A study about the transformations of newspaper websites can only be carried out because there are web archives preserving materials that the newspapers themselves do not preserve or provide. In the second guest blog post in the series showcasing Investiga XXI, DIOGO SILVA DA CUNHA, University of Lisbon, presents the results of his project focusing on transformations of this kind in four Portuguese newspapers using Arquivo.pt.
The transition to what is referred to as Digital Age and Information Society implied a great transformation which continues to take place at several levels. The professionals of the various communication sectors are now confronted at the forefront with new conditions to perform their work.
An important change occurred at the level of the support of journalistic messages. Since the 1990s, newspapers have begun to translate their printed press editions into online editions.
At the end of the 90s, great importance was given to online editions, focusing part of the newsroom workflow on their update 24/7, an approach known as “web-first” or “online first”. Something was happening. Born-digital content has become an integral part of today’s journalism with some of this content being published exclusively in the newspaper’s online editions.
The disappearance of born-digital newspaper materials
It is now common to consider in the context of Communication, Media and Journalism Studies that the structure of the online newspaper websites can accumulate journalistic materials and can be consulted in the long term by both journalists and readers, according to search filters specific to such structure.
In the same line of reasoning, it seems that the expectations of journalists and other professionals linked to newspapers and media companies are similar. The existence of such expectations was confirmed in the present research on the Portuguese newspaper websites.
But, as Web Archiving Studies have been showing, there is a general trend for websites to be deeply modified or disappear within a year. In the case of newspaper websites, the problem is aggravated by the fact that they are updated at least daily and their structure as a whole, from its URL to its layout, also undergoes changes, although this happens over a longer period of time. So, although the news content produced by journalists may remain on the newspaper websites for a while, these websites end up with missing elements or they just disappear.
The transformations of Portuguese newspaper websites: a case study
Web archives can be seen as an alternative in terms of public, direct and interactive access to born-digital journalistic materials that are not preserved or that are not publicly provided by newspapers and their media companies. In this sense, a web archive becomes an information technology structure which functions as a ‘source’ in the conventional, historiographical sense of the term.
The research on the transformations of Portuguese newspaper websites, that was carried out using Arquivo.pt, focused on a longitudinal study (1996-2016) of the structure of the websites of four weekly and daily newspapers: Correio da Manhã, Diário de Notícias, Expresso and Público.
The process of describing and comparing the preserved versions of those newspapers’ homepages in Arquivo.pt enabled us to reconstruct the development trends between the different layouts and the different web addresses of these pages. From this work, we drew the following general conclusions:
- Websites are increasingly extensive and vertically oriented;
- Websites gradually become aesthetically cohesive, consolidating the newspaper’s visual identity;
- Changes are increasingly less noticeable as they tend to be on the “micro” rather than “macro” level (see Fig. 2)
- More embedded images and videos are used, often framed in galleries, the number of links, buttons, menus and scroll bars has also increased over time;
- The visual changes, along with the changes of web addresses, are sometimes shaped by the relationships of the media companies with audiovisual and telecommunications companies, e.g. in the different versions shown in Fig.3, the names, colors and/or symbols of these companies are present in the user interface of the newspapers (we see Clix logo on the top left and a pink button on the top right corner in 2007 and in the 2012 capture they are replaced by the AEIOU logo).
It is now possible to propose at least three ways to looking at the developments listed above:
- using digital tools for detailed analysis of changes in layouts at the level of information design,
- extending the scope of the study to the websites of other newspapers (e.g. other countries, other companies, other types of social institutions, etc.),
- widening the scope of the study even more to confront the lines of development discovered with web publishing models beyond the spectrum of journalism (e.g. blogs).
It is also worth underlining that it is fundamental to develop a systematic reflection on the web archives as such, perceiving them not only as informatic structures, but also as ‘research infrastructures’, with their own professional and epistemic cultures. In the terms of research on web archives, the work of Niels Brügger seems to offer an excellent starting point. However, it will be crucial to consider web archives in the context of Big Data discussions around reductionist and empiricist trends in the social sciences.
A reflection of this kind would integrate web archives in discussions about ontology, epistemology, methodology, culture, economy and politics. The question would be to think of web archives not only as instruments of access to the world, not only as windows to the digital recent past, but as devices that are part of the constitution of the world, as mediating technologies with their own implications in retrospective placement, themselves part of the digitalization process.
As outlined above, it’s equally important that there is a dialogue between researchers, journalists and newspaper editorial staff. The general problem of digital preservation, especially complicated in the field of media and journalism, makes clear the need to establish digital preservation guides for journalists and editors and to promote the joint discussion of information curation initiatives, if we don’t want today’s news to be forgotten tomorrow.
Diogo Silva da Cunha is a PhD student of Philosophy of Science and Technology, Art and Society at the University of Lisbon. His major fields of interest are epistemology of the social sciences and communication, media and journalism studies. Diogo Silva da Cunha recently participated in a study on the digitalization process in Portuguese journalism promoted by the respective national regulatory entity. Last year, he participated in the research project of Arquivo.pt, in the context of which he proposed, developed and applied a model of analysis of journalistic material available in web archives.