What is online journalism and why is it becoming so popular?

Online journalism is the publication and spread of current news information over the web. It is known for, among other elements and features, its transience, speed, capability for breaking news coverage, convergence and potential for the spread of information on an international scale.

The entire concept of online journalism is frequently associated with blogging, that is to say, the publishing of newsworthy information on the web in a timely fashion. It has been widely reported that “established journalists” do not necessarily consider “bloggers” to be among them, though it is becoming common for reputed journalistic institutions to include blogs as a supplement to their regular news coverage.

The move towards online news started in the mid-1990s, when the Raleigh News & Observer introduced an online version of the paper in 1994. The web had not yet reached its peak in terms of popularity, and so access was limited to users with internet access – and who were aware it existed.

It is now not only common but generally expected that most news outlets will have their own websites. Most of these sites include all of the content one might find in the printed version, as well as some ‘bonus’ material. Everything was generally free in the early days of online journalism; anyone with an internet connection could access most of the online news sites that the web had to offer.

News organizations eventually realized that they could be losing money by offering such a service (why buy the paper when you can read it online for free?) and began to introduce registration and subscription fees. Some sites can still be read for free, but require the reader to sign up with his or her e-mail address and a password so that the development and editorial staff can get more realistic figures as to how many unique visitors they get in a particular timeframe.

From static to dynamic, yesterday’s news to breaking news

The first online news resources were ‘static;’ that is to say that they were updated once daily (except in extenuating circumstances) and contained only the content that one might find in the printed version. They were also usually updated once every day. The move towards breaking news began in the late 1990s, when developers began to set up database-run systems that could be updated automatically at any point during the day. This is widely believed to have revolutionized news.

In the past, extremely important breaking news would often cut into regularly scheduled programming on TV and on the radio. There was, of course, a specific formula for exactly what constituted news worthy enough to do such a thing. While viewers could receive updates on current events and breaking news periodically throughout the day with morning, afternoon and evening newscasts (as well as newsbreaks), broadcasting generally forced the viewer to get information on the broadcaster’s schedule. The advent of breaking online news allowed readers to receive breaking news updates on their own time.

The speed with which a user can access information over the internet is one of the main appeals of the use of the web for breaking news. In recent years, many people have relied almost exclusively on the web, if not on the web in conjunction with broadcast news, for information during crises or emergencies. The Globe and Mail’s online editorial staff pulled its rich content version on September 11, 2001, after a huge influx in traffic led to slow loading times for all users. The use of a text-only version alleviated the strain on bandwidth and allowed the breaking news team to get information online as they received it.

Getting scooped just got easier…

The ‘chase’ of an online news story, particularly breaking news, is one of the most exciting and stressful elements of online journalism. Breaking a story first – or even “mere seconds” before any other online news outlet – becomes a matter of pride for many online journalists. It’s happened that smaller news outlets, like AOL’s news division, “scooped” large news organizations on major stories. (AOL Canada beat CBC.ca to the news about the election of Pope Benedict XVI by a few seconds. This was a big deal, and according to the individual who interviewed me for an online news job - which I didn't get - they were very excited.)

Though it can be stressful and inherently challenging for journalists to keep on top of an important, breaking news story while still maintaining accuracy, many consider this to be one of the most exciting parts of the job.

Online journalism is generally conducted in an office setting. Writers and reporters do as much reporting as “field” reporters, but usually from within an office. They don’t merely ‘piggyback’ off the work of other journalists; they make their own calls and conduct their own interviews, often adding to the work of other journalists. In these cases, the original journalist often gets the byline, while the online reporter who did some of the research might get a ‘with files from’ credit. It’s often up to online reporters to ‘local-ify’ stories by adding comment and reaction from local officials, and sometimes the revamped copy can end up in the printed publication.

Honesty, integrity and the ease of editing

Transparency and transience are two of the main issues with online journalism. First, it’s been said that anyone can put up a website and claim to be publishing factual news on it. It is generally, however, easy to tell the difference between independent projects (which often have merit and are of great value to the viewer) and which online sources are the online versions of printed publications. Many people use the internet (blogging, etc.) to comment on and criticize current events, news coverage and the mainstream media, but it is generally agreed that this does not necessarily constitute journalism.

A viable online news source will make no secret of its origins, its base, and its connections to other publications (if any), as well as its motivations.

Transience is also a huge issue; content put online can be changed or modified within seconds. If a spelling or factual error makes it into a printed publication, the editorial staff will most likely have to print a correction, or sometimes a retraction and apology. If such a mistake is made online and spotted quickly, however, it can be fixed instantly – possibly without any users noticing.

This type of advance has been criticized for its possible effects on the importance of copy editing. Critics argue that it might seem less important for writers and editors to get something right the first time if they’ve been brought up to believe that it can be fixed within seconds – especially if there isn’t a printed version.

Similarly, many online news sources only keep old stories “live” for a set period of time. Printed publications are often archived and provide insight into life at a particular period in history decades and centuries later. Once an online article is no longer “live,” it often still remains on the server but can’t be seen by anyone not involved with the publication. Different publications have different ways of handling this, however, and many of the pay-per-view organizations keep articles online for longer periods of time. It does, however, depend almost entirely on the amount of web space the organization has.

Blogging vs. journalism

Online journalism and, more generally, journalism as terms in general, have been used almost synonymously with blogging as of late. Open source journalism has blossomed online with the advent of projects such as Wikinews and the like. Online blog content has become increasingly critical and analytical of the mainstream media in recent years, particularly in matters such as the 60 Minutes II/George W. Bush military record debacle, and the American blog that provided Canadians with testimony from the Gomery Inquiry, which was under a publication ban at the time.

As SharQ points out in his excellent writeups, anyone can practice journalism as long as they have a means with which to distribute ideas pertaining to current information. Whether or not the relative ease with which anyone can publish information online qualifies all information published online as journalism remains to be seen, and is dependent on how future generations view the information contained within blogs and the like. In short, I think blogging and journalism can enhance one another when done properly but are not the same thing.

Online editorial staffs do nearly everything in their power to keep people coming back to their websites on a regular basis. The most popular of these additions include online ‘bonuses’ or interactive content. With these, users can actually interact with the online content (via interactive Flash features, photo galleries, quizzes, and communication elements), making use of a feature of the web that print and broadcast media don’t have.


The web also allows for the distribution of information through audio and video, which brings forth the idea of convergence in online journalism. Many broadcast news organizations feature their reporter stories online in digital audio and video format in addition to providing text-based articles about the same issue. Public broadcasters such as the CBC in Canada and the BBC in the UK are known for this type of combination of broadcast, print and online technologies.

Though one of its main uses is the spread of breaking ‘hard’ news, online journalism also includes the feature or ‘soft news’ element of the greater field. Magazines generally also have online versions (and are more likely to be aimed at subscribers than their newspaper counterparts). Some online news sources (most often the magazine-like ones) are exclusive to the web. These are often run by students or aimed at getting students involved in their publication. The web is a popular choice for magazine-format journalism in the 21st century because it replaces the cost of printing and publication with the cost of web hosting, which is often much cheaper.


Advancing web technologies have led to changes in the way journalism and news are presented online. The advent of the news aggregator allows users to determine what sort of news they would like to access and from what sources. This has been criticized for promoting a narrow view of the world, but the counter-argument is usually that users can check any news source they wish, from any of the world’s nations in any language, if they really want to. Technologies such as RSS feeds also allow users to have the latest headlines delivered to them instantly, heralding more changes in the way people access information and learn about current events.

This is generally thought to be worrisome because it, as mentioned, may result in a 'narrowing' of reader perception. News media has long been controversial because it involves a small group of people deciding what is and isn't imporant enough to warrant news coverage. The danger in self-serve journalism is that users and readers could inadvertantly lose sight of important developments.

RSS feeds have also been criticized because they, some people argue, indicate that people are too lazy to go out looking for news; they need to have it brought to them. On the other hand, it lets people find out about something that's happened immediately after it's been put online. In situations like these, it's up to the individual user.

A journalism degree in progress, one introduction to online journalism course, encounters with two instructors who have worked on the Globe and Mail's breaking news team and that interview for the job I didn't get. Oh, and:
Online journalism - Wikipedia http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Online_journalism 11 July 2005
RSS feed by o pti and BuffcorePhil