June 02, 2006

Book explores evolution of Internet newspapers

by Tim Crosby

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Though new and undeveloped at the time, Xigen Li knew this emerging technology called "the Internet" had the potential to fundamentally change the way people received information from the media.

A veteran of both print and broadcast media in China, Li felt unfulfilled by the sometimes-tedious grind of gathering and reporting the news. He wanted a new challenge and came to the United States in 1994 to pursue a doctorate in mass media.

At that time, news organizations were taking their first baby steps into the new electronic Web that connected computers everywhere.

"It was just the start of the new Internet landscape," said Li, an assistant professor of journalism at Southern Illinois University Carbondale. "Because it was so new, I was at the same level as everybody else with the Internet. But when I began using it to get news from the newspapers published anywhere in the world, that opened my eyes to begin thinking about the new Internet newspaper."

That interest and years of research resulted in a new book, "Internet Newspapers: The Making of a Mainstream Medium," published by Lawrence Erlbaum Associates. Li, who began teaching and conducting research in the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts last August, edited the collection of research papers contained in the book and also authored or co-authored eight of the 16 papers.

"These are the most prominent researchers in the U.S. on this issue," Li said of the book's contributors.

The book distills the most current, leading empirical research on the evolving Internet newspaper, examining theories and practices, trends, the structure and presentation of online newspapers and strategies, as well as how consumers of Internet news make choices and interact with the new medium, among other topics.

Aimed at both media researchers and practitioners, the book covers online newspaper development and changes as well as the impact of online news delivery on other media, audiences and society. It also gives tips on improving operation and performance of Internet newspapers to better serve the public and to gain the competitive edge in the industry.

Li says the book also seeks to find whether or to what extent the standard paradigms of the traditional media apply to the Internet age, and if not, whether new ones are emerging. Li said the research generates new knowledge about media practice and the Internet.

For example, one of the traditional theories of mass communication is that media organizations set the agenda for the public in several ways. Newspapers place stories the editors think are most important on the front page while broadcasters prioritize the most important stories early in the program. The media also signal the importance of an issue through repeated coverage.

Li says Internet news shifted that paradigm in several ways. Story placement on Web pages largely is subjugated to the sheer number of choices for viewers to "click." Other traditional queues media use to signal important stories aren't available on Web pages, or consumers trolling for information they want simply ignore such devices.

Interestingly, even with all those choices the research shows Internet readers still tend to pick the same types of stories and information that media outlets tend to emphasize in their traditional agenda-setting format. That phenomenon opens additional frontiers for research, Li said.

Another issue the researchers tackle involves the concept of "linking" Internet viewers to other sources of information. Most news organizations early on tended to link readers to a wide range of information sources, including other Web sites. Now, however, many tend to link readers to that outlet's own archives, keeping the consumer's eyes on their site longer and adding more page views to the count. Such statistics can then become part of the formula for setting advertising rates for online newspapers.

"This is a new issue," Li said. "The question is whether linking is expanding or narrowing the information available. What drives linking decisions by the news media?"

Other chapters delve into topics such as Web page design and information retrieval efficiency; the effects of growing Internet newspapers on circulation of print newspapers; factors influencing interactivity of Web sites; and the contribution of Internet news to democracy.

Walter B. Jaehnig, associate professor and director of the SIUC School of Journalism, said hiring Li last year was a coup for students.

"We wanted the journalism program to get more deeply involved in electronic delivery of news," Jaehnig said. "As newspapers and magazines increasingly are going online, we wanted to offer students programming in that area. (Li) was a great hire because he is one of the most knowledgeable people in the country, if not the world, on what's going on in that area."

Jaehnig said hiring Li, along with Anita Stoner, former online entertainment editor for the Palm Beach Post and an SIUC graduate, means the University can offer students a top education in online journalism. The journalism school began offering such courses following their hirings last year.

Li said it is difficult to make predictions about media, but he thinks the Internet will be extremely influential. The Internet, he said, changed the landscape of media competition.

"Especially with the new generations; they will have a big influence," Li said. "They get their information from the Internet, they participate in blogging. These are all important. The Internet newspapers have the opportunities to regain readership from the younger generation and the Internet.

"On the other side, print newspapers may or may not go away, depending on how they handle these changes," Li said. "There might still be a need, but if they can't sustain the challenge from the market, they may go away.

"In the long run, the Internet will dominate," he said. "I seldom read a print newspaper unless I'm traveling, and I don't really miss it."

Leading in research, scholarly and creative activities is among the goals of Southern at 150: Building Excellence Through Commitment, the blueprint the University is following as it approaches its 150th anniversary in 2019.