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Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers

Author: Pablo Boczkowski
Publisher: Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2004
Review Published: November 2004

 REVIEW 1: Anne Beaulieu

Don't believe the hype -- study it!

How often are scholars accused of buying into the hype, just because they set out to study the internet? One possible response to such accusations is to argue that one is looking beyond the hype, and to stress that one's work deals with very real phenomena, which are important and concrete. Another approach is to turn that question on its head, and to consider the hype, rather than dismiss it. What precisely are the promises of the internet? To whom are they made and by whom? How are certain promises believed and acted upon, and which are doubted?

This is precisely one of the well developed lines of inquiry in Pablo Boczkowski's Digitizing the News: Innovation in Online Newspapers. He traces the promise of digital media for newspapers, what this promise has meant, and how it has been acted upon. He does this by asking in turn: How were these technologies meant to extend newspapers? How was the web constituted as the best alternative to print on paper? What did readers and newspaper owners hope to get from a digital newspaper? What did newspaper editors think their audiences wanted from an online newspaper?

Boczkowski follows the promise of digital newspapers on a number of levels, and combines two methodologies, to produce, as he describes it, an ethnography embedded in a historical sensibility (12). The study focuses heavily on the American context, and traces developments up to the late nineties. In order to understand how the industry in the U.S. imagined the possibilities of using media other than print on paper, the author examines the professional literature of this industry in the decade preceding the development of online newspapers. He specifically traces the history of various media, and the many promises they held for newspapers (more on this below). The second strategy used to examine these promises and how they are acted upon is ethnographic fieldwork. Boczkowski focuses on three case studies of digital newspapers, and investigates practices around these technologies by conducting interviews, observing daily activities, and by participating in the activities of the producers of these online resources.

I begin with this element of the book for two reasons. First, Boczkowski has chosen the more intricate and interesting response to this issue of the 'hype,' turning it into an interesting line of investigation in its own right, rather than dismissing it for fear of being associated with it. Second, I emphasize it here because this book is a very nice elaboration of a concept from science and technology studies (my own field), which may be of use to other scholars who study internet technologies. The idea of recovering the meaning of technologies for users is an important element in the study of technologies. The starting assumption here is that technologies do not have a meaning outside their social context. This is often labelled as the SCOT approach (social construction of technology), and was articulated some years ago (the collection edited by Bijker and colleagues (1989) is a landmark). It continues to yield important insights into the development of technologies (see for example the recent collection edited by Oudshoorn and Pinch, 2003).

This book therefore documents a particular moment in the evolution of newspapers, a documentation that is needed because as SCOT argues, once a medium is established, other paths are no longer as visible. We come to share an idea of what a technology is for or how an online newspaper should look, and other possibilities seem somewhat misguided or even silly.

The approach is therefore one that addresses the evolutionary processes which make technologies come to matter on the one hand, and the adaptation and reworkings of technologies themselves, rather than their effects, on the other:
    Media innovation unfolds through the interrelated mutations in technology, in communication, and in organization. I make sense of any of these three elements in the context of its links to the others, much like a triangle in which the function and meaning of one side can be understood only in connection to the other two. (11)
This approach contrasts with the study of 'impacts' of technology, and highlight again the author's sensitivity to the malleability of technologies. Throughout the book, there is furthermore an interesting contrast between the author's evolutionary metaphors (hybrids, survival) and the actors' military and mechanical metaphors.

Non-print-on-paper initiatives

The first part of the book considers the period preceding the case studies (discussed in the second part). Boczkowski presents the variety of options that were considered by newspapers, when considering diversifying their product beyond print-on-paper, and that led to a focus on the web as preferred place/medium/form of expansion for newspapers. Boczkowski explains: "to make sense of the passage from multiple options to a preferred one, I utilize the work 'settling'and weave together the notions of settling a dispute, settling in, and the actors as settlers" (19).

The notion of settling contrasts with other ways of telling stories of technological change. The stories told in this analysis are not about a single path of development, or of a goal finally reached. This makes for a complex storyline, but Boczkowski's skilled use of metaphors and key phrases, like 'settling' guide the reader, and serve as short hand for complex theoretical arguments.

A number of alternatives to print were therefore explored, before newspapers settled for the web. Boczkowski discusses various projects using teletext, audiotex, and videotex systems, and discusses the specific ways in which they were judged to be successes or failures (technological, financial, etc). He also pays attention to the various features of these new forms, and traces who was interested in them, and with what consequences. For example, users might have been interested in the possibility of producing their 'own content,' but to a newspaper interested in spreading its own product, this was not a winning feature and was more or less ignored. Boczkowski also shows that some of these experiments, though in some senses failed experiments, were positive outcomes to newspapers. For example, the lack of commercial success of teletext and videotex systems reassured newspapers that ink on paper was not going to be under attack in the short term (31).

This section of the book closes with the "settling" of newspapers on the web as the form of choice for their explorations and developments. This was largely motivated by the newspaper's perceptions of what users wanted:
    Thus, in the social construction of technology model parlance, the mechanism that settled the dispute could be termed 'closure by perceived user behaviour.' The perception of what users were doing is actually more central that what users were in fact doing, which was hard to find out anyway. (47)
The analysis continues with the exposition of newspapers as 'hedging,' as a "multidimensional response to uncertainty in a volatile operating climate" a behaviour that does not arise from an "individual and omniscient reasoning, but from the aggregate actions undertaken by the industry as a whole" (67). As one actor describes, newspapers were uncertain about what the digital revolution would mean for them, and describes the strategy as deploying across several fronts, because they were not sure which one they will have to fight on (68).

Besides the importance of these issues for the business aspects of newspapers, Boczkowski also addresses the organizational and production issues that the exploration of online newspapers raised for these organizations. For example, newspapers explored possibilities of networked organization, so that the reach of a local newspaper might be extended by being networked to similar papers in other cities. This led to new products, which didn't necessarily fit with existing organizational structures. For example, local advertisers (important sources of income for newspapers) might not see how their interests might be served by an online product available across the country beyond the local boundaries of their print counterpart. Or in cases of networked organization, "these alliances and partnerships were often among newspaper companies more accustomed to competing that to cooperating" (58).

The digital in practice

The first part of the book closes at a point when the web becomes the main medium pursued by newspapers. Having dealt with the promise of new forms for newspapers and its practical consequences, the second part of the book focuses more closely on the practices of production and innovation in three initiatives. A chapter is devoted to each, and these are summarized below. Boczkowski's treatment of the digital, what he embraces in pursuing these case studies, is a wonderful contribution in itself. In contrast to the view of the digital as signifying translatability, accessibility, and transportability, Boczkowski shows how specific features of technologies are developed, invested in, and built upon. The shape of online newspapers in each of the case studies therefore draws attention to how the potential of a technology is realized differently. The reasons for these differences are explored on a number of levels: the organization of the newspapers, the relation of print to online products, notions of what readers/audiences expect, and the material organization of this work. Together, these cases highlight a number of elements that make a difference in the shaping of technology (discussed in the book's conclusion), and also show that the digital is not simply a cultural form that is self-evident. In particular, this book is a great contribution to ethnographic studies of online phenomena because of its attention to materiality -- an element often lacking in ethnographic work (Beaulieu 2004). The comparative set up of this study (from ink on paper to digital) and the toolkit of science and technology studies probably contribute to inclusion of this element in the analysis, but it is no small feat to sustain analysis across so many levels and cases. Boczkowski is to be commended for daring to set up such a complex matrix, for reaping its analytical fruits, and presenting them so clearly in this book.

Cybertimes

The first case study focuses on Cybertimes, the online initiative of the New York Times. Initially, the site featured repurposed print material. Cybertimes was meant "to provide the Time's view on the daily technology world and to act as a kind of host for our experimentation with web journalism" (77). This online product increasingly came to share key characteristics of print journalism. Boczkowski describes how its contents are conveyed by textual means, its publication is daily, stories' length are similar, and there is a dominance of one way communication, with feedback and forums separate from news. In other words, the newness of online was increasingly reshaped to resemble the print newspaper. The author shows the relation between the various features of the online project and the interdependent communication and organizational practices between the print and the online departments. The producers, as representatives of one of the leading 'quality newspapers,' felt they should act as gatekeepers and therefore tended to be conservative. Equally, the way users were imagined, as technically unsavvy also made for a more conservative, lowest common denominator approach. This case also demonstrates the importance of the material for determining how an online product is shaped:
    Technical considerations appear to be intimately associated with how the news is told, who gets to tell it, and to what kind of public . . . Material matters were central in the motives and practices of the actors making the news online. (103)
The values enacted, and the parallel organisation of the production and design processes, therefore tended to recreate the print product online.

Voyager

In the second case study, that of the Houston Chronicle's Virtual Voyager, one of the key concepts was to give users/readers the chance to have vicarious experiences. This was also an organizational and technological experiment for the newspaper itself:
    My analysis shows that, rather than being mutually exclusive, the creative and commercial kinds of vicarious experiences became the two sides of the same innovation coin tying together established and novel practices. (107)
For this case too, Boczkowski presents several phases in the development of the online product, and analyzes what these changes mean. For example, a digital online newspaper could mean freedom from production constraints and deadlines that are so important in shaping daily printed newspapers. Yet, this possibility is not necessarily meaningful. In this case, the discovery was that no one was waiting for news facts to pop up. This encouraged the group to go beyond reproducing print news, and to explore and develop other features around digital media, "a refocusing of efforts from immediacy to multi-media" (110). Voyager therefore adopted mixed practices that originated in different repertoires (audio visual story board, programming, etc), rather than reproducing the print ways of working, for making this online product. This initiative also explored interactivity much more widely, relatively speaking, than in the Cybertimes project. Editors explored new roles for themselves, such as being a facilitator for 'amateur' fact gatherers, seeing themselves as brokers (130). Voyager also enacted a very different view of users/readers, including for example a resource page, for users to get latest tools and software.

But Voyager did not succeed in reinventing or fitting in with existing structures of the print newspaper. In commercial terms, it became too global for the newspaper's organizational set up, which was much more locally oriented. The online product was too sophisticated for local advertisers, and there was low incentive for web only ads. Boczkowski terms this a lack of coordination across the boundary to the marketing department. This initiative was a commercial failure, but a user success -- once again proving the value of carefully attending to the variety of meanings of technological artifacts.

Distributed construction

Boczkowski’s third case consists of a special section of a website, Community Connection. This site was set up to offer the possibility for an organization to build or upload a site, and to change it as often as wanted. This involved neither compensation nor charge. Clearly, the contrast here with the other initiatives is that of a strongly distributed construction. The developers of this site, a group of 'populist newspapers,' were focused on the local, which shaped the orientation of the site. Work of New Jersey Online was not about paring down and gate keeping online but rather finding new contributors, new sources, new links, and new content (expansion). The role of the developers was therefore one of facilitation rather than gatekeeping.

The developers were also intent on keeping the system simple: Community Connection was about communication and ease of use, not about technological sophistication or multi-media experiences. The project also provided a liaison person, who got to know the local groups, and a helpdesk where users could ask questions and be talked through problems with the system. The system also started being connected to the newspaper activities, by having someone from the connection team attending meetings of the newsroom, and then searching the community connection sites for links. This shows how boundaries can be overcome, but that such efforts require work.

Again, Boczkowski shows that success is a contextual issue. In comparison with the other initiatives, this project may seem most democratic, the most successful challenge to traditional media structures and their vested interests. By attending to the various meanings of this project, Boczkowski shows that some defined Community Connection as being outside the boundaries of the media, and saw it rather as a marketing campaign, based in giving people self publishing tools.

Acounting for the Online Experience

In concluding, Boczkowski contrasts his study with other work that tries to understand adoption by users by focusing on the online experience. He notes that it is not only this experience that matters for adoption, but also the way expectations about users are built into the technology (Will users be tech-savvy? Do they have the latest browers? etc) and the ways infrastructures are set up (centralized, flexible, etc). Important elements may be missed if the question of how users embrace interactivity or other online media is only posed in terms of 'online experience,' without taking into consideration how this experience is structured by offline interaction.

He also discusses the case studies, and finds they point to the following:
  • The more alignment between print and online, the more print ways of doing things dominate.
  • Expectations about users shape how technologies are used and which features are developed. When users are expected to be technologically sophisticated, there is a tendency to explore multi-media possibilities. When users are expected to be less savvy, print and image dominate in the way the media is shaped. Also significant is whether the imagined audience is considered to be 'users' or 'producers.'
  • And finally, the self-perception of the online newspaper developers is also determinant: notions of being a gatekeeper or a facilitator shape the nature of online innovations.
A Form of the Digital

I noted above that one of the strengths of this book is that it characterizes the digital quite carefully, showing how particular instances of a technology's potential might develop or be concretized. I welcome these boundaries and the attention paid to both the promises of a technology (which play a role in shaping it) and to the actualization of potential features of a technology. This careful positioning of this study led me to wonder about the relation of these new forms of newspapers, and the increased presence of digital forms, both institutionally and culturally. In other words, this book is about the online versions of newspapers. It is clearly not about word processing or office automation, nor about computerization of the work of journalists and other workers in newspapers production. Nor is it about the use of the web and 'push' dynamics in journalism. It is not about electronic archiving of newspapers either, or search possibilities with web interfaces. The question that arises for me is how (or even whether) to link this excellent study to these other forms of the digital. Is there a sensible link to be made between these activities? Can such a link be made without reifying what the digital is? Can we ask how these various activities interact and how the various tools and practices build upon each other? I made a case above for the uptake of some concepts of science and technology studies -- this may be the point at which science and technology studies themselves need to turn to media theory, cultural studies, and history and philosophy of technology.

Use of 'Virtual Methods'

Finally, I wish to note the use of novel methods to study and communicate about the internet in this book. In one of the case studies, Boczkowski did a content analysis, to relate the content of postings on a forum to the news stories on the site. While thorough, well-described, and triangulated with interviews, this part of the research comes across as a bit of an 'exercice de style', and is quite a bounded, almost self-contained element in the research. Ethnography has often shied away from using these kinds of traces, and the bounding of formal analysis in this text may be the expression of a tension in reconciling quantitative and narrative approaches in ethnographic accounts.

Also noteworthy is the way this book makes use of visual material, presenting ads, cartoons, and such. It also uses 'screenshots' to give a sense of the material presented in digital displays. This makes the fast pace of change in the digital aesthetics quite clear, even on a paper support! This visual material also speaks to Boczkowski's forethought and meticulousness as a researcher. He must have carefully retrieved and archived this digital material, which tends to be ephemeral, even to the producers who can't be counted on to provide such material by the time one is ready to publish. Indeed, in telling the stories of these technologies, Boczkowski notes that he is documenting a moment in the development of technology that may not otherwise be preserved (12). And in fact, many of the digital environments mentioned or discussed in this book are no longer available or have changed radically. For example, see what happened to the Community Connection [http://www.nj.com/cc/groups/index.ssf and http://www.nj.com/cc/]. Note also the technologies suggested to replace this resource -- which tells us, post hoc, what at least some thought it was 'good for.' The suggested replacements tend more to the self-publishing than to the 'newspaper' or even 'local' aspects of the infrastructure. This disappearance of the object of study also highlights the documentation needs that are particular to scholars of the internet, and the importance of tools that enable the preservation of web and internet contents for researchers.

Digitizing the News is a rich, multi-layered analysis of transformations in the conceptualization, organization, and production of 'newspapers' that arise as new media forms are adopted and shaped. Beyond the treatment of this specific topic, the book's qualities as an ethnographic account recommend it to those scholars considering fieldwork as a method. It is furthermore an eminently readable academic publication, and could also serve as a very good introduction to some of the key ideas in the analysis of technology that have emerged from the field of science and technology studies.

Beaulieu, A. (2004). "Mediating Ethnography: objectivity and the making of ethnographies of the internet." Social Epistemology. 8 (2/3):139-164.

Bijker, W. E., T. P. Hughes and T. Pinch (1989). The social construction of technological systems. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

Oudshoorn, N. and T. Pinch, Eds. (2003). How users matter: The co–construction of users and technology. Cambridge, MA, MIT Press.

Anne Beaulieu:
Anne Beaulieu is a member of Networked Research and Digital Information (Nerdi), at the Royal Netherlands Academy of Arts and Sciences in Amsterdam. She is currently pursuing an ethnographic study of the use of ICT in women's studies.  <anne.beaulieu@niwi.knaw.nl>

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