Hypertext and Journalism:
Audiences Respond to Competing News Narratives

by Robert Huesca
Assistant Professor of Communication
Trinity University


Brenda Dervin
Professor of Communication
Ohio State University

10,013 words
posted:  october 31,  1999

[This is the text of a paper presented at the Media in Transition Conference at MIT on October 9, 1999.]

The advent of new communication technologies has brought forth a set of opportunities and challenges for traditional media professions, such as journalism. This challenging new context is evident from the plethora of books and articles that suggest radical changes to human perception, cognition, and expression precipitated by new technologies. For example, a robust literature exploring hypertext suggests that computer technologies spell the end of what has traditionally counted as "good writing" and, in fact, portend the death of print. While these claims are provocative and somewhat convincing, they lack an empirical dimension that investigates "what these new systems 'do to' reader practices and what the reader can do with the systems" (Rasmussen, 1994, p. 105). The purpose of this paper is to explore the particular challenges of hypertext theories to narrative forms and practices of journalism by examining the interactions of news readers and hypertexts. Specifically, it will report the findings of a qualitative study of online news users who read both an original news story that appeared on the Los Angeles Times website and a redesigned, hypertext version of the same material. By asking readers to think about and explain the differences between these competing forms of news, we hope to begin documenting the viability of hypertext and exploring its implications for journalism practice. The remainder of this paper will explain the theoretical framework guiding this study, methodology and method used, findings generated, and conclusions and implications for future research and professional practice.


New Technology and the Challenge of Hypertext

Within the scholarly literature examining the social and professional impacts of new communication technologies, researchers have drawn contrasting conclusions regarding the implications of electronic media on theory and practice. On the one hand, scholarship centered largely in the arts and humanities suggests sea changes in narrative form and in the relationship between authors, texts, and audiences. While this body of work taken as a whole is stimulating, challenging, and evocative, it is guided by highly abstract, theoretical propositions and lacks a solid grounding in empirical evidence. On the other hand, scholarship centered in preprofessional fields, such as journalism education, tends to examine how new technologies are adopted by media producers and adapted to existing industrial routines, needs, and practices. While this research typically is grounded in some sort of empirical evidence, it tends to lack the experimentation and imagination so vividly suggested by more abstract scholarship. This section will briefly outline the contributions of these contrasting literatures and situate the present study as an attempt to address the legitimate concerns brought forth in both of them.

Within the arts and humanities, numerous scholars have suggested that contemporary society is in a period of fundamental transformation in regard to what is considered "good writing" and accepted, narrative practices (Birkerts, 1994; Bolter, 1991; Bolter & Grusin, 1999; Landow, 1997; Murray, 1997). Characterized as "the late age of print" (Bolter, 1991), this period can be thought of as analogous to the 50 years following the introduction of the Gutenberg press and the invention of typographical and organizational conventions such as typefaces, page numbers, paragraphs, and chapters (Murray, 1997). Such "incunabular" periods are characterized by experimentation, invention, and struggle to develop new communication conventions. Indeed, numerous scholars are leading vigorous projects to develop a new rhetoric, stylistics, and poetics (Bolter, 1991; Condon & Butler, 1997; Joyce, 1995; Landow, 1997; Murray, 1997; Vitanza, 1998). Much of this development has centered on exploring of the nature and function of hypertext.

Hypertext is a structure that is assumed to be more compatible with the inherent characteristics of digital media than traditional narrative forms, such as journalism's inverted pyramid (Bolter, 1991; Fredin, 1997; Joyce, 1995; Murray, 1997; Nielsen, 1995). When it was introduced by computer visionary Ted Nelson in the 1960s, the concept, "hypertext," was defined simply as non-sequential writing with reader controlled links. Since then, scholars have refined this general definition beyond a simple visual form to a more abstract notion of "structures for what does not yet exist" (Joyce, 1995, p. 179). That is, hypertext is defined as a narrative form that does not exist until readers produce it through a series of choices made according to their desires and interests. [1] By refining this definition from a simple textual format to a more abstract notion of structures for making meaning, scholars have opened up a broad area of inquiry with implications for professional information gathering, processing, design, and delivery.


Despite the breadth of the literature examining the qualities of hypertext, certain central characteristics have emerged repeatedly, and they stand in stark contrast to conventional, journalistic forms. Modern narrative structures, including journalism, are characterized by a "canon of unity"--a singular author exerting an authoritative voice, a fixed order of events, and a developed story line (Bolter, 1991; Joyce, 1995; Landow, 1997; Murray, 1997). Hypertexts, by contrast, are in flux, impermanent, and designed to change. Rather than prescribing a fixed, linear reading order, hypertexts exist as networks or metatemplates of potential texts (Fredin, 1997; Landow, 1997; Murray, 1997). Furthermore, they do not communicate through a singular voice of authority, but incorporate multiple perspectives and expressions to tell the same story.

Murray (1997) provides an example typical of what could be found in a newspaper: an account of a suicide told through the form of a "violence hub." Rather than representing the who's, what's, and why's of the suicide through the account of a single author, Murray suggests that hypertext reporters gather complementary and competing accounts. She envisions these accounts as occupying different locations peering in on the same event, much as the outer spokes of a wheel ultimately connect to a central hub. Such reporting results in neither a solution of the incident nor a refusal of resolution but a "continual deepening in the reader's understanding of what happened" (p. 136). Finally, hypertexts embrace notions of contradiction, fragmentation, juxtaposition, and pluralism, rather than pursuing "truth" that is at the heart of the traditional journalistic enterprise (Bolter, 1991; Murray, 1997). This approach is described not only as more responsive to the qualities of new, digital media, but as more compatible with challenges from postmodern perspectives that "no longer believe[s] in a single reality, a single integrating view of the world, or even the reliability of a single angle of perception" (Murray, 1997, p. 161). This sort of interruption in the unified view of reality creates the context for the inviting potentials of hypertext.

Aside from the structural and visual properties that suggest radical changes in narrative form, hypertext theory also posits transformations in the way authors and readers are conceptualized. New communication technologies are considered inherently participatory, which casts readers as active producers of stories. Hypertext readers take on the role of authors, which alters the traditional tasks of reporting and writing. Fredin (1997) argues that readers always have been active and self-reflective, and that hypertext journalists must provide them with choices that appeal to their interests. This requires not only a specific sense of reader interests, but a more general, theoretical understanding of user expectations and information-seeking strategies. When readers are viewed more as collaborators than as consumers, the tasks of reporting and writing shift from content delivery to information development and design. News reporting and editing undertaken from this perspective must be focused on creating narrative structures that facilitate user navigation through a variety of information resources. Such resources might include a host of "raw data" such as reporter's notes, interview transcripts, government documents, and other materials that would allow readers to construct their own versions of reality, rather than simply reading a reporter's representation of reality. The resulting hypertexts call attention to the process of narrative construction, and enhance the involvement of readers by actually placing them in the role of the creator (Murray, 1997).


Endowing readers with agency, however, may not be a uniformly desirable production path to be taken by professional communicators. McKnight, Dillon, and Richardson (1991) have derived a text classification system to help producers think about the usefulness and applicability of hypertext designs. They introduce a "repertory grid" that capture the perspectives of users along three dimensions: a) how a text is to be used (skimming vs. studying), b) why it is used (work vs. pleasure), and c) what it is used for (specific vs. general information). Given this classification system, a novel, for example, might not make a good hypertext, unless the user had certain needs. "If we consider the full range of how and why attributes that emerge as a result of analysing novels, one can envisage an educational context where various parts of the text are analysed and compared linguistically, thereby rendering a suitable hypertext version more useful than paper. In other words, a hypertext novel may not be suitable for reading on the train but it may be ideal for the student of English literature" (p. 54). In light of this classification system, many of the uses of news--obtaining quick overviews of events, finding ready reference to context and background on issues, making connections to further information--seem ideally suited to the potentials of hypertext.

The preceding, abbreviated review of contemporary theories of hypertext contain enormous implications for journalism education and practice. At the macro end of the spectrum, this literature suggests changes in widely accepted tenets of journalism: the abandonment of truth and accuracy and the embrace of the polyvocal, fragmented universe. Such grandiose implications are important to contemplate but fall outside of the immediate interests of this paper. At the micro end of the spectrum, this literature argues that reporters and writers in the online environment must be more intimately concerned with the design of their work. Furthermore, they must be concerned with designs that respond to the reconceptualization of the relationship between authors and readers. In short, this literature implies that communication students, educators, and practitioners should begin exploring alternatives to the traditional journalistic narrative in order to develop prototypes of hypertext news. Despite this provocative challenge, new media research in journalism studies has been conservative and unimaginative, for the most part, merely suggesting ways to incorporate new technologies into existing norms and practices.


New Technology and Contemporary Journalism

New media researchers in journalism studies, at best, reflect an ambivalent sense of the impact of new technologies on traditional practices. While scholarly articles generally recognize the significant shift and challenge to traditional norms represented by new communication technologies, most of this literature tends to project images of new media practices that are consistent with the professional status quo. This consistency is reinforced by recent textbooks that are aimed at training journalists to work in the online environment. With the exception of the few studies already noted, most research that explores online journalism ignores the new frontiers implicit in the hypertext theories reviewed above.

For example, researchers have begun to explore the attitudes of media practitioners toward new technologies and to document how online news is being practiced. The attitudes of reporters and editors tend to mix excitement over the new potentials afforded by new media with fear of and resistance to the challenges to journalistic traditions (Singer, 1997; Williams, 1998). Typical responses to new media include uneasiness and lamentation that traditional demarcations, such as "the firewall between advertising and news," the distinction between news and entertainment, and the separation of objectivity and opinion, are in danger of disappearing (Williams, 1998, p. 31). These attitudes are reified in the actual transition from print to online formats. Studies of online newspaper content, for example, have found no difference, other than minor formatting changes, between print and electronic products (Harper, 1996; Martin, 1998). Finally, studies of how new technologies are used in reporting and editing indicate that computers and the Internet are used exclusively to extend existing journalistic practices--e.g. fact checking, generating story ideas, gathering background material, and monitoring the competition (Garrison, 1995, 1997; Ross, 1998). The overwhelming trend portrayed in the scholarly research is that reporters and editors interpret and use new media in ways that conform to traditional tenets of journalism and established, news industry practices.

This tendency in the scholarly literature is reinforced by (and, perhaps, a byproduct of) the guidance offered by the online news and computer-assisted reporting textbooks. For the most part, textbooks aimed at news workers and journalism students are atheoretical, "how-to" manuals for incorporating new technologies into professional practices. At the most introductory level, textbooks envision the Internet and other electronic resources as faster and bigger tools that primarily expand the range of existing news sources (McGuire, Stilborne, McAdams & Hyatt, 1997; Reddick & King, 1997; Rich, 1999; Wendland, 1996). When placed in the service of talented journalists, this expanded range of sources is considered beneficial to the traditional role of the press. "The more access to information reporters have, the better reporters will be able to fulfill their mission to inform the public about key issues and interests of the day" (Reddick & King, 1997, p. 4). Indeed, the use of new technologies advocated in these texts does not question the status quo of journalism, but reinforces it with renewed urgency. "The job we have as journalists, or gatekeepers, is to present the news as completely and accurately as possible, using our expertise to provide proper emphasis on what is significant and reliable" (Wendland, 1996, p. 17).


Aside from these introductory texts, more advanced books and articles have begun to explore more specific journalistic applications using new technologies. For example, a number of texts provide instruction in "computer-assisted reporting," which aim to harness the power of computers to enhance traditional, investigative journalism (DeFleur, 1997; Garrison, 1996; Houston, 1999). These texts provide training on how to use computers to make spreadsheets, manage databases, and access online resources so that reporters can continue to fulfill their watchdog role in society. Bolstering this advanced use of computers in reporting is scholarship aimed at developing professional skills to evaluate online sources (Ketterer, 1998). Using criteria from Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc., Ketterer described a college news project to develop "accurate and credible" online resources to be used by student reporters and editors. The results from the project served to reinforce existing journalistic norms and established power relationships in society, as a majority of the online resources were tied to government sources or other online newspapers. In fact, the project explicitly eschewed much of the expanded information universe--those online sites tied to nonprofit organizations--because they were presumed to "by their nature promote a point of view" (p. 12). This and the other texts noted above have had the ironic effect of shrinking the range of voices and perspectives in the new electronic environment by forcing digital media to conform to existing journalistic norms and practices.

For the most part, studies of new electronic media conducted within the framework of journalism education lack the sense of fundamental change suggested in the hypertext literature. Likewise, these texts convey very little sense that journalism stands at the crossroads of invention and departure from the past in one direction, and the continuation of the status quo in the other direction. Nevertheless, the journalism studies literature is grounded in the empirical reality of day-to-day news production, a dimension that is missing from the research on hypertext that advocates sweeping changes in narrative form and function. Instead, the hypertext literature advocates radical invention and change, but neglects to bring such changes into contact with either working professionals or with actual readers. This paper aims to explore the challenges of hypertext to journalism in a way that is inventive and creative, yet is informed by readers' responses to this new narrative form.


Methodology and Method

The completion of this study involved three basic phases: the selection and design of hypertext news stories; the performance of a reading exercise using volunteers; and the completion of qualitative, Sense-Making, interviews with these volunteer readers. Each of these phases will be explained briefly below.

Since hypertext narratives as described above simply do not exist on traditional news sites, we selected existing news stories and redesigned them ourselves using basic principles of hypertext. [2] Because of the multiperspectival, fragmented, polyvocal nature of hypertext, we sought out complex news stories on the web. Since the Los Angeles Times is known for its lengthy treatments of a variety of topics in its "Column One" daily news feature, we monitored its content during a one-month period. In that time we selected three different stories to serve as sample articles in this study. The articles were selected for diverse content, as we wanted readers to have a choice of what to read in this study. The articles included a news feature on a trend among immigrants to transfer the remains of their ancestors from their home country to U.S. soil; a news story on the difficulties faced by people living in post-Soviet Siberia; and a recreation story on an adventure sport called "slack-lining," which is similar to walking a tight-rope across a mountain gorge. These stories, as well as redesigned, hypertext versions of them, were copied onto a local web server. [3] The original articles were essentially electronic copies of the printed versions, which, when accessed by computer, had to be read by scrolling down the screen from beginning to end. The redesigned versions contained no new material; rather, they were simply broken into thematic parts that had to be activated by clicking on links running along the left side of the computer screen (see Appendix A for the opening screens of each news story). Aside from slight changes in transitional phrases, the hypertext content was identical to the original article; only the form was altered--from a unified, linear story versus a non-sequential narrative with reader controlled links.

Once the news stories were installed on a local server, 20 volunteers drawn from a liberal arts university setting participated in a reading exercise. Volunteers were recruited from publicity posted around campus calling for people who "enjoyed reading online news" to participate in study of new forms of online journalism. The participants were scheduled for reading and interview sessions where they were placed in a quiet office with a computer that was connected to the Internet. After brief instructions, an explanation of the purpose of the study, and a review of the basic operations of the Netscape browser, participants were left alone to select one article and to read and compare the original and hypertext versions (see Appendix B for opening computer screen). Our purpose in having participants read both versions of the article was to enlist them as new technology theorists in the research act. Each participant was provided a one-page sheet that contained the various dimensions of our questionnaire, with blank space to be used for taking notes during reading (see Appendix C). Participants were encouraged to jot down their thoughts as they related to the various dimensions while reading, and to use the sheet as a memory aid during the interview. Participants were interrupted after 15 minutes and asked if they had finished reading the articles. In some cases, readers asked for additional time, which never exceeded another 10 minutes.

Following the reading exercise, participants were guided through Sense-Making interviews, which were tape recorded and transcribed verbatim. Sense-Making is a methodology and method that is founded on particular communication principles and assumptions of how people actively negotiate and construct meanings from their material and symbolic environments. Interview protocols developed out of the principles and assumptions of Sense-Making, in effect, situate participants at the center of determining substantive content, while providing a structure that allows for cross-comparison of data (Dervin, 1989, 1992, 1999). Participants in this study, for example, discussed how their selected article compared--original version versus hypertext--in terms of their overall interest, confusions, difficulties, usefulness, confidence, emotions, satisfaction, and enjoyment. They also were asked how their experiences with the texts might inform contemporary journalism in the online environment. Interview transcripts were analyzed using inductive, qualitative research techniques where concepts, categories, themes, and relationships emerged from the data set (Corbin & Strauss, 1990; Miles & Huberman, 1994). Each transcript was read by at least 4 different persons, at least 3 times before final categories and patterns were identified. What emerged from the 20 interviews was a rich set of transcripts in which the participants, in essence, theorized the relationships between texts, readers, reporting, and writing. These subject-generated theories of hypertext are presented below.


Inductively Derived Themes

During data analysis, the research team worked inductively to identify all concepts and then to organize them into more abstract categories and themes. The themes that will be reported here were constructed for their heuristic value, rather than for other purposes, such as the creation of a complete, user typology or a range of mutually exclusive and exhaustive categories. Because we sought to identify patterns in the data, we required that at least one-third of our participants cluster under a thematic category in order for it to be included below.

The most common characteristic of this data set is the presence of multiple contradictions that run through it. On the most general level, the 20 participants in this study were evenly split in their general reactions to the narrative forms: 5 preferred the hypertext, 5 preferred the original, and the remaining 10 had mixed responses. Looking closer at the 20 transcripts, we identified a variety of themes that emerged in the form of paired contradictions. The various themes can be subsumed into three general categories: conceptualizations of the user/reader, characteristics of the narrative form, and self-reflexive hypotheses regarding intentionality and context. The remainder of this section will discuss each of these categories in turn.

Reader Agency

The most robust thematic category that emerged from the data concerned conceptualizations of the reader/user. Specifically, participants talked about the issues of choice, control, work, and labor in terms of their personal satisfaction and edification as readers. While many readers found the ability to choose a narrative path in a hypertext to be a positive and enjoyable experience, a large number of participants identified this as a violation of the author's integrity and an onerous burden placed on the reader. These personal accounts are summarized below.

Choice/control versus author intention

The most frequent theme that readers in this study discussed concerned the ability of choice that the hypertext form provided. Participants made explicit distinctions between the hypertext's open narrative paths and the original article's prescribed reading order as being at the heart of the provision of choice:

In the first one [original article], I skipped ahead because I was kinda bored. And in the second one, there was this tiny little snippet at the beginning. So you're kinda forced to skip around. You go to a link, and you skip ahead, and you go back and forth. You play around with the links. but I skipped ahead on the first one, too. The thing about the hypertext one is that I could skip to where I wanted to skip. As opposed to the other one, where you had to read it like a book and kinda skip like you'd be flipping pages or something. (Luke F.)

On the original article, I had to read though a lot of extraneous information that I did not feel was personally important. I had to read it begrudgingly. I wanted to cut to the chase. I wanted to know what the meat of the story was. The hypertext article allowed me to do that. The original article did not. (David D.)

Users of traditional texts had to follow a prescribed order of reading, while users of hypertext had to make choices. The need to make choices seemed to be facilitated by the topical links on the computer screen that were intended to function as metacommunicative "maps" of the stories' contents:

With the original, you have to read the whole story to get it. You piece it together as you read it. And with the hypertext, you can look to the left on the menu and you see all the parts in the story. And you don't have to read it in the order that they wrote it in the original version. (Kelly S.)

Several participants described this aspect of the hypertext as opening up cognitive potential--new modes for thinking and making meaning-- for them as readers. Seeing all the parts of the narrative on one screen led them to ask more questions and to notice more facets of the story:

It piqued my interest a little more. It wasn't just "why do it?", it was like "why do they do it? How do they do it? Why is this interesting?" With the different choices on the hypertext article, it spurred more questions in my mind. (David D.)

I saw a lot more in the hypertext than the original, just because it was broken up. I felt that I had an outline to go by. (Sandra M.)

What seemed to be most important to participants discussing positive aspects of choice, however, was that the hypertext form responded to their needs and interests by providing a variety of content paths to follow:

The Los Angeles Times, or the original article just seemed to go on and on, and I found myself just skimming the story as a whole. With the hypertext I was able to divide my interests into subcategories and I was able to pick and choose what I was interested in, and eventually I ended up reading the whole article.
I wasn't that interested in the human interest aspect of the story, I was more interested in the politics and decisions that led to the crisis in Siberia. So that's why I went to the economics portion of the hypertext article. I started with economics and then went to psychology. I went to my interests first, which I enjoyed, and then I went through the whole article. The original article starts off with "this is this person, la, la, la," and I just got confused and bored.
The hypertext, I was able to choose what I wanted to read about. It's kind of empowering because it's what I want to read. I'm choosing. I'm not being told. (Melvin C.)

In contrast to the 10 participants who found choice to be a beneficial, empowering, and positive aspect of the stories, about one-third of the readers described choice as detrimental, difficult, and objectionable. Several participants, for example, explicitly talked about the hypertext form violating the efforts and intentions of the author:

I kinda like news articles in the way the journalist wrote them. I figure they're trying to do that, and most of them have been doing that a while, and they know what they're doing. They know how to write a good article for the most part, and it seems like the article should be read as the journalist intended and not as kind of just, you know, the browser skimming little parts here and there, skipping along in the article, unorganized and fragmented. (Jeff T.)

Providing readers with choices, at least for some in this study, violated the traditional authority of the author. Moreover, it truncated the ability to comprehend the material for a several reasons. On the one hand, providing readers with choices placed issues of design into relief, which distracted some readers:

It was simpler to read the original text than to have to think about where would they put it. Where is it in all these links? Why would they put it there? You kind of have to like hop into the designer's mind and figure out where, under which title it would be most appropriate. And with the original text it was all there. You didn't have to worry about anything like that. Just scroll down, scroll down. And enjoy the reading, understand the reading. There wasn't as much thinking involved. (Carrie C.)

In addition to calling attention to the story as a designed object, the hypertext's open order was described as somewhat overwhelming and hard to keep track of:

You had to click on, and you didn't go in, I mean, you're not made to go in any certain order. So you have all these pieces of the story that you, I mean, people aren't really going to fit that into their own heads. They're just going to take it, and it's just going to stick in their heads as different parts of the story, and it's not going to stay up there as well. (Patricia C.)

For several participants, the open order of the hypertext was interpreted as enjoyable and responsive to their interests, while its discontinuity was confusing and distracting:

It was just the distraction of seeing what was coming in the article and choosing what order I wanted to read it in the hypertext article; the article lost continuity that way. It was more fun to choose, but like I said, it lost continuity, and it was a little harder to follow. But the original, at the same time, didn't have that fun aspect. I got to look at what I wanted to look at, like I didn't read the personal stories on the hypertext version because I didn't want to. But then, when I went back and read them in the original article, and was almost forced to read them because it fit in the flow, I enjoyed those. But it wasn't something that I necessarily wanted to do. That's just the way I've learned how to read. It just makes it easier to process it, rather than having to put it together in my mind. (Ellen S.)

Related to this notion of additional burden represented by choice is the theme of general effort, work, and labor required of readers in the hypertext versus original versions.


The joy/drudgery of work

About two-thirds of our participants commented that one or the other narrative version required more effort on the part of the reader in general. But these participants were divided in a variety of ways on the significance of the labor required to move through the stories. Many of the readers complained that with the original article, they were forced to read the entire story in order to gain a complete understanding of the topic. A larger group of participants identified the hypertext as a form that required more effort, but these readers were divided in terms of whether that additional effort was a positive or negative aspect of their experience.

The original narrative required readers to follow a particular order and gave no hints regarding the story's overall content. A number of readers complained that this led them to become bored and/or lost while moving through the story. The most common response among readers was to skim through the original, rather than reading it word-for-word. One reader, however, eventually abandoned the story altogether:

It [the original] just seemed to drag on an on, and I think that maybe I have a short attention span, so I like things to be concise. So I just kept skimming, and going back and forth. I didn't get a lot of the information that I wanted. I didn't understand why the town was being abandoned until I read the hypertext. There was a disagreement between the Russian government and the regional government. That's the information I was not able to get. I was interested in it. I just got tired of looking for it in the original, and I just gave up. (Melvin C.)

Many participants identified the hypertext as a generally more laborious form, but some of the readers interpreted that as a positive quality. Forcing the reader to dig for further information provided fulfillment to certain participants:

I loved the source listing. I'd love to get more information. In a way, it kind of weeds out people who want to read more and separates them from people who want to just read the first few paragraphs. It weeds out the people who just want to read the story and just forget about it from there. I was certainly more satisfied with the hypertext article. (Bill T.)

Furthermore, a number of participants talked about the hypertext form as something that allowed them to "play around" while looking for information:

On the hypertext, even though I was slightly bored by the content, at least I could play around with the links and jump around, which is always more entertaining. (Luke F.)

I spent more time in the hypertext than I did on the original, because I was doing more playing around over here in the hypertext by going to the different links and then getting caught up in one of them. (Maggie S.)

While some participants found the labor of the hypertext satisfying and enjoyable, an equal number identified it as frustrating and bothersome. Because the hypertext links only contained a few words, some participants felt that they had to guess at the contents associated with them, which they found frustrating:

I was definitely more satisfied with the original text. It was more pleasing for me to read, and I understood it better. Less stress involved with it in a way. I guess that sounds lazy, but I didn't have to worry about finding where else to go get it or would they hide it under this topic or under that topic. Once you got to the main page then went to a link and there were a couple more links on that page so you had to keep searching, like an endless game of hide and seek. Sometimes you got it right, and sometimes you had to keep looking. (Carrie C.)

Aside from the frustration that accompanied the search for information, several participants commented that the cognitive effort of putting a story together was a difficulty for them:

I think in the original article, I was able to get a better picture of the whole scene and situation and all the background I needed to understand it. And in the second one, I had to move around. It's harder to bring all that information together than it is when it is presented as a whole. The second one required more effort--I sound so lazy--but the effort it took to find the story was frustrating. (Christy S.)

Finally, one participant expressed resentment at what he considered a violation of the author's responsibility to the reader:

Reading in and of itself is not really that much of a mental strain, but if you have to go hunting for information. It started to feel more like you were trying to research the story than reading about it. I guess I see it as the journalist's job. They're getting paid for that and that's what they do. And for the purpose of reading the news, it's to get all the relevant information and it kinda riled me that it was presented to me as if it was my job to click the links and follow up on the story and look at the list of sources. It seemed like I would be paying for basically doing more work than I would have to do. People don't look at the news where they have to work at it. They just want the story. (Jeff T.)

The sentiments expressed above that are critical of what might be called "active reading" were reinforced and clarified by many of the commentaries that focused on the competing characteristics of the two textual formats.


Textual Qualities

Comments concerning conceptualizations of the reader/user constituted the most robust theme in this study. The next major theme emerging from the data regarded comments related to characteristics of the narrative formats. Specifically, participants identified the texts as either fragmented or linear, novel or conventional. As with previous themes, participants were divided on the benefits and drawbacks of these contrasting forms.

Wholeness versus fragmentation

Almost half of the participants in the study criticized the hypertext form as being disorganized and difficult to follow. Terms used to describe the hypertext included "fragmented," "choppy," "jumbly," "not cohesive," "butchered," "mutilated," "haphazard," "disjointed," "less complete," "sectioned," "disconnected," and "cut and pasted." For these participants, this format made the hypertext harder to process, understand, and remember:

I really hated the hypertext. To me it seemed like reading a very detailed outline. It's very choppy, and it's disorganized when it's like that because it doesn't flow logically. (Carol L.)

I found that the original article in the traditional text form kept my attention and my interest more than the hypertext because the hypertext, you have a piece here, but you have to go to another button to find more information. And just having the process of clicking the button and getting where you need to go broke the continuity of the story. You couldn't think linearly, and the original article just had it all logically proceeding. The hypertext was a lot harder to get. (Carrie C.)

In contrast to the fragmented nature of the hypertext, the original story was praised for the narrative "flow" that it achieved. Participants suggested that the original article "felt more organized," presented the "whole story," and "had it all [the details] right there." The original form was easier to comprehend for these participants, who described the text as having "continuity," "completeness," and "sequence":

I think because I do some writing and I like to see things that flow in a good way and aren't disjointed. Something that's easy for the reader to get into. (Christy S.)

I guess I felt more satisfied as a reader when I finished the original article because I looked at that one as a whole, compared to the hypertext article, which seemed like pieces. (Thomas J.)

I read all the time, and I like doing it. And I think there's a pleasure in just reading and just kind of keeping going. Because if I were just reading the hypertext, I wouldn't remember who was who, or who was from where and which families we're talking about. So there is kind of a continuity that helps when reading the whole article. (Heather S.)

Finally, participants who preferred the original text said that it gave them a satisfying sense of closure that seemed to be missing in the hypertext:

For me, having the whole entire article as one thing that gave me a sense of closure when I got to the end of it. Whereas when I first read the hypertext, I kept wondering, "Well, gosh, did I really finish? How do I piece it all together?" I just never felt like I exactly mastered the whole thing because I haven't really, I mean, there's no end. But then, when I went back and read the original, I got a sense of completion when I got to the end. So, because there is no closure in the hypertext, I don't feel as content or satisfied. (Sandra M.)

In contrast to the participants who preferred the original article, a small number of readers preferred the fragmented design of the hypertext. In addition, about one-third of the participants spoke both of the benefits and detriments of the hypertext, sometimes in the same sentence. Taken together, these two groups of readers were equivalent in number to the group of participants preferring the original article.

Among those who commented positively on the qualities of the hypertext form, participants explained that it was more organized, focused, and reflective of a greater range of information:

I guess that it makes you more focused on certain things and you know you can always go for more information from there. And it's easier to focus on specifically what it is. You can jump to what you are interested in and in the newspaper article you have to read all of it to find specific things. I think it's more information quicker. The hypertext seemed more organized. I guess, back to the fact that it had specific headings and it was split into different categories, like it would have the information on how it started, whereas the original article just kind of had it all thrown together and it was more of a narrative type that you had to read all the way through. (Helen M.)

The organization of information into categories was valued for its ability to metacommunicate the entire contents of the story:

The opening segment--it gave a great synopsis to the whole article. It was just right there, and I had it. When I'm reading the news, I want it to be boom boom, right there for me to understand and adjust, and in the hypertext, it gave me the whole story in about two paragraphs, and that's all I needed. It was there for me, and if I was interested, I would read more. But just in case I wasn't interested, that was just enough information for me. (Melvin C.)

For this reader, the combination of the synopsis and the links led to the creation of what he termed a textual "flow," but one that was crafted by the reader:

I was reading the hypertext, and I had a couple of questions because I always question when I read. It's kind of annoying, but I do. So I have questions when I read, and I could look to the left and look up and down and not all of my questions were answered, but some of them were, and I could just click on it and then go back to the main page. It wasn't a different flow from the author, it was the flow that I had chosen. I don't perceive it to be a disturbance to the flow of the news because it's going according to the flow that I am choosing. (Melvin C.)

Many readers who commented on textual qualities found the hypertext and original forms to offer competing advantages and disadvantages. While the hypertext presented the reader with choices that responded to specific needs and interests, those choices entailed additional labor:

I liked the traditional one because it was just nice and all right there in one bulk form. I didn't have to go searching for bits and pieces. Of course, in the hypertext, I really enjoyed having the option of being able to find what I wanted. If I wanted to find something more in depth, those links were really nice for that. (Maggie S.)

Despite the added work involved in clicking through a hypertext, this narrative form was "more controllable," which appealed to some readers:

I would say first off that the hypertext article grabbed my attention just a little more because of how it split the information into such short little groups. It seemed to be a little bit more controllable, doable, as far as reading was concerned, in a way because everything was several short little stories, which just appeals to me as a reader. The original article, I kind of liked it more because it had kind of an emotional content that wasn't in the hypertext that held my attention through the whole story. (Henry J.)

Finally, the hypertext, while providing more information through its topical links, constituted a less compelling narrative than the traditional news story and news feature:

Well, in the original text, I was much more drawn into it, and then the hypertext just kind of lays it all out for you. I guess it depends on what you're looking for. If you are looking for a fun story, then first go to the original to hear that, and then the hypertext was more straight facts. It just laid it out for you really quickly. (Anne E.)

Curiosity and novelty versus convention

Another significant pattern regarding the competing textual forms focused on either the novel or conventional nature of the stories and how it related to reader curiosity. For some readers, the novelty and structure of hypertext made them more curious and interested in the story. For others, the novelty was confusing. Many of these readers found it comforting to read "something that I'm used to." Participants were evenly divided in their perspectives regarding these two textual forms, and many readers were internally divided.

For some readers, the mere novelty of the form piqued their interest and propelled them to read further:

I guess I just saw it as something new that I had never really heard of and didn't know anything about. I just wanted to look a little deeper into and see what it was. (Helen M.)

Aside from the pure novelty, the hypertext seemed to open up cognitive potential that was not possible with the original article. It provided a structure for the "opportunity to be curious":

On the hypertext, I was curious. The links made me curious to find out what it was. When you see the little... on any article, I jump to the links. Just because they're... you're tempted by them. It kinda puts you in a different frame of mind. And I read it in that frame of mind, so it was more interesting. (Luke F.)

When contrasted with the traditional, journalistic narrative, this structure for curiosity was what led participants to continue reading:

If I was flipping through a newspaper and I found this article, I would probably read the first paragraph and skim through the rest of it, maybe even skip to the last two paragraphs. With the hypertext article, I didn't have that desire. I read the first section and decided, "Ooh, I want to know about this." I would go to the link, I would read it, and then I would say, "Oh, this is interesting. I want to go to the next section." (David D.)

About the same number of people who found this novel form beneficial to their curiosity, described it in mixed terms. Some readers, for example, found that the hypertext format grabbed their attention at the same time that it confused them:

The hypertext article was kind of like a novelty, if you will. That caught my attention and that's why I bring that up. It's the first thing that struck me. That was the first time I saw it. This is just my personal opinion, but I'm used to reading news stories all on one page, and I assume that it is written in the order that it is supposed to be read. And because I'm used to that, I was confused as to why they would lay it out in the way that they did, like a table of contents. (Bill T.)

Other readers spoke of the negotiated tension between the comfort of conventional text and the novelty of the hypertext form:

The original article, it was pretty straightforward and laid out for me, so it wasn't very adventurous, but it wasn't very tedious. For me, it was cohesive and nice and easy to read. But I spent more time in the hypertext page because there is more stuff to look for and places to go, and you get new ideas as you start reading through. They provoked me to think more about, not even so much the topic of immigrants and their ancestors, but more... broader implications of why they do this or who are these people, what kind of religion they practice. (Maggie S.)

Indeed, the most frequent reason participants gave for preferring the original form was related to the comfort they experienced with conventional writing:

I was annoyed because it's new, and it's something I'm not used to, and I've got to figure it out, and then I have to decide if I like it. And I eventually decided I didn't like it. And I was relieved with the original because I thought, "phew, this is what I know. This is what I'm used to." (Carol L.)

Beyond the recognizable, narrative form, several participants expressed satisfaction with the original article because of the implicit presence of an author:

The original was more like, I don't know, perhaps it's just a bias towards more traditional news articles, but it was something about it being presented as a reported story. You kind of got a feeling for the person who had written it and the people he was talking about. (Henry J.)

Another factor that seemed to relate to reader satisfaction and competing textual forms was the style of writing in these particular articles. Each of the three stories was written from a human interest, anecdotal angle, which participants found more engaging than the summary, synopsis style of the hypertext versions:

Like I said, I was a lot more interested in the original article because it started off with something that was really interesting and kind of emotional because, you know, it... all the human element was pretty much at the beginning. In the other part it was kind of disjointed, there were... it didn't read like a story. It was just basic information. So, I thought my feelings were... I had more emotional reaction to the original. (Susan D.)

Overall, our participants were evenly divided regarding how the textual forms intersected with their curiosity and interest. These competing textual forms also intersected with readers' evaluations of the credibility of the articles.


High and low credibility

About one-third of all participants said that they felt the original article was more credible and trustworthy because of textual characteristics. That is, the original article was more what they expected from a journalist, and fulfilled their criteria of "good writing," which they then transferred to the quality of the information. Finally, several readers commented that the clear presence of an author in the original version had an impact on how they evaluated the quality of the information:

I kind of trusted, well, trusted might not be the way to put it; I kind of felt like there was an actual writer behind the original article, and so I was inclined to maybe trust that perspective a little bit more than I would, say, the hypertext one. I felt like it could have been written by any group of people. You want to feel like there's somebody who's been out there, who's investigated this, who knows what's going on, and who's trying to convey a story to you. (Henry J.)

On the other hand, about one-third of the participants claimed that the hypertext seemed more credible and trustworthy, again, due to textual characteristics. For example, the hypertext listed the sources used in the story for each article. This was commented on repeatedly by participants as a form of accountability in the article that gave them confidence in the reporting. In addition, several readers said that the way the hypertext was divided into categories reflected that more care was taken in the construction of the material, and that it demonstrated a desire to communicate that to the reader:

It made the reporter in the hypertext article more interested in conveying information to the audience. In other words, the hypertext format said to me the reporter wants to share more information about the story than what's printed in the paper. So the hypertext was better in the sense that it made the reporting seem more confident. Because it wanted to convey more information that we needed, and hopefully, future articles will, you know, use that idea. (Bill T.)

The multiple contradictions running through the themes of reader agency and characteristics of the texts effectively disappeared when participants abandoned the immediate reading experience and made theoretical statements of a hypothetical nature.


Self-Reflexive Theories

Sprinkled throughout the interview transcripts were commentaries that abandoned the participants' immediate experiences and speculated about the uses of these competing forms in different conditions. Rather than clustering into paired contradictions, however, these self-reflexive theories tended to converge around themes regarding reader intentionality and article context.

Regardless of whether the participant preferred the original or the hypertext article, more than half of the participants explained that their selection of one format over the other would depend on their intended use of the article. Repeatedly, participants said that the hypertext would be a preferred form for fact-finding or for conducting "research," where specific details were being sought. Conversely, the original text would be preferred for leisure or pleasure reading:

I mean the hypertext, I think the only benefits of it could be if you were doing some sort of very specific research and maybe that would help you get right to what you were looking for. I mean, if you are using it for research reasons it would be beneficial, but if it's just to read it, then I think the original is better. (Carol L.)

Aside from reader intentions, contextual factors--including time constraints and type of story--were identified as playing a role in the appropriateness of narrative format. With few exceptions, participants agreed that the hypertext would be a preferred format in cases where the reader had little time to read. The hypertext was valued for its speed and convenience by one third of the participants.

I guess that's something you can only get with this kind of medium because if you're reading a newspaper article, you can't--I mean, it doesn't really break it down like that for you. I preferred it not being broken down, but that's just because I had a set amount of time to sit here and read it, and I wasn't in a hurry or anything like that. But I know that might be useful if I was just scanning for something specific--if I just wanted to know about dangerous sports. So it can be useful. (Patricia C.)

A smaller number of participants explained that the narrative formats seemed to coincide with article types. For breaking and hard news stories, hypertext was identified as a better form, while human interest features was identified as more amenable to linear narratives.

I didn't really find that in the hypertext because it seemed kind of broken up and I know that was set up to be under subject matter, and I just personally think the story--the type of--since it was a feature story, went better as a chronological story compared to a broke-up-into-subject-matter kind of story. (Thomas J.)

Furthermore, participants repeatedly claimed that the hypertext lacked the emotional, human dimension that came through in all of the original articles, which were soft features, as opposed to hard news.


Conclusions, Discussion, Implications

The competing patterns that emerged from the data regarding theories of the user, the text, and intention/context begin to fill out some of the theoretical issues raised in the first part of this paper. The overwhelming pattern that emerged from this data set was the consistent presence of multiple contradictions running throughout the major conceptual themes. For educators, students, and practitioners interested in advancing journalism in the new electronic environment, these contradictions imply a mixed set of recommendations that both affirm and negate established values and practices, while commending the further exploration and invention of routines and conventions that respond to the challenges of digital media.

Ample evidence emerged from the interviews to suggest that journalism in the new electronic environment can occupy an enlarged space in terms of its role in society and its relationship to readers. The repeated comments regarding reader agency and qualities of hypertext as a guide or outline suggest that readers want a dynamic mode of communication that allows them to move through information in ways they find helpful, useful, or otherwise valuable. These dynamic modes should be conceptualized as "verbing" communication that might include traditional journalism paths (factizing, experting), as well as less conventional directions (connecting, empathizing). [4] In other words, journalism need not abandon traditional forms of narrative presentation, such as factizing, but these forms must be augmented with a greater range of paths that are responsive to readers' ways of making sense of information.

On a higher level of abstraction, this means that journalists will need to rethink and enlarge their professional role from arbiters of reality and truth to facilitators of social dialogue and cartographers of information and communication resources. Readers who commented positively on the work and play involved in constructing the news story were clearly less interested in receiving the true version of events than in being able to select narrative paths that helped them understand events or enjoy the stories. In the future, journalists will be better served by professional skills that emphasize the development of multiple modes of gathering, processing, and presenting information. This will include self-reflexive modes, such as placing reporters' notes and interview questions online, which reveal the constructed nature of news narratives and bring journalists into social dialogue with users. Rethinking the role of the journalist in this way suggests the dismantling of the edifice of expertise, objectivity, and truth, and the construction of systems of flexibility, responsiveness, and sense.


This shift in the journalist's role and skills, however, does not spell the end of the author as suggested in the literature on hypertext, but it does challenge the accepted conventions of "good writing." Indeed, many readers expressed comfort and pleasure in knowing that a living, breathing, thinking author stood behind the text on the screen. The positive response to the human dimension that was present in the original stories but absent from the more mechanical hypertexts suggests that professional writing will continue to be a valued skill in the creation of electronic texts. Furthermore, a number of readers conveyed a high regard and even an expectation for the author's guidance in moving through the stories. This reinforces the need to invent specialized encoding practices that depart from current conventions, but continue to be a part of contemporary journalism education and practice.

Just where this invention will occur is not yet known, however, the literature reviewed in this study suggests that scholars should not anticipate risk-taking or creativity from mainstream, news producers. The earlier review of the research into the adoption of new communication technologies in newsrooms indicates that journalists are, at best, uneasy about them, having incorporated Internet applications only to the extent that they reinforce existing practices. This tendency to use technologies to reproduce conventions, rather than to alter them, is augmented by textbooks and training manuals in such practices as computer-assisted reporting. Finally, exploring hypertext, not to mention multimedia designs, requires an enormous commitment of energy, thought, and economic resources, based on our experience of preparing the limited number of hyperstories for this study. The media industries today, with their intense focus on bottom-line journalism, strike us as ill-prepared to meet the challenges implied by our findings. This should signal scholars and teachers who care about the idea of journalism that, ironically, they likely will have to turn away from the media professions in order to forge the future of news in the new electronic environment.

Obviously, this study has severe limitations due to its range of readers, artificial design, and limited number of stories. Our intention has not been to generate generalizable conclusions, however, but to explore theoretical challenges and premises through empirically derived, heuristic patterns. These patterns do provide tempered confirmation of assertions that hypertexts function very differently from linear narratives, and that such texts suggest a radically different relationship between authors and readers. In fact, given the novelty of hypertext, the literary bias of the participant pool, and the fact that the actual articles were reported, written, and designed using standard, journalistic conventions, these findings should be interpreted as erring on the conservative side--that is, the limitations of the study have a built-in bias favoring the original articles. Aside from the implications of this research that have been noted already, this study suggests that empirical research in journalism studies should move beyond collecting data and suggesting practices that merely squeeze established routines and values into the new spaces opened up by electronic media. This study points to a fertile range of research where scholars and practitioners can and should begin exploring and inventing journalism's future.


[1] The literatures we review rest, for the most part, on a set of related polarities -- between order and chaos, truth and ignorance, facts and opinion, the coherent and the incoherent, the real andthe interpretive -- related to the portrayal of narrative forms (e.g. the encoder controlled versus decoder controlled). It is beyond the purpose of this paper to critique and interpret this set of polarities, though they bear mention as limitations to the advance of theories of new, narrative practices. See Dervin (in press) for a fuller explanation.

[2] Leib's (1999) online cupplement, Editing for the web, for example, found only one example of a hypertext story (http://cgi.chicago.tribune.com/tech/frobel/frobsum.htm) on a traditional news site. Likewise, Fredin (1997) noted that virtually all online news provides links external to stories themselves to other, related stories, not hypertext links that form part of the internal structure of narrative.

[3] Simple usability principles guided the redesign of the articles (see Dillon, 1990; Nielsen, 1990, 1995).

[4] See Dervin (1993) for a fuller discussion of the notion of "verbing" communication.


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