The new Dialogue
Professional journalists and annoying users
The internet enables journalists to
communicate directly with their readers on a
scale previously unheard of, but few journalists
see this as something to cheer for.
The explosion in use of social media gives rise to new expectations among media users. They expect to be able to ask questions, and get answers. To be able to exchange opinions directly with the representatives of the the various media organisations. To be consulted on expert matters, and information is updated and improved as soon as new knowledge emerges.
However, journalists and commentators are sceptical. Basically, they seem none too thrilled by the prospect of directly involved in exchanges of opinion with the general public. What is published is published and new deadlines loom.
In the same way as newspapers struggle to transfer their old business models to new media channels, they are facing an increasing opposition to the communication methods of the old media. The electronic newspaper has served well enough as a transitional model, from old to new media, but the users have increasingly come to expect that journalists also make use of what the internet has to offer. Readers have come to expect interaction, and if news sites remain digitalised versions of old media, users will just move to other sites which make better use of the social web. This is the consequence of the transition from a supply managed publishing economy to a demand managed one. News and information are no longer a limited resource. And old
branded goods are not necessarily as valuable as many people think.
The publishers of Store Norske Leksikon, a Norwegian encyclopaedia, were sure that their branded goods and stable of experts were enough to oust the colloborative none profit project Wikipedia with all its shortcoming and flaws. But that did not happen. This dynamic and constantly changing encyclopaedia has lived up to user expectations in a better way than what the one put together by yesterday's authorities did.
Traditional media are increasing the use of commentators considerably. This is a relatively cost-efficient way of offering perspective on the news. However, this fast growing occupational group seems to a much greater extent to prioritise discussions with each other on prime time TV - or on Twitter, a social network still dominated by a small élite - than to take an active part in the web conversation and debate their artikles spur.
scholarship holder at the
University of Oslo, where he is
post-research fellow in freedom
of speech and professionalization
of journalism. He is also
senior lecturer II at the Norwegian
School of Management
BI and secretary to the
which is evaluating
press support in Norway.
Mr. Krumsvik has been online
editor in VG and Dagbladet,
managing editor in Scandinavia
Online, Editor-in-Chief of
Romerikes Blad and general
manager of the radio channel
Kanal 24. He studied journalism
at Volda University
College, has a Master of
Management degree from the
Norwegian School of Management
BI and a PhD from the
University of Oslo.
This lack of enthusiasm for close contact with the knowledge and opinions of the public has interested me ever since online newspapers came into being. I was somewhat surprised that the VG journalists' main worry when VG.no was to be launched in autumn 1995, was the question of interactive by-lines. Our initial plan was to link the names of the journalists to their newly acquired email addresses, so that the readers could easily contact the journalist behind the story with their reactions and input. However, many felt that this was totally unnecessary and would only serve to interrupt their work according to widespread opinion, the switchboard was a great invention for sorting through tips from the public.
The VG journalists' scepticism to communicating with the readers is the rule rather than the exception. At the same time we know how user participation can be for creating loyalty, a fact which the media industry is very aware of. When I was responsible for the search engine Kvasir of Schibsted Nett and later for Scandinavian Online, I had the pleasure of experiencing one of the most obvious examples of this first hand. The users had strong ties to the web catalogue they themselves had been active in establishing, and as a result of this the American search engine Yahoo! found the tast of establishing a successfull operation here too difficult and withdrew from the Scandinavian market. Schibsted and the Norwegian Kvasir, and the search engines in Sweden and Denmark, became too strong.
Ten years later I managed to realise my dream of completing a PhD thesis, and I included the subject of journalists' relations with their readers, viewers and listeners in the analysis of strategies, structures and processes of news production in CNN and NRK, the Norwegian public service broadcaster. By studying the common traits of two very different organisations, the ambition was to be able to say something general about traditional media players' encounter with new media.
Despite the fact that I compared an American global, commercial web pioneer to a Scandinavian national public service broadcaster which did not start its online news service until the turn of the century, it turned out that they had several things in common after a decade with online newspapers.
It is true that CNN already in 1993 began to communicate actively with its users on the American online service CompuServe. The TV programme Talk Back used CompuServe as a forum for debate, and some of the opinions of the viewers were passed on in the TV programme. The following year, news headlines were published on the proprietary online service, which led to CNN in 1995 becoming the first among the biggest media organisations focusing heavily on providing a news service on the World Wide Web. The global expansion of the internet was perfect for CNN's distribution strategies. Public participation was still central in this undertaking, but this really changed after the merger between Time Warner and America Online (AOL) at the height of the dotcom boom.
America Online's debate forums, with CNN producing news you could discuss on AOL was a successful, but after the dotcom bubble burst and AOL Time Warner reported a record loss of 99 billion dollars in 2002, CNN's online operations changed. Reporters working for the online operation were sacked, and a converged newsroom were made to offer standardised content which could function on all platforms. As a result of the restructuring the web entrepreneurs went out the door, and CNN.com became a most cost-efficient distribution channel for the news engine CNN. Communicating with users was not considered to be a particularly efficient way of spending time in this model.
In NRK it was voluntary for the different departments to engage in online activities, and for a number of years the newsrooms were of the opinion that there were more important things to spend money on. But at the height of the online optimism around the millennium NRK had an idea for solving the problem of fixed income; instead of letting the broadcasting operations pay for the online activities, NRK was given the go-ahead to finance NRK.no by advertising. However, there was no doubt about the new ventures in-house ranking. In the beginning the online journalists were not permitted to contact primary sources in case they got in the way of the TV and radio reporters. Copying other online newspapers NRK also established an online debate forum, but the users were not invited to take part by using links from editorial content, and the journalists did not communicate with the readers. Thus, in the beginning NRK's online journalists had no communicating with either sources or users. Their main job was to publish NRK's existing content online.
The situation was in other words quite similar in CNN and NRK, although everything around the online business was different.
When I interviewed staff members in both organisations during the period 2005-2007, we talked among other things about what it was that made a news item work online. The fact is that good still pictures are important for newspapers, and live pictures are equally important for television. But what make a good online article?
Both in CNN and in NRK emphasis was on multimediality: the possibility of combining text, pictures, video and other forms of expression when presenting a story. Here, both players had a competitive edge in the online newspaper market because of their access to live pictures.
The second most important thing for both CNN and NRK was their ability to publish the latest news items immediately. Contextualising came third for both. The web allows the media to join together several published pieces on same the subject in one news story placing the latest developments in a wider context.
Number three on the list of both organisations was exploiting the opportunity to publish news on the internet. Less emphasis was placed on other possibilities facilitated by web technology, possibilities which many people thought were going to revolutionise journalism. Both in CNN and in NRK the possibility of increased transparency in the journalistic process by active use of links to external sources, and the possibility of a close dialogue with the users were not regarded as essential for good online journalism. These were not possibilities they chose to employ.
As for making use of comment sections, chat rooms and blogs, one NRK journalist was quite clear; - I'd rather not be involved.
Why is this? One explanation may be found in how the journalistic role is defined.
Gunnar Nygren, a Swedish professor of journalism, has defined the journalistic role by splitting it into four levels to clarify the concept. The most basic level is what journalists actually do in their everyday work. Then comes the silent knowledge based on newsroom codes and routines which can be explicit or implicit. On level three we find the professional norms of the industry which are often formulated in a code of ethics to aid and guide journalists in their work. And finally we have the fourth level which is about the journalists' role in society as narrators of our times.
When news reporters in both CNN and NRK emphasis multimediality, immediacy and contextuality when describing good online journalism, these are characteristics that work well with the journalistic role. This does not involve a new practice interfering with what most journalists do every day. It strengthens rather than challenges the characteristics of skills already valued in the newsrooms, and it does not challenge deeply ingrained ethical principles of caution and fact-checking before publishing. On the contrary, it means new tools for the journalist in his traditional role in society.
Communicating openly with the users is something else entirely.
Journalists wish to submit their stories before deadline, and to be able to go home, have dinner and fall asleep on the coach in front of the TV-set, like any normal person. They do not wish to do voluntary work for the further development of a dynamic story which is never going to be completely finished. Naturally, the story does develop, but the journalist wants to start his next work shift with a clean slate when the latest news is to be disseminated. The debate section can take care of public opinions.
Direct communication with the users does not give the journalist a high standing in the newsroom unless it involves a tip which he or she can communicate to the world as a scoop. And unedited debates and other user-generated content are problematic in relation to the ethical codes of the press.
The Norwegian Online Newspaper Survey, for which I have interviewed managers, journalists and users of online newspapers since 2005, also shows that the user contributions in connection with online products are what worry the professional news producers the most.
However, the discussion about the relationship between journalists and the public
is in no way new. The American civic journalism movement organised popular meetings to involve readers and viewers before the internet opened up any of these possibilities. And its roots go all the way back to the classic philosophical debate
between John Dewey and Walter Lippmann in the 1920ies.
Walter Lippmann believed that modern society was too complex for ordinary people to understand what was going on, and that a technocratic élite should govern while the citizens were kept up to date by a professional press with codes for objective communication. John Dewey replied that democracy could only be ensured by involving the citizens, and that media played a decisive role in this process.
Less than a century later the internet's potential regarding dialogue and contribution to content production has vitalised the debate about professional distance versus involvement.
What stops journalists from taking active part in debates around the stories they themselves cover, is the professional norm of distinguishing between commentary and reportage. The journalist is afraid that by taking part in the discussion he will find himself in a situation where this distinction is erased and as such the professional quality of the product is lowered and his objectivity is questioned.
An important finding in the Online Newspaper Survey is the fact that users and journalists alike are more sceptical to the online newspapers than to the traditional channels of the media operation. It turns out that the more journalistic resources used on online journalism, the more sceptical the users are. This may have something to do with the fact that young and inexperienced online journalists, by having readily available access to statistics on how much web traffic each news article generates, can be tempted to produce articles that generate lots of traffic at the expense of the story's credibility.
The same deviation from professional standard may contribute to making journalists more sceptical to the media companies own online publications than what the users are. The fear of cannibalisation also plays a part here. Support for traditional channels such as print is in decline, and web distribution often gets more than its fair share of the blame for this.
While newspaper managers, editors and journalists worry primarily about how the professional content published online could cannibalise existing products such as print, they ignore the significant change in public attitude to the different channels' importance as debate forums. The professionals still regard the print publication as the most important arena for reader opinions. Here, they are completely out of step with the public: the Online Newspaper Survey shows that the majority of online newspaper users, across the age groups, think that online debate is more important for freedom of speech and expression that what the letters to the editors print are. In the long run, this could threaten the legitimacy the print media privileges are based on.
Of those who think that online newspapers offers the most important forums for debate, there is a clear majority who think that the debate should not be moderated, i.e. the writings should be published as they are, without first having been read and approved by an editor. The majority of editors and journalists would prefer advance control, and tried to introduce this in connection with revision of Vær Varsom-
plakaten (the Code of Ethics of the Norwegian Press) in 2005. The revision committee proposed that to publish a comment without prior approval by the editor was to be regarded as a breach of press ethics.
Even if the proposal had been adopted, it would not have survived for long. The proposal did get the amount of support required to alter the ethical code of practice for the press at this time of struggle between traditional press ethics and the established web practice. The main problem was, in regard to the press ethics, that the proposed practice would probably not be
followed, and complaints would be ignored. That would weaken both the Code of Ethics and the self-regulating system and thus not benefit the industry.
The reason behind the proposal was a ruling by Pressens
Faglige Utvalg (PFU), the Norwegian equivalent of the Press Council, criticising Stavanger Aftenblad for waiting up to 48 hours at the weekend before removing a comment posted to its news site. The criticism was based on the following wording in the Code of Ethics: "Should the editorial staff choose not to pre-moderate digital conversation, this has to be announced in a clear manner for those accessing the pages. The editorial staff has a particular responsibility, instantly to remove comments that are not in compliance with the Ethical Code."
In the Aftenbladet ruling PFU emphasised that comments in newspapers' debate forums fall under the editorial responsibility all Norwegian newspapers have agreed to upheld, and that the editorial staff must follow digital conversations closely. PFU's resolution thus transferred the handling of online debate initiated by the media from an established web industry practice to a legal minefield.
Anyone organising debate groups and chat rooms on the internet has primarily three options: moderated or not moderated - with or without active monitoring. One is, in short, either sender or organiser. For legal reasons it is not recommended to mix the models, and the users should be informed explicitly what regime applies. This is also reflected in the present Ethical Code.
A debate which is neither moderated nor monitored usually has a complaint button, thus enabling the users to call attention to undesired content. When this happens, closing the debate or deleting it must be considered and if necessary implemented
for the newspaper to avoid being held responsible. This is the model used by the majority of online newspapers today.
In order to comply with PFU's demand to monitor this activity, the monitoring will in practice have to take place on a 24-hour basis. This demand was not followed up by the industry, and that led to the proposal of establishing a traditional editing regime:
"Digital expressions of opinion are subject to the same editorial responsibility as all other debate. Comments shall primarily be edited prior to publication, when technically feasible. Online discussions must be monitored on a continuous basis, and offending content must be deleted or blocked as soon as possible."
The reservation of what is technically feasible refers to chat groups whose primary characteristic is that they take place in real time. They can be compared to live broadcasting. In other words, press ethics have previously adapted themselves to technical innovations, such as the possibility to broadcast in real time. Accordingly, it was intended that this exception from the requirement of pre-approval would continue, even though it is both technically possible and to a certain degree also practical to delay live broadcasting a minute or two in order to be able to interrupt the broadcast if anything untoward happens.
However, this pragmatic approach to technical innovations is brought to a standstill in the face of new media. The model behind the reasoning of the committee is that there is one sender, i.e. the editor, communicating with a number of recipients. The communication potential introduced by internet technology is many-to-many conversations and one-to-one conversations.
Chat rooms are perhaps be the best example of this. These are open chat rooms where everyone can take part while at the same time conducting a private conversation with other chatters. The one-to-one conversation hardly comes under the editorial responsibility even if it does take place within the online newspaper. But where three or more are gathered together, the editor should be in the middle.
Pre-moderating these activities would, however, result in a delay unacceptable to the users, and the websites of the newspapers could be reduced to the classic one-to-many model. This was not a major problem for the revision committee arguing in favour
of the proposed revision, saying that most of the "decent" newspapers have strict
rules regarding online debates, that editors have not normally regarded themselves as "restaurant managers" or café hosts, but have, on the contrary, been "society's most influential moderators". They do not wish to hand the publishing business over to a "street parliament".
Norsk Journalistlag (Norwegian Union of Journalists) was in favour of the revision, Norsk Redaktørforening (Association of Norwegian Editors) was oppose to. The lack of consensus for the proposal was largely due to practical and economic con-
siderations. Pre-moderating is costly and impairs the loyalty-generating effect. However, the current practice is not accomplished without due loss of sleep for many a responsible publisher.
The role of traditional media in the development of the digital world is still not being debated to any great extent. But as the worrying debate about the users' exchange of opinions is still going on in the industry, new social media platforms emerge every day, media whose entire operations build actively on user involvement.
As editor of digital media in VG fifteen years ago, I too worried about user conduct in the primitive chat room we had established.
We tried to improve this technical solutions, for example automatic censoring of unwanted language, which only resulted in
the nastiest words being misspelt on purpose to circumvent censoring. After a lot of trial and error, we settled for the café-host
model. By emphasising our presence we managed to establish a constructive tone of conversation, and the few troublemakers
who ruined things for all the others were immediately thrown out.
However, although the café-host role worked well in creating a good atmosphere in virtual space, it is still not understood by editors and journalists as being a part of their professional role when dealing with the people formerly known as the audience.