The history of Dutch newspaper websites, 1996-2011
During the late-1990s newspapers began to move onto the Internet en masse, giving rise to the question whether these digital immigrants would adapt to the new world of the internet and make full use of the opportunities offered by the new medium. The incorporation of features specific to the web into their sites appeared to be the inevitable way forward to almost all observers. A look back at the development of the frontpage of three Dutch newspaper websites through the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine however shows that newspaper websites over the past fifteen years have become more rather than less like their print counterparts.
I began researching the digital immigrants that are newspaper websites last year, when I took a tutorial on digital methods thought by prof. dr. Richard Rogers for my research master’s in media studies. Using a method suggested by the digital methods initiative here, I began by studying the development of my own newspaper (yes I still read one), the Amsterdam based paper Het Parool. The method suggested by the DMI, which seeks to repurpose the Internet’s dominant devices for academic research, consisted of using a tool designed by the DMI to gather the URLs of all versions of the frontpage of parool.nl, capturing screenshots of all these versions and turning these into a video.
The resulting (rather hastily made) video is embedded below. It shows that while the site was emphatically not intended not to become too much of a copy of the print version of the paper (as a message welcoming the site first visitors in 1997 stressed), experiments with discussion forums and audio and video content proved rather unsuccesful, while more and more newspaper content kept creeping onto the frontpage.
After examining the development of parool.nl for the weekly assignment that resulted in this video, I went on to examine two other Dutch newspaper websites (volkskrant.nl, and ad.nl for a paper I presented at the Digital Methods Winter School of 2012, in order to see whether the story of parool.nl proved an exception or the rule.
The development of volkskrant.nl and ad.nl proved similar to that of parool.nl in most respects. All three websites featured sections made up of lists of links in their earliest incarnations. On ad.nl this section, named “AD’s handy one hundred”, featured prominently on the early versions of the frontpage. For years this section only rose in prominence, but in april 2001 the decline began to set in when the list of top 10 sites of the day was replaced by a single site of the day. It took till 2005 for collections of links to disappear from its frontpages entirely. Volkskrant.nl was a little later to jump on the site directory bandwagon than ad.nl, but likewise introduced such a feature on its frontpage in 1998, when it introduced its ‘site-seeing’ section with a header reading “What Marxist-Leninist plot lies behind the Smurfs? Remarkable and bizarre links in Site-seeing.” In 2001 link sections dissapeared from the frontpage again. On parool.nl a section devoted to reviews of websites and lists of links (burried under a New Media tap) was discontinued in 2004. The history of these three newspaper’s thus illustrates the demise of the hand-made directory as a means of navigating the internet, caused by the rise of the search engine, a development that also features in a video about the declining prominence of ‘google directory’ on google’s frontpage made by the Govcom.org foundation/DMI, that also made use of the pages stored in the internet archive.
All three sites experimented with discussion forums and similar features that were intended to increase user participation, such as platforms for user-generated news or photo’s. Parool.nl introduced a forum section to great fanfare in 2001, featuring discussions in the fora on the frontpage for the first few months, but removed the section less than a year later, volkskrant.nl held on a little longer but also removed the forum section started in 2001 in 2004, ad.nl tried to introduce a forum section in 2001 that was discontinued a year later and tried again in 2005 when it also introduced sections allowing readers to contribute news (removed only a year later in 2006) or photo’s. By 2009 all these sections had disappeared from the site again, and once more the only interactive element on all three sites had become a multiple choice poll that only allows for a minimum of participation. The operators of newspaper websites seem to have experienced the same feelings of disillusion as utopian dreamers who saw in the internet a platform for the realization of a Habermasian public sphere, and, seem to have found that the moderating of discussions and content are troublesome to be worth the effort.
Unlike parool.nl, which burried its Parool radio and Parool TV content under Video and Media taps after launching them to much fanfare, volkskrant.nl and ad.nl do still feature video content on their frontpage, but you do have to scroll a long way down to find them.
In spite of the persistent insistence of so-called internet observers that “simply posting the printed version of the newspaper on the website is a mistake” (Cowen 2001: 190), becoming less like newspapers has not turned out to be as inevitable for the immigrants in the digital world that online newspapers are (although I do not know if the current state of affairs will remain feasible in the future or whether online newspapers will grow to be even more like their print siblings.)