? Which will ultimately have the greater appeal to the customer? How do we assess the intermediate forms, which mimic closely the printed object onscreen, in some cases even trying to reproduce the experience of analogue interaction by offering a 3-D-like appearance of the ’original’ with facilities such as page-turning. Anyone using digital page-turning devices will soon find that they do not perform well in moving from one part of a digital text to another; false imports, intended to make us feel comfortable in the new environment, they actually impede our naturalization within it. By contrast, in the digitization of historic newspapers, a close simulacrum of the printed paper is a huge advantage to a sense of the real value of the object in its social and cultural time.

13If in newspaper publishing we are currently witnessing a gradual decoupling of news from paper and print, with hybrid signs of both experiment and formal nostalgia along the way, there is an undeniable significant collateral benefit of electronic technology – aggregation. To achieve economies of scale in the digitization of news, the same underlying software is used to present, in aggregation, all the titles licensed by a single supplier. NewsPaperDirect, a key supplier, has created an integrated solution to the availability of newspapers for worldwide access. The company offers (as of April 2008) 650 newspapers from 77 countries in 37 languages, including many of the world’s most-read dailies and weeklies, in the form of e-papers or printed papers through a print-on-demand service and using a browser called PressDisplay which claims to be ’redefining the reading experience’. This has increased from 470 titles in just a year. The front page of PressDisplay can be customized in a variety of ways to operate across a number of titles or chosen subsets of titles simultaneously, allowing the user to personalize the view of any particular paper and make comparisons across a range of publications, by title, country, language, or author. This means that several news titles can be cross-searched from one screen and search hits from different titles can be merged and listed together in order of relevance rather than by individual title. The benefit to the reader is in comparative searching of different versions of the same news item. Since searching and the list of hits is usually free, the benefit to the papers themselves or to the aggregators is collateral in as much as it leads people to more content that they will then spend money on. The sites make their money through recoupling, that is, print on demand of individual issues. By contrast, one of the disadvantages of many individual online news offerings is the disaggregated or ’silo’ approach to information, in which it is possible to burrow deep into one resource, but difficult to move across to another and look at the same topic from a different perspective. (But see below the discussion on RSS feeds and personalization of news for further exploration of these issues).

14Over five hundred years, the textual desires of literate societies have taken shape as print. We are now transferring what seems to us best about print into the digital realm and the online environment, at the same time as we are learning to accommodate the new things we believe the new technologies do best. There is a view that technology is something that does not work yet; or, put another way, nobody recognizes as technology those devices we take for granted, like books, alphabets, wheels. Current computer and communication technologies offer storage and retrieval, searchability and interconnectedness; but the price we pay is an expensive, cumbersome, and unreliable machine interposed between reader/writer and text. Print offers portability and cheapness, as well as a seemingly ’direct’ experience. There are still, and there may always be, some things that paper does best: the access mechanism of the codex book in the hands of an experienced reader, for instance, can offer faster retrieval of known information than a computer. In the case of newspapers, the page is a highly sophisticated and evolved piece of design, offering fitness of purpose as well as ease of use. The screen-page assembled for paper printing does not yet work as well; on the other hand, a great deal of ingenuity and expensive software development have gone some way towards producing digital solutions which are surprisingly successful for both current and historic newspapers. Where e-papers score over online papers is in their translation into something just like the day’s newspaper; where online papers excel is in their currency. Online news can be updated as the day goes on and as a story breaks, and it is interactive: through blogs and comment forms, readers can have their say and engage in a dialogue with journalists and other readers. The difference in e-papers and online papers actually comes down to how each handles the logical units that make up a complex textual object like a newspaper. These logical units are articles, ads, pictures, etc., which are mapped onto physical structures such as pages or pixels. When the page is the physical structure, this has a fixity that the pixel lacks, being an electrical phenomenon. In the case of e-papers, the fixed page composition is a delivery decision, not a physical necessity. With online papers, the logical units are delivered in ways that suit the electronic medium, though they may continue to share some design features with their paper or paperlike siblings: type design, banner, etc. The advantage of the logical unit unbound from a page is that it can be delivered in different ways to different devices (including paper). The reader can opt to personalize the news and have it delivered to computer screen, mobile phone, MP3 player, and other handheld devices. Currently, the disadvantage of the unbound pixellated news unit is the doubtful status of the long-term reliability and preservation of its information, given the frequency with which that information is updated. What, in this new world is the paper of record? Probably the printed paper still.

2. New Forms, Ideas and Functions of News

15While strategies for decoupling and recoupling content from and to a paper vehicle still shape many of the ways in which we interact with news, there are other areas where the formal properties and the idea of paper have disappeared completely, and where news is genuinely paperless. Google News, for example, currently aggregates 4,500 news sources in English (of many different kinds) for searching or browsing, with a front page which can be customized according to interest. Google News is also available in other languages, including all the major European languages, Arabic, Hebrew, Chinese, Japanese, and Korean, where several thousand more news sources are aggregated. The news in all languages is updated continuously, and is computer-generated from these thousands of sources. Google News groups similar stories together displaying them according to each reader’s personalized interests; links are offered to several versions of every story, permitting the reader to choose by topic and version of topic. Articles are selected and ranked by computers which evaluate, among other things, how often and on what sites a story appears online. As a result, Google claims that news stories are sorted without regard to political viewpoint or ideology. If the claim appears disingenuous – there can, after all, be no such thing as a neutral perspective on news; the choice of sources to search itself determines a viewpoint – Google’s declared neutrality is particularly ironic in light of the agreement they reached to help the communist government in China block access to websites containing politically sensitive content (i.e. references to the Tiananmen Square massacre and criticism of the politburo) (Watts 2006) – a move which Google later admitted had caused the company’s reputation damage in the United States and Europe (Martinson 2007).

16Where Google makes a parade of its aggregated non-bias, there are highly influential paperless sites which are openly and vehemently partisan and politically-driven. The Drudge Report began as an email newsletter and has, since its inception in 1994, become one of the most powerful media influences in American politics. The plain and functional website, drudgereport. com, has received an estimated four billion hits in the last twelve months and is regarded by many as the first port of call for breaking news. Matt Drudge and his army of informants trawl television and the Internet for rumours and stories which are posted as headlines on the site. Mostly, these are direct links to traditional news sites, though Drudge sometimes writes the stories himself: in 1998 he was the first to break news about Monica Lewinsky, and in 2008 broke the news that the UK’s Prince Harry was on the front line with troops in Afghanistan. According to Naughton (2006), many of his critics, especially those on the left, ’view his reportage as biased towards conservatives, careless, malicious and frequently prone to error’; but also, he has been hailed (by Camille Paglia) as ’the kind of bold, entrepreneurial, free-wheeling, information-oriented outsider we need more of in this country [USA]’ (quoted in Naughton 2006). Whatever one’s view, Drudge’s importance in the American news arena is undisputed. is an influential and successful online-only news magazine, describing itself as a ’smart tabloid’. It prides itself on its provision of original, professional-standard media content over the Internet. Started by journalists in San Francisco in 1995, it had its origins in a newspaper strike:

When the San Francisco Examiner was shut for a couple of weeks in 1994 a few of its journalists taught themselves HTML and had a go at doing a newspaper with new technology. They found the experience liberating, and David Talbot, the Examiner’s arts editor, subsequently gave up his job and launched the kind of online paper he had always wanted to work for (Naughton 2006).

18Salon attracts contributions from a wide range of well-known American writers and journalists, including Camille Paglia and Arianna Huffington. Its name, borrowing associations from the regulated intellectual and conversational space of French Enlightenment salon society, reflects its policy of linking professional contributors with readers; and Salon has established two extensive discussion board communities, available only to subscribers: Salon Table Talk and The WELL. Since 2005, comments on editorial stories are open to all readers. The publication is strong on news and opinion, and claims to feature:

some of the most in-depth and hard-hitting political coverage found anywhere, as well as breaking news, investigative journalism and commentary, and interviews with newsmakers, politicians and pundits. The War Room is updated throughout the day with breaking news.7

19Salon is popular and successful, but without major commercial sponsors has always had a precarious financial basis.

20Salon is a good halfway point between different modes of publication and aggregation in the mainline news industry, and less conventional publications available only online. There are other sites with the specific brief of reporting news outside the mainstream. One such is OhmyNews International, which has the tagline: All The News That’s Fit to Share With You.8 Founded in South Korea in 2000 ’after decades of authoritarian rule had left the South Korean media deeply co-opted’ (Grossman 2006), and initially available only in Korean, OhmyNews is ’Part blog, part professional news agency’ and ’gets up to 70% of its copy from some 38,000 ’citizen reporters’ […] basically anyone with a story and a laptop to write it on’ (McIntyre 2005). An English language version was launched in 2004, and OhmyNews now claims to have, besides its army of Korean reporters, 1,300 citizen reporters in over 100 countries outside Korea. It also has around twenty ’featured writers’, information professionals and free-lancers, contributing quality content on a regular basis. OhmyNews publishes about 150 stories and gets one to one-and-a-half million page hits a day. Contributions are edited and fact-checked by professional editors to filter out inaccuracies and potentially libellous claims. If a contribution is deemed extra-newsworthy, the editors give it a higher billing and a token $20 fee. OhmyNews is now one of Korea’s most powerful media outlets, credited with influencing the outcome of the last Korean presidential election (McIntyre 2005).

21As a concept, citizen journalism (sometimes also known as participatory journalism, grassroots journalism or public journalism) is difficult to define. The boundary with professional journalism can be fuzzy, but it seems to marry the role of reader and writer in the news arena. In Korea, citizen journalism is a response to a deeply compromised professional media sector; it works less well where the mainstream product is trusted. Audience participation in mainline news media has, in the analogue world, hitherto been limited by the technology to readers’, listeners’ or viewers’ letters, and radio and television phone-ins. On the Internet, the technical barriers and costs of making available material contributed by the public are slight, and people’s desire to participate is considerable, so blogs and reader comment facilities attached to news sites are well used. This is not journalism, but once the boundaries between news and opinion producer, and consumer become less fixed, the parameters of what is and is not journalism change. A general feature of paperless news is the erosion of the paper-based notion of an expert editorial team selecting and directing news and opinion to readerships whose identities are, in some senses, group-constituted by the paper they read. This model now comes under pressure from informed users who interact with sophisticated tools and services provided by news suppliers (which may be online papers or paperless aggregated systems) to generate, and on occasion to respond to and initiate, news as a more personally or locally tailored service. This is potentially a momentous shift in the newspaper’s function – from mass collective identification to mass individuation.

22The Fort Myers News-Press in Florida, owned by Gannett, the world’s largest newspaper chain and owners of USA Today, is experimenting in the redefinition of newspapers in direct response to lost readership and revenue to the Internet and other new media. Their solution is radical: ’the chain’s papers are redirecting their newsrooms to focus on the Web first, paper second. Papers are slashing national and foreign coverage and beefing up ’hyper-local,’ street-by-street news.’ (Ahrens 2006). This news is provided by mobile journalists, or mojos, out on the streets every day looking for local stories, backed up by dozens of ’reader experts’ who review documents and data on local issues and produce reports. Gannett has coined the term ’crowdsourcing’ to describe this kind of outsourced journalism. This initiative is actually a return to an earlier mode of journalism, dying out because it was too labour-intensive and costly: by enlisting amateur, and therefore cheaper, assistance news publishers are effectively reinstating the local roving reporter.

23The greatest costs in running a news source are editorial. Serious, indepth, investigative journalism and professional editing do not come cheap, and many publications have been cutting their editorial costs as revenues decline. As Andrew Marr pointed out, in an article in which a number of media professionals gave their views on the future of news, there is a huge increase in the sources of news, but most of the actual information is recycled; there is not much more new reporting:

Although there’s an enormous amount of online news-related material, if you analyse it, very, very little is actually new fact, new information - it’s almost all parasitic journalism carried out either by broadcasters or newspapers […] what you have not got, obviously, is a new source of original proper journalism, because that costs money and someone has to pay for it (quoted in Burrell 2006).

  • 9 Leader comment, ’Who Killed the Newspaper’, The Economist, 24 August 2006.

24According to The Economist, the decline in ’proper’ journalism is a consequence of dwindling newspaper revenues in the face of stiff competition from the new media. Its current policy is to take a middle view on citizen journalism: it welcomes the opening up of ’the closed world of professional editors and reporters to anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection’ and cites a number of cases where bloggers and citizen journalists have called attention to critical issues; but it argues that for ’hard news’ reporting, as opposed to comment, their contribution is limited (Leader, The Economist, 20069). Citizen journalists are outside the mainstream and often untrained, but sites like OhmyNews have shown that if you use professional editors and writers as well, their contributions can be valuable. Where problems arise is when the use of non-professionals is seen by the paymasters of the mainstream media as a way to save money or, by new entrepreneurs as the way to set up a lucrative business without investing in skill. Robert Niles, editor of Online Journalism Review, comments scathingly:

Perhaps this frenzy to create a ’reporterless’ news publication is simply the logical extension of the disdain that many in news management have had for employing actual journalists over past decades. It’s the ultimate Wall Street fantasy – a newspaper without reporters (Niles 2007a).

25Niles is not averse to the use of grassroots contribution to news publications, just to the lack of any professional journalistic or editorial leadership in such enterprises (Niles 2007a). Professional journalists themselves are concerned about the incursion of the amateur into their realm, and one can understand why: surgeons would be worried if members of the public with the skill to apply a band-aid or administer an aspirin decided they would like to carry out operations. Just because people can use a keyboard and have an opinion does not give them journalism skills, though when they carry a camera phone and are in the right place at the right time, it can make them news photographers: the terrorist attacks on the London transport system on 7 July 2005 were captured visually by hordes of bystanders on camera phones and used extensively by the media. In a July 2005 posting on his ’Complete Tosh’ blog, Neil McFarlane, head of editorial development at Guardian Unlimited, has suggested that we stop using the term ’citizen journalist’ and instead refer to such contributions as ’citizen storytelling’. For Macfarlane, the desired aim is not a society with ’citizen journalists’ overthrowing the professionals’, but an integrated ecology of news reporting in which ’countless individual stories [are] told, and then highlighted when they happen to touch on a matter of mainstream interest.’ For Robert Niles, this integrated ecology is actually a benefit for the mainstream, with readers and writers, professional and amateur, joined together in a news enterprise:

’Citizen journalism’ provides professional reporters the chance to collect many more data points than they can on their own. And ’mainstream media’ provide readers an established, popular distribution channel for the information we have and can collect. Not to mention a century of wisdom on sourcing, avoiding libel and narrative storytelling technique. And our readers don’t care. They just want the most complete, accurate and engaging coverage possible. They don’t know how we make the sausage, or even who makes it. They just want to eat (Niles 2007b).

3. Scale and Fine-tuning

26The paperless, unbounded availability of vast and diverse news sources seems like a benefit to a world constantly hungry for news; but how do we cope with the volume? If we have seen everything we can find on a topic, are we well-informed? And how much is everything? One answer to dealing with the flood is personalization: choosing only the sources or parts of sources that seem to match our interests. Either we can choose for ourselves what news we want to receive from whom, or regularly visited sites might learn our preferences from our behaviour and cater for us up front, much in the way that book sites like Amazon give us recommendations based on our past purchases. If we want to personalize our online news sources, we might set up RSS feeds permitting the user to collate and access a constantly updating stream of material from a web browser; or we might create a Google personalized page integrating various news feeds with useful tools, including calendars and calculators. RSS is the acronym for ’Really Simple Syndication’, and establishing an RSS feed involves downloading a small program to a browser and then choosing the feeds. As described by The Times, ’It’s like having a very efficient butler who cuts out the headlines of your favourite newspaper and serves them to you on a tray’.10 This could be the answer to controlling the volume, but what do we gain and what do we lose from this kind of targeted approach? We can receive information that matches our interests closely, but where we gain in precision, we lose in range: the degree of serendipity which may save each of us from tunnel vision. The beauty of a traditional paper newspaper is the opportunity to find out about things we did not know we were interested in. The seemingly random page layout is in fact well composed, with a balance of large and small items, images, and advertisements, and the opportunity for radial reading described by Jerome McGann as ’the most advanced, the most difficult, and the most important form of reading because radial reading alone puts one in a position to respond actively to the text’s own (often secret) discursive acts’ (McGann 1991: 116, 122). Lateral reading across, or constantly updated reading within, a space tailored to our individual tastes does not equate to this. And yet, the interesting thing is that such reader refinement or second-guessing has long characterized the kind of highly commodified text that newspapers represent in the alliances they forge between disparate items. Throughout modern history, the newspaper one read offered a shorthand expression of one’s political colour, social standing and taste. Miscellaneous digests of news and opinion, newspapers have long informed (shaped) our collective and individual consciousnesses. The instant expertise, based on the tactical deployment of the telling allusion, fact or statistic, which in so many areas is a promise of the sophisticated resources of an online world, was always implied in the newspaper’s model of knowledge transfer. Similarly, recent developments in e-text distribution, like Google’s selling of contextual advertising space wrapped around other people’s content, now extended to the marketing and distribution of e-books, are a direct development from newspaper economics. What has changed is the scale and the fine-tuning of the newspaper’s functions as its economies and its implied reading culture shift from paper to screen and as its conceptual model sets a standard for the electronic delivery of other textual forms than those associated with the news.


1 The first line of the Beatles’s song ’A Day in the Life’, written by John Lennon and Paul McCartney; released in 1967 as the final track of the album Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.

2 The Internet Archive [accessed 8/10/2007].

3 SGML, or Standard Generalized Markup Language, is a standard for how to specify a document markup language (which indicates a document’s structure and other attributes).

4 [accessed 8/10/2007]. Newspaper Publishing in the Online World 209

5 For a recent example, see the comments accompanying The Guardian’s redesign in 2005 in Berliner format,,16390,1552451,00.html [accessed 8/10/2007].

6 [accessed 8/3/2010].

7 [accessed 8/10/2007, 08.50 GMT].

8 OhMyNews International [accessed 8/10/2007].

9 Leader comment, ’Who Killed the Newspaper’, The Economist, 24 August 2006.

10 ’Times Online RSS Feeds’, Times Online, [accessed 8/10/2007].


Marilyn Deegan, trained as an Anglo-Saxonist, is Emerius Professor of Humanities Computing, Centre for Computing in the Humanities, King’s College London, and Director of Research Development. She is Editor, Literary and Linguistic Computing, co-author of Digital Futures (2002) and co-editor of Digital Preservation (2006). Formerly she was Professor of Electronic Library Research, De Montfort, and Director, Forced Migration Online, Refugee Studies Centre, Oxford.

Kathryn Sutherland is Professor and Reader in Bibliography and Textual Criticism, St Anne’s College, Oxford. Her interests are in bibliography, textual criticism and literature 1750-1850. She is author of Jane Austen’s Textual Lives (2005) and numerous essays on textual criticism and its digital aspects. Her book with Marilyn Deegan, Transferred Illusions: Digital Technology and the Forms of Print, was published in 2009.


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