July 1997

Root Page of Article: Online Newspapers as Familiar Artifacts in New Settings, by Sue Mings

The Virtual Paper as a Solution to the Print Paper's Problems

Growing numbers of online newspapers indicate industry interest in going online as a strategic response to current market challenges. Underwood (1992) calls going online an industry-wide strategy for addressing newspapers' problems. Outing (1996, "Hold on (line) tight"; 1996, "Newspapers online") notes that 100 commercial newspapers existed online, worldwide, at the beginning of 1995, a number that grew to 750 by the beginning of 1996, to 1,115 by May 1996, and to 1,587 by December, 1996. (For the most current statistics regarding online newspaper count, see the list started by Outing and now maintained by Editor and Publisher.

The industry's hopes for online newspapers are based on several assumptions. First, moving newspapers online might recapture young readers, who have fallen away from the habit of reading hard-copy papers (Bogart, 1989; Denton, 1993; Katz, 1994; Thurlow & Milo, 1993), and yet may be attracted to online services. Dalglish (1992) notes that younger readers "have grown up with computers and video games"; (p. 34) perhaps they'll grow into the newspaper habit, online. Erlindson (1995) observes that "Online newspapers are the newspapers [sic] way of reaching at a younger audience," as younger readers "feel more comfortable with new forms of technology" (1995, "The Push Factor" section). Dalglish (1992), too, points out that the online environment is very familiar to many young readers.

Second, moving newspapers online facilitates immense archival capabilities, and these archives, along with tools for quickly and conveniently searching and retrieving from them, can be offered to the online audience (Cracknell, 1995; Hume, 1995; McAdams, 1995).

Moving newspaper production and distribution online also eliminates or at least alleviates much of the cost associated with newsprint production and distribution (Dalglish, 1992; Cracknell, 1995).

Moving newspapers online also removes traditional space restrictions, allowing for greater in-depth coverage of items of reader interest. Lapham (1995) notes that "using the hypertext capabilities of the Web totally eliminates the proverbial 'news hole' [the non-advertising content of the newspaper] and opens up an unlimited amount of 'space' for presenting the news product" ("The Creation of a New Hybrid Model" section). Erlindson (1995) explains that "since online newspapers are not limited by space, background information can be more extensive" ("Elements" section).

Fulton (1996) and Paul (1995) discuss the advantages of this increased space in terms of "annotative journalism." Paul defines annotative journalism as follows:

Imagine this, instead of having a news story on the President's speech, the text of the speech is displayed. Embedded in the speech's text are links which explain the event alluded to, or the history of the proposal mentioned, or compares his position on the topic as stated in previous addresses, or gives a brief bio on the person mentioned, and why they were mentioned. ("This new technology is hyper-text, but the old product is linear" section)

Timeliness and personalization are also often cited as attractions of online newspapers. Gildner (1994) notes that "The computer is a perfect complement to the newspaper. . . . [It] enables the existing news industry to deliver its product in real time . . . hugely enhancing the richness and timeliness of the news. The computer empowers readers to use the "paper" in the same way they do today---to browse and select stories and advertisements at their own time and place. (p. 10) Erlindson (1995) also notes that "Online newspapers ... can provide the news instantaneously. There is no waiting period for a press deadline or an afternoon edition. Stories can be updated as they happen" ("Elements" section). Fulton (1996), too, notes that "immediacy is one of the new medium's advantages" ("What's really new about this new medium?" section). Harper notes that "a growing number of news and online services allow individual users to choose the news and views they want in an electronic newspaper" (1996, November).

Finally, many commentators note that moving newspapers online allows readers, writers, and publishers to interact more directly than ever before. Hume (1995) notes that many online papers already include "online discussion groups and reporters' and editors' e-mail addresses for consumer feedback and story ideas" (p. 7), and predicts that successful online papers will be those that allow for "talk back" features, allowing readers to voice their opinions of newspaper coverage. Syman (1996) finds the reader-response features of the New York Times on the Web its most impressive feature:

The NY Times Forums deserve a separate paean of their own. Only a publication of the heft of the Times could ask Martin [sic] Kalb, of Harvard's JFK School, and Richard Haas, of the Council .on Foreign Relations, to moderate its forums ... It's a brilliant fusion of prestige and interactivity; to be able to post a reply to James Gleick on "Copyright and Intellectual Property vs. Net Culture" and read the spelling mistake he either failed to correct or let stand as his net "creds" is an experience unrivaled in any other medium. Only calling into the News Hour with Jim Lehrer during Shields and Gigot (and making it on the air) to vent about Buchanan's Iowa showing might come close.

The advantages listed above are identified by these commentators (see, particularly, Erlindson, 1996; Dalglish, 1992; Denton, 1993; Fulton, 1995; Garneau, 1996; and Peterson, 1996)---as facilitating both efforts to retain and enlarge the newspapers' audience. However, for such hopes to be realized, the newspapers' online efforts should be grounded in an understanding of their audience: particularly, what that audience looks for in an online paper, and what they do with what they find. --

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