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Jung-Sook Lee Competition
Interactivity and Online News Sites
A reader with a question. One with a story idea. One who wants to use
an article as a
springboard into community discussion. An angry reader. One who wants
to see and hear the
faces and voices in a story, not just read about them. A reader who
wants to find local
information about a national story.
In the past, a newspaper's readers or could write a letter or make a
phone call, but online
news sites make feedback a click away. The Internet provides the
technical capability for a user
to read an article and interact in a way that other media do not have
a natural conduit for. An
online news site can provide e-mail access or discussion forums that
make journalists accessible
and also can foster community discussion. The initiating medium
contains this communication
potential, and it is changing the definition of news on the Web,
Sands (2004) said.
News online provides the opportunity to develop a whole new way to
and Jan Schaffer (2001) of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism
suggested that this be done with
a "much more interactive toolbox." Interactivity is one of the things
that gives the Internet value
as a medium. Newspapers can provide in-depth stories, and television
gives pictures and sounds.
When providers offer these things online, users often confront
technological limitations. The
technical obstacles may be overcome in a few years, but Web
journalism still should be able to
offer something more, something unique now. If interactivity is the
characteristic (Morris, 2001), it seems that online journalism should
be taking advantage of it.
Some media have been slow to use interactive elements, though
(Tankard & Ban, 1998;
Dibean & Garrison, 2001; Singer, 2002; Greer & Mensing, 2003). The
current environment has
media trying to determine whether online news is complementary or
competitive for their
Online interactivity 2
operations (Dutta-Bergman, 2004) and journalists trying to understand
how to work in multiple
media platforms (Huang et al., 2003). In a time when scholars and
practitioners have such
questions, it seems crucial to examine characteristics of online news
Understanding interactivity is important because it is more than just
a "dull buzzword"
that "is so inflated now that one begins to suspect that there is
much less to it than some people
want to make it appear" (Schultz, 2000, p. 205). Interactivity is a
built-in feature of the Internet,
and it is important to understand how online news sites use it. This
paper examines the concept
of interactivity on the Web and offers a literature review that
groups techniques that have been
Perhaps one of the reasons Schultz (2000) can call interactivity a
"dull buzzword" is that
the term often is used without an explicit meaning attached. Many
interactivity as the presence of staff e-mail addresses, polls, or
discussion boards (Tankard &
Ban, 1997; Schaffer, 2001; Singer, 2002; Grusin & Edmondson, 2003);
multimedia, search engines, and hyperlinks to additional information
(Peng, Tham, & Xiaoming,
1999; Lowrey, 1999; Dibean & Garrison, 2001). Researchers seem to
vary in their identifications
of interactive elements on the Internet because many have not agreed
on a conceptual definition.
The concept of interactivity is the subject of many discussions
across disciplines, though.
In a broad sense, interactivity on the Web means a user consumes
some input to the computer, and receives information that responds to
the input. Interactivity is
"a process of reciprocal influence," Pavlik (1998) said, indicating
that user input should affect
provider response. Online journalism can claim interactivity "when
content consumers are given
Online interactivity 3
opportunities to become content creators" (Massey & Levy, 1999, p.
141). Some would argue
that the mere exchange of messages or ideas does not equal
The literature dealing with interactivity of online news sites
generally looks to two
definitions. Schultz (1999, 2000) and Li (1998) rely on Rafaeli, and
Massey and Levy (1999) and
Massey (2000) use Heeter's dimensions of interactivity. Rafaeli
(1988) distinguished among
two-way, reactive, and interactive communication, with each level
being more responsive than
the one before. The simple fact that two parties are involved in a
conversation does not create
interactivity, Rafaeli said, and reactive communication occurs when
one message references an
earlier one. Interactivity is more than just feedback; it is a series
of messages that "relates both to
previous messages and to the way previous messages related to those
preceding them" (p. 120).
Ha and James (1998) echoed this idea, defining interactivity as the
degree to which the
communicator and user are willing to respond to one another.
Heeter (1989) identified six dimensions of interactivity, and Massey
and Levy (1999)
applied four of them to online interactivity: complexity of choice
available, responsiveness to the
user, ease of adding information, and facilitation of interpersonal
dimensions define interactivity as the user's ability to find diverse
content on a site, get a
journalist's reply, add content others can read, and have online
conversations with other users.
McMillan (2002) said much of the research that focuses on what types
of features allow
interactive communication grew from Heeter's conceptualization.
Scholars offered these definitions of interactivity several years
before the Internet was
widely available. Even though the definitions were created to address
other methods of mediated
communication, they are useful here because the definitions provide a
framework for questioning
whether common Web tools called interactive really create more than
Online interactivity 4
Rafaeli's definition of interactivity is more stringent than many
others. Although Heeter sets
clear boundaries for the concept's meaning, the dimensions suggested
allow the word
"interactivity" to be applied in several different ways, even though
not all of them may apply to
every interactive situation.
Like Heeter, other researchers have identified dimensions of
interactivity. Ha and James
(1998) named five dimensions: playfulness, choice, connectedness,
information collection, and
reciprocal communication. Their playfulness dimension included games
and curiosity arousal
devices, and they defined play as internal dialogue that gives an
individual pleasure. Ha and
James said choice offered users a sense of empowerment, and that
connectedness was created
with hypertext, which allowed a user to create map of the site just
like a physical location.
Information collection indicated a user's willingness to provide
information, and reciprocal
communication encompassed the idea of feedback from user to communicator.
McMillan and Downes (1998) identified six dimensions of
interactivity. The dimensions
were direction, or whether communication was one-way or two-way;
purpose, such as informing,
entertaining, or selling; message, or whether the message was from
one-to-one or one-to-many;
time, or whether a user had flexibility of when to participate;
control, by both the sender and
user; and effort, or how much work it takes to interact, framed in
Rafaeli's terms about the level
of responsiveness required.
McMillan (2002) sought to understand "why some cyber-places seem to be more
interactive than others" (p. 272). She suggested a four-part model of
interactivity that measured
communication on two axes: direction of communication and level of
Monologue was one-way, low-control communication; feedback also was
primarily one-way but
gave receivers high control; responsive dialogue went two ways but
gave the receiver low
Online interactivity 5
control; mutual discourse did away with the notions of sender and
receiver and reconceptualized
them both as participants. McMillan's study found that mutual
discourse Web sites were
perceived to be most interactive.
Some research acknowledges two different ways to look at
interactivity. Kiousis (2002)
discussed the difference between mediated human-human communication
communication and whether both were examples of interactivity. Lee
(2000) created a model
that recognized two forms of interactivity, one that involved two
users interacting and another
that involved a user interacting with a medium. Looking at the
correct kind of interactivity for a
situation would clear up some of the confusion about the concept, Lee argued.
Several scholars (McMillan, 2000; Lee, 2000; Kiousis, 2002) have
pointed out other
ways to look at interactivity. McMillan (2000) said interactive
features and perceptions of
interactivity were two perspectives on interactivity. Interactive
features are the processes used to
convey a message online, things such as e-mail, chat rooms, or games.
Instead of focusing on the
physical capacity for interactivity, the perception perspective looks
at what individuals think
about the capacity of a medium or how they use it. McMillan's study
suggested that bulletin
boards and search engines caused the greatest perception of
interactivity, indicating that users'
desire for two-way communication and control of their online
experience are key to
understanding interactivity. McMillan said users are more likely to
develop a good impression of
a site they see as interactive.
Simmons (2003) offered four themes from discussions of interactivity:
the potential for
interactive media to improve society, create a new way for
face-to-face communication, form an
active audience, and shift the power balance between sender and
receiver. The discussion of
face-to-face communication acting as a standard for effective
interactivity appeared in several
Online interactivity 6
scholars' (Ha & James, 1998; Lee, 2000; Kiousis, 2002) work, but it
is difficult to reconcile a
mediated conversation with face-to-face interaction. Ha and James
(1998) pointed out that the
face-to-face standard ignored the possibility of a communicator
sending a message and receiving
feedback hours or days later at another user's convenience. For this
conversation also is a difficult standard to define interactivity
with, researchers said (McMillan
& Downes, 1998; Kiousis, 2002).
Based on the many competing ideas about interactivity and what
constitutes it, little can
be taken for granted when reading about scholars' studies of it.
Different conceptual definitions
create a murky environment where research about interactivity exists.
Several studies recently have evaluated news sites' interactivity
using indexes, which
provide an interesting overall snapshot of the way Web sites are
working. Researchers point to
certain conditions that seem to be linked to interactivity. Greer and
Mensing (2003) performed a
longitudinal content analysis of 81 online newspapers from 1997 to
2003. Their purposive
sample sought to balance large newspapers (circulation greater than
300,000), mid-sized papers
(circulation 100,000-300,000), and small newspapers (circulation less
than 100,000). A site
could earn from 0 to 4 points on an interactivity scale by allowing
user feedback, providing
direct links to contact news staff, posting electronic feedback in
forums or letters to the editor,
and offering users the chance to customize the homepage or request
e-mailed news. Unlike
presentation sophistication or multimedia use, the interactivity
index did not show a dramatic rise
in the seven years studied; scores went from an average 2.18 to 2.86
in the time period. Large
newspapers consistently maintained a higher score than mid-sized
papers, which consistently had
higher scores than small newspapers.
Online interactivity 7
Lowrey (2003) also found connections between newspaper size and
performed a census of Mississippi newspapers online and created a
"degree of site interactivity"
variable by totaling occurrences of interactive features on the 48
sites. Lowrey found a mean
3.67 occurrences of e-mail links from stories, list of staff e-mails,
e-mail links to Webmasters,
other contact information, reader comments posted from stories, chat
rooms, bulletin boards,
ability to e-mail stories to others, polls, search functions, and
hyperlinks to supplemental
information. The data suggested that larger newspapers' sites are
more likely to be interactive,
and there also was a strong positive correlation between
interactivity and use of an outside
vendor to produce the site. Although some anecdotes have suggested
that online staffs are too
small to produce interactive content effectively, Lowrey found that
larger staffs produced fewer
interactive features. He suggested that smaller staffs are required
for sites with outside vendors,
which provide detailed templates. Although McMillan (2000) did not
look specifically at news
sites, her research found no relationship between the size of the
staff and interactive features
produced. However, the greater the number of employees of a site, the
more its manager tended
to perceive the site to be more interactive.
Welch (2004) focused on whether converged news operations – ones that
broadcast, or online platforms cooperating in their newsgathering –
produced more interactive
content than non-converged operations. Welch counted the frequency of
chats, polls, discussion
forums, interactive quizzes or games, search tools, ability to e-mail
a story to others, virtual
tours, related Web links, and "other interactivity components." For
six sites – four converged,
one newspaper, and one television station – frequency of
interactivity ranged from 156 to 1,132.
When adjusted for total number of stories posted, the non-converged
sites ranked fourth and fifth
Online interactivity 8
on the interactivity index. The small sample in this study makes it
difficult to draw many
conclusions, but it does point to a great variance in how sites are
using interactive features.
Forms of interactivity
Scholars have considered a broad range of online features to be
interactive. One of the
most frequently cited forms of interactivity is e-mail links to
reporters from their stories, which
would invite conversation between members of the public and
journalists. Other techniques
called interactive do not have such a clear communication component
and do not stand up to the
strictest definitions of interactivity. E-mail, online forums,
real-time chats, multimedia, polls, and
hyperlinks are some of the most frequently mentioned interactive features.
Tankard and Ban (1998) performed a survey by e-mail and a content
analysis to measure
interactivity of newspapers' Web sites. They received responses to
the survey from about one
quarter of newspapers that had individual Web sites at the time. Of
the respondents, 74 percent
said they gave e-mail addresses for some staff members on their
sites, and 49 percent of the sites
said they responded to all consumer e-mail. The researchers said,
"Interactivity probably means
that messages should receive replies" (Discussion section, ¶3), which
adheres to Heeter's (1989)
idea that interactive media are responsive to the user.
When Massey and Levy (1999) tested responsiveness as a dimension of
their results were lower than the Tankard and Ban (1998) study. The
researchers examined 44
English-language newspaper Web sites in Asia through content
analysis. To operationalize the
potential for responsiveness, they looked for a general newsroom
e-mail address, as well as ones
for the editor in chief, online editor, online section editors,
online reporters, and Webmaster. The
sites averaged about two of the six kinds of e-mail links on their
sites. The researchers also e-
Online interactivity 9
mailed to request information about how each site was maintained to
test actual responsiveness.
These e-mails from coders received an 18 percent response rate, and
the sites responded, on
average, more than two days later. This study suggests room for
improvement in providing a
variety of e-mail addresses and making sure every message gets a
response. English is a foreign
language in Asia, and that audience might have different expectations
of e-mail availability and
interactivity. These factors should be kept in mind when evaluating
The need for improvement came up again in Massey's (2000) study of
the same area of
Asia, but he did find that responsiveness, along with choice
complexity, was one of the most
dominant dimensions of interactivity being used. All 17 newspaper
sites studied provided at least
one e-mail link to the newsroom, which established 100 percent
Massey did not test actual responsiveness in this study.
Work by Schultz (1999, 2000) also is careful to distinguish between
potential and actual
interactivity. A content analysis of 100 newspapers online in 1999
found that only six did not
offer at least one e-mail address somewhere in the site. However, 67
percent of the sites did not
offer e-mail links to journalists from their stories, and only 10
percent provided them from every
story. Schultz's conclusion was that newspapers "tried to minimize
the amount of personally
addressed e-mail that editors and reporters receive" (Email section,
¶5). Presumably, this attitude
would stem from journalists' desire to work productively instead of
having to sort and reply to
many e-mail messages. Schultz (2000) also performed an e-mail survey
by selecting 50 e-mail
addresses from 164 staff members listed on The New York Times Web
site. He received a 38
percent response rate, and even though he acknowledged "a difference
between reader email
[sic] and a questionnaire sent by a researcher" (p. 212), Schultz
said the journalists who
responded to him would be more likely to respond to readers.
A study across two years showed an increase in the availability of
e-mail links on
newspaper sites (Dibean & Garrison, 2001). The researchers chose six
newspapers – two
national, two regional, and two local – and looked at their Web sites
in content analyses. In 1998,
almost 60 percent of site pages offered e-mail links; a year later,
almost 70 percent of pages had
e-mail addresses. Greer and Mensing (2003) showed a continuation of
this trend in their
longitudinal content analysis. Between 1997 and 1999, they found
fewer than 60 percent of sites
providing staff e-mail addresses; by 2003, more than 93 percent of
sites gave e-mail links.
The studies in this category used varied samples and methodology, so
their results cannot
be compared head to head. However, a general trend in the growth of
e-mail use over time
emerges, and Table 1 summarizes relevant findings about e-mail and
Tankard & Ban (1998)
Massey & Levy (1999)
Dibean & Garrison (2001)
Greer & Mensing (2003)
An online forum serves a purpose comparable to letters to the editor
published in a
newspaper. Readers might offer their opinions about events in the
news, react to a particular
article, or even respond to comments from other readers. These forums
might place information
in threads or might provide separate forums for different issues,
such as local news or politics.
Users post their comments, and their words remain online and able to
be read by anyone who
visits the site in the future. Massey (2000) found a correlation
between staff size and a dimension
Online interactivity 10
Findings about e-mail
Almost 3/4 of online newspapers gave some e-mail address, and
about half said they responded to all messages.
E-mails to newspaper sites received 18 percent response.
All online newspapers studied had at least one e-mail link.
96 percent of papers had at least one e-mail address posted, but 2/3
did not give reporters' e-mail addresses in stories.
E-mails to New York Times journalists received 38 percent response.
In one year, the percentage of pages within a site with an e-mail
address rose from 60 to 70.
In 1997, less than 60 percent of sites provided e-mail addresses; by
2003, more than 93 percent did.
Online interactivity 11
called "ease of adding information," indicating that a site with more
employees is likely to offer
more in the way of avenues for contribution from readers.
Studies counting forums available on online news sites have varying
results. Gubman and
Greer (1997), who sampled 83 online publications, found that about 58
percent of sites would
post reader comments in forums, letters to the editor, or attached to
particular stories. Greer and
Mensing (2003) used this data as the beginning of their longitudinal
study of sites, and they
found that the same practice increased to 75 percent of the sample in
2003. Massey and Levy
(1999) also found that more than 60 percent of their sample of Asian
news sites would allow
users to post content through letters or forums.
Schultz (1999) said that 33 percent of 100 newspaper sites ran
discussion forums, and
seven of them had journalists from the newspapers regularly
participate in them. These numbers
are the lowest representation of online forums, and this is likely
because Schultz looked for areas
specifically labeled as discussion forums rather than also
considering online letters to the editor
and the like. The study points out that although the forums allow
readers to interact with one
another, many sites were not choosing to be interactive by moderation
or their own participation.
In this way, discussion forums are "reader playgrounds" (Discussion
forums section, ¶4), Schultz
said. In his survey of New York Times journalists, Schultz (2000)
found that the lack of journalist
involvement did not prevent "vivid discussions [from] taking place
that are mostly interactive"
(p. 215). Schultz's definition of interactivity follows Rafaeli's
(1988) model, which means he
found chains of conversation in the forums that showed real
Even Schultz noted some limitations of discussion forums, such as
domination by a few
individuals that derail conversation. At the other end of the
spectrum, Singer (2002) studied the
use of Iowa's five daily online news sites during the 2000 Iowa
caucuses and found low user
Online interactivity 12
participation. Four of the five sites organized caucus-related
discussion groups or forums, and
"participation was underwhelming" (p. 93). In the month before the
caucuses, no site received
more than 71 postings to its boards. But when Singer interviewed site
editors after the effort,
comments had a hopeful and idealistic ring. "We were actually serving
as the medium between
two readers" (p. 94), one editor said, and another spoke of creating
"an arena of interactivity
within Iowa – Iowans talking to Iowans" (p. 94). Still, Singer saw
room for improvement; the
site that received 71 political postings had more than 16 million
hits that month.
A summary of findings about the use of online discussion forums
appears in Table 2.
Gubman & Greer (1997)
Massey & Levy (1999)
Findings about online forums
58 percent of online publications posted reader comments.
More than 60 percent of sampled publications posted reader
1/3 of publication sites ran forums.
Publication's Iowa caucus site got 16 million hits; during that time,
71 posts were made to political bulletin boards there.
3/4 of online publications posted reader comments. Greer & Mensing (2003)
Like discussion forums, the sites of national or metropolitan
newspapers are more likely
to offer real-time chat functions – conversations on a particular
topic that are available to
participate in only for a limited time before they change or go away
– than smaller papers (Peng,
Tham, & Xiaoming, 1999). In their content analysis of six news sites
by publication size, Dibean
and Garrison (2001) found "very little use" by local, regional, or
national publications of chat
rooms. Asian studies echoed this finding. Massey and Levy (1999)
counted moderated and
unmoderated chat rooms as contributing to the interactivity dimension
interpersonal interaction." Less than 20 percent of 44
English-language Asian news sites
provided any kind of synchronous chat, and when Massey (2000) later
performed a similar
Online interactivity 13
content analysis, he had to drop the interpersonal interaction
dimension because none of the 17
sites that he sampled offered chats at all.
The numbers were little better in Schultz's (1999) content analysis
of 100 daily sites; he
found five hosting synchronous chatting and three that linked to
another chat provider. All of
these organizations were mid- to large-sized newspapers, a finding
consistent with other studies.
Two sites organized chats around specific subjects and invited
officials and experts to
participate, as well as regularly including journalists. Schultz said
these efforts showed "a
willingness to adapt to the conversational ethos of the Internet"
(Chat rooms section, ¶3), even
though most sites had not yet made that step.
When Singer (2002) examined the Iowan sites during the 2000 caucuses,
she found one
of the sites that set up separate chats with four of the presidential
candidates. One site had an
interactive town hall, and another set up an online event for
watching party debates. The site
showed each debate live by streaming video, and it conducted polls
and discussion at the same
time. However, few participated in the debate discussions – perhaps
because of college
basketball games at the same time on the two Saturdays, Singer theorized.
E-mail and discussion forums were found to be fairly prevalent in
comparison to realtime
chats, which are almost guaranteed to be interactive. E-mail and
forums have more potential
to stay at a reactive level in Rafaeli's (1988) classification
system. A chat is likely to inspire
reader-to-reader interactivity, and Schultz (1999) suggested that
chatting on a moderated news
site could provide links to relevant information, as well as keep the
conversation above the level
of the trivial. Online chats definitely are a function the print
product cannot offer. Singer (2002)
said it is up for debate whether interactivity is still developing or
whether its absence online,
such as through participation in real-time chats, shows that readers
do not demand it.
Online interactivity 14
A summary of findings about the use of synchronous chatting appears
in Table 3.
Peng, Tham, & Xiaoming (1999)
Massey & Levy (1999)
Findings about real-time chats
National and metropolitan newspapers were more likely to
offer chatting than smaller papers.
Less than 20 percent of sites sampled offered synchronous
Less than 10 percent of sites offered or linked to
No sites sampled offered synchronous chatting.
Publications of any size were making little use of chatting.
Found several varieties of real-time activities offered.
Dibean & Garrison (2001)
E-mail, discussion forums, and real-time chatting are widely agreed
to have interactive
properties; multimedia is the first of several that is less widely
recognized. A multimedia
presentation may use audio, video, graphics, or other methods to give
users a more complete
picture of a story. From a different perspective, Sundar (2000)
called "multimedia" a misleading
term because it doesn't refer to multiple media but multiple senses
involved in processing a
message or multiple channels used to transmit it. The multiple
channels might include animation,
audio, video (Gubman & Greer, 1997), or pictures (Sundar, 2000).
Gubman and Greer (1997) defined multimedia as animation, audio, and
video, and their
content analysis found only 12 sites using any of those in news
sections of 83 online newspapers,
and Massey (2000) found it even more rare. He dropped analysis of
multimedia as a component
of the complexity of choice dimension of interactivity in analysis of
Asian news sites because he
found no occurrence of any applications. In contrast, Dibean and
Garrison (2001) found 30
percent of site pages for six newspapers offering video in 1999 and
27 percent offering audio.
The sample distribution – two small circulation, two mid-sized, and
two large circulation
newspapers – probably skewed these findings, though, since Schultz
(1999) found that larger
newspapers were more likely to offer multimedia applications.
Online interactivity 15
Several researchers (Schultz, 1999; Welch, 2004) described multimedia
as separate spheres, but the presence of one on a news site often
means the site is likely to use
the other to tell stories. Schultz – who asserted that "the use of
machines and their applications
is, in itself, not interactive" (Concept of interactivity section,
¶5) – found 16 percent of
newspaper sites using multimedia applications, as well as a
correlation between that group and
the use of interactive functions, which he operationalized as the
presence of discussion forums.
Of sites that used multimedia applications, 69 percent had forums,
and only 26 percent who
lacked multimedia on their sites hosted forums. Schultz also created
an index of interactive
options by counting general e-mail addresses, e-mail links from
particular stories, e-mail links to
politicians and officials, discussion forums, chat rooms, polls, and
online letters to the editor.
Online newspapers with multimedia had a mean score of 5.88 on the
index, whereas others had
an average of 3.74. The difference was statistically significant.
Welch (2004) studied six online news sites to examine multimedia and
Welch did not claim universal applicability of her results, but she
found that the only news site
with a significant score on an interactivity index was one of only
two with a significant score on
a multimedia index.
The relationship between multimedia and interactivity is interesting.
readers the sense that they can control how they experience a story,
and it might also cause them
to rate a site as more professional (Sundar, 2000). The findings of
Sundar's experiment, though,
suggest that multimedia applications actually hinder memory for story content.
Online interactivity 16
Table 4 offers a summary of findings about multimedia use and interactivity.
Gubman & Greer (1997)
Dibean & Garrison (2001)
Findings about multimedia use
Less than 15 percent of online newspapers used multimedia.
16 percent of newspaper sites used multimedia.
About 1/3 of pages within newspaper sites used video, and about
the same number included audio.
Score on multimedia index linked to score on interactivity index. Welch (2004)
Online polls give users a chance to vote on an issue and see how
their opinions compare
to others using the site. Polls also provide the opportunity for
sites to link to background
information. Without contextual information, Schultz (1999) contends
that polls remain at a
reactive level and do not have true interactivity, even though users
have input that is displayed to
other users. He found 24 of 100 daily newspaper sites with polls, and
most were what he called
quick polls. Those offered multiple choices without the ability to
post related comments. Only
two of the polls were from newspapers with circulation less than
25,000. Schultz found further
weaknesses with the polls; most allowed users to vote more than once,
so the polls had no real
validity. Quick polls were the kind Singer (2002) found at two Iowa
newspaper sites before the
2000 caucuses; thousands of people voted in them, which could suggest
that users like to be able
to express their preferences without putting a great deal of time
into posting them.
Massey and Levy (1999) and Massey (2000) grouped polls with online
letters to the
editor and discussion forums as the components of the "ease of adding
of interactivity. Neither study reported how each of the components
newspaper sites, but Massey and Levy said about 65 percent offered at
least one of the three, and
Massey found about 59 percent with one.
Online interactivity 17
Data from Schultz (1999), Massey and Levy (1999), and Massey (2000)
seem to indicate
that polls have not been used frequently, but Singer's (2002) data
suggest that polls can garner
high user participation – and, with enough context, true interaction.
A summary of findings about the use of polls appears in Table 5.
Researchers Findings about use of polls
1/4 of newspapers had quick polls, but very few of those were smallcirculation
65 percent of sites offered at least one of three categories: polls,
online letters, or discussion forums.
About 60 percent of sites offered at least one of three categories:
polls, online letters, or discussion forums.
Thousands who visited Iowa caucus sites voted in polls.
Massey & Levy (1999)
Links may allow users to access information about particular
interests raised in a story,
but researchers disagree whether they are actually interactive.
"Embedding hypertext links into a
Web-published story is criticized for giving readers a false sense of
interactive control over
content – and defended as a device of interactivity that is not being
given its due," Massey and
Levy (1999, p. 139) said.
Schultz (1999) is one who argued that "selecting from different
hyper-links [sic] is not in
itself interactivity." This is a defensible position, given his
acceptance of Rafaeli's definition of
interactivity, but it becomes muddled when taken with his contention
that linking to background
and supplemental information can make a poll interactive instead of
On the other hand, Peng, Tham, and Xiaoming (1999) said the ability
"to follow a nonlinear
reading path … [makes] the document interactive" (p. 55). In
interviews with the creative
directors of four online news sites, Lowrey (1999) found all of them
encouraging "links that
make sense" (p. 22). The directors' main goal was to keep users on
the site, though, so links were
weighed carefully and usually opened in a new window, the directors
said. Lowrey (2003) later
Online interactivity 18
used hyperlinks to related information as a component of an
interactivity index, and when
Massey and Levy (1999) examined links to background information from
Asian newspaper sites,
they found about one-tenth of the sites doing this. Welch (2004),
however, found all six sites in
her study offering related Web links – between 23 and 673 in a
Other interactivity tools
Several other tools were either mentioned infrequently or not fully
interactive techniques on news Web sites. Immediate and updated
information (Massey & Levy,
1999; Massey, 2000), search functions (Lowrey, 1999; Lowrey, 2003;
Dibean & Garrison, 2001;
Welch, 2004), site customization (Greer & Mensing, 2003; Gubman &
Greer, 1997; Massey,
1999), the capability to e-mail stories to others (Lowrey, 2003), and
quizzes (Singer, 2002;
Welch, 2004) have interactive properties, some researchers said.
Users' ability to be content creators and to communicate with
journalists and other users
gives the Internet a niche in news. In order to get a point where
sites make full use of these
advantages, Lowrey (1999) said both journalists and users must
develop new schemas for
processing news online instead of viewing it as a modified version of
print journalism. This also
may require larger online staffs, despite Lowrey's (2003) findings
about smaller staffs producing
more interactive content. Newspapers must move past shovelware and
convert a story or graphic
into an interactive form that makes it worthwhile for the online
user. Greer and Mensing (2003)
make an excellent point, however: "newspapers are still working to
find interactive elements that
function well in an online news environment" (p. 22). Producing more
– in quantity and quality –
interactive journalism will not happen overnight. But it is important
for providers to continue
their search for online forms that work for users and are
cost-effective to companies.
Online interactivity 19
The interactive elements currently in use all serve a purpose, and it
may be less useful to
try to determine exactly which behave as true interactive tools
rather than take advantage of what
they all can accomplish together. The most important point is
conceptualizing interactivity as a
two-way conversation, which means that a few simple clicks probably
do not equal interactivity.
But hyperlinks to supplemental information that would inform readers
before they take a poll or
quiz creates a more interactive situation than users would encounter
with the poll alone.
"Passivity may be a natural desire and an enjoyable right" (Schultz,
1999, Introduction section,
¶3) for some, but for people who seek to connect with journalists and
other users, the
interactivity of online news can be an excellent outlet.
Online interactivity 20
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