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Digital Journalism: A Classification of News Websites – Intro

Intro

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

The newspaper’s Web site, the internal report began, was now 10 years old. “Its stated strategy was to be an indispensable information retailer,” complete with “news, listings, reviews, databases,” and more.

“This vision is unfulfilled” the Los Angeles Times’s highly anticipated “Spring Street Project” declared in December 2006.

“Latimes.com is virtually invisible inside greater Los Angeles. By some measures, the site is losing traction even faster than the newspaper.”

Why? “Inadequate staffing, creaky technology,” dead links, infrequent updating, lack of interactivity with readers and much, much more, the report concluded. When the paper eliminated most daily stock listings in print, for instance, the Web sites declined to purchase the software that would allow users to track their stock portfolios online.

The list of reasons for the problems amounted to an indictment of bureaucracy at its worst: culture clash, lack of investment, political balkanism, corporate division, out-of-date technology.

The Spring Street Report was the fruit of an extraordinary effort by the Times’s former editor, Dean Baquet. As he clashed with the paper’s owner, the Tribune Company in Chicago, over cutbacks he thought ill considered, Baquet unleashed a team of his best reporters to investigate the future of the Times — in effect turning his newsroom into an R&D unit. If journalism needs to change, the effort implied, journalists should be involved in reinventing it.

To outsiders, the report amounted to an unusually candid internal assessment of a major news operation as it struggles to make the transition to the digital age. Many other news Web sites, the report found in assessing the field generally, were much further along than the Times.

What is the state of digital journalism? What progress are Web sites making to exploit the potential of the Web to go beyond what any one traditional medium might offer? What capacities of the Web are sites developing, and which are they not?

In past years, our report on the State of the News Media offered glimpses by examining a handful of Web sites each year from different media sectors, usually noting the design of the pages and the treatment of top stories.

To go deeper, this year the Project undertook a detailed examination of the structure and features of more than three dozen Web sites from a range of news sources — network, local and cable TV, newspapers, radio, online-only and citizen media.

The goal was first to identify which characteristics news sites were developing online and which they weren’t.

The second was to determine whether Web sites could be classified into groups, into a kind of typology, or whether the field was still too fluid and embryonic.

Among the findings:

  • Web sites have developed beyond their root media. In character, many news sites now cut across medium, history, audience size and editorial structure. The New York Times Web site, for instance, has different strengths and a noticeably different character from that of the Washington Post. The Web site of CBS News is notably different in its strengths from ABC’s. Some citizen media sites have distinct editorial processes and standards.
  • News sites seem to be exploiting two areas of the Web most of all: editorial branding, or establishing a distinctive identity through original content and a distinct editorial process; and the potential for users to customize information, particularly through mobile delivery of it. More sites earned high marks for promoting original content and unique brand than any other feature we studied. Indeed, the notion that the Web is dominated by yesterday’s newspapers, wire copy, opinion and rumor is increasingly an oversimplification.
  • Sites have done the least to tap the Web’s potential for depth — to enrich coverage by offering links to original documents, background material, additional coverage and more. That suggests that putting things into context, or making sense of the information available, is an area Web journalists still need to work on. This deficiency may expose the tension between old-style journalism, which sent reporters out to write stories, and technology-based aggregation, which gathers those stories and links via computer algorithm. Building real depth into coverage probably requires people to weave relevant sources of information together and to help consumers navigate and go deeper by themselves.
  • Digital journalism has also not fully exploited the potential for users to participate by commenting and adding their own voice to the information. The notion that the Web is a place for people to be “prosumers,” simultaneously consuming and producing information in a kind of conversation, is at this point probably something of an exaggeration.
  • Only a few sites excel at multiple areas of the Web’s potential. Only four of those we analyzed earned top marks in even three of the five content categories studied. Most excelled at only one or two.

To make this more useful, we have created an interactive area where users can probe our findings, look closely at where sites ranked in certain categories and compare sites across the categories. We also discuss the broad findings and offer profiles of each site.

The web is constantly evolving and Web sites frequently changing. Even as we write this report several sites studied have gone through changes, and many more certainly will do so during the course of the next year. As such, this study is not meant so much as a long-standing portrait of what each site has to offer, but more a key tool to the landscape of options. The topography is diverse. Our hope is this tool will help users understand the Web better and news outlets better define what they have developed so far and where they might want to invest further.

About the Study

The study closely examined 38 different news Web sites in September 2006 and again in February 2007. The sites were chosen from a mix of their root-based media (e.g., newspapers, radio, cable) including a variety of online-only outlets.

We examined each site according to more than 60 different measurable features or capabilities from six different areas:

  • The level of customizability of content
  • The degree to which users could participate in producing content
  • The degree to which sites offered content in different media formats
  • The degree to which sites exploited the potential for depth on a subject
  • The extent to which a site’s own editorial standards, content and control were the brand being promoted
  • The nature and level of revenue streams for the site

After completing the site studies, we then tallied the scores for each site and ranked them within each category. For a full description of the methodology and the sites studied please see the methodology section of this report.