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Abstract

Findings in recent research suggest that online journalism is much less innovative than many researchers and scholars predicted a decade ago. Research into online journalism has, however, been biased towards a focus on online news journalism, thereby neglecting the magnitude of new styles and genres that are currently emerging online. In this paper the findings of a longitudinal ethnographic case study of the development of a section for feature journalism in the Norwegian online newspaper dagbladet.no is presented. The study is framed by an understanding of innovation as a process where organizational structures and individual agency interact. The findings suggest that individual action has been downplayed in previous research as a determinant for processes of innovation in online newsrooms, and that a substantive grounded theory of innovation in online newspapers is comprised of five factors: newsroom autonomy, newsroom work culture, the role of management, the relevance of new technology and innovative individuals.
This is a postprint. The article is published in Journalism Studies 10(6), 2009, pp. 821-836
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WHAT’S STOPPING THEM?
Towards a grounded theory of innovation in online journalism
Steen Steensen
Oslo University College
Findings in recent research suggest that online journalism is much less innovative
than many researchers and scholars predicted a decade ago. Research into online
journalism has, however, been biased towards a focus on online news journalism,
thereby neglecting the magnitude of new styles and genres that are currently
emerging in online journalism. In this paper the findings of a longitudinal
ethnographic case study of the development of a section for feature journalism in the
Norwegian online newspaper dagbladet.no is presented. The study is framed by an
understanding of innovation as a process where organizational structures and
individual action interact. The findings suggest that individual action has been
downplayed as a determinant for processes of innovation in online newsrooms in
previous research, and that a substantive grounded theory of innovation in online
newspaper is made up of five factors: newsroom autonomy, newsroom work culture,
the role of management, the relevance of new technology and innovative individuals.
KEYWORDS feature journalism; innovation; new media; online journalism
Introduction
Printed newspapers were supposed to die. Journalism as we knew it was supposed to
be revolutionized as the technological assets of new media – hypertext, interactivity and
multimedia – would work wonders on journalistic storytelling in online newsrooms. These
were the assumptions of many new media researchers and fortune-tellers interested in online
journalism prior to the post 2000 dot-com recession (Deuze 1999, Deuze and Yeshua 2001,
Engebretsen 2001, Harper 1998, Heinonen 1999, Pavlik 1999, 2001).
However, online journalism is not what it was supposed to be. The assets of new
technology are for a large part ignored or at least implemented at a much slower rate than
had been earlier suggested in online newsrooms (Boczkowski 2004, Brannon 1999, 2008, de
Aquino et al. 2002, Domingo 2006, 2008, Matheson 2004, O’Sullivan 2005, Oblak 2005,
Schroeder 2004, van der Wurff and Lauf 2005). Therefore, researchers ask new questions,
such as what prevents new technology from being utilized in online newsrooms (Brannon
1999, 2008, Domingo 2006), and what factors influence processes of innovation in online
newsrooms (Boczkowski 2004, Küng 2008). These researchers share a common
methodological interest in the firm grounding of theoretical abstractions in empirically
based newsroom production studies, rather than the technological determinism and utopian
prophesies that marked earlier new media research.
The case study presented in this paper is based on a similar methodological approach
of a process of innovation in the Norwegian online newspaper dagbladet.no1, which in 2002
launched a section devoted to remediate and explore the possibilities of feature journalism
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online. The case is chosen in order to address two specific shortcomings of previous
research:
1. Most of the empirically based research into the production of online journalism is
biased towards exploring online news journalism, thus promoting for instance
immediacy in reporting as the main obstacle preventing innovative use of new
technology in online newsrooms (Domingo 2006, 2008). Reporting breaking news
has so far undoubtedly been the dominant feature of most online newspapers, but as
online journalism evolves a complexity of styles and genres is emerging that
broadens the diversity of online journalism far beyond reports on daily news.
Throughout the world an increasing number of online newspapers now include
sections such as “special reports”, “features”, “travel”, etc.; these are an indication of
off-deadline reporting in which immediacy would be an alien virtue. These sections
might very well represent the areas where innovation unfolds.
2. Studies of innovation in new media tend to highlight structural factors of media
organizations rather than instances of individual practice as being most decisive for
processes of innovation. However, both innovation theorists and modern media
production research methodologists call for research approaches that entail greater
emphasis on agency in general and the practice of media professionals (e.g.
journalists) in particular. A question therefore arises of whether individual practice
has been downplayed as a determinant for innovation in online newsrooms.
The aim of this paper is to develop further a substantive grounded theory of
innovation in online newsrooms by addressing in particular these two shortcomings.
Feature journalism in new media
The case presented in this paper deals with the remediation of feature journalism
online. Some comments are needed about this type of journalism in order to understand
what kind of innovative initiative the case study deals with, and how the specifics of feature
journalism might influence the process of innovation.
The distinction between news and feature journalism is blurred. In newspapers, a
feature story can range from a short piece providing exemplification or background to a
news story, to an intensively investigated multipage narrative with no affiliation to the news
flow at all. Some generic characteristics of this type of journalism can, however, be traced.
Based on a review of previous research and textbooks on feature journalism, Steensen
(forthcoming a) argues that traditional newspaper and magazine feature journalism is
dominated by discourses of fiction, adventure and intimacy. A print feature journalist
writing a sidebar feature to a news story would emphasize the personal and emotional
consequences of the hard news (intimacy). A magazine feature writer would, in addition,
emphasize the techniques of narrative storytelling (fiction) and explore places and/or
phenomena that are either untouched by news journalists or serve as background to hard
news (adventure). They would both mark their stories with a personal touch (intimacy).
What, then, does feature journalism in online newspapers look like? Royal and
Tankard (2004) show how multimedia technologies can be utilized in order to apply
narrative storytelling techniques to a feature story in a US online newspaper. Steensen
(2009) argues that online newspapers are more prone to utilize interactivity and multimedia
technology in the production of feature journalism, since this type of journalism is not so
sensitive to immediacy in reporting. However, his comparative study of feature journalism
in a US and a Scandinavian online newspaper shows how utilization of new technology
creates texts marked by clashes of discourses, thus revealing that the production of online
feature journalism is based on experimentation, trial and error. Another study (Steensen,
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forthcoming b) reveals how the shaping of an online feature journalist in one case promotes
enhanced status to the role of online journalists at large since it (among other things) allows
for more experimentation and variation. Remediating feature journalism online therefore
seems to imply a certain degree of innovation.
Three perspectives of innovation
Slappendel outlines how the concept of innovation has been understood and
researched in different academic disciplines. One understanding emphasizes innovation as a
process, which “typically embraces periods of design and development, adoption,
implementation, and diffusion.” (1996 pp. 107–108). Innovation does, however, not imply
that the object of this process is something which is new to the world. It only implies that
the object is perceived to be new by the organization that processes it. Remediating feature
journalism online can, therefore, be understood as a process of innovation even though
feature journalism in itself does not represent a new thing to this world.
Building on Pierce and Delbecq (1977), Slappendel argues that innovation can and
has been researched based on three different perspectives: an individualist perspective, a
structuralist perspective and an interactive process perspective. The first perspective implies
a focus on the individual as a driving force for innovative initiatives and processes of
innovation, while the second perspective emphasizes structural characteristics both internal
and external to the organization as main determinants for innovation. The third perspective
bridges the first two and emphasizes innovation as being produced by “the interaction of
structural influences and the actions of individuals” (Slappendel 1996 p. 109).
Slappendel makes a strong argument for the strength of this third perspective and the
weaknesses of the other two, stating that there “is an implicit need to address the complex,
and paradoxical, relationship between action and structure” (1996 p. 118) when studying
processes of innovation within organizations. From a methodological perspective, this
would imply utilization of ethnographic approaches that entail close observations of
workplaces and the actions of individuals involved in processes of innovation. This
corresponds well with the call for ethnographic approaches to the institutional production of
online journalism that has come from several researchers in recent years (Boczkowski 2004,
Brannon 1999, Cottle 2007, Domingo 2006, Fortunati et al. 2005, Paterson 2008, Scott
2005). This call comes as both a response to the neglect of ethnographic research in
newsrooms at large since the pioneers of this methodology (Gans 1979, Tuchman 1978)
dominated journalism studies in the 1970s and as recognition of the limitations of other
methodological approaches as these have failed to provide an accurate insight into why
online journalism evolves as it does. An example is the research on interactivity in online
journalism, which according to Fortunati et al. “[…] has often concentrated on an abstract
examination of the ideal possibilities of the Internet as a new meta-medium, rather than on
the exploration of what has really happened” (2005 p. 419).
Furthermore, Slappendel’s observations seem to resonate well with recent
developments in newsroom production studies. Cottle argues that a conceptual change from
routine to practice is needed in ethnographic newsroom research, because journalists are
“more consciously, knowingly and purposefully productive of news texts and output than
they have been theoretically given credit for in the past” (2007 p. 10). This empowering of
journalistic agency is supported by recent observations of news production, argues Cottle. It
also seems to be a fruitful position to adopt in this period of media transition, especially
since the role of the journalist today is undergoing substantial change entailing a more
individualized line of work in which journalists are expected to master a greater variety of
tasks and skills (Deuze 2005, Nygren 2008, Singer 2003). Paying closer attention to the
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practice of journalists is also crucial if one aims to bridge the gap between journalism
practitioners and scholars. Niblock argues that
[…] journalism research to date has been predominantly shaped by the work of
scholars who are nonpractitioners, looking in on products and practices from the
outside. Yet, probably as a consequence, there remains a range of territories as yet
uncharted. These territories, such as journalism routines, team-working and news
judgment may best be illuminated by those who have close working knowledge of
journalism practice, at the outset at least. (2007 p. 29)
Being what Niblock labels a practitioner-academic, the author of this paper brings
into the research both working knowledge of journalism practice and a wish to contribute to
the development of journalism.
Slappendel also argues that research into processes of innovation requires
longitudinal approaches, since “innovations do not remain static during the innovation
process, rather, they may be transformed by it” (1996 p. 121). Longitudinal approaches are
rarely to be found in ethnographic research in online newsrooms. The reason might be that
longitudinal, ethnographic research is so time-consuming that it limits the researcher to
focusing on only one case. However, Yin argues that single case studies are “generalizable
to theoretical propositions and not to populations or universes” (2003 p. 10). Findings of
single case studies are of less value unless they provide insights valid for other cases
through a process of theorizing. The aim of this paper is therefore to build upon the
accumulated knowledge of previous empirically based research into innovation in online
newspapers in order to move closer to a substantive grounded theory of what factors
influence innovation in online newspapers.
Innovation in online newsrooms
Most of the research on innovation in online newspapers seems to be dominated by
the structuralist perspective mentioned above. Boczkowski’s (2004) study of innovative
initiatives in four US online newsrooms is probably the most abundant and influential work
within this field. He identified three factors to be of importance in how such innovations
develop – all focusing on structural characteristics of the organizations: the closeness of the
relationship between the print and online newsrooms; whether the online newsroom
reproduces editorial gatekeeping or finds alternative work cultures; and whether the
intended audience is represented as consumers or producers, as technically savvy or
unsavvy (ibid. pp. 171–172).
These three factors – formulated by Boczkowski as a substantive grounded theory of
innovation in online newspapers – are supported by the findings of other researchers. The
first factor, concerning newsroom autonomy, was found to be important in an early study by
Brannon (1999). In her ethnographic case studies of what prevented new technology from
being “maximized” in the online newsrooms of USA Today, ABC and NPR (National
Public Radio), Brannon found that lack of newsroom autonomy and especially asymmetrical
relationships between print and online newsrooms were crucial to why new technology was
not exploited. Huxford (2000) found that a clash of cultures between print and online
newsrooms in US newspapers hindered the creation of original online content. Domingo
(2006, 2008) reported that of the four Catalan online newsrooms he researched, the one with
no affiliation to other media (laMalle.net) was more prone to experiment with new
technology than the others. Küng (2008), in her research on why the BBC News Online was
such a success, and Thurman and Lupton (2008), in their research on multimedia
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storytelling in British online news sites, also found autonomy to be a crucial factor in the
processes of innovation. Krumsvik (2008) found that asymmetrical relations between
newsrooms was one of the reasons preventing CNN and the Norwegian public broadcaster
NRK from being technologically innovative in their online outlets.
The second factor identified by Boczkowski, concerning newsroom work culture, was
found already to be important in the very infancy of web journalism. In a survey of US
journalists and editors, Singer (1997) found that most journalists believed new technology
would not affect the way they did their job. The respondents’ answers were clearly
influenced by an assumption that their newsroom work culture would not be affected by the
new medium, thus discarding the need for extensive innovation. Brannon (1999) and
Domingo (2006, 2008) found that adaptation of traditional newsroom work culture was the
main obstacle to technological innovation. Küng (2008) found that the initially established
autonomy of the BBC News Online fostered the creation of a unique newsroom work
culture where innovation was impulsive, fast and driven by the explicit needs of online
production and publishing.
The third factor, concerning the representation of the intended audience, is identified
only by Domingo in addition to Boczkowski. Domingo found that online newsrooms
“minimized the interactivity utopias by using the same passive-audience definition as their
parent medium” (2006 p. 506).
In other words, there is substantial support for Boczkowski’s three-part theory of
innovation in online newsrooms. However, one additional factor influencing innovation in
online journalism not identified by Boczkowski can be found in previous research: whether
the available technology is suited to fulfil its promise. Brannon (1999) found that news
workers in the online newsroom she studied all expressed frustration with available
technology and felt they could not produce the content they aspired to because the
production tools, publication systems and other necessary software were too many, too
complicated and too time-consuming. Domingo (2006) and Thurman and Lupton (2008)
presented similar findings, even though one would expect technological tools to be more
fine-tuned by the time of their research.
All these four factors are related to the structural characteristics of the organizations
studied. A relevant question is, therefore, whether the power of individual action and hence
the creativity and innovative initiatives of individuals have been downplayed in these
studies. Some of the studies however make some claims, which might be interpreted as
implying a certain degree of individualist perspective. Brannon (1999), for instance found
that young managers not accustomed to managing, and the lack of implementation of plans
to develop skills necessary to use new technology were obstacles preventing innovation.
The journalists wanted to develop the technical skills necessary to be innovative, but felt
management did not provide the proper training. This could be interpreted as if the ability of
the individual manager to lay foundations for innovation is a relevant factor.
In a study on convergence in four US newsrooms, Singer (2004) revealed similar
findings. The journalists were eager to try out new technology, but felt prevented from
doing so because of inadequate training. Küng (2008) and Krumsvik (2008) also found that
the role of management was decisive in the success of processes of innovation.
It therefore seems safe to assume that individual action does play a role in processes
of innovation in online newsrooms, at least when it comes to the role of management.
However, none of the above-mentioned studies have implemented the third perspective
suggested by Slappendel (1996), where structural and individual perspectives on processes
of innovation are bridged. That, accompanied by the lack of research approaches involving
genres other than news journalism and the lack of longitudinal ethnographic approaches,
frames the research approach of the case study shortly to be presented.
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Notes on method
Single case studies and ethnography are research methods that entail some challenges
for the researcher. Paterson (citing Domingo) notes – in addition to the problem of
generalizability discussed above – that actors may be disturbed by the researcher’s
observations, that the researcher’s prejudice could influence the study and that it is difficult
to set down everything the researcher witnesses (2008 p. 5). Puijk (2008) notes that in
modern newsrooms much communication is withheld from the observer as communication
is withdrawn to the silence of the computer screen instead of being displayed in face-to-face
interaction. However, measures can be taken to avoid many of these methodological
difficulties. The most important is to ensure a triangulation of methods that secures different
perspectives of the object of study. Observations should therefore be accompanied by
interviews and document analysis. Furthermore, securing access for a sufficient period of
time is necessary, so that situations and actions can be understood properly and in their right
context.
The case study of dagbladet.no is, therefore, based on four periods of observation
(May 2005, September 2006, January 2007 and November 2007) covering a total of six
weeks. During these periods I sat in the open-plan online newsroom close to the Magasinet
section desk, followed the online feature journalists in their work and attended newsroom
meetings, etc. In addition, I conducted 28 semi-structured interviews with newsroom
staffers (editors, journalists, marketing personnel and technical personnel) mainly from
dagbladet.no but also in the parent organization of Dagbladet. I also analysed documents
such as annual reports, internal project reports and news articles covering the development
of the section in question and other relevant aspects concerning dagbladet.no. In-between
the periods of observation I followed the section closely from a reader’s point of view and
corresponded with newsroom staffers through e-mail and chat2.
Given the focus on practice and innovation as an interactive process that mediates
between structure and agency, I paid special attention to the motivation for individual action
during the periods of ethnography. With regard to the practice of the journalists involved in
the feature section, I watched how they developed and chose to present their stories and
constantly asked them questions as to why they chose to do as they did. Only by such
constant interventions could I make judgments on the importance of agency involved as the
process of innovation unfolded.
The case will be presented according to the relevance of the factors found to
influence innovation in previous research (newsroom autonomy, newsroom work culture,
representation of the audience, the role of management and the relevance of new
technology). A revision of the factors will be discussed following presentation of the
findings.
Newsroom autonomy
When dagbladet.no was launched in 1995 the online newsroom quickly gained a
relatively autonomous position. In 1997, the subsidiary DB Medialab was established,
isolating dagbladet.no as a unique economic and juridical unit within the Dagbladet media
company. Therefore, when the section for feature journalism, Magasinet3, was launched on
11 January 2002, it was within a quite autonomous newsroom where staffers were
accustomed to going about their business without much interference from the print
newsroom. Innovation was spontaneous, swift and incorporated in the practice of
journalism.
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7
However, the new section was not initiated by the online newsroom. Both the editor
of the print equivalent feature magazine Magasinet and the marketing department were
pushing for a feature section in dagbladet.no. “The important thing was to create a nice
platform to attract advertisers. We didn’t make much money back then”, said the online
chief editor at the time (Interview). In the first years, the section therefore mainly consisted
of stories shovelled from the print edition and some additional text-based stories written by
an online journalist assigned to the section.
The open-plan architecture of the online newsroom caused the section to be an
integrated part of the daily routines of dagbladet.no in general. This lack of internal
autonomy made the production of journalism for the section open to influence by the
production routines of the other sections of dagbladet.no. Hence, immediacy became
important. The journalist heading the section felt it was important to produce and publish at
least one new story each day. Some tension arose between the print and online feature
desks. Upon my first visit to the newsroom in 2005, the print Magasinet editor was not
confident about the quality of what was published under the Magasinet brand online. “In
Magasinet, we secure quality through many sections before we publish stuff. With the pace
they have online, it’s difficult for them to secure quality. I think that’s very bad for the
Magasinet brand”, she said (Interview). She therefore wanted closer cooperation and more
control over what was published online. However, the online Magasinet journalist said that
if it were up to her, no stories from the print Magasinet whould be published online at all.
In 2006, the online newsroom initiated a re-launch of the section (“Magasinet 2.0”) to
define its aim and purpose on their own terms. A project group was established, headed by a
newly hired (by dagbladet.no) professional project manager. The journalist heading the
Magasinet section and the editor of the print equivalent were both key members of this
project group, and during the project period they “hit it off”. What had previously been a
fairly lukewarm relationship marked by an unwillingness to cooperate, turned to
enthusiastic and innovative cooperation during the project period. As a result, a journalistic
programme for the section was written, stating that
Magasinet online shall produce feature stories based on the premises of the Internet,
implying that online tools such as video, debate, photo slide shows, graphics,
hyperlinks and whatever technology might offer in the future shall be utilized.4
The project group delivered their suggestions in January 2007 and the section was to
be re-launched in May the same year. However, the suggestions were not implemented (due
to reasons discussed below). During the summer and autumn of 2007 several things
happened that weakened the overall autonomy of dagbladet.no. Three editors who were all
key individuals in the struggle for online autonomy left dagbladet.no, partly as a result of
internal dispute over Dagbladet’s wish and attempt to converge print and online newsroom
operations. This made implementation of new online features even more difficult. The
members of the project group were frustrated with the lack of action. Innovation was
hindered and the mode of enthusiasm and cooperation that had marked the project group
members broke down.
Newsroom work culture
The newsroom work culture of dagbladet.no is basically a reproduction of the
gatekeeping culture of the print counterpart. Journalists select sources and write stories
based on traditional news criteria. Desk editors edit and publish the stories. However,
dagbladet.no has paid more and more attention to finding alternative work cultures, thus
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making the information flow more complex. An important incident fast-forwarding this
process was the launch of a community service (“Blink”) in February 2002, which soon
became the most popular online community in Norway. From that moment on, dagbladet.no
became accessible for other information flows to pass through the gate. A routine
was established implying that initiatives of innovation always involved looking for ways to
implement user-generated content. In recent years, dagbladet.no has dedicated considerable
resources to develop an advanced system for user discussions and comments. Dagbladet.no
has also developed a system for so-called net meetings (i.e. sources answering questions
from readers live) on a daily basis.
Interaction with readers therefore soon became an important part of the Magasinet
section’s identity, as perceived by the journalists. Stories could attract as many as a
thousand readers’ comments, and quite often stories were re-edited post-publishing based on
reader involvement. The Magasinet section also experimented with other kinds of user-
generated content, such as series of narratives written by non-journalists5.
Representation of the audience
As a result of the fairly distributed model of gatekeeping (in comparison to print
newsrooms) in dagbladet.no, the audience was perceived as being producers as much as
consumers. Comparing the online newsroom with the print counterpart, the online news
editor said: “We create a widely different intersecting point between the newsroom and the
readers” (Interview). When several new positions in dagbladet.no were announced in
January 2007, the announcement underlined that dagbladet.no aimed at producing
journalism in “conversation with the readers”.
This view of the audience as collaborators clearly made an impact on the innovation
process of the Magasinet section, both in how technical resources were used and in how
journalism was practiced. Technical resources were directed towards developing efficient
systems to implement reader comments and net meetings as described above. Journalism
was practiced with an understanding that readers would contribute with personal stories
(identified above as a discourse of intimacy present in traditional feature journalism), thus
minimizing personalization on the journalists’ side of production. “There is no point in
finding cases to the stories we write since the readers contribute with their personal
experiences in the discussions following the stories”, said one of the section’s journalists.
The audience was also perceived as active searchers of information. Stories in
dagbladet.no in general and the Magasinet section in particular were equipped with a
substantial amount of both in-text and side-barred hyperlinks.
The role of management
From the beginning, the editors of dagbladet.no developed a culture of democratic
leadership. As one journalist put it: “Every employee had as much influence as the boss”
(Interview). Journalists felt processes of innovation and development were joint tasks where
editors and journalists were equally important. It seemed as though this was a deliberate
management strategy that influenced all levels of management, from publisher to subeditors.
One subeditor said: “I don’t take control over what the journalists are working on. They
may work on whatever they want. People here are so skilled that that’s not a problem.”
In general, the journalists were pleased with this arrangement, and felt they were
given tremendous freedom – much more than in the parent newspaper according to those
who had worked in both places. The flip side was a sense that no one was in control and that
news coverage and product development became random. Some journalists were frustrated
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9
with what they perceived as a lack of leadership. “I’m often surprised with how poorly we
plan things”, one journalist lamented. The management culture also caused some confusion
regarding who was actually in charge. In the colophon of the Magasinet section, the editor
of print Magasinet was named as editor – not the online editor as in all other sections. When
confronted with this, the editors of dagbladet.no and of print Magasinet disagreed on who
actually possessed editorial control. Since years had passed without this causing any
confrontation, the situation serves as an example of how little editors interfered with daily
production.
This lack of editorial interference led to two things: first, product development and
innovation were very much controlled by the journalists themselves; second, informal
structures of power relations were allowed to mushroom. Both these circumstances are
traceable in the development of the Magasinet section. The journalists working within the
section were free to develop it in the direction they wanted. However, in 2007, when the
section was to be re-launched following a professional process of project management,
informal power relations paralysed the implementation of the new section. Two senior
staffers who were not members of the project group planning “Magasinet 2.0”, but who
were accustomed to being involved in product development, opposed some key aspects of
the project group report, namely the wish to implement interactive graphics using the
software Flash and thus the hiring of a Flash designer. One of the senior staffers simply said
he felt Flash was a “hype” and that utilization of this software would be a “misuse of
resources”. After a meeting in which the two senior staffers had put forward their views on
the project group report, the head of the Magasinet section said (with one of the senior
staffers in question listening): “You should have seen [Names of the two senior staffers].
They just laughed at us, really ‘dissed’ us.”
Without any formal planning or assembling a professional project group, the two
senior staffers then came up with an idea to re-launch one of the other sections. Given their
powerful position within the newsroom, they managed to direct resources to develop and re-
launch this other section instead of the Magasinet section. “That’s how things work here”,
one of the Magasinet section journalist later lamented, “Development happens in other
ways. [Names of the two senior staffer] can suddenly have an idea, they run into the
technical department and make them develop things.”
The relevance of new technology
At one point, in November 2007, the journalist heading the Magasinet section said
out loud: “We have so many technical problems that everything is going straight to hell. I
can’t take it anymore. I quit!” The only response she got from her colleagues was laughter –
a laughter reflecting their recognition more than any humorous accounts of the outburst.
Several times during the observation periods and in the interviews technical restraints
were mentioned as the direct cause of why new features were discarded – in dagbladet.no in
general and in the Magasinet section in particular. Two factors concerning unwanted or
unforeseen technical issues were of direct relevance to the development of the Magasinet
section. The first factor concerned limitations in the Content Management System (CMS),
the second concerned complexity of multimedia presentation software.
Dagbladet.no had directed many resources into developing a unique CMS. This
system had many flaws (even in 2007) and created constant frustration in the journalists.
The system was so unstable that the journalists wrote their stories in a different application
before copy–pasting it into the CMS. Hyperlinks, text formatting and other coding had to be
manually written in html by the journalists. Such processes were time-consuming and
prevented, for instance, development of hypertext structures, thus promoting linear text as
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10
the preferred style. When asked if there existed any plans to implement hypertext structure
to story writing, the journalist who headed the Magasinet section during the first years,
replied: “Yes, we talked about that. But there were some technical restraints that made it
difficult.” (Interview)
As mentioned in the project report for the re-launch of the section in 2007, the
journalists in the Magasinet section wanted to implement Flash productions. As part of the
project group involvement they played back some Flash productions from The Los Angeles
Times’ online edition to the technical department, asking for support to produce similar
packages. The technical staff were however sceptical. They expressed worries about the
complexity of the Flash software and felt it would consume too many resources (similar
concerns were expressed by personnel in British online news sites according to Thurman
and Lupton (2008)). Even though the final project report contained a suggestion to hire a
Flash designer designated to the section, this never materialized.
Discussion
Three important insights can be drawn from these findings:
1. Several researchers have concluded that immediacy in reporting is an obstacle for
innovation in online newsrooms. The case study presented here suggests that the
implementation of new genres in online journalism might minimize the importance
of immediacy and hence boost innovation.
2. The factors found to be important for processes of innovation in online newsrooms in
previous research are still relevant, but somewhat overlapping and in need of
revision.
3. The importance of practice and thereby the power of individual action has been
undervalued in previous research on innovation in online newsrooms.
Concerning the first insight, there is no doubt that the introduction of feature
journalism in dagbladet.no implied a process of innovation, even though the second phase
of this process might be perceived as not very successful. The online journalists and editors
searched for ways to adapt this type of journalism to an online environment and hence make
it their “own”. It is however fair to say that the work routine of the Magasinet section was
influenced by the work culture of the online newsroom at large to such a degree that
immediacy in reporting became, at least to a certain extent, a virtue that perhaps slowed
down the process of innovation. However, immediacy was not a factor that obstructed
innovation in itself; rather it was part of an already established work culture that to a certain
degree hindered innovative initiatives that did not involve immediacy. It might, therefore, be
advisable to view immediacy more as an effect of other factors rather than a cause in itself.
If the people working within the Magasinet section had been isolated to create their own,
autonomous work culture, then immediacy might not have become a virtue. Autonomy and
work culture therefore seem to be factors causing the degree of immediacy in reporting and
thereby the extent of further innovation.
This insight points to the next. The various factors influencing innovation are not
separate but highly integrated in complex chains of causes and effects. For instance, whether
the newsroom is autonomous or not clearly affects whether it adopts an already established
work culture or creates an alternative one. Furthermore, whether the audience is perceived
as producers or consumers is closely linked to what kind of work culture the newsroom has
established. In other words, autonomy can cause alternative work cultures and thereby
different perceptions of the audience. One can imagine that a new and different perception
of the audience can grow out of an already established work culture and create a new and
eventually autonomous newsroom, but it seems more plausible that autonomy is the initial
This is a postprint. The article is published in Journalism Studies 10(6), 2009, pp. 821-836
11
and thus decisive factor.
Another point to make concerning autonomy is that it played a double and complex
role in how the Magasinet section developed. Previous research has only focused on
autonomy in relation to parent newsrooms, while the findings of this case study reveal that
autonomy within the online newsroom might be of equal importance.
The complex role of autonomy is also reflected in what role management played.
There is no doubt that the role of management was crucial to what direction the process of
innovation took in the case presented in this paper. The democratic culture of dagbladet.no
– or lack of leadership, depending on the eye of the beholder – made innovation random,
dependent on individuals and open to the influence of informal power structures. However,
the style of management causing this was expressed and wanted. Hence, the randomness of
innovation was part of an established routine. When management changed the routine and
implemented professional project management (in an attempt to minimize randomness) the
path of innovation became even more random because the old routine was still very much
alive and part of the practice of the journalists. This demonstrates what Slappendel
perceives as the “complex and paradoxical relationship between action and structure” (1996
p. 118).
The findings further suggest that Boczkowski’s (2004) separation of alternative work
culture and how the audience is perceived as two different factors might be unnecessary,
since the process of innovation as it unfolded in dagbladet.no indicates a clear
interdependence between these two factors. When dagbladet.no relaxed the gatekeeping
work culture, they did so because they wanted the audience to participate on the production
side. A different perception of the audience therefore determined an alternative work
culture.
The third insight to be drawn from this case study regards the importance of practice
rather than routine. Running throughout the findings of the case study is the importance of
individuals’ actions. Individuals played an important role at all levels of innovation. The
journalist heading the Magasinet section influenced the development to a great extent, the
innovative initiatives of the project group were significantly advanced because two key
members “hit it off” with each other, and informal power structures allowed other
individuals to block the same innovative initiatives. This gives substantial support to Cottle
(2007) and Niblock’s (2007) emphasis on the importance of practice in (online) newsrooms.
It is, however, important to note that this dimension of practice interplayed with structural
elements such as autonomy, work culture and technical restraints, very much in line with the
interactive process perspective on innovation argued for by Slappendel (1996).
There are, however, other rationales for why agency is perhaps more important now
than before in both online newsrooms and media organizations at large. Deuze (2007) and
Nygren (2008) have pointed out that media work in general and the practice of journalism in
particular is becoming increasingly individualized. Use of freelance labour, blurring
boundaries between leisure and work and journalists expected to be multi-skilled are all
structural factors of the media industry paradoxically enhancing the importance of agency
and thus the practice of journalism. In an overview of new media innovation in Denmark,
Sweden, The Netherlands, Switzerland and Austria, Bierhoff et al. (2000, cited in Dueze
2007 p. 150) found that editors, journalists and management disagreed on the nature of
change brought about by convergence. Newsrooms marked by strong individuals constantly
opposing each other’s views therefore seems to be a common feature when processes of
innovation unfold in online journalism.
Given the still very young history of online newsrooms, their diverse nature of
autonomy and the extreme growth they have undergone during the last ten to fifteen years, it
is to be expected that internal structures are weak and subject to constant revisions. In such
This is a postprint. The article is published in Journalism Studies 10(6), 2009, pp. 821-836
12
work cultures practice might outshine routine. More importantly, this emphasis on agency in
turn affects the establishment of structures in line with Giddens (1984) tail-biting theory of
structuration: individuals empowered with the ability to influence and shape organizational
routine will shape a routine where individuals are expected to play important roles. This was
the case with dagbladet.no. Innovation was anchored in the practice of journalism and
innovative initiatives anchored elsewhere (in professional project groups) did not succeed.
Conclusion
The aim of this case study has been to trace factors influencing processes of
innovation in an online newsroom and to further develop a substantive grounded theory of
such processes. Based on the findings and the discussion above it is fair to say that such
processes are complex and random, due to the unstable structure of online newsrooms. What
is a cause for, and what is an effect of, innovation (or lack of innovation) can be difficult to
pinpoint. Immediacy in reporting has, for instance, been labelled a cause for lack of
innovation. In this paper I have argued that immediacy in reporting is best seen as an effect
of factors preventing innovation rather than a cause in itself.
Comparing the findings of this case study with previous research supports a
substantive grounded theory of innovation in online newsrooms constituted by five factors:
1. Newsroom autonomy: Are innovative projects initiated and implemented within an
autonomous newsroom and with relative autonomy within the online newsroom?
2. Newsroom work culture: Does the online newsroom reproduce editorial gatekeeping
or are alternative work cultures explored?
3. The role of management: Is newsroom management able to secure stable routines for
innovation?
4. The relevance of new technology: Is new technology perceived as relevant, i.e.
efficient and useful?
5. Innovative individuals: Is innovation implemented and understood as part of the
practice of journalism?
In dagbladet.no, these factors shaped how a section for feature journalism was
developed and implemented. It is however important to note that the five factors are
dependent on each other through complex chains of causes and effects. The most decisive
factor seems to be autonomy – both within the newsroom in question and in relation to other
newsrooms. Without autonomy, alternative work cultures are not likely to be explored.
Without autonomy, management is not likely to secure stable routines for innovation.
Furthermore, the factor concerning how the audience is perceived detected in previous
research, is found to be an integrated part of the factor of newsroom work culture. It is thus
discarded as a separate factor here. Finally, the emphasis on newsroom practice in the case
study presented above revealed the importance of a factor not previously detected: the
importance of innovative individuals.
However, the random and individualized nature of innovation found in dagbladet.no
might be the most common feature of innovation processes in online newsrooms – and an
important feature of the structural dimension of new media production at large.
This is a postprint. The article is published in Journalism Studies 10(6), 2009, pp. 821-836
13
NOTES
1Dagbladet.no is the second biggest online newspaper in Norway. Launched in March 1995
as the first national online newspaper in Norway, it quickly inherited its parent newspaper
Dagbladet’s struggle for experimentation and product development indicated by the slogan
“Always in front” (“Alltid foran”). Says the news editor of dagbladet.no: “We have put
more emphasis on innovation [than other online newspapers]”. (Interview)
2 The empirical material originating from the case study was coded and analysed using the
qualitative data analysis software HyperRESEARCH 2.8.
3 http://www.dagbladet.no/magasinet/
4 “Magasinet v. 2.0”, unpublished, internal project report, p. 2. (my translation)
5 In 2007, a group of medical students contacted dagbladet.no and asked whether the
newsroom was interested in publishing diary-like reports from a field trip they were
planning to Aconcagua, Argentina – the highest mountain in America – that aimed to test
physical conditions at extreme heights. The reports were published in the Magasinet section.
A similar project had run on the section a few years earlier, in 2004, when a young
Norwegian woman wrote personal reports on her move to China. These reports were quite
well read and even made the front page of dagbladet.no as their popularity grew.
This is a postprint. The article is published in Journalism Studies 10(6), 2009, pp. 821-836
14
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