Making Space for a New Medium: On the Use of Electronic Mail in a Newspaper Newsroom


Within the field of computer-supported cooperative work, there are a continuously growing number of studies of the use of electronic media in groups and organisations. Despite the existence of this impressive body of research, there have been comparatively few in-depth studies of how the computer as a medium of communication is integrated in specific professional practices. The present study examines the role of electronic mail in a medium-sized Swedish newspaper office (newsroom) environment. Using an ethnographic perspective, the study attempts to combine two approaches: it is both focused on the social and communicative processes that are affected by the use of email and oriented toward the messages as such, looking at what kind of interaction is produced through particular email exchanges. Data have been collected during repeated observations, interviews and study of documents and artefacts in the newsroom environment over a period of almost 3 years. The picture that has emerged suggests that it is not the medium as such, but its interaction with other contextual preconditions that is decisive for the effects of the introduction of email. Important factors are the physical localization of co-workers in the near and remote editorial environment as well as their organisational roles in the time-critical news production process. Together, these relationships create a significantly more complex picture than previous studies of what happens when a new communication technology is introduced.

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  1. 1.

    Another aspect worth considering is that communications media do not necessarily exclude one another, but may appear in various combinations (McKenny et al. 1992; Rice 1994; Wellman and Tindall 1993). One medium may carry with it the use of another (Tyler and Tang 2003).

  2. 2.

    Computer-mediated communication.

  3. 3.

    The original ambition was to work with a tape recorder and use small microphones attached to the garments of shadowed persons, to follow the ongoing dialogue between different colleagues. However, it turned out at an early stage that it was not accepted by the newspaper management to record the oral communication, mainly because of the need to protect news sources.

  4. 4.

    It is based on a combination of replacement characters for frequent words, phrases and modal verb forms (e.g. “should”), as well as omission of certain auxiliaries and particles.

  5. 5.

    Kodak DC290 ZOOM.

  6. 6.

    The use of email in the editorial office represents a situation beyond the initial phase in the use of intranets that extends beyond a pure information channel, and where email serves as a work tool embedded in the daily activities of the organization (Hede 2002: 177 ff.)

  7. 7.

    The collection of the email messages involved an active contribution from NE, and thereby an awareness that the messages that he would send and receive during a week would be used for research purposes. In research on spoken language there have often been discussions of what it means that participants are aware of being involved in an investigation. It is widely considered that the observer effect normally does not hinder participants from acting naturally (Börestam Uhlmann 1994: 71 f).

  8. 8.

    This includes mailings from companies, public authorities, institutions and organisations, whereas mail from private citizens account for a very small part of the messages being sent (Hössjer 2006).

  9. 9.

    The figures are only presented to illustrate the variation in the actual data collected and they should not be seen as general patterns of communication in the newsroom.

  10. 10.

    The text examples within boxes are email dialogues. All names of individuals in this and other examples have been changed. This is also the case for text elements that would otherwise risk revealing the newspaper where the study has been made.

  11. 11.

    The list is a planning document in the form of a table with assignments and bookings for the current workday. The items appear under fixed headings and are updated continuously as a basis for discussions in different meetings and during the current work in the newsroom.

  12. 12.

    The notion of message type, as we use it here, relates to genre in same way that this notion is used within American genre rhetoric. This refers to a systematic that is used more or less consciously by language users themselves as a way of dealing with a complex rhetorical practice with many disparate linguistic expressions. In this investigation we have performed this categorization by asking NE to determine the genre of different email messages (cf Miller 1984: 151).

  13. 13.

    This information was given by NE in connection with the collection of Corpus 2; see Section 4.1.

  14. 14.

    Email communication started in 1965, according to Wikipedia (, Aug. 5, 2006).


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This study was carried out within the project “Decision Processes and Technology Use in Newspaper Editorial Work”, funded by The Swedish Council for Work Life Research (now a part of the Swedish Agency for Innovation Systems). We are grateful to Else Nygren for valuable comments on previous versions of the manuscript, and to Donald MacQueen for help with improving the language.

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Correspondence to Kerstin Severinson Eklundh.



The following key explains the transcription marks of various examples of conversations.


Three dots: The turn continues but no note was recorded.

... :

Three dots underlined. Break in dialog by speaker.

the [text]:

Square brackets: Comment, clarification of reference between turns.


Double parentheses: Comment on how a dialog takes place: for instance if someone is shouting, is handing over a text, etc.


Simple square bracket: Overlapping speech. Indicated when a turn starts before another turn is finished. Exactly where the overlapping begins is not indicated.


Double square brackets: Simultaneously initiated utterances.


Simple parentheses around word: Interpretation uncertain.


Slash: A brief pause; indicated only in telephone conversations where the interlocutor’s response is not heard.


Double slash: A long pause; indicated only in telephone conversations where the interlocutor’s response is not heard.


Simple parentheses: Uncertainty about person’s name, for example. Speaker’s identity is not clear.

have :

Underlined auxiliary verb: omitted auxiliary verb that was supplied in transcription.

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Hössjer, A., Eklundh, K.S. Making Space for a New Medium: On the Use of Electronic Mail in a Newspaper Newsroom. Comput Supported Coop Work 18, 1–46 (2009).

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Key words

  • electronic mail
  • computer-mediated communication
  • workplace studies
  • newspaper
  • newsroom environment
  • ethnographic study