The Metro Wide Web: Changes in Newspapers' Gatekeeping Role Online

By Singer, Jane B. | Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly, Spring 2001 | Go to article overview

The Metro Wide Web: Changes in Newspapers' Gatekeeping Role Online


Singer, Jane B., Journalism and Mass Communication Quarterly


Newspapers traditionally have brought selected information about the world to local readers' doorsteps. But as papers go online, their editors face new decisions relating to that gatekeeping role. This study examines the print and online versions of six Colorado newspapers, comparing the amount of local and nonlocal news, sports and business content in each. The findings indicate online products have a much stronger local orientation than print ones, suggesting that online papers may be moving toward a reinterpretation of their role in connecting readers to the world beyond their horizons.

It is hardly news that the World Wide Web presents newspapers with innumerable challenges to their traditional roles. Publishers and editors wrestle with issues of content, staffing, revenue generation, and a host of related concerns. One persistently perplexing issue has been how to balance two of the Web's more striking attributes, which happen to present diametrically opposite alternatives for a news organization. On the one hand, the Web is the first truly global medium; content can be disseminated to millions of people in all corners of the globe instantly and without any incremental increase over the cost of sending it electronically around a more literal corner. Yet the Web also is the ultimate niche medium. Because it has no physical limits, it can serve the narrowest of interests, the tiniest of territories.

A print newspaper is somewhere between a universal medium and a personal one. Just where it lies on that continuum depends on its mission, market, and resources; the New York Times serves an international community well beyond New York City, while a rural daily may reach only a few thousand people. But regardless of their size or scope, U.S. newspapers share the role of gatekeeper to the world for their readers. All newspapers present a selection of the day's events, along with other items deemed of interest. That compilation consists of a mix of information from both inside and outside the paper's local circulation area. Each day's newspaper provides a concrete and finite world view that takes in both the proximate and the distant. It is a package that inherently recognizes that the place one lives-the place inhabited by local readers-is part of a set of larger places that includes the state, the region, the nation and, ultimately, the entire planet. Though it serves a community primarily defined by geography, one of the print newspaper's key roles is to connect that geographic community to the rest of the world.

This study examines how that role is changing as newspapers move online. It suggests that although physical distribution of the paper's content has been freed from all geographic constraints, the online paper's world view is far more narrowly focused than that of its print counterpart. The findings indicate that the online paper, at least in its early incarnation, is an overwhelmingly local medium serving a specific community of place. As such, it is giving up a major portion of its traditional gatekeeping function. Providing a link to "wire.ap.org," the online version of the Associated Press, is quite a different thing from selecting which wire stories are of such significance or interest that they merit inclusion in the day's paper. This study suggests that as papers move online, Mr. Gates may find himself out of a job.

Gatekeeper to a Post-Modern World?

Mr. Gates, of course, is the eponymous 1940s wire editor whose job was to choose which wire stories were to be published and which got the spike. While his decisions were subjective, they were based on a set of criteria that, when pressed, he was able at least nebulously to define. Some stories were simply "not interesting," others were "too vague," or perhaps they were just plain "slop." Building on sociologist Kurt Lewin's proposal that a person or group with some power decides what passes through the "gate" and thus is able to become a part of general knowledge, White suggested that Mr. …

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