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AEJMC  December 1998, Week 1

AEJMC December 1998, Week 1

Subject:

AEJ 98 SchultzT CTP An exploratory study of online forums and reader e-mail

From:

Elliott Parker <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

AEJMC Conference Papers <[log in to unmask]>

Date:

Tue, 1 Dec 1998 06:14:40 EST

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TEXT/PLAIN

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Mass Media and the Concept of Interactivity_
 
 
Paper for AEJMC Convention
Aug. 5-8, 1998, Baltmore (MD)
 
Communication Technology and Policy Divison
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Title of the paper:
 
Mass Media and the Concept of Interactivity:
An Exploratory Study of Online Forums and Reader E-Mail
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
by
Tanjev Schultz
915 C Maxwell Terrace
Bloomington, Indiana 47401
 
# 812 - 331 75 70
[log in to unmask]
 
 
 
 
Mass Media and the Concept of Interactivity:
An Exploratory Study of Online Forums and Reader E-Mail
 
 Mass media are well represented on the World Wide Web now. But it is not clear
yet
 how interactive they will be in the online environment. The paper first goes
over
 theoretical implications, discussing lack of interactivity in traditional mass
 media. Then it identifies concrete settings and levels of interactivity in
online
 journalism. Finally, an exploratory study of New York Times journalists and
forum
 participants helps to illustrate chances and problems of mass media online.
 
 
Interactivity has almost turned into a dull buzz word. The term is so inflated
now that one begins to suspect that there is much less to it than some people
want to make it appear. No company would fail to claim that it is keen on
feedback. No leader would fail to praise the arrival of a new communication era.
Apparently interactivity has hardly any threatening meaning for the elites. But
this was not always so. Long before the Internet was created, the idea of
interactivity was discussed by theorists of radical democracy. Guided by their
media critique, especially by the Frankfurt School tradition, this paper
discusses the position of mass media in the age of the Internet. Applying
Rafaeli's explication of interactivity, it identifies different forms of
interaction that enable journalists and readers to communicate with each other.
Finally two forms, online forums and e-mail to journalists, are examined in the
context of an exploratory survey of New York Times readers and journalists.
 
Mass Media's Lack of Interactivity
 
In the beginning of the century, intellectuals such as Bertolt Brecht and Walter
Benjamin, worried about the limited one-way direction of the new electronic
media and worked on an agenda of democratization. Developing his radio theory in
the late 1920s, Brecht thought the radio could serve as a democratic apparatus
of communication (Brecht 1932; Rollka 1971). Citizens were supposed to "talk
back" and play an active part in the program of the new medium -- a concept that
was directly opposed to radio's propagandistic misuse in European fascism. Yet
this misuse was not seen as inherent in the technology. On the contrary, the
development of new media seemed to provide ambivalent and powerful tools that at
least left open the potential for improving democracy.
 
Often misinterpreted by identification with Adorno's pessimism, the critical
theory of the Frankfurt School nevertheless generated an open-minded approach
toward new media (Kausch 1988; G ttlich 1996). Especially Walter Benjamin worked
on a more interactive and democratic mass media use, theoretically as well as
practically (Benjamin 1963; Schiller-Lerg 1984). Whether optimistic or not, this
tradition of an emancipatory media theory dealt in one way or another with the
problem that people easily become passive consumers of mass media's manipulated
or commercialized content (see Baacke 1974). Soon the critique of audience
apathy was adopted by more conservative scholars as well, who viewed the "couch
potato" as an attack on their educational values (e.g. Postman 1985).
 
Obviously these critics did not take an ever-present, active audience for
granted. - At least not in the same way as the theoretical empowerment of the
audience proclaimed by the uses and gratifications approach or some postmodern
thinkers. Emphasizing the active process of meaning construction, they helped to
overcome simplistic "magic bullet" theories of mass media effects. Nevertheless,
this view cannot hide the fact that the old mass media produce their messages
mainly independent from the audiences. It still makes sense to keep a
distinction between the creation of a message and the construction of meaning by
those receiving it (see J ckel 1995). After all, ordinary people have fairly
limited opportunities to participate in the generation of mass media content,
not to mention to discuss it with the journalistic and political elites.[1]
 
This argument of power is underlined these days by an incredible process of
economic concentration in the mass media market (Bagdikian 1997). The terms
culture industry (Horkheimer and Adorno 1969) and consciousness industry
(Enzensberger 1974) seem to be justified today even more than when they were
introduced. At the same time, technological development has led to new
possibilities of decentralization and interactive media use.
 
Interactivity and Integration
 
Technology now provides more opportunities for an active citizenship than people
are prepared to accept (see Entman 1989). Many visions - often by business
people - claiming that the new technologies will lead to a participatory
wonderland are either naive or well-calculated advertisements. Instead of
imagining a "cyberdemocracy" one can simply ask the down-to-earth question,
"under what conditions might existing and near-term configurations of
communications technology be used to extend democratic practices and lead to a
broadened public sphere" (Friedland 1996, p. 186). Taking the position of a
deliberative theory of democracy, this objective will be achieved neither by
market-driven journalism nor by a permanent polling and measuring of the
"public". Ideally, new media will facilitate consensus-finding processes, in
which the participants will take part in a public discourse that is free from
what Habermas calls the imperatives of the systems' world, i.e. money and power
(Habermas 1962, 1981, 1994a; Barber 1984; Benhabib 1994).
 
The Internet offers a space that, at least in part, is used in such a manner
(see Street 1997). Social movements and local communities definitely can profit
from computer networks and help to revitalize the public sphere (Brants et al.
1996; Friedland 1996). Bulletin boards and Internet discussion groups can
balance the power and biases of traditional mass media and play an important
role in controlling and criticizing journalism as well as in establishing
mobilizing types of communication (e.g. Ogan 1993; Valovic 1996). As Friedland
(1996) has described, the Internet gives people a fine tool for an "electronic
public journalism" that is independent from professional media organizations.
 
However, these new opportunities involve problems that former media critics
really did not face. Communication and participation alone do not mean much in
terms of quality and value of content.[2] Eventually, there is a seemingly
trivial but most important consideration: The greater the number of
communicators, the less time everyone has to listen to others; the smaller the
size of interacting groups, the smaller their significance for society as a
whole.
 
This is one of the reasons why one must doubt whether Internet enthusiasts are
right in their belief that the end of traditional institutions of politics and
media has come. They suggest that a new elite of "netizens" is going to take
over society (e.g. Katz 1997). But on what integrational foundations is the
alleged net community grounded? There seem to be few apart from an
individualistic rhetoric of free information and a euphoria about thousands of
subcommunities to which no one can belong at the same time anyway, not even in
bodiless cyberspace. After all, attention is one of the most valuable resources
in the new era (R tzer 1996). Economists would call it a very scarce commodity.
With a growing number of information and communication forums, some central
sources may become more important. They can reduce complexity, help users to
make judgments about what is important, and build shared beliefs.
 
I do not think that to consider mass media's function as institutions of
integration and as providers of a shared lifeworld means to tread a beaten
track. I see a future for this very function (see Price 1995; Saxer 1985;
Holtz-Bacha 1997; Wehner 1997). Criticism of mass media power and centralization
does not necessarily deny their immense achievements. J rgen Habermas, for
instance, continued the cited tradition of worry about lack of interaction in
mass media (e.g. Habermas 1962, p. 261). But he also viewed their integrational
role as a benefit of modernism and as a necessary condition for a vivid public
sphere in complex societies (cf. Habermas 1981, 1994b; Cohen and Arato 1994, p.
461).
 
Mass Media Online
 
The old one-way mass media are and, taking the developed perspective, certainly
should be complemented by the new diversity of interactive media. Yet it seems
to be a fortune rather than a failure if they will not vanish; even if they
already are and probably will be more diverse than in times when only a few
radio and TV channels were available. Masses of people still subscribe to
newspapers, watch TV programs, and listen to the radio. They will probably
continue to do so, especially since passivity is to some extent a natural desire
(Vorderer 1995; Sch nbach 1997).
 
In addition, of course, every day a fast growing number of users gets connected
to the Internet, sends e-mail all around the world, joins online communities,
and visits Web sites.[3] But on the Web some sites also become more popular than
others. Then they serve as "mass media" on the platform Internet which allows
for all kinds of media (Morris and Ogan 1996).
 
Internet sites of well-established media (e.g. the New York Times) can play a
decisive role as forums of valid information and serious debate, because they
fall back on professional editors. Moreover, they usually reach a lot more
people than most of the lesser known newsgroups, bulletin boards, or listservers
ever will. Therefore a program of democratization is ill-advised if it
concentrates just on opposing the old media, trying to substitute a net of
relatively unrelated, grassroots communication. Instead, it seems to be at least
as important, if not more important, to revitalize the discursive function of
mass media (Merrit 1998). This, I think, implies cutting back the political and
economic power of huge media organizations and finding an adequate format for
the traditional mass media on the Web. They can provide high quality information
and discussion and link to the public outside cyberspace.
 
However, the problem of professional mass media going online is that their
economic strategies often do not converge with such a plan. Instead, their
interest is to keep a tight rein on the advertising market. At the same time,
many online media blend more and more editorial content with advertisements.
Further, speed of news delivery is a characteristics of the Internet especially
open to exploitation. This has led to elements of pseudo participation, such as
quick online polls where mere headlines are used as questions.
 
Calls for more and better interaction are legitimate. Not only theorists and
scholars, but also practitioners have repeatedly criticized the lack of
communication between audiences and journalists. After all, this is a major
point in the debate on "public journalism" (e.g. Rosen 1991, 1992; Charity 1995;
Merrit 1998). As publisher of the Miami Herald, David Lawrence Jr., appealed to
his colleagues: "We ought to listen more often, and much better, to readers"
(Lawrence 1993, p. 16). In his "Ideas for Prospering in a Changing Market",
Stephen Lacy suggested an increase in reader input into newspapers, for example,
using telephone numbers that people can call to leave comments. Newspapers
should use more than one type of feedback system (Lacy 1992, p. 89). It is
obvious that the interactive opportunities provided by the Internet can address
these criticisms.
 
But "public journalism" guru Davis Morris is surely right in proposing that
journalism online has to be creative and must take its discursive role
seriously: "Merely telling the news the same way in bytes and bits instead of by
mouth and type may keep some form of journalism alive for a while, but unless
that journalism finds a more secure connection with citizens and recognizes its
obligation to public life, it, too, will pass" (Morris 1998, p. 138). Maybe it
would survive anyway. But the role of journalism has to be reconsidered in a
time when, on one hand, the Internet is overwhelming in terms of offered
information and interactive opportunities, and, on the other hand, public life
and the political culture is crisis-wracked.[4]
 
At the beginning of the Internet hype a lot of traditional media jumped on the
bandwagon and produced Web sites of doubtful value. Three years ago Wired editor
Jon Katz caught attention by claiming that online or not, "newspapers still
suck" (Katz 1994). In fact, his statement that online papers produce just an
illusion of interactivity was not just invention. A lot of newspapers simply put
the content of their print edition online and made little effort to take
interactive options seriously. Most of the online newspapers of that time did
not even provide e-mail addresses of their reporters and editors.
 
An Explication of Interactivity
 
Obviously one has to be very careful when applying the term interactive. After
all, what precisely does it mean? The cited media critics gave no precise
explication. Their concepts must be understood within the larger context of a
normative theory of democratization. If one wants to evaluate formal differences
in the degree to which Web sites give their audience a chance to participate
actively, it can only serve as a normative background. Looking for definitions
that can be applied to empirical research, but at the same time do not view
interactivity only in technological terms, Rafaeli's thorough explication of
interactivity and its levels, turns out to be most fruitful (Rafaeli 1988;
1997).
 
Analyzing group computer-mediated communication, Rafaeli is interested in the
thread of messages, in the chain of interrelated messages. Hence, "interactivity
is a variable quality of communication settings" (Rafaeli 1988, p. 111). In
other words, the degree to which communication transcends reaction is key
(Rafaeli 1997). To distinguish between different levels of interactivity one
must ask whether, and to what extent, "later messages recount the relatedness of
earlier messages" (ibid.). In interactive communications the communication roles
are interchangeable (also Rogers 1995, p. 314).
 
Although this definition seemingly is based on face-to-face interaction, it can
be applied to mediated forms of communication. As Rafaeli has argued, mediated
forms can allow for possibilities that would be missed if face-to-face
communication was taken as the standard of comparison. Different purposes and
tasks may require different communication settings and different levels of
interactivity (also H flich 1996).
 
Nonetheless, the formal characteristics of fully interactive communication
usually imply more equality of the participants and a greater symmetry of
communicative power than one-way communication. The achievement of democratic
consensus is related to opinions that are not merely announced but also
discussed openly and free from distortions. As Hacker put it: "The more
democratic a communication system, the more it will accommodate interactivity
over mere connectivity" (Hacker 1996, p. 225).[5]
 
In one-way communication, one source sets the agenda, receiving no feedback or
very indirect feedback. Eventually, in two-way, or reactive, communication one
side responds to the other, but such communication remains reactive unless
"later messages in any sequence take into account not just messages preceded
them, but also the manner in which previous messages were reactive" (Rafaeli
1997).
 
But Rafaeli also draws a very fine line between two-way and reactive
communication: "Two-way communication is present as soon as messages flow
bilaterally. Reactive settings require, in addition, that later messages refer
to (or cohere with) earlier ones" (Rafaeli 1988).
 
Rafaeli's model suggests that a lot of use of the new technologies is far from
being interactive. Still, along the continuum of interactivity there are
settings that make it more likely that full interactivity will occur. Therefore
Rafaeli's distinctions can be fruitfully applied to the traditional mass media
now online. But one has to take into account that two very different groups are
involved here: Journalists and readers.[6] Let me illustrate this by a table
that also includes distinctions of time sequences (see Morris and Ogan 1996):
 
 
Journalist - Reader
Reader - Reader
One-Way Communication
Published articles
asynchronous; one to many
Published letters to the editor asynchronous; one to many
Two-Way Communication
Letters, fax or e-mail to editors, telephone call-ins
asynchronous; one to one/few
Online forums
asynchronous; one to one/few
Letters, fax or e-mail to letter writers
asynchronous; one to one/few
Online forum comments
asynchronous; one to one/few
Reactive Communication
Letters, Fax or e-mail to editors; responded
asynchronous; one to one/few
Online forums
asynchronous; one to one/few
Telephone calls and conferences synchronous;
one to one and few to one/few
Letters, Fax or e-mail to letter writers, responded asynchronous; one to one/few
Online forums
asynchronous; one to one/few
 
Interactive Communication
Online discussion boards asynchronous; few to one/few
Letter and e-mail conversations asynchronous; one to one
 
Chat rooms
synchronous; few to one/few
Telephone conversation; Face-to-face discussions, city hall meetings etc
synchronous;
one to one and few to one/few
Online discussion boards asynchronous; few to one/few
Letter and e-mail conversations asynchronous; one to one
 
Chat rooms
synchronous; few to one/few
Face-to-face discussion (family, friends, public forums)
synchronous;
one to one and few to one/few
 
In the next section I will elaborate on two of the communicative settings:
e-mail between readers and journalists and online forums that initiate
discussions among readers. In an exploratory attempt, some data and comments
from readers and journalists were gathered by small surveys of the New York
Times staff and participants of the Times' online forums.
 
 
E-Mail (Journalist - Reader Communication)
 
A tool for increasing interactivity is e-mail. It can serve as a fast and direct
channel between readers and editors or reporters. Readers may want to comment on
articles, ask specific questions, or request further information about a piece.
They may make story suggestions, give valuable news tips, or involve the
journalist in a more general discussion about a topic or the media coverage of
an issue.
 
It is not clear how much use readers make of e-mail to individual journalists,
or whether journalists are prepared for more discussion with their readers.
There are probably two main obstacles: First of all, time schedules in the
newsroom do not consider discussions with the audience as an essential part of
the job. Journalists have to take extra time when dealing with requests of their
readers (reactive), not to mention desirable interactive discussions. Second,
past research on traditional letters-to-the-editor suggests that reader
responses tend to express extreme opinions and often rather crude ideas (e.g.
Toch 1960; Davis and Rarick 1964; Lander 1972; Gans 1977). The risk of getting a
lot of "hate" and "junk" mail seems to increase with e-mail communication
(Cameron et al. 1996, p.10).
 
One also wonders whether media organizations use feedback in a merely strategic
PR fashion, in response to calls for more reader input. When Herbert J. Gans
wrote in 1980 that journalists "ignore or dismiss most of the mail" (Gans 1980,
p.230), e-mail was not an issue. But when it then became attractive to be part
of the online movement, some mass media offered "interactivity" without
substance. In early 1994 the TV show NBC Nightly News provided an example.
Broadcasting a series that dealt with new technologies, they invited their
audience to comment on it by sending e-mail. More than 3,000 responses were
received from which Newhagen et al. (1995) analyzed 650 messages. NBC's action
might have increased the perception of NBC's interactivity with its audience.
But the study reports that some e-mail authors "complained to us that they never
received a response from NBC. Further, an NBC official admitted that the network
had not looked at the mail and had no plans to do so" (Newhagen et al. 1995,
p.166).
 
By now e-mail addresses are regularly provided by many media organizations,
including nationwide papers such as the Washington Post and the New York Times.
In addition, some media have launched special e-mail services. USA Today, for
example, gives readers a chance to "Ask Jack!" - Jack is a weather editor to
whom e-mail questions can be sent. They are answered publicly on the Web by a
staff of four people (one of them is "Jack"). Besides its apolitical nature, the
service remains a reactive and impersonal communication.
 
To get an idea about the state of e-mail communication between journalists and
readers, a small exploratory e-mail survey of New York Times journalists was
conducted.[7] From a list of 164 staff members who have made their e-mail
addresses public, 50 journalists were selected by a purposive sample. Nineteen
responses were obtained, making a response rate of 38%.
 
Undoubtedly, there is a difference between reader e-mail and a questionnaire
sent by a researcher. Still, it is likely that the journalists who did not
respond are significantly different from those who did. The latter might be more
open to e-mail communication, more likely to pay attention to reader e-mail, and
more likely to respond to it.
 
The journalists were asked how they evaluate e-mail overall in terms of
communication with readers. Most of them were fairly open-minded: six think that
"it facilitates communication". Nine claim, a bit more reserved, that "it does
facilitate communication but has not yet been used to its potential".
 
No one marked the category "its importance and impact is overstated". However, a
national correspondent called it "basically worthless". This journalist had made
the expected bad experiences:
 
"I have recently been spammed with several hundred letters, and it's a terrible
imposition."
 
In general, the amount of real reader e-mails seems still to be manageable. Five
respondents reported having received very few e-mail messages from readers so
far; nine receive regularly about one to ten reader e-mails in a month. Two
claim to get 10-30 reader e-mails, and an opinion writer got 30-50 mails a
month. Most of the respondents (14) also receive 1-10 personally addressed
postal letters from readers each month. Not surprisingly, an opinion writer
claims to receive more than 50 in a month.
 
The bad experiences of the one annoyed journalist are not unique. An editor made
the comment:
"I'm not including in any of these numbers a string of identical letters of
complaint from an organized group (...) which `spammed_ dozens of Times people
for a couple of weeks."
 
An international correspondent reported:
"Some guy upset over lack of coverage on a religious bombing (...) has been
sending 5-10 hate messages a day to many of us. Very annoying."
 
Readers are not the only group that sends messages to the e-mail addresses of
journalists. Six respondents said that other staff most frequently write to
their e-mail address. A specialized reporter gets most e-mail from sources. Many
pointed out that they receive a lot of messages from pressure groups or PR
firms.
 
Story ideas sent by readers are welcome, as a correspondent revealed:
"Once in a while I get a reader e-mail that leads to a story. That's the main
reason I read them."
 
Most reader e-mails are perceived as positive. Fourteen journalists found them
mainly "constructive", four "non-constructive", and one was undecided. An editor
explained:
"I've found it to be a very positive interaction, with comments about stories,
good suggestions and ideas about other stories and constructive criticism."
 
While four respondents claim that they discuss issues with readers (which is
then interactive), 12 journalists said that they usually reply only to concrete
questions (reactive). Lack of time is a major complaint:
"I feel that I owe a response to readers who show an interest in what we are
doing. The amount of e-mail I get at the moment is very manageable; if it grew
to substantial proportions it would be difficult to respond."
 
A national correspondent complained:
"I am so busy that it (reader e-mail) is one more bother. Most communications
from readers are interesting, but usually require some kind of response."
 
Another wrote:"Since the NYT has a million daily readers, I would dread the day
when all started e-mailing me!"
 
Referring to Gonzales (1989), Kenneth Hacker pointed out that "senders of
messages can actively stimulate the receivers to provide feedback. Of course,
for interactivity, feedback must be responded to as feedback, not simply as
messages" (Hacker 1996, p. 228). The exploratory survey shows that there are
indeed at least some journalists who appreciate online communications with
readers (see also Valovic 1995). The use of e-mail seems mainly reactive,
however. Moreover, journalists' lack of time and the misuse of e-mail by PR
firms and pressure groups are serious problems. If journalism becomes more and
more market-driven, there might be even less time for journalists to be
interactive. Stimulation of receivers to provide feedback then will be in the
questionable domain of the marketers.
 
Online Forums (Reader-to-Reader Communication)
 
Many newspapers, magazines, and TV stations run online forums where readers can
comment on articles and discuss news topics. Unfortunately, they basically
discuss among themselves. From the surveyed New York Times journalists, 12 out
of 19 admitted that they do not even visit the Times' own online forums. Only 6
claim to visit these discussion sites "from time to time". No one visits them
regularly[8] , although the respondents were generally open-minded about online
communication and do not reflect the attitudes of more skeptical colleagues (see
Singer 1997).
 
At best, the special online staff that produces the Web sites will take notice
of what readers discuss on the forums. But often staff interest will be limited
to technical problems, control of the content (so that participants do not
violate laws), and decisions about what topics to offer. Even when forums are
"hosted" these hosts do not belong to the core staff of the media organization
in many cases. Online staff usually are organizationally and often also
spatially separated from the newsrooms, which makes it even more unlikely that
reporters, columnists, and editors will notice what is going on online.[9]
 
Undoubtedly though, online forums increase the interactivity of the mass media
overall by widening opportunities for reader-to-reader communication. Forums
that are surrounded by the online environment of a mass medium have specific
advantages over other online settings. One can expect that the discussions will
be related to the content of the mass medium. This can ensure that people share
some basic knowledge and background, and the discussions have a better chance to
achieve a certain coherence (unlike chat rooms that lack defined topics). At the
same time, forums may not be overwhelmed by specialists, as is the case in many
usenet groups. Also, such forums are not considered to be mere information
boards, but arenas of discourse.
 
A closer look at the online forums of the New York Times reveals that there are
indeed vivid discussions taking place that are mostly interactive, but they are
also problematic in some respects. To learn more about the participants, a
survey was conducted in October 1997, using a systematic random sample of 100
participants.[10] The overall response rate was 59 %.[11]
 
The participants were asked to estimate the number of postings they had made so
far that year. Responses ranged between 1 and 1,500 postings, with a
misleadingly high mean of 89.[12] People who try to dominate the forums are
certainly a problem for the others, as someone explicitly complained:
"I have used the Forum less and less, mainly because there is a hard core of
individuals who apparently have little else to do, and appear, at length, on
almost every forum I have taken a look at."
The median of 25 posted comments, however, seems to show a more reasonable
number. One can infer that the majority has used the forums intensively in fact,
but only a minority apparently made it their "hobby". The latter group threatens
the participatory opportunities of the others, regardless of how sensible their
contributions might be.[13]
One "hobbyist" participant described his motivations:
 
"These Internet forums and e-mail lists are very important to me. (...) Good
quality forums ought to encourage the poster to cite solutions, pretending the
poster is the politician or policy maker. I suppose that Internet forums can be
considered relatively civilized outlets for ventings."
 
As a matter of fact, the forum debates are usually highly political and
energetic. While this is desirable to revitalize public discussion and the
(idealized) coffee-house culture, it surely involves the danger of attracting
dogmatists and extremists. One respondent complained:
"The Webmaster told me that the Forum host had considered my responses abusive
and that if it occurred again, I would be barred from the forum in question. I
find this to be the closest thing to censorship I've seen since the anti-war
days."
 
Yet, what this participant takes as censorship, can be seen as an advantage of
forums provided by professional news media. They can be protected against misuse
and thus maintain a relatively high quality of discussion. However, looking
after them would make even more sense if journalists did not limit themselves to
protecting against misuse but actually engaged in the discussion process. Then
they could "link" the online happenings to their usual writing. At the moment,
the online forums are initiating reader-to-reader communication while
journalists are hardly involved.
 
Participants of the New York Times forums not only refer to each other's
postings publicly on the forum, but in addition by personal e-mail.
Seventy-eight percent had received at least one e-mail that referred to a
posting they had made. The more comments they sent, the more likely it was that
they also got e-mail feedback. The average estimated number of received e-mails
(for that year so far) was 6.8, the median 3, the maximum 50 messages. With
regard to the levels of interactivity, it seems important that a majority of
participants (80.4 %) had replied to this feedback and continued the discussion
by e-mail.
 
But then they wonder whether the New York Times shows any interest in what they
say. In a forum that dealt with columns of opinion writer A.M. Rosenthal, a
participant asked the somewhat rhetorical question: "I wonder if Mr. Rosenthal
ever reads any of these forum messages." Even if he had done so, the forum
participants would not have known. They could hardly report any feedback from
the New York Times itself. Seventy-four percent could not remember having
received any feedback from the newspaper's staff. From an open-ended follow-up
question it could be determined that in 10 out of 15 cases when feedback was
received, it had been comments, suggestions, or warnings from one of the hosts
who look after some forums.[14]
 
Despite the poor feedback that they get from the newspaper, most of the
participants frequently visit the forums (71 % say "often"). They also say that
they visit the Times online sites "daily or several times a week" (79 %).
However, only 28 % read the paper edition regularly. From the perspective
developed above, it would miss the point to interpret these findings as a
success of the online edition. Instead, it might be taken as a sign for a
missing interconnection of online and print editions. It appears desirable to
connect the traditional mass media with the new online products. The latter can
serve as complementary forms whose interactive capacity explicitly blurs the
sender-receiver roles of journalists and readers.
 
But still more efforts must be made to really take reader response and
reader-to-reader communication seriously. Not only would journalists have to
participate more often in forum discussions and live chats than they do at
present. But the media also would have to reflect what is going on online in
their paper products. Newspapers could publish excerpts of forum discussions in
their print edition, organize pro- and con- opinion pieces that are written by
staff members versus active online readers, or encourage articles by journalists
in cooperation with readers. Also, the media could present different versions of
stories online and ask for comments. In addition to the peer review, online
conferences with readers could be established.
 
If such offers are broadly advertised in the paper product, and if the
stimulation and feedback that is given by the mass media actually take the form
of communicative instead of strategic action (Habermas 1981), more readers might
be attracted and motivated to get rid of their passivity. For at the moment,
only a special stratum of readers is active and writes letters to the editor or
posts comments to online forums. The median of age in the survey was 48.5 years
(mean: 44.7 years). Besides, only 19 % of the participants who responded were
women, who overall represent about one-third of all online users now. Moreover,
more than half of the respondents had a master's or doctoral degree, and almost
28 % more held a college degree.[15]
 
Concluding Remarks
 
The problem of a widening gap between the "information rich" and "information
poor" is not new. Some fear that it now will be reinforced by the new media
(e.g. Calabrese and Borchert 1996). This fear might be justified. But as I have
pointed out, the mass media still are one of the most efficient and important
factors of integration. To balance the confusing variety of the Internet, which
favors highly educated people, the mass media should work out popular and, in
terms of levels of interactivity, new concepts.
 
Interactivity does not seem to be an interest of just a minority that is highly
active anyway. As a study by Yankelovich Partners Inc. reveals, there actually
is a commonly held desire for more true interactivity. This was investigated,
however, with regard to online shopping.[16] Hopefully this also applies to
political communication, such that people who in the past never would have
written a formal letter to the editor can be motivated to take an active part in
the public. As Jay Rosen put it: "(T)he problem is not that citizens know too
little or participate too rarely to qualify as a public. It is that no one can
be a member of a public when not addressed as such by journalists, political
leaders, public officials, intellectuals and fellow citizens" (Rosen 1991, pp.
269). A response to this problem surely can begin with local mass media and
should not be limited to "elitist" products like the New York Times.
 
Despite their sometimes glamorous rhetoric when it comes to reader response or
the idea of "public journalism", local newspapers often are behind in terms of
the interactive challenge. From 26 online editions of dailies in Indiana, that
were listed by the American Journalism Review[17], for example, only two had
online forums in December 1997. Two others had a link to an unmoderated chat by
Indiana Online. Only one daily had its own chat area, which included moderated
rooms on special days. One paper asks for the "vote of the week" on a current
problem, using a question with short, structured response categories, plus the
possibility to send additional comments. This form of reader response is not
really interactive though, and in many cases will tend to a polling attitude
that contradicts the idea of a public deliberation process (see Herbst 1993;
Patterson 1993; Charity 1995, p. 38).
 
Every newspaper offered at least one e-mail address to which people could send
letters to the editor online and comment on the online edition. In most cases,
they also provided e-mail addresses of head staff, such as section editors and
the publisher. In two cases, readers were specifically encouraged to send news
tips and errors. Only eight papers provided e-mail addresses of ordinary editors
and reporters.
 
This study did not take a perspective of media economics which structures many
discussions on mass media online (see Dusseldorp 1996; Harper 1996). Worldwide,
some hundred TV and radio stations and about 4,000 newspapers and magazines now
are online; more than 2,000 of them are U.S. publications. But as the American
Journalism Review has reported, the boom is coming to an end, and about 100
papers already have pulled the plug on unprofitable Web sites.
 
If the hype is now over, there is a chance the media will face problems and
opportunities seriously. The plea here is that mass media online still have to
improve in offering real participation to their audiences. However, it seems
also very clear that the mass media will need to continue to address a broad,
diverse audience. Interactive communication is not adequate to fully substitute
for asymmetric communication processes. It would be a missed opportunity,
though, if the Internet lost more and more its interactive character, as is
suggested by concepts such as "Web-TV".
 
The challenge of the future is to preserve the mass media as institutions of
integration and public discourse and combine them with a new culture of
interaction.
 
Appendix
A) Survey Questions NYT journalists
 
1. Overall, how do you evaluate e-mail as a communication channel between you
and readers?
- Its importance and impact is overstated
- It facilitates communication
- It does facilitate communication but has not yet been used to its potential
Comments:
 
2. Can you estimate how many e-mails you receive from readers (neither friends
nor sources)?
- I've never received any reader e-mail so far
- I've received only very few reader e-mail so far
- I receive regularly about 1 to 10 reader e-mails per month
- I receive regularly about 10 to 30 reader e-mails per month
- I receive regularly about 30 to 50 reader e-mails per month
- I receive regularly more than 50 reader e-mails per month
Comments:
 
3. Can you estimate how much regular mail you receive from readers (personally
addressed; neither friends nor sources):
- I've never received any letters from readers so far
- I've received only very few letters from readers so far
- I receive regularly about 1 to 10 letters per month
- I receive regularly about 10 to 30 letters per month
- I receive regularly about 30 to 50 letters per month
- I receive regularly more than 50 letters per month
Comments:
 
4. Regarding the content of e-mail that you receive from readers, is it:
- mostly constructive (questions, comments, critical remarks, suggestions)
- mostly non-constructive ("hate"/"junk" mail)
Comments:
 
5. Which group writes e-mails to your NYT-account most frequently?
- sources
- readers
- staff
- others:
Comments:
 
6. How do you deal with e-mails from readers?
- Honestly, I hardly have time to read them.
- I usually read them but never or rarely respond.
- I usually read them and respond to concrete questions.
 
 
- I usually read them, respond to concrete questions, and also discuss
issues with readers by e-mail.
Comments:
 
 
7. Do you visit the NYT online forum sites?
- No
- Yes, from time to time
- Yes, regularly
Comments:
 
 
B) Survey questions - forum participants
 
1. How often do you visit the New York Times online sites?
- Daily or several times a week
- A few times a month
- Less than a few times a month
- Never/not anymore
 
2. Do you read the paper edition of the New York Times?
- No, or hardly ever
- Yes, regularly
 
3. You have participated in an online forum of the New York Times. Do you visit
these forums
- Often
- Sometimes
- Rarely
- Never/not anymore
 
4. Can you remember how many comments you have posted to the New York Times
forums so far? Please estimate the actual number:
 
5. Have you received any e-mail so far concerning comments that you have posted
to the New York Times online forum?
- No
- Yes
 
If yes, can you estimate the actual number of these e-mail messages:
Have you replied to some of these messages and continued the discussion via
e-mail?
- No
- Yes
 
6. Have you received any kind of feedback so far from staff members of the New
York Times?
- No
- Yes
 
Finally, I would like to ask you a few questions about yourself.
 
7. Would you mind telling me how old you were on your last birthday?
 
8. Are you
- Female
- Male
 
9. What is the highest grade of school you completed?
- High school
- College degree
- Master's degree/Ph.D.
- None of the above
 
 
C) Note on the Samples
 
1. NYT Journalists
 
In the end of January 1998, the sample was drawn from a list of New York Times
staff members who have made their e-mail address public. The list is sent
automatically by e-mail to everyone who requests it. At that time, 164 staff
members were listed, most of them actually journalists. 50 of them were selected
purposely, making sure that there were included: reporters from different
sections, national and international correspondents, topical specialists,
political and sports editors, columnists and opinion writers.
 
Before sending the questionnaire information was obtained whether an official
policy at the New York Times regulates how journalists should deal with reader
e-mail. Apparently, no such policy exists.
 
Fourteen filled out questionnaires were received after eight days. A reminder
resulted in 5 more, plus three refusals. Altogether, 19 responses were received,
making a response rate of 38 percent.
 
 
2. NYT Online forums
 
The sample was drawn from New York Times online forums on October 16th, and 17th
1997. Then 130 questionnaires were sent to forum participants who had posted a
message to one of the forums of the categories:
 
y       "In the News": 15 forums (excluding an archive) with about 6250
  postings
 
 
y       "National Issues": 13 forums (excluding an archive) with about
  5000 postings
y       "International Affairs": 3 forums (excluding an archive) with
  about 1500 postings
y       "Opinions": 9 forums (excluding an archive) with about 740
  postings
 
Altogether 40 forums with about 13,490 postings were included. The New York
Times online at that time run a couple of other forum categories such as "Metro
News", "Financial", "Women's Health", "Arts and Leisure", "Sports" and "Books"
which were not included in part for practical reasons, in part because of a
focus on political discussions.
 
Some of the forums were hosted, most of them were not. "Hosted" in this case
means that someone who was hired by the New York Times (but not necessarily an
editor), took responsibility for the forum discussions. Sometimes hosts
participated in the forum posting own comments. At the time of the survey, 6 of
the main forum categories were hosted, plus 8 forums within other main
categories. In the sample this is reflected by one main category which was
hosted. To the host a special questionnaire was sent. Unfortunately she did not
respond.
 
From the stratified forum sample participants were randomly and systematically
selected by their e-mail addresses that were attached to their comments. Most of
the forums documented postings from two or three month ago to the present, some
new forums just from a few days ago. Choosing participants by a systematic
random sample made sure that people were included who had posted comments just
recently as well as people who did it quite a time ago. However, participants
had no equal chances to be selected, for participants who had posted a lot of
messages were more likely to be selected. If a participant had already been
chosen, the next one was taken, of course. Nevertheless, accidentally the
questionnaire had been sent to five persons twice. Therefore the sample actually
contained 125 participants. Exactly 25 messages could not be delivered correctly
so that presumably 100 people received the questionnaire.
 
After one week, 44 responses were received, plus one refusal. After a reminder
another 15 filled out questionnaires, plus 2 refusals were received. Not taking
into account undelivered messages as part of the sample and explicit refuses not
as responses, the overall response rate thus is 59 percent.
 
 
D) Tables from the survey of New York Times forum participants
 
 
  [--- WMF  Graphic Goes Here  ---]
 
 
 
 
 
  [--- WMF  Graphic Goes Here  ---]
 
 
 
 
 
  [--- WMF  Graphic Goes Here  ---]
 
 
 
 
 
 
  [--- WMF  Graphic Goes Here  ---]
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  [--- WMF  Graphic Goes Here  ---]
 
 
 
 
  [--- WMF  Graphic Goes Here  ---]
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  [--- WMF  Graphic Goes Here  ---]
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
  [--- WMF  Graphic Goes Here  ---]
 
 
 
 
 
 
  [--- WMF  Graphic Goes Here  ---]
 
 
 
 
 
 
  [--- WMF  Graphic Goes Here  ---]
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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[1]  For a good, very brief overview of this discussion see Nord 1997, pp.
85-89.
[2]  Also, communication can remain without any significant effects as long as
it is not transformed into effective decisions and communicative power (see
Habermas 1994b; Hacker 1996).
[3]  Consumption of other media therefore decreases a little bit, however not
necessarily dramatically (cf. for Germany Eimeren et al. 1997). A new U.S.
study, for example, shows that the Internet does not have an impact on TV usage
levels overall. See:
http://www.mediacentral.com/Magazines/MediaCentral/Columns/Morgan/19971112.htm
[4]  A problem in debates on public journalism as well as on the Internet is a
tension between two different meanings of "public" and "feedback". There are
concepts that derive from market-driven journalism and will in my opinion lead
to a populistic sell-out of journalism. But there also are more sophisticated
ideas of public sphere and processes of deliberation, the stimulation of which
should not be confused with simplistic supply and demand operations.
[5]   It is obvious that thereby an empirical criterion is created that can be
related to (respectively, rooted in) Habermas' ideal speech situation (cf. for
such a connection Gonzales 1989).
[6]  For the sake of simplicity I speak of "readers", although one can
distinguish between readers and TV/radio audiences.
[7]  See appendix for more information on sampling technique and questions.
[8]  One respondent did not answer the question.
[9]  There seems to be a new trend to integrate the online staff into the
newsrooms, which is certainly a valuable structural form. Editor & Publisher
Interactive 02/13/98: "Newsrooms bend to the Internet".
[10]  See appendix for more information about the sampling technique and the
questions.
[11]  Which is fairly high (cf. Smith 1997). It is surely accounted for by the
high motivation of forum participants. Besides, efforts where made to limit the
questionnaire to very few questions according to the exploratory character of
the study. Short questionnaires achieve higher response rates, especially
online.
[12]  Not only because of the high deviation. Also, the sample is a little bit
skewed because the posted comments, to which the e-mail addresses were attached,
had to be taken as sampling frame. Thus, participants who had posted many
messages had a greater chance to be selected than those who had sent just a few
messages.
[13]  Because of the limited capacities of attention, "lurking" to some extent
is a very essential behavior in the new media environment. Realistically, not
literally everyone will actively participate in a discussion, but the goal would
have to be that everyone at least could intervene if he/she really has something
to say. So a new discipline is required since the Internet involves a great
temptation to publish and communicate too much, which consequently weakens the
overall significance, and excludes many people just because they cannot keep up
and get through the dense communicative jungle.
[14]  Unfortunately the host that looked after some of the forums from which the
sample was drawn, did not reply to a special questionnaire. - A bad sign,
speaking of interactivity.
[15]  Of course, the readership of the New York Times in general is not
representative for the entire population, either.
[16]   http://www.yankelovitch.com
[17]  http://www.newslink.org/news.html

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October 1995, Week 4
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