'New News' retrospective: Is online news reaching its potential?

Ten years ago, at the first “New News” seminar held at the Poynter Institute, a group of digital pioneers brainstormed what would be new about online news. They listed what it was that newspapers were not providing that the new digital news space would enable and how the new medium might change news reporting and writing.

Many of the predictions were based on the idea of the “limitless newshole,” an endless space for providing deep context and satisfying the “give me more” that reporters thought news seekers were craving. The promise of hyperlinking and easier communication between readers and reporters were all high on the list of ways this new news space would change news. Creating new expressive forms of reporting, providing better follow-up on reported stories and crafting new relationships between words and graphics were noted as new potentials for online news.

Ten years later, just how far have we come in realizing these predictions? How much have we truly leveraged the possibilities of new forms of news writing and reporting online?

Limitless newshole

The Promise: In the early days of online news it seemed that its greatest attraction would be online availability of all the information reporters gathered but couldn’t fit into available print column inches.

The Reality: Online news is still a downstream product. For the most part, the news text comes to the screen after it has been edited for the print – and that means that the “extra” reporting has been edited out already, although there are sometimes exceptions in newspapers’ news sites.

As Dennis Buster, news editor at Minneapolis-St. Paul’s startribune.com, commented, “Here at the Strib … I haven’t found that it’s a regular practice to insert into Web stories the stuff that was taken out for the newspaper version. But it does happen occasionally. Where I am most aware of it is in reviews, where it seems to happen most often (though it’s still far from an ‘often” occurrence). A late review comes in and has to be trimmed into a hole that has been left for it in the paper. The reviewer has quite a bit of other good stuff that would be beneficial for readers to have access to, so we sometimes get a request that night or the next morning from our features folks to run a longer version of that story. It has happened a few times with sports stories and metro stories, but that has been a VERY rare happening, in my experience.”

More frequently, this bottomless newshole is being used as an endless news stream for television station video reports. Teresa Moore, executive producer of Web content for WTSP-TV Tampa Bay’s 10, reported: “We stream unedited videos along with stories that ran on our air with shorter soundbites. For example, we’ll post whole interviews online or show whole press conferences live that won’t make it on air. When our reporters do live shots for air – we stream them online and keep them talking about stuff they couldn’t cram into 1:30. You can see this in action, go to http://www.tampabays10.com/news/live.asp and you’ll see reporters come and go around show times. This is still in the beta phase. We’re getting ready to roll some more production behind this. We’re going to brand it – but right now we affectionately call it ‘tampabays10 unplugged’ – like VH1.”

Give me more

The Promise: People hungry for context and comprehensiveness would clamor for everything you could package together. The Web would be where people went when they wanted deep content and they would be looking to their news organization to give it to them.

The Reality: The Web has become an alert service, the place for time-starved but news-hungry consumers. As Rusty Coats, formerly of Mori Research cautioned, “Don’t market your site by saying we’ll give you more. People don’t have enough time now. They don’t want more, they want efficiency. How will your site make their life easier?”

When news seekers want comprehensive, in-depth coverage they find it themselves through news site hopping. News aggregators like Google News facilitate this. Are you really interested in Bernard Ebbers’ conviction for WorldCom fraud? Google has pulled together links to 1300+ news stories for you.

Where news sites are taking advantage of the “give me more” nature of the Web is with the packaging of related source materials. Now you can read the transcript or hear the full speech or see the video from the event – these media elements enhance the text story package and provide a sensory “give me more” that was impossible to do with newsprint.

Another problem realizing the potential of the Web for deep reporting on any particular topic is that there are fewer and fewer newsroom resources available for original, in-depth reporting. Look at most online news sites – what percent of the coverage is wire copy? Pack news judgment reigns in most news organizations. No wonder there has been a rise in niche news sites, bloggers who consult esoteric sources and discussion areas where people intensely interested in particular topics can get more and different news than they will from their still geo-focused local newspaper.


The Promise: Hyperlinking was going to be the biggest enhancement to online news. Through links, news producers would be able to send their news audience to related stories on their own site, to important stories offsite and to essential Web sites where more information could be found. This Web of news would provide greater context and allow for news consumers to find in one spot all the information of interest related to the story they are reading.

The Reality: The promise of linking hit the reality of production. Few news sites regularly link to outside Web sites because 1) it takes time to find and verify the authenticity of the sites you send your customers to and 2) who wants to send customers off to another site? As for linking to related stories within the news site, this is more common, but not nearly as routine as it should be. (A recent check of the New York Times Online front pages stories showed no stories with external links and internal links only to “Most E-mailed Stories,” “top articles” or “related stories” – most of which required a payment of $2.95 in order to read.)

The issue is one of time, but also of information management and the packaging of ongoing news coverage. Some news sites have taken routinely covered topics in their region and made them into “story shells” (a term coined by Jane Ellen Stevens – see related OJR story) where current stories sit on top of the other coverage. This requires a rethinking of news divisions on sites that, for the most part, mimic the newsprint sections and a determination of which areas will have ongoing coverage. A micro-site would be designed to hold all the relevant material (more about this below in “Follow-up on stories.”)

Communication between reporter and reader

The Promise: No longer would communication with readers be “us to them” — now we would have two-way communication. This new communication paradigm would democratize news, making the reader the correspondent, inviting in their stories and viewpoints. It would also help inform reporters about the readers’ real world interests and concerns.

The Reality: nytimes.com does, but washingtonpost.com doesn’t. USATODAY.com doesn’t, startribune.com does. Having bylines linked to e-mail for their reporters is not at all the common practice that was promised, in the early days, as one of the great benefits of online reporting.

Reporters who do make their e-mail addresses available find that this is a powerful way to stay in touch with their readers, to get story tips and to tap into the expertise of their audience. But others still consider it to be a potential time suck and would just as soon keep the communication flow going one way. As for facilitating communication between readers through forums and chat areas online, these continue to be conversational cul-de-sacs, for the most part – dead-ending in the forum. They are not being read by reporters who could use them to cull interesting ideas and people.

Blogs promise to bring in a new wave of communication linkage between reporters and their audiences. Dan Gillmor’s famous statement that “my readers know more than I do” honors this idea that a dialogue rather than a lecture will lead to richer reporting. The Weblog form (see “New expressive reporting styles” below) has hit mainstream newsrooms from the sports desk, to business, to political columnists. But many of them, like Daniel Weintraub’s California Insider, for example,
(user registration required) don’t have comments links – so they are still just one way communications, a new form, yes, but same old flow out only.

The harshest reality that news organizations have to face is that readers are finding each other, cutting out the “middle man.” The lackluster support and catchall nature of news sites’ forum areas have sent most dedicated posters to sites where the community they are seeking is much richer and livelier. Disease sufferers, tropical plant growers, music fans, political polemicists, tree-huggers, and do-it-yourselfers have all found places for conversation, advice, and support — and it isn’t the news site. It has been said that the role of the newspaper is to get a community into conversation with itself. Well, the newspaper’s hoped-for role has been abdicated to any number of online discussion areas.

How I wrote the story

The Promise: This abundant newshole we talked about earlier would also make it possible for news organizations to provide some transparency in their reporting. Reporters would let readers behind the scenes to hear how the news was gathered. Much like the trend that was happening in investigative reporting when the methods for data gathering and analysis became interesting sidebar material, it was felt that the online news space would allow reporters to let people into the news process.

The Reality: Multimedia has helped to make this promise a reality in a lot of online news packages. The growing practice of creating slide shows with audio overlays about the pictures that are being seen, and the story behind them, is bringing a conversational, insider tone to news reports. In some cases it is the photographer who is telling the story behind the pictures, other times it is the reporter telling the story. A mix can be seen at the New York Times Multimedia page. This type of story, often supplementing the regular text style report, brings a more human side to news coverage and lets people feel more involved in the process.

New expressive reporting styles

The Promise: Online reporting would allow reporters to have a new news vernacular, more informal. They would be able to tell stories in new, non-linear ways. The pyramid style report could be blown up.

The Reality: As noted before, most online news content continues to be the same news text from offline displayed online. The same reporting forms. The same AP style. But there are sections of the news site that have supported new expressive forms: blog columns and forums. The blog format being used by some columnists and reporters provides a much more conversational approach to the news, the sort of insider dialogue between cohorts that makes the blog such an appealing form. This more informal style of writing and the openness to sharing of ideas that blogs represent are important steps towards realizing the early promise of new reporting styles. In addition, reading forum areas on news sites certainly takes people away from newspeak into the vernacular.

Follow-up on stories

The Promise: Newsprint reporting is, of necessity, episodic and short-lived. Online reports can be encyclopedic and have a long shelf-life. This was the great promise of the online news site – its archival potential could create evolving news reporting that could keep developments in short-term and longer-range news stories up-to-date.

The Reality: Some news sites are using the archival nature of the Web to create ongoing coverage sites of important news topics. The Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s Traffic site and the Lawrence Journal-World’s Legislature site with its cumulative coverage of legislative issues are good examples of this use of the Web. Even updating individual stories is being done. The Orange Country Register’s “Toxic Treats” series offers updates about more recalls or state-wide actions to curb the distribution of these dangerous candies.

New relationships between words and graphics

The Promise: New storytelling software that would make the merging of words and images easier would change the way stories were packaged and presented.

The Reality: The interest in using Flash and other multimedia software for creating new story forms is growing. News sites from organizations of almost every size are playing with animated slide shows and experimenting with new presentations of news. Multimedia stories with images, sounds, and text (as opposed to multiple media packaging where the various media elements sit next to each other rather than being integrated) are being crafted. The reality, though, is that the time it takes to break out of column inch display of news text into new story forms is time that is hard to find.

People often object to the term “new media” – look, it’s been around for at least a decade. But if you look closely you’ll see that the great promise that was seen for this as a new form of journalism has yet to be fully realized. New methods for crafting and delivering compelling news stories online are still a long way from being fully developed.

About Nora Paul

Director of the Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota since 2000. Used to work at the Poynter Institute, holding programs in news research, computer assisted reporting, and online news leadership. Also did time at the Miami Herald, running the editorial research department.


  1. Kudos to Nora Paul for providing a much-needed look back and reality check. She’s right, online journalism hasn’t lived up to its promise. Personally, I think it’s because the news industry badly needs to re-envision what constitutes “news.”

    I’ve written more about that here:

    I also just blogged about Nora’s article in Poynter’s E-Media Tidbits group weblog. It should be up there shortly.

    – Amy Gahran

  2. For a journal called Online Journalism Review, I found this article mildly blind about the “online” portion of the equation. Every example seems to recount how print organizations have taken advantage of the online medium. What about online-only publications? I think many of them (including CNET News.com, where I work) actually have risen to several of the cited opportunities. There’s always more to do, but the slant of print-to-online newsrooms only seemed a bit shortsighted in this otherwise-interesting review of the past decade.

    John Roberts
    CNET News.com product development

  3. Two observations:

    1. There is this paragraph: “When news seekers want comprehensive, in-depth coverage they find it themselves through news site hopping. News aggregators like Google News facilitate this. Are you really interested in Bernard Ebbers

  4. The print medium was the early adopter, if you will, of online news because it had the editorial staffs in place in 1995 to report and write stories to run online. Print newsrooms, collectively, also have dumped quite a bit more money, I would suspect, into online news sites than independent online news organizations have over the past decade.

    That said, one lesson smart folks have learned online is that you do not need to spend huge sums of money to create online content of good quality. Many, if not most, financially and editorially successful online content sites have found ways to enable the reader-to-reader contact that the print-to-online pioneers in this industry pretty much missed.

    Much like music fans discovered years ago that you don’t need a server-client network to move music around the ‘net, readers are discovering that one does not need a newsroom-reader relationship to deliver news. Readers can report significant incidents, documents and conversations directly to others without a newsroom to organize that delivery.

    Don’t read this development as an obituary for journalism. Readers still need some agent to facilitate the delivery of news information, even if it is from reader to reader. Journalists, and some of the rules and traditions we’ve developed over decades, should help craft the protocols and systems that will connect readers with other readers’ reports and with professional correspondents online.

    Unfortunately, print news companies, drunk with their 40-percent profit margins, have shown little desire to invent new editorial systems, beyond their initial, weak attempts at creating online newsrooms and portal companies. New Century Network crashed, the tech stock market tanked, and newspaper companies retreated into building proprietary online publishing systems, locking their companies’ sites into straightjacket formats that would discourage future attempts at innovation.

    Indie online sites that employed traditional newsroom models have also struggled financially, as the lower costs of doing business online floods the market with competiting sites, professional and amateur, keeping down ad rates and making the expense of supporting a traditional newsroom unbearable at “old media” profit margins.

    That’s why I think an examination of the field 10 years from now will look not at ways that traditional newsrooms could employ online technology, but at how online technology transformed the structure and function of what we now call the newsroom.

  5. Nora, thanks for pulling this together. It’s interesting to be reminded of what we said 10 years ago vs. what we’re really doing — or not doing — now.

    A theme that I took from this article is that many news site publishers deluded themselves into thinking that Internet news would not be labor intensive and expensive. Almost every point you make shows how automation and technology are producing a somewhat bland but satisfactory, efficient, cost-effective and more and more profitable product. But technology is not the only answer to letting the Web live up to its potential. To make online news better requires editors having time to do more than check to make sure the automation is working. You need the commitment of management to invest in their news site and see it as more than a downstream product, more than a drain on what I think will be short-term only 30% margins.

    The promise of the Web, as you point out, is a depth and richness of information and story-telling that will only be achieved when, in my opinion, one of two things happens:

    1) Traditional news companies thinking about their long-term survival see the Web as an extension of their brand (or even the survival of their brand) and are willing to invest more in it for an admitted short-term shaving of very high profit margins, or

    2) Traditional news companies continue cutting costs to keep margins high, and the likes of Yahoo!, Google, MSN, eBay, Craigslist, Movable Type, Flikr, open-source community publishing, etc., take such a hard bite out of a newspaper’s high profit margin that the paper is forced to invest to fight back. Finally, then, the paper will treat its Web site as something far more than a downstream product.

    I’m hoping for #1, because #2 means that many companies without a history of journalism ethics and principles will be controlling the flow of news and information.

    Gary Kebbel
    [email protected]

  6. Thanks for this article Nora. I would like to use it as reference in my On-line Journalism course at UOC, I really think it is a good tool for raising the discussion about what we expected from the Internet and what we have.

    About the limitless newshole I wanted to add that here in Spain there are little interesting experiences of using this availability. While I was working at La Vanguardia, we noticed that we had a lot of correspondents all over the world (New York, Washington, Paris, London, Beijing, Moscow

  7. Nora, you have done a very necessary step for the industry with this article.

    The evidence I have gathered visiting online newsrooms in Catalonia supports the points you stated. Online journalists are conscious of the features of the Internet, but they admit that they sacrifice most of them for the sake of immediacy (permanent updating), which is the main value for them when comparing online journalism to traditional journalism.

    They have two arguments for that: 1) The tension for permanent updating gives them no time to elaborate on the wires or the traditional counterparts pieces. They have to publish them as soon as possible. 2) They claim that online users do not want deep stories, but quick and easy reading, an overview of what is going on, cause they can buy the newspaper if they want more details.

    I like to say that there are many utopias in online journalism (the bottomless newshole is one of them) that online journalists try to meet, but in most cases they just use them to justify why they don’t go further from traditional newswriting: the material conditions of their work and the professional culture of traditional journalism heavily limit the possibilities of the utopias to turn into realities.

    Only one of the cases I studied (www.lamalla.net) was systematically adding external links to the stories. But in their case they are a pure-digital outlet and they are conscious that they cannot compete with the mainstream media in immediacy, so they try to work more thoroughly their news stories. Even so, they don’t usually do complex stories, but 3-5 paragraph stories.

    Special features (mini-webs about a concrete issue) are the space to explore the utopias. There there is innovation in the bottomless newshole, but it is hard to translate this concrete time-limited efforts into a daily routine.

    You can find more on these preliminary results at:

    David Domingo
    david.domingo [at] urv.net
    Universitat Rovira i Virgili

  8. Lidia Luca says:

    Hello Nora, congratulations for the article, it will really help me for my Degree.
    I think we have to analyze the on-line journalism at regional level. We can say that american and british, or West-European journalism-on-line fulfilled our expectations, even more, but what about cyberjournalism from East and South-East Europe? Or Africa? Or South America? When they started and what level they reached? What do they promise? I think we have to be interested in global developement of cyberjournalism in the context of promises and expectations because now we are a community, a huge Internet Community with common goals. The potential of on-line journalism is growing day-by-day by new users of the Internet. Do they have to keep the promises of those who pointed them 10 years ago or they have to bring something new in on-line journalism?
    Best wishes, Lidia