Changes and Consistencies: Newspaper Journalists Contemplate Online Future

Article excerpt

As newspapers by the hundreds spring onto the Internet and new World Wide Web sites adorned with mastheads blossom almost daily, publishers have become proficient at telling one another why online is an attractive place to be. The reasons are couched in terms of both offense -- such as the opportunity for increased connectivity with readers, and demographically attractive ones at that -- and defense, competition coming not just from other publishers or even media companies but from everyone from Bill Gates to Ma Bell and her progeny.(1)

The message clearly is having an effect in the executive suite. A recent count indicates more than 850 commercial U.S. newspapers now offer online services; roughly 150 of those began operation between June 1996 and February 199, alone.(2) What is far less certain, however, is whether the word is getting through to the people who actually create the content that goes into those papers -- and if it is getting through, how it is being received.

This study explores the attitudes of metro reporters and editors at daily newspapers toward changes in the medium through which they provide information to readers. It is concerned with the ways in which journalists are (or are not) integrating those changes not only in their daily routines but also in their perceptions of their own roles, skills and values. Two related questions guide the study:

* What do I do as a newspaper reporter or editor? and

* How is that role -- including the skills and values I bring to my job and career -- affected by imminent, or ongoing, technological changes in the way the stories I write or edit reach my audience?

A Q study was conducted as part of the effort to answer those questions; the results are reported here.

Description of the study

Psychologist and physicist William Stephenson, the father of Q methodology, defined it as the objective study of subjectivity, or a person's point of view on any matter of personal or social importance.(3) Q method reveals clusters of opinion through factor analysis. Q factors are groups of like people, linked by common beliefs, attitudes and opinions.

Q method stresses the preservation of individual viewpoints -- in fact, Stephenson urged the selection of people known to have particular interests -- and the method usually employs a small number of respondents. Q method is not designed to determine how many people of a particular type exist in the world at large.(4)

The 27 metro reporters and editors who took part in this study, conducted in the summer and early fall of 1995, worked at newspapers at various stages of development or production of online or new media. The majority-12 reporters and seven city desk editors -- worked at three newspapers in the South, the Midwest and the West; they also participated in case study interviews about their attitudes concerning new media technologies.(5) Another eight Q respondents, of whom six were reporters, were selected through a stratified random sample of U.S. papers then offering online products; they were contacted by phone to solicit their participation and sent Q sorts by mail. Although Q study results are not intended to imply representativeness in the traditional sense, the journalists studied here do offer a demographic range:

* Of the 18 reporters who participated, 13 were men, as were seven of the nine editors

* Seventeen of the respondents had at least one college degree in journalism or communications; 11 people had complete master's degrees.

* Eighteen of the respondents were over age 30. Of those who indicated professional experience on their recording sheets, seven had been in journalism for more than 20 years; six had between 11 and 20 years of experience; another half dozen had worked six to 10 years; and four had five years or less of professional experience.

* Fifteen of the respondents reported no usage of any online media (again, this was in mid-1995, still early days for the World It ice Web). …