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Some possibilities for using the Internet to redefine news agendas

By Hugh Brown - posted Friday, 15 December 2000

One of the most novel things about the Internet is that it is the only medium that works just as well one-to-one as it does broadcasting to the masses.

It also works almost as well many-to-one as it does one-to-many. However, since most media organisations are in the business of publishing, as opposed to listening, this feature has gone largely unused. Apart from the possibilities for on-line voting, little effort has been put into developing technologies to harness it.

The reason media organisations haven’t harnessed this feature yet is that they think of themselves as the source of news and their customers as consumers. Yet it is a revolutionary possibility and one which presents a serious challenge to the traditional news agenda.


News agendas are the second thing journalism students learn about after news values. Once you’ve learnt to ask "what is important?" it is natural to ask "how do we know what is important?"

The only answers to this question come as an unconvincing: "Well ... we just know because people buy the news services that contain what we put there". This leads to a steady diet of politics, sport, crime and, more recently, finance – mostly topics that are of interest to editors and media proprietors.

The dominance of this approach continues despite the fact that research – industry and academic – has shown for years that this is not what the public wants to be told about. Research has also shown undeniably that newspaper circulations and TV news audiences have generally been steadily declining on a per-capita basis since at least the early 1970s. Any business that pays scant attention to its market research is destined to struggle, as is already happening. The popularity of info-tainment TV shows and lifestyle magazines is another indication that news publications are missing part of the public interest.

This problem has become so obvious that the American Society of Newspaper Editors holds conferences to find solutions to the problem of the "disappearing reader". Notwithstanding the Naked News approach, the standard Internet response has been a plethora of independent publications that cater to the wider audience. However, a paucity of advertising revenue, and difficulty in establishing reliability and authority as branded publications, not to mention successful business models, has led to the demise of many of these. Successful ones have been snapped up by larger organisations, based on their public appeal. The much-lauded diversity of content the Internet was supposed to bring has yet to materialise.

Since few online publications have yet turned a profit, how can media organisations become more responsive and thereby increase their readerships/audiences? The answer is both simple and complex: make audience feedback an integral part of driving the news agenda. Instead of relying on theoretical "news values", research and write on the news topics that audiences demand – as opposed to being guided by the articles the audience hits on after they are written.

This solution is, of course, not universally applicable to every type of news. No reader will be able to predict their interest in local crime or disaster stories. Similarly with product releases, novelties and other types of "new" news. However, the presentation of even these stories could be re-prioritised according to feedback rather than guesswork.


This audience-driven model is best suited to magazine-style niche journalism. The kind that caters to a specialised readership. This is where the value of good information and analysis cannot be underestimated, as demonstrated by the success of financial information Web sites. I have argued elsewhere that the future of Web publishing will see an increase in specialist-topic sites.

If the public ever gets over its fear of Internet-borne privacy abuses, article packaging could be personalised using technology similar to that of This technology presents a list of items of possible interest to the viewer based on items previously visited. However, news services of this type have been around for some time with limited success.

Some attempts have recently been made to involve readers in the news agenda via the New York Times’ Abuzz section and the website These services allow users to ask their own questions and have them answered by other members of the service. If those publications paid attention to what the audience was discussing, they may well gather some guidance as to what the audience views as important.

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About the Author

Hugh Brown is a PhD candidate in the Creative Industries Faculty at QUT and teaches communication at the University of Queensland and QUT. He was editor of On Line Opinion from June 2000 until August 2004 and has a degree in journalism from the University of Queensland, for which he was awarded a University Medal. Before joining On Line Opinion he was editor of the now-defunct Tr@cks e-zine, based in Brisbane, and inaugural student editor of The Queensland Independent. He has also freelanced for a variety of publications.

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