This paper argues for not studying the Web as one, homogeneous medium, but instead as a meta–medium that carries various divergent news media like news blogs, discussion forums, Web TV, and RSS news feeds, each with a specific presentation style. Based on a content analysis of Flemish online news media, the level of multimedia, interactivity and hypertext of different divergent news platforms are identified. Results suggest that multiple online platforms are used to present the news, even within meta–media like digital newspapers or portal sites. This analysis also reveals that the use of online news features varies among divergent news platforms, some being innovative and others rather traditional.
Introduction: The Web as meta–medium
Key features of online news
Introduction: The Web as meta–medium
Based on media logic theory — which stipulates that media define the structure and form of information presented and consumed — research in computer–mediated communication could benefit from discerning various media. Relative to traditional media, this may not seem to be a large issue. In fact, it is quite easy to distinguish an article in a print newspaper from an article in a magazine, or to compare and contrast a television show to a radio broadcast. In online journalism, however, the growing convergence of multiple technologies, services and practices is changing the way in which news is presented and consumed. Thanks to digitization, information can be combined, transformed or even manipulated. There is a general belief that digitization has erased the boundaries between print, television, radio and online technologies.
Seib  even suggests that “in journalism, [convergence] means a growing similarity in news presentation through various media.” The Web is often seen as the artefact that makes this homogenization of different media possible. Indeed, it is thanks to the Web that a fast exchange of content and services is possible and that the mix of different media, features, services and presentations has reached such a vast audience. The Web is seen as one, big, homogeneous medium embodying the convergence of different analogue and digital media and transforming the specific features of each medium into one super–medium. As Owen  remarked: “the Internet will be all.” Not surprisingly, the Web has often been studied as one, big, homogeneous unit (e.g., Charney and Greenberg, 2002; McMillan and Morrison, 2006; Papacharissi and Rubin, 2000). Studies elaborating on learning from online news mostly view online news as a whole (Berry, 2001; Chung and Zhao, 2004; Eveland and Dunwoody, 2000, 2001; Sicilia, et al., 2005; Valentino, et al., 2008).
Treating the ‘Internet as one medium’, however, may be challenged. First, it may not be adequate to treat the Web as a specific medium among other media like print newspapers, radio, television and magazines. Instead, it may be better to see the Web as an “infrastructure”  that functions as a channel through which media messages can be sent from sender to receiver. The Web may be studied as a carrier of different media and multiple online applications (Beyers, 2006), as one huge distributed media database (Manovich, 2001). Anderson and Tracey (2001) see the Internet as a “delivery mechanism for a range of services that (…) are used differently by different people” .
Deuze (2004) even argues that convergence in the online production process (e.g., a single newsroom with specialized journalists who make content for multiple media) does not always lead to one news format, but often results in the integrated presentation of a news item through different media, such as a Web site, news blog, listserv, news alert, RSS feed or SMS. Hence, convergence on the work floor does not in any case lead to a fully convergent media message and certainly not to a situation in which all online news looks the same. And although defining a medium is very difficult, especially in an online environment which is characterized by the co–existence or even convergence of different news formats and applications, it can be assumed that these online platforms should be studied as divergent media. Online news users can consume a news item through traditional news sites, news blogs, RSS feeds, discussion forums, online newspapers in PDF, news alerts, and so forth. These are all “technologies within technologies”  with specific types of communication and logics of their own.
These distinct news media are often integrated into a single online news platform. This is certainly the case for online newspapers. Two similar studies of digital newspapers in the United States showed that online newspapers are taking advantage of online capabilities and have decided to embrace a variety of news media, including RSS feeds, paper in PDF, online videos, blogs, and others (Bivings Report, 2006; Veglis, 2007). A news item can be described on the front page of an online newspaper, covered by a journalist on a news blog and at the same time be the topic of discussion on a message board of that same online newspaper. All these submedia tell the same story on a specific platform while standing on their own, and can, as a consequence, be considered as distinct media.
Avraam, et al. (2008) found that news producers for Greek newspapers seem to start with alternative publishing channels to present news to the public. More recently, Erdal (2009) acknowledged the distinctness of multiple online platforms in his study of multi–platform news reproduction. He investigated the process of translation and adaptation when content made for a specific platform (e.g., television) is published on a different one (e.g., print or Web). While the focus of his work is on the way television, radio and Web are integrated, he also acknowledged that television carries several distinct platforms of television and teletext while the Web consists of articles, feeds, Web radio and Web TV. According to Drotner (2002), this ‘unity of diversity’ — or the presentation of distinct news media within one meta–medium (e.g., an online newspaper) — should be considered an overall long–term development. This evolution deserves more attention in (online) media and journalism studies and research.
In most studies, however, the distinction between distinct and integrated media is not acknowledged. This lack of a clear delineation is especially alarming when multimedia is the focus of study. When elaborating on multimedia in studies of digital media, the obvious conclusion is that the concept of multimedia is ambiguous. Many authors refer to multimedia as the integration of multiple media formats like words, music, and images in one article (e.g., Dahlgren, 1996; Bardoel, 2002; Paulussen, 2004; Boczkowski, 2004), while others focus on the delivery of content through different media platforms. Deuze , for example, defines two types of multimedia: convergent multimedia is the use of “two or more media formats, such as (…) spoken and written word, music, moving and still images, graphic animations, including interactive and hypertextual elements”, while divergent multimedia is the integrated use of multiple media like a Web site, a usenet newsgroup, e–mail, SMS, radio, television, and so forth. These two definitions of multimedia embody the difficulties of determining the focus of multimedia: the combination of formats or sign systems (i.e., convergence) or the combination of multiple distinct media platforms (i.e., divergence). Following Deuze (2004), a news article on a digital newspaper can be labeled as multimedia because it presents information in text, pictures and embedded video (convergent multimedia), while a text–based message presented both on a news site, a news blog and a RSS feed is also multimedia (divergent). This combined use of multiple media platforms is also often referred to as crossmedia (e.g., Erdal 2009). According to Erdal (2009), crossmedia production is the production of content for more than one media platform so that “the platforms serve different purposes in the news coverage as a whole, implying a move towards the definition of a multiplatform concept” . In other words, news is presented on multiple divergent platforms within the same organization with each platform holding a specific degree of online features like convergent multimedia, according to the media logic and the purpose of the platform.
This distinction between divergent and convergent multimedia (and by extension between divergence an convergence in general) is an important step toward the recognition of the unique situation of online news with its combination of both formats and media. Following this distinction, we could study the Internet and portal sites as a meta–medium  or a multimedium (Jankowski and Hanssen, 1996), which includes different submedia or platforms (divergent multimedia) each with its specific combination of media formats (convergent multimedia) and other online features.
In the next section we elaborate further on the three key features of online news media.
Key features of online news
In discussions on ‘old’ and ‘new’ media, formal and structural features are often referred to as main carriers of distinction. Scholars have described online media based on characteristics like modularity, digitality, synchronism, automation, and speed (e.g., Dahlgren, 1996; Deuze, 2003; Rafaeli, 1988). Three features tend to reoccur: multimedia, interactivity and hypertext. Moreover, these features are used when defining online journalism (Deuze, 2001; Franklin, et al., 2005) so that we can consider them as essential features of online news. Studies that have investigated the use of convergent multimedia by online news media concluded that online news does not fully benefit from the potential of converging different media formats (e.g., Jankowski and van Selm, 2000; Paulussen, 2004).
The second online key feature, interactivity, is a very complex concept. Generally speaking, interactivity has the potential to make the news reader part of the news experience. Building further on the diverse literature (e.g., Cover, 2006; Heeter, 1989; Hodkinson, 2007; Kiousis, 2002; Rafaeli, 1988; Steuer, 1992), two general dimensions of interactivity stimulating user participation can be discerned: control over content and conversation.
Past studies investigating the use of interactive features all indicate that online news does not effectively exploit this interactive opportunity (e.g., Oblak, 2005; Schultz, 1999). Based on interviews with Web site producers, Chung (2007) argues that online producers show interest in these interactive features but are experiencing problems incorporating them. Hyperlinks, linking up different chunks of information possible, constitute perhaps the most visible feature of computer–mediated news media. The hyperlinked structure forms the basis of the Web so that it is impossible to navigate from medium to medium and from article to article without hyperlinks. In other words, it enables the interconnection between different content and different online media. Deuze (2003) makes an important distinction between internal and external hyperlinks. The former refer to the linking of content with other content within the same site (‘onsite’), while the latter include the linking of content with information located elsewhere on the Internet (‘offsite’). Past studies have demonstrated that only very few online news media make use of external hyperlinks. Moreover, these external hyperlinks mostly refer to non–competing media (Dimitrova, et al., 2003; Oblak, 2005). Cohen (2002) notes that external hyperlinks are not that popular because these make “viewers escape their ‘family’ of related businesses” . In all, internal hyperlinks are more frequently used than external hyperlinks, especially by digital newspapers (Oblak, 2005).
In order to elaborate on the Web as a meta–medium that holds multiple news submedia with specific formal and structural characteristics of their own, we investigate the following research questions:
Research question 1: Which distinct news submedia can be discerned?
Research question 2: What is the level of convergent multimedia, interactivity and hypertext of each distinct submedium?
We conducted a content analysis of Flemish online news media to investigate the distinct submedia and the level of convergent multimedia, interactivity and hypertext. This content analysis explored various online news formats that covered the municipal elections in Belgium on 8 October 2006 (election day) and the day after (9 October 2006). We sampled nine meta–medium sites: four digital newspapers [De Standaard Online (http://www.standaard.be/), Het Laatste Nieuws (http://www.hln.be/), Gazet van Antwerpen en Metro (http://www.gva.be/)], three TV/radio news sites [VRT–Nieuws (http://www.deredactie.be/cm/vrtnieuws), VTM (http://www.deredactie.be/cm/vrtnieuws) and StudioBrussel (http://www.stubru.be/], and two portal sites [Skynet (http://www.skynet.be/) and MSN (http://be.msn.com/default.aspx]. To make sure that enough discussion forum messages and blog messages were part of the sample, two additional news media were included: a political news forum (http://www.politics.be/) and a political blog (http://lvb.net/). Each news medium was sampled once each day, between 15:00 PM and 19:00 PM. In contrast with many of the other online news studies that focus only on the front page of digital newspapers and news sites (e.g., Dimitrova, et al., 2003; Kenney, et al., 2000), we chose to move beyond this ‘front door’ of online news sites and included also the multiple divergent news media within each meta–medium. Following the divergent multimedia approach, this paper studied different news media as meta–media, so that submedia like blogs and news forums, that were part of a digital newspaper without being published on the front page, were examined as distinct media.
To answer the first research question, we identified the different submedia for each meta–medium. Once these submedia were identified, the level of convergent multimedia, interactivity and hypertext for each submedium was measured. Based on the previous literature investigating the three key dimensions of online news features, some characterizing features were selected. However, due to the exploratory nature of this study, the coding scheme was open for unexpected online features. More information about the different features within each dimension is provided in the Results section.
The availability of different online features in each submedium was noted. The given percentage indicates how many of the messages on a specific submedium provided a specific feature regardless of the number or space. For each key dimension, an index was calculated by dividing the sum of the percentages of each feature’s occurrence by the total number of possible options. These mean scores indicate the general level of occurrence of convergent multimedia, interactivity and hypertext for each submedium.
The coding was executed by the author by using print screens of all the messages under study. An intercoder reliability test was performed by a well–trained graduate student in journalism, with a subset of about 10 percent of the news messages of all submedia. The testing was done for each of the variable and was calculated using Holsti’s R formula (Wimmer and Dominick, 2006). Average reliability equalled .89, ranging between .78 and 1.00. One interactive characteristic (whether the medium provided the possibility to personalize the content) was subject to subjective judgements, and was excluded from further analysis because of low reliability (.56).
Online news submedia
Research question 1 set out to identify the different online submedia. As previously stated, this paper followed a divergent multimedia approach so that digital newspapers, TV/radio sites and portal sites were analyzed as meta–media consisting of multiple submedia. Tables 1–3 provide an overview of the submedia for each of the three meta–media.
Table 1: Submedia for each digital newspaper. DeStandaard.be HLN.be GVA.be Freemetro.be News page ✓ ✓ ✓ ✓ Paper in PDF ✓ — ✓ — Web TV ✓ ✓ ✓ — Live Web TV — — — — Web radio — — — — News in pictures ✓ ✓ ✓ ✓ Infographic ✓ ✓ ✓ — News blog — ✓ — — Discussion forum ✓ — — — Online poll ✓ ✓ ✓ ✓ Mail alert ✓ ✓ ✓ — Textview — — — —
Table 2: Submedia for each radio/TV site. VRTNieuws.net VTM.be StudioBrussel.be News page ✓ ✓ ✓ Paper in PDF — — — Web TV ✓ ✓ — Live Web TV ✓ ✓ — Web radio ✓ — ✓ Live Web radio ✓ — ✓ News in pictures ✓ — — Infographic ✓ — — News blog ✓ — — Discussion forum — — ✓ Online poll ✓ ✓ ✓ Mail alert ✓ — — RSS feed ✓ — — Textview ✓ ✓ —
Table 3: Submedia for each portal site. Skynet.be MSN.be News page ✓ ✓ Paper in PDF — — Web TV ✓ ✓ Live Web TV — — Web radio — — Live Web radio — — News in pictures ✓ ✓ Infographic — — News blog — — Discussion forum — — Online poll ✓ ✓ Mail alert — — RSS feed — — Textview — —
It is clear that the three types of meta–media all consist of multiple distinct submedia. Apart from their general news page, all digital newspapers in this study included separated picture galleries presenting news visually. Online polls by which users can express their opinions about news issues are also part of all four digital newspapers under study. Distinct Web TV platforms, infographics, mail alerts and RSS feeds were news services provided by three of the four digital newspapers. It comes as no surprise that two out of three TV and radio sites provided live radio and television streams about the elections, a service which was not offered by the digital newspapers or portal sites. Textview was also exclusively used by two TV/radio sites. Portal sites included news pages, Web TV, news in picture galleries and online polls as distinct submedia.
Use of convergent multimedia
Next, we investigated the presence of convergent multimedia, interactive and hypertextual features for each of these submedia. Based on content analysis, multiple features for each online key dimension were identified.
With regard to convergent multimedia, we identified six different modalities or media formats that appeared in messages presented on different submedia: text, picture, video, sound, embedded picture slideshow, and embedded (info)graphic. The difference between embedded and non–embedded pictures and infographics is that the latter, while not integrated into text, are presented on a distinct platform and could be studied as stand–alone media. Hence, we consider these media as distinct submedia instead of a convergent multimedia feature on a news platform.
Table 4: Use of convergent multimedia features by online news media (in percent). New page
Paper in PDF
Live Web TV
Multimedia (M) (35) (42) (41) (50) (37) Text 100 100 48 0 71 Picture 79 53 0 0 50 Video 3 0 100 100 0 Sound 3 0 100 100 100 Slideshow 13 0 0 0 0 (Info)graphic 7 100 0 100 0 Live Web radio
News in pictures
Multimedia (M) (17) (29) (33) (26) (17) Text 0 75 100 100 100 Picture 0 92 0 56 0 Video 0 0 0 0 0 Sound 100 0 0 0 0 Slideshow 0 0 0 0 0 (Info)graphic 0 0 100 0 0 Online poll
Multimedia (M) (17) (17) (17) (17) Text 100 100 100 100 Picture 0 0 0 0 Video 0 0 0 0 Sound 0 0 0 0 Slideshow 0 0 0 0 (Info)graphic 0 0 0 0
Text continues to be the most used modality online (Table 4). Only Live Web TV and Live Web radio do not use text as modality. Video, audio and picture slideshows seem to be less frequently used by the distinct online submedia. None of the blog messages offered video footage about the elections, and no more than three percent of the messages on a general news page used this kind of feature. This is probably due to the lack of time needed to embed these videos into news messages on the day of the elections and the day after. The use of pictures online is not as common as one might expect. While submedia like news pages (79 percent), papers in PDF (53 percent), news blogs (56 percent), and visual representations of news (92 percent) make use of pictures, some other media like discussion forums, online polls, mail alerts, RSS feeds and textview neglect the use of pictures altogether. In fact, the latter seem to be rather mono–media than multimedia in that they only make use of the text modality.
Use of interactivity
Based on content analysis, five different interactivity features enhancing control over content were identified: choice of frequency, choice by categories, onsite search by keyword, possibility to print the message, and possibility to personalise content. As noted earlier, the latter feature seemed to be subject to subjective judgement, resulting in low intercoder reliability. Therefore, this feature was excluded from further analysis. With regard to the conversation dimension of interactivity, six different features were identified: possibility to contact the author of the message, possibility to contact other news consumers, to forward the message, to post messages, to react to messages posted by others, and to rate messages.
Table 5 indicates that some online submedia are highly interactive, while others are not. News pages (63 percent), news in pictures (58 percent), discussion forums (67 percent) and RSS feeds (50 percent) provide interactive features that enhance control over content, such as searching for content by categories or onsite search engines, and the possibility to control the frequency of messages. News platforms like live Web TV, live Web radio and online polls do not make use of these interactive features, while papers in PDF, Web TV, Web radio and mail alerts only provide a possibility to search by categories.
Table 5: Use of interactive features by online news media (in percent). New page
Paper in PDF
Live Web TV
Control (M) (63) (25) (25) (0) (25) Categories 100 100 100 0 100 On–site search 100 0 0 0 0 Frequency 0 0 0 0 0 52 0 0 0 0 Conversation (M) (26) (0) (15) (0) (5) Contact author 0 0 0 0 0 Contact others 0 0 0 0 0 Forward 93 0 44 0 14 Post content 0 0 0 0 0 React 55 0 44 0 14 Rate 9 0 0 0 0 Live Web radio
News in pictures
Control (M) (0) (58) (50) (49) (50) Categories 0 50 100 100 100 Online search 0 100 100 68 100 Frequency 0 83 0 0 0 0 0 0 31 0 Conversation (M) (0) (4) (12.5) (60) (67) Contact author 0 0 0 100 100 Contact others 0 0 0 100 100 Forward 0 8 0 56 0 Post content 0 0 0 0 100 React 0 8 75 100 100 Rate 0 8 0 0 0 Online poll
Control (M) (0) (25) (50) (25) Categories 0 100 100 100 On–site search 0 0 0 0 Frequency 0 0 100 0 0 0 0 0 Conversation (M) (17) (17) (0) (0) Contact author 0 0 0 0 Contact others 0 0 0 0 Forward 0 100 0 0 Post contact 0 0 0 0 React 100 0 0 0 Rate 0 0 0 0
Online submedia also vary in their use of interactive features that enhance conversation. Discussion forums (67 percent) and news blogs (60 percent) are thought to be highly interactive since they provide the features enabling to contact other persons and to react to messages. Discussion forums (67 percent) even provide the opportunity to news consumers to post new messages and to react to messages posted by others. On more traditional media–like platforms like newspapers in PDF, live Web TV, live Web radio and textview, interactive features enhancing conversation are much less common.
Use of hyperlinks
Our explorative content analysis revealed five different types of hyperlinks. Text internal hyperlinks refer to another section within the same text, while medium internal hyperlinks refer to another section within the same medium or platform. Archive links are usually displayed in the sidebar of a platform or below a news article. They are used to draw the attention to related and unrelated previously posted news messages. Medium external hyperlinks refer to content outside the specific news platform but still part of the meta–medium (e.g., an RSS feed that links to a news message on a digital newspaper). Meta–medium external hyperlinks refer to content outside the meta–medium and thus redirect an online reader to competing online news media.
Table 6: Use of hyperlinks by online news media (in percent). New page
Paper in PDF
Live Web TV
Internal (M) (37) (0) (33) (17) (33) text internal 5 0 0 0 0 medium internal 7 0 0 0 0 archive links 100 0 100 50 100 External (M) (9) (0) (0) (0) (0) medium external 16 0 0 0 0 meta–medium external 2 0 0 0 0 Live Web radio
News in pictures
Internal (M) (17) (17) (0) (52) (0) text internal 0 0 0 0 0 medium internal 0 0 0 56 0 archive links 50 50 0 100 0 External (M) (0) (21) (0) (18) (12) medium external 0 42 0 31 7 meta–medium external 0 0 0 6 17 Online poll
Internal (M) (11) (0) (0) (33) text internal 0 0 0 0 medium internal 0 0 0 0 archive links 33 0 0 100 External (M) (0) (50) (50) (0) medium internal 0 100 100 0 meta–medium external 0 0 0 0
Table 6 shows that both internal and external hyperlinks are not frequently used by online news producers in our study of the online coverage of the elections. With regard to internal hyperlinks, especially the percentages of availability of text internal and medium internal hyperlinks are very low. Only five percent of the messages on a news page use internal anchors while only seven percent refer to other news messages on the news page. Results indicate that only news blogs use medium internal hyperlinks on a regular basis. More than half of the blog messages contain this type of links. The other news media types do not offer text internal or medium internal hyperlinks at all. In contrast, archive links are relatively well used. Each news message on the news page, Web TV, Web radio or news blog is presented with a list of archive links that refer to earlier posted messages on that same platform, whether they are related or unrelated to the news topic. Clearly, news producers want to attach the news users as long as possible to their news medium by suggesting other news articles or video footage that may be of interest.
External hyperlinks were infrequently used by news media. Only 16 percent of the news messages on the news pages provide links to news content outside the news page. This is the case when news articles refer to a topic on the newspaper’s discussion board or to a relevant article on the news blog of that same digital newspaper. Of the news blog messages under study, 31 percent contain one or more medium external hyperlinks that refer to a message on the news page, discussion forum, video platform, etc. News in pictures also regularly refers to the news message on the news page. Mail alerts and RSS feeds always refer to the source message (e.g., an article on the front page), hence they all contain at least one medium external hyperlink. With regard to meta–medium external hyperlinks, only news blogs (six percent) and discussion forums (17 percent) refer to news content outside the meta–medium. News media still seem very cautious when using hyperlinks that may send consumers to competing news media.
Based on our exploratory content analysis of the nature of online news media during the 2006 elections in Belgium, multiple online platforms or submedia are used to present the news, even within media like digital newspapers or portal sites. Digital newspapers make use of a news page, news forum, news blog, and RSS feeds to present and distribute the news. Not only these submedia stand on their own (i.e., can be separately consumed), they also differ in terms of key features.
These results are important in that they provide empirical support for the theoretical distinction between divergent and convergent multimedia as proposed by Deuze (2004). Within online news sites multiple divergent media can be identified, each standing on their own and being characterized by a specific level of convergent multimedia, interactivity and hypertext. We can consider a news site that holds multiple submedia as a meta–medium or, with the words of Drotner (2002), as a ‘unity of diversity’.
These findings tell us a great deal about the presence and media logic of submedia. In general, online news media lack intensive use of convergent multimedia, interactivity and hypertext so far. These findings are consistent with previous research (e.g., Jankowski and van Selm, 2000). Online news producers are not yet inclined to take full advantage of online platforms and that the use of online features varies among the online submedia, some being innovative and others rather traditional.
It would be useful for further research to confirm this distinction between convergent and divergent multimedia. When elaborating on the uses and gratification of multimedia, or the positive and negative learning effects of multimedia, future research should clearly indicate the study’s unit of analysis: the combined use of distinct platforms (divergent multimedia) or the combined use of modalities (convergent multimedia).
About the author
Michaël Opgenhaffen is a post–doctoral researcher at the Lessius University College in Antwerp, Belgium where he is lecturer in the master of journalism. He is affiliated researcher at the Catholic University of Leuven, Belgium, where he obtained his Ph.D. degree in 2009. His research interests include online journalism and its effects on learning.
Direct comments to michael [dot] opgenhaffen [at] lessius [dot] eu.
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Received 25 January 2010; revised 15 February 2011; accepted 18 February 2011.
Dit werk is gelicenseerd onder een Creative Commons Publiek domein licentie.
Multimedia, interactive and hypertextual features in divergent online news platforms: An exploratory study of Flemish online news
by Michaël Opgenhaffen.
First Monday, Volume 16, Number 3 - 7 March 2011