The last decade has brought substantial change in the way newspapers are doing business. Barnhurst and Nerone (2001:283) cite the American journalist Jon Katz who in 1994, made the (now infamous) prediction that newspapers would be dead within ten years. Considering that ten years have passed, and many of us are still in fact starting the day with a cup of coffee and a copy of the local newspaper, one could say that Katz was wrong. Barnhurst et al seem to imply just that. However, let’s look at a couple of examples of what these ten years has brought us, and let us then again consider Katz’s prediction.

Changes in reading
Traditionally, the printed newspaper was an enclosed space, where the editor largely decided the prominence of an article. The editor could be pretty sure that the reader was more or less sequential in reading the paper, and the development in layout came about to help the reader skim through material with ease. The article deemed, for one reason or another, as being the most important (i.e. the top story), got the best exposure on the front page, and also within the pages. This way, the editor could to a great extent orchestrate the reading.

Barnhurst and Nerone goes on to describe the online editions of newspapers as being inherently different in this aspect – the logic of the index replaces the orchestration. (Barnhurst 2001:286) The available space on the screen is so limited, due to technical reasons to do with screen size and resolution, that not the entire article and high resolution pictures can be displayed simultaneously, but the articles are “three-dimensional” and non-sequential hyperlinking.

People, they say (2001:284), copy and paste articles and share them with their friends, much like the colonial printer made up the paper with news from different sources. Barnhurst and Nerone describe online news as surrogates for the printed press.

The index of indexes
What this mean, is that a consumer of news no longer is limited to one source of news, and that in effect his interpersonal relationships turn in to a gigantic, decentralized network of gatekeepers. A reader’s spouse, colleagues and friends all influence what news is being read, and from what sources. The consumption of news is no longer limited to the public sphere provided by the daily newspaper, but has expanded to the thousands of views available on the web, only a tap on the mouse away.

More interesting, and even more revolutionary, this practice has also become a business on the web. Google, the worlds most popular search engine, introduced its service Google News a year ago. Just as on the Internet in general, the abundance of news sources makes it hard to find relevant content, and it is Google News’ mission to sort, and recommend articles to its users. The website automatically index thousands of online newspapers and other news outlets, and present the articles through summaries and hyperlinks on one page. Mathematical algorithms, according to Google (2004), automate the process of article placement, thereby obsolescing the editorial function.

If, with Barnhurst’s and Nerone’s words (2001:286), the online front page of a newspaper is an index rather than anything else – I would argue that Google News is the index of indexes. The hyperlinks lead directly to the articles, and not to the front page. For the user, this is the expressway to getting the pick of the litter. For the newspapers this has removed them completely from the traditional orchestration. What’s left with the newspapers is just the production of journalistic texts; others determine its value. Usually one or two primary sources are quoted, but the user also gets links to the secondary sources, deemed as less important – often numbering in the hundreds.

The design of Google News is equally revolutionary, drawing just as much inspiration from Internet culture as from “traditional” newspaper metaphors often seen in online editions. It is a simple, template based design and what small pictures are displayed are also not original content, but snatched from the same websites they link to.

Unlike the newspapers online editions described by Barnhurst et al (2001:295) there are no advertisements on Google News; none of the “chimneys” of flashing ads, nor interstitched commercial messages.

Decentralized journalism
Another interesting development goes back to the fact that the Internet was created to be, and it still is (to a large extent), a synchronous medium. Behind the technical definition lays the beauty that whoever can receive also can transmit, unlike for example television. In effect – anybody with an Internet connection can become a reporter and publish news and articles without the hassle of printing and distributing atoms.

This phenomenon has led to what is usually referred to as Blogging, self-publication on the Internet. Apart from producing original content, most bloggers also continually provide a hot-list with links to news articles that they find interesting, and through that practice the blogger acts as an agent for the reader. The agent, spend his or her time browsing the news so that their readers don’t have to. This is, along with Google News, a formalization of the previously discussed social networks. Here however, the index gets visited because of the editorial function of the blogger. But the same company that is producing the news does not employ the editor. Often the degree of specialization is high and very much outspoken, for example against software patents, or advocacy groups concerned with online privacy.

One reason for its popularity is probably because people often can go where journalists can’t. A recent such example is the hugely successful and controversial blog My War, published by an individual American soldier stationed in Iraq.

The design of blogs is usually sparse, often only text based in order to provide easy access and easy publishing. Curiously, they often also include a system for syndication – and people are encouraged to recycle material outside the confined space of the blog itself. This means a total separation of design and content.

Discussion and conclusion
So, was Katz right in his prediction? No. Was he wrong? No. I would argue that the newspapers are not dead, but that newspapers as we knew them in 1994 are very much dead and buried.

Peoples relationship to newspapers, and to the commodity they provide; news, has indeed changed a great deal in only ten years. And it’s still changing.

The role of the newspaper editor seems to have been greatly reduced when moving to online publishing. The informal and formal indexes and references through personal interactions, or through sites such as Google News, provide immediate access to the pick of the litter and are increasingly important as people chose between thousands of news sources.

Blogs change the power structures away from the big media conglomerates that, prior to the Internet, had better access to the peoples minds. I think the example with My War illustrate my personal explanation why blogs will play a role in the future production of news: the more embedded journalists are perceived to be, the higher demand for “genuine” news. The practice of blogging is a fairly new thing; much of its lift has come just during the last 18 months. It’d be interesting to learn Barnhurst’s and Nerone’s comments on blogging, considering that they dismiss self-publication in the first years of (mass-market) Internet as “utopian” (Barnhurst et al 2001:294).


» Barnhurst, K & Nerone, J. (2001) The Form of News, New York: The Guildford Press
» Google (2004) “About Google News – A novel approach to news” (2004-09-30)
» Katz, J. (1994) “Online or Not, Newspapers Suck” in Wired Magazine, September 1994. Issue 9, Volume 2