In a short space of time, online newspapers have emerged to play an important role in the institutional construction of ‘news’ and the mass mediation of information. The home pages of online newspapers feature short verbal texts, and communicate using language, image, layout, colour, and other semiotic resources: they communicate multimodally.
This thesis examines the multimodal discourse of three English-language online newspapers: the Bangkok Post (Thailand), the English-language edition (translated from Chinese) of the People’s Daily (China), and the Sydney Morning Herald (Australia). Between February, 2002 and April, 2006, three data collections were made (February-April, 2002; September-November, 2005; January-April, 2006) using a five-day ‘constructed week’ method. The main corpus was 15 home pages from each newspaper (five per collection per newspaper), but the total corpus (including other pages from each newspaper) was 603 web pages. Two senior editors (one each from the Bangkok Post and the Sydney Morning Herald) were interviewed.
The multimodal discourse of the home pages was analysed using tools from Systemic Functional Multimodal Discourse Analysis (SF-MDA), and a ‘visual grammar’ of home pages building on the work of Kress & van Leeuwen (1996) was developed. In addition, a rank scale for online newspapers was proposed, and limitations of applying the tool of rank scale to this corpus were identified. An emerging genre - the headline-plus-lead-plus-hyperlink newsbite - was identified, and the design of newsbites on the home page of the Sydney Morning Herald and the evolution of their design over time was analysed. The use of images on the home pages in the corpus was analysed, and the increasing use of thumbnail images in the Sydney Morning Herald - particularly close-up thumbnails of faces - was investigated in further depth.
The visual design of online newspaper home pages and the news texts appearing on them are an evolution of print news genres and their design practices. Newsbites and headline-only newsbits are verbally short, so the authors of newspaper home pages are forced to rely increasingly on visual communication in order to position stories and readers, and to communicate the values of the news institution on the home page as mediated by the screen. Thumbnail images are evolving as a new form of punctuation on some home pages, and this may be a short-lived, or an emerging historical trend in the development of punctuation, at least in online environments.
Overall, online newspaper home pages are tending towards shorter texts, which communicate in novel ways. These short texts cannot communicate the values and ideology of news institutions in the way that extended verbal texts have done for centuries, yet this function of news texts remains important to the construction and maintenance of a readership, and therefore crucial to the home page of a newspaper. As a result, news institutions express values visually in their design of newspaper home pages. As readers become familiar with the meanings of online news design, they become adept at reading and understanding short stories within these multimodally-construed frames of reference. Ideology is increasingly fragmented on shorter timescales, but expressed over longer timescales in a hypermedia environment that affords and extends many of the pre-existing multimodal features of print newspaper discourse.