The Convergence Newsletter

From The Newsplex at the University of South Carolina

Vol. VII No. 2 (March 2010)

Aspects of Convergence

By Matt McColl, Editor

To look at how convergence has affected journalism and the news business, a couple of key elements come into play. One main factor is the quality of journalism and how to compare it with traditional journalism values. Another is the interaction with the journalism process that convergence allows s to have.

In this issue, Serena Carpenter of Arizona State University explores the new perceptions of journalist, journalism and quality in the digital age, while Val Pipps of the University of Akron analyzes the interaction between community and news source.

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Featured Articles

Convergence leads to questions of journalism quality

Do readers have rationale behind commenting?


Quick Glance Calendar(details)

April 22 - 25: 68th MPSA Political Science Conference, Chicago

May 6 -7: 4th International Conference on eDemocracy, Danube University, Krems,


June 21-25: 2010 Newsplex Summer Seminars, Columbia, S.C.

August 4-7: 2010 AEJMC 2010 Convention, Denver


Feature Articles

Convergence leads to questions of journalism quality

By Serena Carpenter, Arizona State University

In a world where convergence in technology has made it easier for everyone to perform many of journalism’s traditional functions, it can be difficult to distinguish quality information from that which is less reliable. The primary concern of traditional journalists with online citizen journalists (i.e. people with scant professional training who publish online) is that they are portrayed as more likely to publish content without traditional journalists’ values (e.g., objectivity, fairness) in mind.

My research sought to detour the conversation from identifying what is or is not “journalism” toward identifying traits that define “quality journalism.” In doing so, I used a functional definition of journalist as “an individual who intends to publish information online meant to benefit a community.”

To test assumptions about citizen journalists, I researched how traditional media providers such as the New York Times, as well as academics, define news quality. Tenets of journalism are ill-defined, which makes it difficult to assess whether organizations are abiding by their own standards. The news industry has been primarily responsible for defining standards; however, research has shown that other content creators often disagree with the current definitions of quality. Many citizen journalists argue that following many of those principles has left traditional journalists out of touch with readers.

The debate over how to define news quality has historically plagued journalism. Although various organizations and researchers have attempted to quantify quality, no rigorous operational definition exists. Survey research of traditionalists has found that attributes of quality include localism, editorial rigor, interpretation, accuracy, and diversity. The Project for Excellence in Journalism has also identified quantifiable features considered hallmarks of journalism, such as the use of enterprise stories, multiple viewpoints, a large number of sources, expert sources, multiple viewpoints, story tone, and stories that reflect the community.

It is important to note news publications that focus on a smaller audience tend to define quality differently than those whose audience is larger. Larger newspapers are apt to value staff enterprise, staff professionalism, comprehensive news coverage, and interpretation, while smaller newspapers favor local news, community values, and community leadership. Thus, perceived audience may influence definitions of quality.

A quantitative content analysis of articles from English-language daily newspaper and citizen journalism Web sites in the United States was employed to investigate whether these publications adhered to four measures of news quality as defined by academics and traditional journalists: high number of sources, use of multiple viewpoints, presence of transparent sources, and presence of local information in articles. Most of these definitions stem from research conducted on larger publications such as the New York Times.

A purposive sample of online citizen journalism sites was selected because no master online citizen journalism site list existed. To begin the selection process, lists from and were consulted. The goal was to find two citizen journalism Web sites to represent all 50 states (one “small” and one “large” community from each state in the United States). The final list of online citizen journalism sites totaled 72 sites; 51% of the sites were extracted from the Placeblogger directory.

After the online citizen journalism list was complete, a matching technique was used to populate the online newspaper list. For the online newspaper sample, an online newspaper was matched to each citizen journalism site city. For example, in Alabama, The Birmingham Blog online citizen site’s counterpart was The Birmingham News online newspaper. A total of 50 online daily newspapers were found to match the online citizen journalism publication’s home city.

Once the online citizen journalism and online newspaper lists were complete, the sampling procedure was determined. To compensate for the expected smaller number of new articles available daily, online citizen journalism content was captured everyday for one month (March 2007), while online newspaper articles were captured everyday for a period of one constructed week during that same month.

This sampling procedure produced a total of 6,485 articles. To make the study more manageable while maintaining the meaningfulness of the data, articles were randomly reduced because of the large number of online citizen journalism (n=2,221) and online newspaper (n=4,264) articles retrieved from the home pages. Articles were randomly reduced to 480 online newspaper articles and 482 online citizen journalism articles.

The results show online citizen journalists do not perform as well when measured against some of traditional journalism’s news quality standards. The online newspapers performed better at featuring a greater number of sources and a diversity of viewpoints in articles, while online citizen journalists wrote more proportionately local information. This research found no significant differences related to the use of anonymous sources by publication type.

I argue that more research needs to be conducted on smaller publications. I believe that research on smaller news publications can be applied to online citizen journalism sites. Smaller publications (e.g., neighborhood, dissident, rural) are more likely to emphasize community consensus, be more trusted as a source, and prefer interpretative reporting. Based on this and other research, citizen journalists may hold the same values as publishers of smaller publications.

Future research needs to identify definitions of news quality and what leads to variations in those definitions. Academics and leaders in journalism have focused on quality from the traditional provider prospective. It is important to identify how all parties (news media, citizen journalists, and consumers) evaluate quality to determine commonalities in how quality is perceived. However, a broad definition may not exist because information quality is a multidimensional concept in which stakeholders are likely to vary in definition.

The entire study, “An examination of news quality and the extent to which U.S. online newspaper and online citizen journalism publications achieve it,” can be found in the book Public Journalism 2.0: The promise and reality of a citizen-engaged press, edited by Jack Rosenberry and Burton St. John III. (Routledge, 2009)

Serena Carpenter joined the faculty of Arizona State University in 2007 specializing in newer media and media sociology after finishing her Ph.D. degree at Michigan State University. She is interested in understanding influences on news content. Her dissertation research was one of the first of a series of quantitative studies on online citizen journalism. She can be reached at


Do readers have rationale behind commenting?

By Val Pipps, University of Akron

During the last of my 30 years in the news business, I worked with my paper’s Web site. Web 2.0, the idea that the Web is an interactive platform where the audience gets to select, reshape and contribute to the experience, was the norm, and one of the ways online news sites embraced it was by allowing users to comment on stories.

As a Knight Ridder site, we started offering commenting in 2005. The idea of readers providing comments follows the print tradition of letters to the editor. On the Knight Digital Media Center Web site, authors Paul Grabowicz, Jane Stevens, Jeremy Rue, and Jerry Monti say in a January 2009 article that “online comments are as much about people communicating and interacting with each other, as they are just reacting to a reporter's story.”[1]

In a 2007 interview, Chris Tolles, then the CEO of Topix, a community news Web site, said “Web 2.0 is all about bringing people into the conversation.” And apparently millions of news readers joined that conversation. According to information on, after forums were added to the site in December 2005, “more than 1 million people posted 5.5 million comments, adding more than 30,000 comments a day.” Former senior editor at the Poynter Institute, Steve Outing, said in a 2005 column on that user comments to articles on the Web “offer the opportunity for readers to react to, criticize, praise or add to what’s published by professional journalists.” [2] And Stephen Dubner said in July 2009 on his blog “Freakonomics” that the “stream of comments can take many shapes, depending on the nature of the post” and that the “commenters here can seem like a fairly diverse lot.” [3]

He added that he began thinking, “What kind of person comments on a blog, and why?” That’s what Dr. Heather Walter and I wanted to begin studying – Why do people comment?

We looked at two areas of research involving letters to the editor and focusing on uses and gratifications.

There is a long history of newspaper readers communicating with editors. From the turn of the 20th century, members of the communities served by newspapers have written letters to the editor. They have, in fact, been encouraged to do so.

Writing a letter and having it published is an entrenched part of newspapers’ opinion pages. Bill Reader says in a 2006 paper that “more importantly, many community newspapers on which the editorial page is the soul of the paper will devote considerable time, effort and resources to cultivate and maintain a healthy and robust letters section.”[4] An exploratory study by Sydney Forsythe in 1950 likened the letters column to a “social safety valve” where people could vent about their dislike of certain aspects of society. [5]

Commenting on a Web site’s story differs, however, because comments often can be anonymous (though more papers are asking for registration) and letters to the editor usually are not. A long-standing tradition at most publications requires letters to the editor be signed, and the authenticity of those signatures often is checked.

With millions of comments added to the Web each month, we believed studying uses and gratifications research might help provide some answers to more fully understand why people go to the Web to comment on news stories.

Uses and gratifications research has a long history in mass communication. Early investigations came up with a list of purposes served by the content or the medium – “to match one’s wits against others, to get information or advice for daily living, to provide a framework for one’s day, to prepare oneself culturally for the demands of upward mobility, or to be reassured about the dignity and usefulness of one’s role.’” [6]

Through uses and gratifications, researchers have built models or dimensions that attempt to identify groups to explain why members use the Internet.

Using dimensions such as those discussed by Arthur Armstrong and John Hagel III in a 1996 article about the Internet that focused on business [7] or Louisa Ha and E. Lincoln James [8] in their 1998 paper that cited five dimensions of interactivity, and others, we developed eight hypotheses that covered the right to comment and the editing of those comments, anonymity in commenting and taking on a different persona, and the feeling of community of the commenters. An online survey was developed and Internet commenters were invited to participate through a message we posted on several stories on a news Web site. A link was provided to the 25 questions and, subjects were asked to identify how much they agreed or disagreed on a seven-point Likert scale. There were also demographic questions.

Some of our findings include statistically significant relationships between those who post online and whether they see posting as a freedom of speech issue and between those who felt they had the right to comment on online stories and those who felt posting is a freedom of speech issue.

We also found that those who post comments to online newspaper Web sites feel that comments should not be edited, that readers should not be asked to register before they post a comment, that they should be able to post comments anonymously, and that it is OK to use profanity when posting. The results showed that the more a person comments, the more he or she views him or herself and others as a part of a community, that the person likes like the give and take of others who comment, and that the person is able to take on a different persona if he or she desires.

This pilot study just begins to scratch the surface of why people comment on news stories, but we believe the findings are interesting and begin to set a framework for future research.

In the relatively short time online readers have been allowed to comment on stories, they have begun to assume it as their right. We should look more closely at these beliefs – whether online readers in other regions of the country have similar beliefs or whether regional ideologies influence this. Certainly, there is no indication people who write letters to the editor or post comments have the same ethical beliefs as editors do concerning signing one’s name. Editors don’t like anonymity when people express their opinions while readers aren’t as concerned with whether a letter or an online post is signed.

People who comment on online news stories believe they should be able to post anonymously. Editors have tended to disagree with that stance, which follows the long tradition of publishing only letters to the editor that have been signed.

The study cannot be generalized to the entire population of commenters, but it certainly leads to further questioning as to whether the lack of being able to post anonymously stops readers from commenting and whether anonymity leads to vitriolic or racists comments. We also need to further identify why people have this belief and determine why people are reluctant to use their real names and whether society as a whole pressures people to be “politically correct” in their discourse.

As we begin to try to understand why people comment, one striking finding is that people feel a sense of community with others who post. This dimension flows through uses and gratifications studies. People seem to enjoy this sense of community or comradeship. How strong is this feeling?

This study’s results are an important start for a much larger undertaking. A main limitation was the lack of a valid and reliable scale to measure the data requested from participants.

Clearly, the theme of community is important to Internet users who comment on online news stories. These reasons for use need to be more fully studied to try to pinpoint what gratifies the user. Also ripe for more research is the question of why the anonymity aspect of posting online is so important to users. Our forefathers often signed pseudonyms when speaking against England’s crown, but their well-being was often at risk. Do commenters believe they have something to lose if their name is used?

Obviously, there is much to do in these areas. We think we have provided a beginning, though small, in the needed research.

[1] Grabowicz, Paul, Stevens, J, Rue, J, & Monti, J. (2009, 30 January). Comments on news stories. Retrieved March 23, 1010, from Knight Digital Media Center website.

[2] Outing, Steve. (2005, June 15) The 11 Layers of Citizen Journalism. Retrieved March 23, 2010, from PoynterOnline website:

[3] Dubner, Stephen J. (2007, March 17) Who Comments on Blogs, and Why? Retrieved March 23, 2010, from New York Times website:

[4] Reader, B. (Spring 2006). Current issues regarding letters to the editor. Grassroots Editor. 47(1) 14-19 Accessed March 30, 2010 at

[5] Forsythe, Sidney A. (1950). An Exploratory Study of Letters to the Editor and Their Contributors. Public Opinion Quarterly, 14 (1): 143-4.

[6] Elihu Katz, Jay G. Blumler and Michael Gurevitch (1974). Utilization of Mass Communication by the Individual. In Jay G. Blumler and Elihu Katz (Eds.) The Uses of Mass Communications: Current Perspectives on Gratifications Research (pp. 19-32). Beverly Hills: Sage.

[7] Armstrong, Arthur, and Hagel, John III (1996, May-June). The Real Value of On-Line Communities. Retrieved March 23, 2010, from Harvard Business Review website:

[8] Ha, L and James, E.L. (1998). Interactivity Reexamined: A Baseline Analysis of Early Business Web Sites. Journal of Broadcasting and Electronic Media, 42, 457-474.

Val Pipps is a professor at the University of Akron where he teaches news at the school of communication. Before entering the teaching profession, he was a member of the Akron Beacon Journal staff. Pipps can be reached at


Conferences, Training and Calls for Papers

68th MPSA Political Science Conference


April 22-25


2010 Newsplex Summer Seminars

Convergence Software Bootcamp

Columbia, S.C.

May 4-8


4th International Conference on eDemocracy Danube University

Krems, Austria

May 6-7


2010 Newsplex Summer Seminars

Teaching and Research in Convergent Media

Columbia, S.C.

June 21-25


AEJMC 2010 Convention

Denver, Colorado

August 4-7


Publisher and Editorial Staff

The Convergence Newsletter is free and published by The College of Mass Communications and Information Studies at the University of South Carolina.

Executive Editor

Doug Fisher


Matt McColl



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