Meta research on online journalism

Usually I do not write about research here, but a new publication prompts me to note that now — almost 20 years after the first “online newspapers” made their debut — some research is beginning to appear about the research that has been done to date.

This is great news, because it lays a foundation for better and more focused research in the future.

The most recent article appeared in Journalism Studies 12(3): Online Journalism and the Promises of New Technology, by Steen Steensen (DOI: 10.1080/1461670X.2010.501151). He looked at how “technological assets,” including interactivity, multimedia and hypertext, have been discussed and examined in the scholarly literature about online journalism.

Steensen points out that definitions are murky and imprecise — what one study defines as “hypertext,” another study defines as “interactivity.” (This has annoyed me for many years!) This presents quite a challenge to anyone who tries to aggregate the findings of several studies.

What will be VERY useful for future scholars is the way Steensen has broken down his examination into sub-categories under interactivity, multimedia and hypertext: content analysis; surveys, interviews and experiments; reception studies; summary.

In the end, Steensen suggests that we need to figure out how research can do a better job at discovering “why online journalism develops as it does” (p. 321). He wants to know more about why journalism organizations don’t do a better job with all the technology tools at their disposal.

I think that’s the wrong question.

Newsrooms of all kinds are constrained in a multitude of ways, and looking at why people working in those newsrooms can’t engage an audience effectively probably is not going to be helpful. What will be more useful to the journalism field — and to journalism’s mission of serving the public and informing people of things they need to know — are studies of how and why people interact with news, or why they do not.

Add to that: Studies of engagement and attention.

In recent conversations with other college educators, I’ve found I’m not alone in thinking the current crop of university students is different. I mean really different. The way they learn is different. The way they process and retain information is different. They are engaged with Facebook and other media all day long — and yet many of them are shockingly uninformed (because they only know what their friends see fit to “share”).

What story formats and information styles will get through to these young people?

What will engage them? What will educate them? What will expand their horizons so that they are fit to run the world when they become the ones in charge?

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