March 2008 Transcript: William P. Cassidy

AJ: Welcome to First Monday Podcast. I’m AJ Hannah

Joy: And I’m Joy Austria. The Pew Internet and American Life Project reported in 2006 more than fifty million Americans obtain their news from the Web. Scholarly research, so far has focused on online news content and the audience that consumes it.

AJ: However little has been said about online journalists. Do online reporters judge newsworthiness the same ways as their print counterparts? Bill Cassidy addressed this very question in his January 2008 First Monday article “Outside Influences: Extramedia forces and the newsworthiness conceptions of online newspaper journalists”. We sat down with Bill to talk about online reporters and the future of journalism.

Joy: Bill, why don’t you introduce yourself and let us know a little more about what you do.

Bill: My name is Bill Cassidy I’m an assistant professor in the Department of Communication at Northern Illinois University. I teach journalism courses — both skills and kinda mass comm[unication] theory course. And do a lot of research looking at online journalism. And before I got into academia was a journalist myself for about fifteen years. So I think that pretty much sums it up.

Joy: Let’s talk about your article. What is the primary question or questions your study addresses?

Bill: Well what I was wanting to look at in this article was how influential outside forces are on what online journalists...what their perceptions of newsworthiness are — of what makes something newsworthy.

The real idea of this came from a very neat book that I read and is out there and I encourage anybody to get. It’s called Digitizing the News. It’s by Pablo Boczkowski, who’s a professor at Northwestern. And the book looks at the development of the online operations at three newspapers in various parts of the country. And what his contention was is that what makes something newsworthy — the decisions behind what makes something newsworthy in the online environment were influenced by a lot more outside factors, such as the audience and some other things too.

And when I read that I thought, “Well goodness I think I have some data where I could look into that.” And that’s what I did and essentially his research, Professor Boczkowski’s research, was in ethnography. And I thought, “Well I have some quantative stuff and let’s see if that kinda bears some of that out.” And indeed in some ways it does.

I read a few stories where editors were saying listen if you can make due with fifteen percent profit we can put out a really darn good newspaper. We can cover the things we need to cover and we’ll do a really excellent job but apparently that wasn’t enough.

Joy: Can you go into more detail about the methodology?

Bill: I did an online survey of newspapers journalists both from the print side and the online. So print newspaper journalists, online newspaper journalists. It was a nationwide survey. A stratified — not exactly a random sample — but a stratified sample. And I should say I guess the technical term would be a systematic probability sample.

Got responses from six hundred and fifty–five folks and ask them questions about how influential certain things are on their conceptions of newsworthiness. So I asked various questions looking at various outside influences such as sources, interest groups, audience research, public opinion polls and advertisers.

Joy: What were some of the more significant outside forces influencing online journalists?

Bill: Well in terms of my research here, the influence by these outside types of forces was fairly modest, fairly moderate. But there is...my study did show some instances in over half of the things I looked at the online folks were more influenced by audience research, were more influenced by public opinion polls, were more influenced by things like what other publications are doing.

But I think the things that are maybe most interesting have to do with the audience, in particular the audience research, public opinion polls.

Joy: I want to talk a little more about the increased influence of the audience in online journalism. Are we seeing an overall change in the profession itself — OR — has the online environment made it easier to customize content for the users’ needs?

Bill: Ah well see that is the questions isn’t it? I think we can make some argument that it’s kinda both, perhaps. That the online environment is having an influence we could say particularly even in terms of more traditional journalists. You know we see these citizen journalism initiatives and newspapers finally making better use of the interactive capabilities of their online editions.

But it’s not anything I can tell that’s real distinct at this point. Like I don’t think people are sitting down saying, “Okay now we need to do this exactly, right now.” I think it’s sort of perhaps beginning to, for lack of a better word, seep its way into some of the things that folks are doing in terms of going about their day to day jobs now.

AJ: To quote your paper "journalistic training exerted the biggest influence on conceptions of newsworthiness." But more and more professional journalists are featuring so called "viral clips" from various Internet sources. And these news items seem to be coming from the general public — a public without any training in journalism. What role can these citizen journalists play in the future? Do you think they’ be limited to the sorta sensationalistic news items that they’ll tied to now?

Bill: I think we’re seeing the beginnings perhaps of some of those walls coming down, if you will. On the one hand research is, well not even necessarily academic research, but certainly media critics are telling us that in times we live in now with the fact we have access to the Internet and access to all of this information from various and sundry sources about things that the need for journalists is more than ever.

That we, as an audience, need folks to sort of help us distinguish between what’s good, what’s bad, etc. But on the other hand we are starting to see things just like you mentioned where making use of footage sent in by citizens certainly the thing that sticks out in my mind is the images from the cell phones during the Virgina Tech shootings and folks sending in. I think we’re starting to see more of a transparent process.

More of the audience participating and I think we can say — and this is speculation on my part I don’t know if anything really bears this out per se — but I think we can see that’s sorta starting to become part of the process in terms of professionals thinking this is okay do this and utilizing this resource of the audience.

I think we’re seeing journalism trying to figure out how to utilize the Internet and how to best do that.

AJ: What do you think about the You Tube Democratic Debates? And the use of blogs as news sources?

Bill: My opinion in terms of just what do I think of them in general?

Well I think it gets back to what I was talking about earlier of we live in an environment where many would say the need for a journalist — someone who can sift through the information, who can assist the audience and help them out in terms of discerning what’s a good source from a bad source.

I think with something like blogging where blogs are certainly, particularly in terms of politics playing an ever increasing role and the idea of a journalist helping discern through that information certainly we see more of a acceptance of that then hopefully a critical acceptance of using blogs as news sources and blogs playing a role in that the good ones, if you will, the credible ones are certainly seen as credible news sources.

AJ: Do you think journalists run the risk of alienating their audience by using Internet sources? Because it’s a relatively new concept and new technology for a lot of the older generation.

Bill: Well I think we certainly do see some skepticism on the coverage and more traditional journalists assessments of blogs but we do see some making of in roads, we do see some blogs making some in roads. Particularly, again, in terms of politics.

Joy: So with everything that we’ve talked about, it basically seems like we’re seeing journalism — whether it be newspapers or broadcasting — in the midst of redefining itself, figuring out a new role for itself. Is that true or false?

Bill: That is certainly what I would say and that’s why I think a lot of the research that is going on, research looking at online journalism is pretty much only about decade old and that’s why some of the research or to put everything together right now it’s still formulating, it’s still kind of messy.

And we don’t have many definitive answers yet, but certainly we seeing some signs. There’s been some research looking at media organizations that are converging, that are bringing together people from the broadcast, from the print and from the online and then working together and how they’re sort of working that out.

So I would say to translate that to your question that definitively I think we’re seeing journalism trying to figure out how to utilize the Internet and how to best do that.

Joy: In your opinion what is journalism going to look like five years from now, ten years from now?

Bill: I’m not sure, I’m not sure. I think we’re certainly going to see, and again I speak particularly from an expertise of newspaper journalism and online journalism. I certainly think newspapers are going to keep learning particularly if they want to survive because the online side of the newspaper bus[iness] is where the growth is, where any growth we’re seeing is. More people utilizing the online version of newspapers.

So I think we’re going to see a much better understanding of how to best utilize because I think these newspaper organizations understand that this is what they’re going to have to do to stay in business.

I saw an interview not to long ago with the publisher of USA Today and he was sorta talking about some of these issues and he was saying I certainly think the newspaper edition of USA Today is going to be in existence a long time from now. Whether or not that is a main focus of the USA Today brand or whether or not that is the flagship I’m not sure of that.

My guess would be that we’re going to see, particularly in regard with newspapers their online editions, keep playing an ever increasing role.

Joy: And since we haven’t talked about them yet, a big player in media are advertisers. How do they fit in with the changing face of journalism?

Bill: In my research I found that advertisers do play a larger role in the online environment. While it was a small influence journalists on a scale of one to seven, with one being not at all influential, they rated the influence of advertisers at a one point nine four. But it was still significantly higher than the print folks.

The idea being it’s only a fraction of the advertising revenue comes from online or is related to online. So in order to stay in business, in order to maybe they got to pay more attention to advertisers I should say.

We live in an environment where many would say the need for a journalist — someone who can sift through the information, who can assist the audience and help them out in terms of discerning what’s a good source from a bad source.

AJ: With newspapers and a lot of print media folding either due to advertising income woes or the changing shift to the Internet. What kinds of business models do you seeing popping up to help print media to stay viable?

Bill: I think that’s all still evolving. You know where is the print side going to fit into this? How can we boost advertising revenues online?

One of the things that I always think is pretty interesting that folks don’t seem to realize is that newspapers are still pretty profitable, it’s just that they’re not as profitable as they have been in the past. And that’s what really got investors concerned.

I remember a few years ago when we had the situation, I think it was the Philadelphia Inquirer, where it was in the process of being sold and I read a few stories where editors were saying listen if you can make due with fifteen percent profit we can put out a really darn good newspaper. We can cover the things we need to cover and we’ll do a really excellent job but apparently that wasn’t enough. That’s part of the whole business melting alright should we expect as much profit these days as well?

So I really think that’s still evolving and the news organizations are trying to figure that out. That coupled with things that aren’t specifically online but the folks that read newspapers that’s an older demographic and how do we get young people to read newspapers or will they read the online editions?

I think all of that is being as we talked about earlier...we’re going to know a lot more I think in coming years but right now we’re still trying to ferret a lot of that stuff out.

AJ: What type of place is open source going to have for journalism in the coming ten years?

Bill: I think certainly an ever increasing role. Now what that is really going to evolve into I’m just not sure but I think certainly in to sort of touch upon, to go back to more of my research that this gives indication that things like that are more, things such as open source are more open to acceptance given that we do see some signs that there is increased, the increased influence of outside sources, or things that occur outside the news environment, news room environment as being influential on what journalist consider newsworthy.

AJ: Thanks for talking with us Bill.

Learn more about Bill’s background as a thoroughbred racehorse reporter in the Extra Features section on our website.

Joy: As always we welcome your questions and comments you can email us at comments@firstmondaypodcast.org. I’m Joy Austria

AJ: And I’m AJ Hannah. Thanks for listening and we’ll see you next month. End of article