Measuring the interactivity of the Greek press online

Martin Belam  by Martin Belam, 25 May 2008
"The development of a solid, interactive online journalistic culture is hindered by journalists who view themselves as the mediators between the authorities and the public. Journalists see themselves gatekeepers, filtering what is newsworthy and what isn't. Such responsibilities provide to some prestige and status. Different levels of interactivity undermine the 'we write, you read dogma' of modern journalism"

No, not the manifesto of Andrew Keen's mythical newstopia, but part of the conclusion of a fascinating piece of work published by First Monday looking at the state of online journalism in Greece, written by Paschalia–Lia Spyridou and Andreas Veglis.

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In the concluding section, their paper goes on to say:

"A university degree does not seem to be a serious qualification for starting a career as a journalist. Yet, online journalism requires specific skills and knowledge that most old journalists ignore. Young, educated newcomers pose a serious threat as far as their job, tasks and status are concerned. As a result the older generation of Greek journalists see online developments as unnecessary and a waste of money and time."

It is exactly the kind of research I know I'd love to carry out if my Greek extended beyond the odd 'Ela!' and bit of football commentary.

It was published around the same time that Alex Gamela wrote on the Online Journalism Blog about the take-up of citizen journalism and interactivity in the Portuguese online press. Alex stated that:

"If news information still runs downriver, it’s because there’s not only a structural problem, but also a passive-aggressive attitude towards citizen journalism: passive on the citizen part, aggressive on the journalists that defend their status as news bearers with tooth and nail, even if most don’t take any effort to understand the new reality."

Likewise, the abstract of the paper from Spyridou and Veglis observes that:

"In the Greek online press the range of possible forms and expressions of interactivity are limited and uneven. The dominant journalistic culture of Greece — in combination to political and cultural traits of the country — are assumed to hinder the expected development of Web publishing."

The paper builds on research work that argues that online news delivery has developed in three stages - from 'shovelware', to original online journalism, to multimedia and interactivity. It is heavily academic in nature and structure, and much of the preamble seeks to establish a measurable model of interactivity based on a decade worth of research about the web.

They suggest that the move online in Greece was not due to a well-considered strategic goal or business case, but more about being 'me too' as the medium moved online, and about safeguarding potential future revenue. Moving Greek newspapers online started with a deal of 'fear' and a 'defensive' mindset.

"A basic reason to launch an online edition was an attempt to reverse declining circulation by building a new base of readers, and especially young and computer–savvy users. Secondly, it had to do with developing a new source of advertising revenue by basically offering the same product in differing formats. Furthermore, the Internet seemed as a smart move to protect their advertising base, and particularly classified ads. Finally, following the global trend of going online, publishers felt that an Internet service would elevate a given newspaper’s prestige. Besides, the Greek media market as a whole has the tendency to mimic media developments taking place elsewhere, irrespectively of whether the local market actually ‘permits’ them."

The study measured the 'interactivity' of an online newspaper according to criteria set out in 1989 theoretical model by Heeter. You might be able to immediately spot my reasons for thinking this may not be the most appropriate model to use for measuring the 1990s phenomena of the Internet.

They used the New York Times and The Guardian as their benchmark newspapers from outside of Greece.

New York Times

The Guardian

Here I am definitely impressed by their thinking. In the paper they clearly state that this is not a 'fair' comparison. Nevertheless, the find them a valuable measure because:

"It is only natural therefore that the professional standards employed would be more advanced. However, the choice of the sample was made so as to eliminate the common mistake met in some of the first wave of scholarly work about interactivity, which focused merely on the potential and not the reality of online journalism. Early studies were formulated upon 'an expression of hope' rather than based on pragmatic terms. In that sense non–Greek sites function as a practical yardstick in order to evaluate the relative status of the Greek online press."

Putting my simple 'does this site have RSS?' tables to shame, Veglis and Spyridou scored each site on 46 specific interactive elements. It should be stressed that the definition of 'interactive' in this case isn't restricted to two-way interaction, but includes examples of one-way interaction that a user can have with a site's navigation, search or editorially presented content.

The results, perhaps not surprisingly, showed a clear feature supremacy for the two news sources with the global reputation, the biggest investment, and, significantly, the greatest potential advertising reach.

"The first observable finding is the clear supremacy of non–Greek sites over Greek newspaper sites. The Guardian and New York Times scored a total of 82 and 89 points respectively, whilst the Greek sites rated much lower, securing scores ranging from 11 to 28 points."

With regard to RSS, they note the sparse availability from Greek sources compared to the two international newspaper brands:

"It is worth mentioning that the English–speaking sites do not hesitate to offer external RSS feeds. Such moves demonstrate that these sites are not afraid of competition from traditional media. Instead they have embraced an attitude that the more options and control they yield to their users, the more likely they are to earn their audiences’ preference and loyalty."

On the subject of blogs and user participation the study observes:

"None of the Greek sites have incorporated blogs, a significant and notable absence. The blogs of the Guardian are outstanding — very wide in scope, easy to search and participate. Talkboards on various subjects, which can be considered as the predecessors of blogs, contributing to more pluralistic, two–way dialogue journalism, are offered only by Ta Nea, while online polls and surveys are adopted by both Ta Nea and Ethnos."
Ta Nea Online

Ethnos Online

The report is slightly unclear on whether the 'blogs' in question are fully consistently understood. I'm left unsure why The Guardian having blogs is in the same section as Ta Nea having messageboards, when the idea of user-published content in also expressed in another section of the report:

"None of the sites under investigation allow for direct publishing of content by readers. The New York Times — under the title "The Public Editor" — has developed a service which allows readers to be heard through questions, views and submission of opinion articles, while the Guardian maintains a section where users' stories can appear. The case of Ethnos is worth noting; although the Ethnos' site did not get a high score overall, it incorporates a mechanism enabling readers to directly e–mail a story or comment and also to contribute to a reporter’s article."

The paper concludes that the development of online journalism and online news products is hampered by Greece's particular cultural and social situation. Internet penetration is low, and the younger adults who tend to use the Internet are already disillusioned with Hellenic politics and the established media. Newspapers have a particular place in society, and whilst no single paper has taken a significant lead in the online market, there is no need for anyone to invest seriously to compete.

"Low interactivity can be explained by production and delivery barriers. Digital newspapers are not easy to manage and require special skills, teamwork and strategies. Most Greek online newspapers operate with insufficient staff both in numerical terms as well as in terms of online expertise.

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There are additional problems in Greece as well with target audiences utilizing outdated computers and software as well as slow Internet connnections.

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The printed press in Greece, with very few exceptions, has remained obtrusively partisan, excessive, and at times cross–patronising. Newspaper sites are just digital counterparts to print editions with their established political ties and identification and lack of credibility. Readers will not turn to read 'one of the same'.

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Furthermore, the modernization of the Greek mass media system has taken place in the absence of a truly independent journalistic body of ethics. Greek journalism has evolved around the interplay between media owners and political power centres and the battle for control for the public agenda, instead of focusing on objectivity, exchange of information and dialogue."

The full report is a really thorough and good piece of work, and can be viewed on the First Monday site.

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