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Subject: AEJ 99 BrillA MCS What online journalists say is important to them
From: [log in to unmask]
Reply-To:AEJMC Conference Papers <[log in to unmask]>
Date:Sun, 3 Oct 1999 04:07:10 EDT

TEXT/PLAIN (627 lines)

New Media, Old Values:


What Online Journalists say is Important to Them


"Nerdy looking youngsters"?

        The Internet allows online journalists to post information almost as soon as
they receive it.  That rush to production has allowed rumor to pass as reporting
and electronic publishing to pass for editing.  One of the most serious charges
that can be leveled against any journalist is that he or she has violated
journalistic values of accuracy, balance and perspective that are a part of the
profession's socialization (Weaver and Wilhoit, 1996).  For the online
journalist, the temptation to bypass traditional journalistic processes may be
all the more tempting since they are thought to be "nerdy looking youngsters"
(Sullivan, 1999) and more likely to weigh technology and marketing over
journalism (McClintick, 1998).
The story of Matt Drudge "breaking" the story of the Clinton/Lewinsky affair
focused the world's attention on not only Drudge but also the journalism
disseminated via the Internet.  Salon's decision to publish a story about Sen.
Henry Hyde's affair, 30 years after the fact, fueled speculation that online
journalists were not only quick to publish, but willing to disseminate a story
rejected by traditional media as not newsworthy.  And in the case of the Dallas
Morning News, their web site caused the newspaper the embarrassment of
disseminating false information, for which they later apologized (Rieder, 1997).
Drudge, Salon and the News' mistake aside, what are the journalistic values of
those working in this new media environment?  How do online journalists see
themselves in relationship to traditional journalistic roles and functions?  How
fair are the characterizations of online journalists?  Are they indeed younger,
more concerned with technology than good journalism, and perhaps less ethical
than their traditional media counterparts?
Little is known about these journalists; it is only recently that attempts have
been made to form an organization of online journalists.  One of the organizers
freely admits that his invitations to join were issued based on "who I knew and
whose e-mail addresses I had in my address book." (Lasica, 1998a).  One of the
topics the group hopes to address soon is credibility of the online media.  At
the heart of that is, of course, the credibility of the journalists working in
the new media.  It stands to reason that the online media will reflect the
values of those producing it (Byrd, 1996; Boyd, 1999).  It therefore seems
critical to study those journalists to learn not only who they are, but also
what they believe is their role as journalists. There are more than 900 online
daily newspapers in the United States (Editor & Publisher, 1999).  If they only
had one employee each, that alone would constitute a large and influential group
of journalists.  In addition, the potential audience for online media grows each
day; it is currently estimated at nearly 160 million worldwide (NUA, 1999).
        Critics have expressed concern that cyberspace holds a host of problems and
possibilities that journalists have not seen before (Lynch, 1998; Gubman &
Greer, 1997; Mann, 1996; and Harper, 1996).  The speed of dissemination, the
potential worldwide audience, the possibilities for interactivity, competition
from non-media companies and the increasing demand for profitability are
changing the media environment (Borden & Harvey, 1998).  How do online
journalists view their roles and values in the midst of such a fast-paced and
changing environment?  Is the online environment more of an influence than the
media and companies that employ these journalists?  For example, do journalists
employed by the New York Times Electronic Media Co. hold different views and
values than those employed at the online site of the Naples (Florida) Daily
        This paper seeks to advance the understanding of journalists in the online
media.  It examines what they say is important to them as journalists and
compares their responses to studies of journalists working in traditional media.
The categories established by Weaver and Wilhoit (1996) of  how journalists tend
of view their roles serves as the base line for the study, but those studies
occurred before the advent of the Internet and the journalists who now practice
their trade on it.
Studies of how journalists view themselves remain critical to our understanding
of the journalistic process.  This study of online journalists fills a gap in
the understanding of the American journalist.


Traditional journalist roles
        Journalists' values have been the subject of many studies.   Among the most
valuable are the longitudinal studies conducted by Weaver and Wilhoit (1986,
1996). Their work drew on the earlier work of Lippmann ( 1922) , Johnstone
(1976) and many others who have studied the American journalist..  While each of
these studies acknowledges a diverse journalistic workforce, they also were able
to draw conclusions about the values and beliefs held by journalists.
        Lippmann was among the first to call journalism a profession.  He studied the
mores, the traditions and limitations.  He defended the role of the journalist
and concluded that the need for professional values was necessary given the
overwhelming amount of information confronting the public.  In 1922, he wrote
about the many voices journalists must interpret:  "All of them do begin to
demonstrate the need for interposing some form of expertness between the private
citizen and the vast environment in which he is entangled" (p. 238).  Nearly 80
years after writing later, it seems highly likely Lippmann would argue even more
forcefully for a sense of professionalism within the vastness of the Internet.
        Nearly three decades later, Breed (1955) undertook a study of the socialization
process in the newsroom. Much like Lippmann, this study found that the
organizational policies for production of the news often determined the roles
and values in the newsroom, more so than any individual influences.  The medium
determined how the message was produced and how individuals in the organization
saw themselves.
        Johnstone and his colleagues (1972) advanced the understanding of journalists'
values and roles further by describing who these journalists were in terms of
race, gender, age, social and economic standings, and other demographic
information.  Those studies also sought to describe functional categories within
the profession. The Johnstone studies found that some journalists adhered to the
principles of "neutrality," seeing themselves as being mere channels of
information.  Others, however, saw themselves as "participants," whose role it
was to sift through information to find and tell the story.  Neutral journalists
viewed their function as getting information out quickly, using only verified
information, reaching the largest possible audience, and entertaining the
audience.  Johnstone characterized "participants" as more likely to see their
roles as investigating government claims, providing analysis, dissecting
national policies, and developing cultural/intellectual interests. In his study,
the size of the organization also was a factor in how journalists tended
describe themselves.
        A decade late, Weaver and Wilhoit (1986) repeated many of the questions posed
by Johnstone and his colleagues.  They added two items to the index to measure
an adversary role.  Their study then developed three categories of how
journalists tended to see themselves: (a) the interpretive function; (b) the
dissemination function; and (c) the adversary function.  Weaver and Wilhoit
found that nearly 60 percent of their respondents scored very high in the
interpretive function.  Those journalists saw their role as investigating
government claims, analyzing complex problems, and discussing national policy.
The dissemination function was also rated highly, by nearly 50 percent of the
respondents.  Under this function, journalists tended to view their roles as
getting information to the audience quickly and reaching the largest possible
audience.  In the 1986 study, only 17 percent of the journalists scored high on
the adversary function, in which they described their role more in terms of
serving as an adversary of government or of business.  Since only a small number
of their respondents fell exclusively in one category, the study determined that
most journalists tended to view their roles as both interpreters and
disseminators of information.
Those findings remained somewhat consistent when Weaver and Wilhoit repeated
their study in the early 1990s. Their more recent study, however, creates a
fourth cluster of functions - that of the "populist mobilizer" who sees her role
as allowing the public to express views, helping the audience develop cultural
interests, providing entertainment and setting the political agenda. The study
found only about 6 percent of the respondents strongly held these views.
Weaver and Wilhoit also found that the journalists' environment was a predictor
of how they tended to view their role. They found differences among daily
newspaper, weekly newspaper, magazine, wire, radio and television journalists.
They also found differences between journalists working in larger organizations
and those employed (the majority of respondents) at smaller outlets.

The Online Environment
        The above studies found correlations between how journalists tended to view
their roles and the media in which they worked.  Print journalists, for example,
were more likely to rate the adversarial function as more highly important than
broadcasters.  The organizational influence also was studied by Beam (1990), who
found that the organization was the source of  professional values and roles,
not the individual journalists.
None of these studies included online journalists since they were conducted
before the development of the World Wide Web.  Articles about online journalists
tend to be highly anecdotal (Frazier, 1998;  Meyer, 1998; and Noack, 1998).
While their numbers remain unknown, it is likely that given the abundance of
online media sites, the total of online journalists numbers in the thousands.
Some say there are as many as 10,000 online journalists (Glachant, 1996;
Beddingfield, Bennefield, Chetwynd, Ito, Pollack & Wright,1995).  Following the
development of the World Wide Web in 1993, the list of sites grows exponentially
each year.  While there are more than 1.5 million registered domain names, it is
impossible to know how many Web pages now fill servers throughout the world.
Media have been warned that their survival depends on knowing and using the
resources of the Internet (Dizard, 1997; Negroponte, 1995) and more join the
online environment every day. In addition, the realm of the Internet is thought
to possess its own sense of community and socialization (Fernback, 1997).
        This relatively young media needs workers and there is a big demand for online
journalists (Slatalla, 1995; Stepp, 1996).  The term "online journalist" is now
acceptable (Glachant, 1996) even though many of those journalists say they do
not feel accepted by traditional journalists (Belsie,1996). The term typically
includes anyone working with editorial content in the online environment,
although the line between editorial and advertising/marketing functions has been
found to blur more here than in traditional media (Singer, 1997; Peak, 1999).
Online managers say they need a mixture of skills to produce web pages -
reporters, editors, photographers, designers and computer technicians (Brill,
1998).  In some respects, the personnel needed to produce an online media
product is not that different from that required for production of a newspaper.
The difference lies more in their particular skills and in their attitude toward
online journalism. Brill found that online journalists ranked the traditional
skills of good news judgment, analytical thinking and good grammar and editing
skills higher than the new media skills of computer design skills and knowledge
of the Internet. That study, however, did not address how online journalists
view their roles as journalists.
If the medium does make a difference in how journalists view their roles and
functions, then it would seem to follow that the online environment would
influence how those journalists see their roles.

        This study attempts to compare the roles and views of online journalists to
those working in more traditional media. In particular, it seeks to answer the
following research questions:
1.      How do online journalists view the functions outlined by Weaver and Wilhoit
and used to evaluate their roles and values?
2.      Does the online environment (the medium) help predict differences in how
journalists see their roles and values?
3.      Are there other variables that help predict differences in online
journalists' values and roles (i.e. demographic data)?
4.      If the online journalists do not view their functions as similar to
journalists working in traditional media outlets, what other function(s) might
they be serving?
5.      In general, how satisfied are online journalists with their roles and jobs?

        The author selected 12 online newspapers for this study.  For the purposes of
this study, the term "online journalist" was operationalized to describe news
workers at these 12 online newspaper sites.  These newspapers were selected
based on their participation in a summer internship program involving new media
students during the summer of 1997.  The author chose to study these sites since
access to the sites was assured; cooperation had been obtained before the study
began (see appendix A for a list of the online newspapers).
Six journalists from each online newspaper were asked to complete a
questionnaire.  The journalists at each site were chosen at random by picking
numbers.  Some of the online sites did not have six employees and in those
cases, every journalists was asked to respond.   Participants were asked to
complete questionnaires and mail them back to the author in a SASE.  Of the 72
questionnaires distributed, 66 were returned for a 92 percent response rate.
That rate reaches 100 percent when the two sites with less than six employees
are taken into account.  In-person interviews with at least two journalists at
each site were used to complement the data. The author believes the site visits
accounted for the high level of cooperation and participation. The managers and
students/interns at each site also were helpful in encouraging employees to
complete the questionnaire.
        The questionnaire focused on the roles and functions that these journalists saw
themselves fulfilling.  They were asked to rate different functions, as adapted
from the Weaver and Wilhoit studies, on a scale of  1 (very important ) to 5
(not important).  Questionnaire respondents also were asked information about
their newsroom operations, their ideas about the future of their product and
online ventures in general, job satisfaction and demographic
information.    Results were compiled and analyzed using SAS; and compared to
earlier findings of how journalists viewed their functions.  For comparison
purposes, daily newspaper journalists were used as the comparison group.  That
group seemed most appropriate for two reasons: The online journalists in this
study also were working for a daily newspaper company; and most of the content
they work with is taken from that daily newspaper and originally produced by
daily newspaper journalists.

Comparisons to daily print journalists
        Online journalists reported that most of their work is similar to print
journalists, with 83.3% citing strong agreement with that statement.  As was
found in Brill's earlier study, these journalists ranked traditional journalism
skills very high, by news judgment (66.2% rated it very important) topping the
lists, spelling and grammar skills were ranked as very important by 62.9% of the
respondents.  A non-traditional skill -- knowledge of the Internet -- was deemed
very important by 64.6% of the respondents. The skills ranked as generally not
important included reporting, generating story ideas and computer design skills.
Interviews with respondents verified that since most (75%, according to survey
responses) are not doing original work, those skills would be considered less
valuable in the online environment.
When asked what traditional job title best describes their work, they chose
primarily "editor" (54.5%), or copy editor (21.2%).  However, it must be
remembered that the respondents were working in sites operated by newspapers.
In their official titles, most also had some component of online activity -
either a title preceded by "online" or "new media" or "digital."

Comparison to functions reported by daily newspaper journalists
Tables 1, 2, 3 and 4 in Appendix B show the how daily print newspaper
journalists view their functions; the tables also show the comparison to how the
online journalists view those roles.
The print newspaper journalists and the online journalists were most closely
aligned in how they viewed the dissemination function, with 50% of each agreeing
that it was very important to avoid disseminating unverified facts.  The other
element of that function, getting information to the public quickly, was rated
as very important by 70% of the print journalists and by 62% of the online.
That's an interesting finding since the online journalists possess that
capability much more than those working in print.  One of the online journalists
suggested that while dissemination speed remains a strength of the online media,
they also recognize that speed cannot take precedent over the other factors of
verification and balance of information.  It's interesting to note here that
when all crosstabulations were run on the four functions and all other
variables, only two comparisons of significance were found:  the first was that
females were less likely than men to view the need to get information out as
quickly as possible (p,<.05).  (The second occurred in the differences between
males and females on the function of developing cultural interests and will be
discussed in the populist mobilizer section).
The online journalists were not as likely as the print newspaper journalists to
see themselves as either fulfilling the interpretive function or the adversarial
In comparison to the print journalists, 70% of whom said it was very important
to investigate government claims, only 24% of the online journalists saw that as
their role. Other components of the interpretive function found similar results:
While 54% of the print journalists said that it was very important to analyze
complex problems, only 35% agreed.  And while 44% of the print respondents
thought it was important to discuss national policy, only 21% of the online
respondents agreed.
The adversarial function also differed between print and online journalists.
Serving as an adversary of government was thought to be very important by 26% of
the print journalists, but only 13% of those working online.  Being an adversary
of business was lower for both groups, with 17% of the print journalists rating
it as very important, but only 6% of the online journalists seeing that function
as very important.
In the 1996 study, Weaver and Wilhoit developed the populist mobilizer function
and thought it might gain ground in future studies.  The online journalists
seemed to follow that trend in three of the four functions: letting the public
express their views, providing entertainment and setting the political agenda.
For example, online journalists said it was very important (59%) to let the
public express itself, going beyond the 52% of print journalists who held
similar views.  They did not, however, agree with print journalists on the
importance of developing cultural interests. As mentioned above, it was
significant that females were less likely to see this as very important than men
(p<.01).  A female online manager suggested this might be a function of age, but
that was not borne out in further data analysis.
The largest gap in the populist mobilizer function appeared when 29% of the
online journalists said it was very important to entertain the audience,
compared to 16% of those working on daily newspapers.  The development of
cultural interests did not rate very highly be either group, but the print
journalists (18%) rated it as very important more than did the online
journalists (9%).
Neither group rated the function of setting the political agenda very highly,
but the online journalists (9%) rated it as very important more often that did
the print journalists (5%).  Several respondents said that in future studies,
they would like to see that divided out among local, state and national
political agendas since they view the local agenda as much more important than
the others.  Two of the newspapers in this study are considered "national"
media, which may account for why this function was rated higher by the online
journalists than the daily newspaper journalists in the Weaver and Wilhoit

The development of another functional category:  Marketing function
        The trend toward populist mobilizer function that Weaver and Wilhoit speculated
about in 1992 may have taken more of a turn into a function of marketing.  When
asked to rate aspects of appealing to the audience, online journalists gave the
four items some of their highest agreement (see Table 5 in Appendix B).  They
saw as very important:  competing with other media (42%); understanding the
audience (60%), providing an alternative to other media (47%); and providing
content for the widest possible audience (66%).  Combined, those items serve to
portray online journalists as very concerned with the functions of competition
and appealing to a large audience, what could be termed performing a marketing
function.  Informal follow-up conversations with online journalists bore this
out as many of them talked about competition from non-media and other companies.
They also talked about measuring the audience - the number of "hits" received
each day was a topic discussed during every staff meeting and usually either
posted on a company web site or somewhere in the newsroom.  Indeed, these online
journalists have learned to track not only their daily audience, but monitor
their audience in hourly and even quarter-hour increments. Many sites have
responded to what they've learned in audience tracking by setting their
production schedules around those habits.  They also have quickly learned  to
spend their time on sections where the hits are greatest, usually sports and
community information, according to the online managers interviewed.

There are more young journalists working online than in the industry as a whole.
In the Johnstone 1971 study , only 11% were under the age of 25; in Weaver and
Wilhoit's 1992 study, that number dropped to 4%.  Of the online journalists who
participated in this study, 25% were under the age of 25.  On the other end of
the age distribution, the number are more evenly matched:  Of all journalists in
1992,  22% reported being older than 44; in this study, 19% reported being over
the age of 44;  3% declined to give their age.
The ages of the journalists are matched by that of the products they produce.
Most of the sites were in operation less than 18 months (65%);  11% were
reported to have been online less than six months and another 17% were less than
a year old.
Despite their young ages, the online journalists were aware that this area of
journalism is not for everyone.  When asked if a fear of technology would
prevent someone from doing their job, 94% agreed.  As for themselves, they
reported being satisfied with their work (73%) and would encourage others to
pursue a similar line of work (82%).  They also see themselves, in five years,
working either in an online newspaper (43%) or some other online product (31%).
They view the future of online products as "very positive" (52%) or "positive"
The online journalists reflect a trend found in previous studies in terms of
gender.  In this study, 60% were male.  While that number is smaller than in the
1992 study, it follows a pattern:  In 1971, 80% of the journalists were males;
in 1982, that number dropped to 66%, where it remained in 1992.
In 1992, Weaver and Wilhoit found that of those with degrees, 35% had earned
journalism degrees.  In  this study, 94% reported having a college degree and of
those 57% claimed a journalism degree.  Only 2% reported a computer science
Perhaps it should come as no surprise that these journalists are well
compensated.  Although 11% declined to provide income information, 32% of those
who did respond reported making more than $50,000 annually.  In 1991, the median
income of all journalists was reported at $31,297; in the current study, 28% of
the online journalists reported earning $30,000 or less.  As would be expected,
income was highly correlated with age.

        This study of online journalists furthers understanding of this burgeoning
field, and may offer a glimpse of what society may expect of them in terms of
the products they produce.  It also may be that they are not so much a "new
breed" of journalist, but indicative of the trends spotted earlier this decade
in the Weaver and Wilhoit survey of U.S. journalists.  This study provides a
very limited look at the field of what may be thousands of online journalists.
Questions were asked of only 66 journalists who are working in 12 online sites,
all of them sponsored by daily newspapers.  A look at the sites, listed in
Appendix A, demonstrates that the sponsors of the participating sites ranged
from the largest daily newspaper in the country (The Wall Street Journal) to the
much small Naples, FL, Daily News.  A much larger sample needs to be done in
order to make more accurate generalizations. Yet, some interesting data can be
        In general, while the online journalists surveyed in this study adhere to some
of the tenets of journalism, especially regarding necessary skills, they also
view their roles and values somewhat differently than other journalists.  And
while it made sense with this particular sample of journalists to compare them
to daily newspaper journalists, it would be interesting to see how they compare
to broadcast and other journalists in their identification with the functions
outlined in previous studies.
        The online journalists did seem to identify with the dissemination function, as
did the daily newspaper journalists.  Unlike the print  journalists, however,
they do not seem to identify with the interpretive function.  Neither the print
nor online journalists seem to view the adversarial function as very important,
although the print journalists were more than twice as likely to cite being an
adversary of government or business as very important.  The populist mobilizer
function, which Weaver and Wilhoit saw as beginning to establish the spirit of
"public journalism" was both more and less popular with online journalists,
depending on the components in this category.  The functions of letting the
public express views, setting the political agenda, and providing entertainment
were considered more important by online journalists than by print.  Print
journalists, however, rated developing cultural interests of the audience as
more important than did the online journalist.
        Perhaps the most interesting function is one for which previous studies offer
no benchmark - the marketing function. Reaching the largest possible audience
and understanding the audience was considered very important by most of the
online journalists surveyed in this study.  At least two questions are raised by
that finding:  Are these online journalists typical of a broader sample? and,
Would journalists in other media also be found to serve this function in 1999?
Will the changes occurring in the relationship between the editorial and
business sides affect how journalists view their roles and values?
        When crosstabulations were run on all the data, there were few significant
relationships.  Much more work needs to be done in the study of online
journalists to determine the influence of the medium.
        It will continue to be critical to understand online journalists and how they
view their roles and functions.  If some media analysts are to be believed, they
may be the only journalists to study in the next century.  Regardless, they do
and will continue to have a vital role in the future of journalism and the
society in which it operates.  Their importance cannot be underestimated.


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        Atlanta Journal Constitution:
Arizona (Tucson) Daily Star:
Austin American Statesman:
Columbus Dispatch:
Detroit Free Press:
Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel:
The Minneapolis Star Tribune:
Naples Daily News:
San Jose Mercury News:
The New York Times:
The Wall Street Journal:  interactive.wsj. com
The Washington Post:

 Appendix B:  TABLES

Table 1: Interpretive function of print and online journalists

Print Newspapers (%)
Online (%)
Analyze complex problems
Investigate official claims
Discuss national policy
                                n=635                           n=66

Table 2: Disseminator function

Print Newspapers (%)
Online (%)
Get information to public
Avoid unverified facts
                                n=635                           n=66

Table 3: Adversarial function

Print Newspapers (%)
Online (%)
Adversary of government
Adversary of business
                                n=629                           n=66

Table 4: Populist mobilizer function

Print Newspapers (%)
Online (%)
Let public express views
Develop cultural interests
Set political agenda
                                n=635                           n=66

Table 5: Beyond populist mobilizer to marketing function

Online (%)
Compete with other media
Understand the audience
Provide alternative to other media
Content for widest possible audience

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