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What makes news online : a New Zealand perspective : a thesis presented in partial fulfilment of the requirements for the degree of Master of Management in Communication Management at Massey University, Palmerston North, New Zealand
The digital revolution has had far-reaching implications for the news media. The
Internet has influenced how, where, and when citizens get news. It has added another
element of competition between news providers, one that is not restricted by
geographical boundaries. The ensuing attempts by news producers to increase,
establish, and maintain a loyal readership online have been linked to an increase in
tabloid and sensationalist news content (Fox & Gangl, 2011). Further, the fragmentation
of the media landscape as a result of online news requires the media both to reconsider
its position as the stalwart upholder of objectivity and to rethink its democratic
watchdog role (Mancini, 2013).
Additionally, studies have shown that readers of news online are increasingly selecting
soft news stories (Tewksbury 2002; van Heekeren 2005; Mitchelstein & Boczkowski,
2010). Several authors (Iyengar & Hahn, 2011; Sunstein, 2002; Mitchelstein &
Boczkowski, 2010) have expressed concern that this trend will lead to a poorly
informed public unless news providers embrace the participatory potential of the
Internet to foster meaningful debate on issues of importance. The concerns raised by
previous research formed the background of this study.
This mixed method inquiry considered three New Zealand news websites operated by
newspaper organisation – the Otago Daily Times and the Timaru Herald, which are
regionally based, and Stuff a national provider. Content analysis was used to find out
what stories website readers were interested in and what story topics were being
promoted to online readers. Interviews were also conducted with the editors
responsible for the websites’ online coverage to canvas their views on the New Zealand
digital news sphere.
This thesis found that lead news online was dominated by crime and softer news topics,
particularly on the Stuff site. It also found readers “top five” news choices were similarly
dominated by crime and softer news topics. However, analysis of the geographic
sources of the stories also indicates the value and demand for local news focussed on
local issues, particularly from regional websites.
Interviews with the editors of the three websites point to the difficulties faced by news
organisations, particularly as regards resourcing the web and the ability to provide a
true participatory news environment within financial constraints. Ultimately, because
news providers and readers more often select news topics related to entertainment
rather than to information, the online news environment, as it is currently heading, is
unlikely to fulfil the hopes of democratic engagement. While the provision and uptake of
local news is an encouraging sign, the news choices citizens make suggest a full reliance
on online content is unlikely to produce the informed citizenry envisaged by internet