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Testing Ground

Testing Ground

ABC News (www.abcnews.com)

The Web site of ABC News was redesigned in late 2004.

A new site is expected later this year, perhaps as soon as spring.

But until it arrives, the Web identity of ABC News reflects the strategic thinking of the network for the last two years.

ABC’s Web team paid particular attention to the most popular television Web sites, CNN.com and MSNBC.com, and sought to “broaden its online initiatives past the familiar narrowband Web,” according to one of the key designers, Mike Davidson.

The designers built in more video, developed more wireless initiatives, and began offering RSS feeds. The site also launched ABCNewsNow, which it claimed was the globe’s first 24-hour online video feed.1

An analysis of ABCNews.com also suggests that the site places the greatest emphasis on using multiple forms of digital content, and at the same time, promoting the ABC brand. Indeed it stands out as the only site among the 38 studied to earn the highest scores on multimedia and branding but on nothing else.

The site puts less emphasis on the depth of its content, it was in the bottom tier in that category.

One of the most noticeable things about ABCNews.com is its layout. Its three-column format is set against a white background with one dominant photo — a slide-show image that cycles through five top stories — as well as a list of headlines. All of that lets the viewer know there is a lot available without seeming overwhelming.

The key to the site’s information-rich-but-clean-to-the-eye look may be the simple color scheme. The site is basically black and white and blue all over, with small red callouts for “video” or “webcast.” That’s important on a site where the first screen offers 16 clickable news links and headlines.

As with ABCNews.com, only half the content is narrative. A mix of six other media forms make up the rest of the content, putting it in the highest tier for its use of multimedia forms. Nearly a quarter of the content is in video form, including a 15-minute “World News Webcast,” designed with a younger audience in mind. The webcast offers a lineup and format different from those on the traditional evening newscast and is first available to users live at 3 p.m. Eastern Time. The site also makes use of audio, podcasts, poll data, photos and more slide shows than any other site studied.

Executive producer Jon Banner said of the site: “What it has become is much more of a broadcast aimed at people who use the Web and who are much more Web-savvy than people who watch the broadcast. You still get a lot of things that are on the broadcast every evening, but they’re done in a much more Web-friendly style.”2

To cater to the user, the site has also taken steps to make its news content more portable. All the network news sites now offer podcasts or “vodcasts,” but ABC News vodcasts are consistently among those most frequently downloaded on Apple’s iTunes. In September, for example, there were 5.2 million downloads of the “World News Webcast,” Reuters reported.3

On the homepage itself, though, there is less customization. There are no options for the user to adjust the layout, and the search is based only on simple key words. Over all, then, the site fell in the mid-to-high-tier ranking for customization.

What exactly is behind all those headlines on this site? As with the other networks, ABC placed heavy weight on the originality of and control over its content. Beyond the World News Tonight vodcast, the content relies more heavily on outside sources. The featured stories that appear in the center of the homepage slide show are always from ABCNews.com itself, in their print and video forms. But the print stories that appear under “Top Headlines” and “Hot Topics” are FROM AP or Reuters. In fact, that’s true of the vast majority of the print copy that appears on the site besides the pieces in the featured-stories box.

There are a few exceptions. Correspondent Brian Ross and his investigative team have space on the homepage — “Brian Ross Investigates” — with original content. And there is a section on the page about half-way down that features “Blogs and Opinion” with original content.

ABCNews.com has yet to make much use of the ability to link several news reports together and offer coverage of one event in multiple media forms. The lead story tended to have just one additional report listed as a link. And most stories themselves contain no embedded links offering additional information such as biographies of sources or original documents.

The user-generated content, in the form of narrative, photos or videos, has presented the site with some advantages and challenges.

In 2006, after first breaking the story on the so-called page scandal involving the Florida Congressman Mark Foley, a blog on the site received even more messages from pages providing “even more salacious messages,” according to Mark Glaser of PBS.4 ABC, however, didn’t just post the material; it called Foley’s office and asked people there to verify the instant-message postings.

The site scored in the middle-to-low tier on user participation. Individuals can usually e-mail the author of a news report, but cannot post comments for others to see, or rate the story. But what stands out here is the site’s use of user-generated content. There is a clear place for users to submit stories, such as their own reports from breaking-news locales, some of which appear as a part of the homepage layout.

Finally, the ads on the site are largely self-promotional, which in part led to its sitting in the mid-to-low tier for revenue stream. The top banner ad is always related to ABC and/or Disney products, and ads for ABC news programs appear up and down the page. There are only two true outside ad spaces on the page, a small box under the topic navigation box and a long one over the page header. There is no registration process, though there is some premium content that users can pay for if they choose. All archived material remains free.

AOL News (www.aol.com)

With its modular design that places everything in boxes and its range of sources AOL.com’s news site seems focused on telling users what everyone else thinks is news. This is a not an aggregator site that is focused on combing through sites to put together a kind of uber news page. It is rather a site that seems content to mine the wires, the big broadcasters and prominent print outlets for a snapshot of the days news viewed through different prisms. Most of the pages “top news” comes from the news wires but further down the page are boxes for AOL partners – the New York Times, USA Today, CNN, Wall Street Journal and CBS News – each with three headlines that take users to those pages. Video links work the same way on the page, listed by outlet.

This approach had pluses and minuses in our site inventory.

AOL News scored high in our participation category – in the first tier – for giving viewers several ways to interact with the site. There was a user blog, a page with stories generated by users and chances for users to comment on stories. Authors could also be emailed in some cases.

The site was also fairly customizable – ranking in the second tier in that category. Users could modify the front page and the site offered multiple RSS feeds and an advanced search option.

AOL News scored in the third tier on multimedia. While there are video links here, the site on its face is mostly text driven with more than 70% of the home page content consisting of narrative and narrative links. It also finished in the third tier on depth. While the site often linked stories together for packages that give readers a the broader context of issues, the site was hurt by not updating as much as others. And as one might expect from a site that simply gathers content from elsewhere on the Web, the site scored in the bottom tier on branding.

It doesn’t have a strong revenue stream either, sitting in the third tier in that area with only about a half-dozen ads in the site.

In terms of content, the news on AOL may not be organized into a comprehensive page, but there is clearly a lot here. Between the wires, news outlets, blogs and “citizen media” links here, users can see the day’s events through a lot of different lenses. And the combination of human editing (which the site clearly uses on its “Top Story” and the running headlines from the wires and other outlets on the rest of the site makes for a real mix of news. The site’s design may be a drawback as well. The site can feel like looking at a wall of front pages. All those top headlines from various outlets feels in some ways like the site is missing a page two.

BBC News (www.bbc.co.uk)

The Web site for the British Broadcasting Channel is one of the more advanced that we came across. Its look is that of a traditional site, designed around the news of the hour– with lead headlines on a range of topics, followed by video and audio reports. Its offerings, though, are significantly more complex. It scored in the highest tier for at least three out of six categories (one of just four sites to do so). And, the area where it scored in the lowest tier—revenue streams—may be one that users would welcome since it means fewer ads to navigate.

The site placed the most emphasis on customization, use of multi media forms and editorial branding. Users of the site can tailor the home page layout each time they visit (though the selections are not saved for repeat visits) and can access the specific news items through advanced search techniques. They can also have the news come to them. The site features multiple RSS feeds, podcast options and even mobile delivery.

The BBC News also makes more use than most of the multimedia forms the web allows. On the days we visited the site, news items listed on the home page came in seven different media formats, including video, audio, live streams, podcasts, interactive graphics and more.

When it comes to the editorial branding, the BBC name takes high priority. All content comes directly from the BBC itself—without even wire service supplements. And all news stories are bylined.

The ability for users to participate—to somehow add their voice to the mix—is more evident here than on most of the 38 sites we examined. While most sites fell on the lower end of the spectrum, BBC News scored in the second tier. Through a section called “Have Your Say,” linked to from the left-hand column of the home page, users can submit their own photos and video and view selected submissions from others. Also on this page, visitors can email in their thoughts on a number of daily topics—some of which continuously “crawl” across the top of the landing page. Specific news stories also have links at the bottom where users can send in comments. Group voice is displayed through lists of the most viewed and most emailed stories of the hour.

The BBC news site did less, scoring in the third tier, for making use of the potential depth of the web. Editors here have chosen to forgo the ability to place links inside stories to additional information about the newsmakers or to original documents. What they do offer instead are links to other related news stories they wrote as well. The individual story is still king here.

As a government funded entity, the area where BBC News scored the lowest—revenue streams—comes as little surprise. Users can dive into the content right away. There is no registration process at all, just one small self-promotional ad on the home page, and all the content is free—including all archive content.

Benicia News (www.benicianews.com)

It is unlikely that Benicianews.com will win any awards for Web design, at least with its current layout, but slick looks and clean lines are not what the site is about. It is rather something of a rarity on the Web. It is a completely online local “newspaper” for Benicia California, a small community in the Northern part of the state, not far from Oakland, that is made up of stories aggregated from around the Web and from citizen journalists.

Visually the site is laid out in three columns, a narrow navigation column on the left, a wide one that contains content in the middle and another narrow column on the right that holds ads. There are few photos on the page. And its overall look – from the small logo in the top left with a dog holding a newspaper jumping through a computer screen to the text that appears in many different sizes – gives the site something of a homemade feel.

That look, however, is not in contrast with the site’s larger mission. The top 10 stories on the page all come under the “Citizen Journalism” header, with the top three containing teaser text. These pieces were all submitted by users. Under that comes a broader “News From The Web” header with 10 more stories – all of them culled from online news sites based in the area (like the Contra Costa Times and San Jose Mercury News sites). Under that are a bunch of category headers – News, Education, Cartoons – that may or may not have any headlines with them.

The site did not score well in many of our inventory categories. It was in last tier in customization. It offered users no way to modify the home page no RSS feeds and no podcasts. It was also in the bottom tier on multimedia. On the day we examined the site it not only lacked video and audio links – which is generally the case – there were also no photos.

Its depth score was also in the bottom tier, hurt a great deal by the few updates on the site (some stories were on the front page for days) and the lack of an archive. And it sat in the lowest tier on branding. The site’s staff editing helped its score, but the amount of material from outside hurt it. It did slightly better on revenue streams, the third tier. The 11 ads on the page were more than some sites offered, but there was no fee content or fee archive.

As one might imagine with a site so dependent of citizen journalism, Benicia News did better on user participation, where it sat in the second tier. There is obviously a lot of user content here and users can email story authors. It didn’t score higher because it lacked thing like interactive polls and online discussions.

This site speaks to the strengths and weaknesses of citizen journalism. Topics are extremely varied – from personal experiences to the opening of new parks – and users are “empowered.” But they don’t seem to be empowered that often. Perhaps the most surprising thing about the content on Benicia News is how static it is. Stories can sit in the top two or three for weeks at a time.

Boston Phoenix (www.thephoenix.com)

The website of the respected 40 year-old alternative news weekly, Boston Phoenix, is still in the early stages of Web development. It is a lively site, with bright photos and language clearly aimed at younger, culturally active Bostonians. Even the top news item is constantly on the move as a handful of headlines and photos rotate through the lead space on the page.

Despite all that, however, the site does little to take advantage of all the Web offers. It scored in the lowest tier in three categories, the second lowest in two and the highest in just one.

Its high spot lay in promoting its own brand name. All content is original, bylined material by Phoenix staff. The news stories themselves are in the free-spirited tone of the print version, with headlines like “The who behind What” and “Of pols and pop culture.” Beyond the headlines are sections on dining, movies, arts, a highlighted Reader Poll on the Best of 2007 and other cultural areas.

This reliance on staff reports impacts another area—depth. The site is largely built around individual stories. What’s more, the print product is weekly, not set-up for hourly or even daily news reports. This carries through to the Web site as well, which scored in the low-mid tier here. The site is not about news of the minute. On the days we visited, much of the content was nearly a week old. Only the top headlines were newer and even several of those were three-days old. There are no links embedded into articles and only on rare occasion a related, secondary story attached to a headline. The site is officially updated every six hours or so, but again, only for a few choice headlines.

The media forms have moved slightly beyond those of the print version, but not by much. More than 70% of the home page content (all links other than those to landing pages) is narrative with accompanying still photos accounting for another 15%. Beyond that, users can find a section of video stories—many of which are several days old—and some use of interactive graphics.

Boston Phoenix also does little to let its audience customize the news to their tastes. The home page comes only as is, the search is simple key word, and the only alternative delivery mode available is RSS. User participation is just as scarce. The only options we found here were the ancient mode of emailing the author as well as a way to post comments to a story.

Even this low-tech product though has appeal. Visitors can access all this personality driven content without any kind of registration or fees. And, the number of ads in on the low side—an average of just seven on the home page—granted they are quite large, colorful and pretty hard to miss.

CBS 11 TV (www.cbs11tv.com)

The Web site of the local CBS affiliate in Dallas-Forth Worth also stood out among local TV sites for the its web offerings. CBS11tv.com placed highest emphasis on customization and on offering content in different media forms. It also scored in the mid high range for economics, or the level of developing revenue streams.

The site earned lower marks for the depth of its offering and for giving users a chance to participate in the content.

The homepage’s upper banner features local weather, traffic and a search tool, which is unusual, because most sites feature a banner advertisement in that prime homepage property. Below the banner, the Web site usually calls attention to its lead story with a large headline and picture, often packaged with a video or another multimedia component. Following the lead story are 10 links to other top stories, a featured slide show, most popular videos, and a poll of some sort. The right- and left-hand columns of the homepage feature categories of information (such as “local news,” “politics,” and “health”), more videos, local services like yellow pages, stock quotes and more.

The site scored in the mid-high range in multimedia. The bulk of the content is a mix of narrative, still photos and videos (roughly 90%) with some use of slide shows, polls and interactive graphics. And, while just a small portion of the content comes in these last three forms, the fact that the site uses them at all increases its rank here.

The site has chosen a mix of -options for users to customize the content, ultimately scoring it in the mid-high level. The home page comes as is, but with an advanced search option for archived stories. And, it has leapt over podcasts (not offering them at all) and gone directly to an option for mobile delivery.

One thing it seems to have almost no interest in at the moment is offering participation options to the user. There are no user forums, comments or polls. There is no way to email the correspondent of a report, nor are there lists of the most viewed or emailed stories. There is a section at the bottom of the site that asks readers, “Got an Idea for a Story?” The link, however, only prompts an e-mail window.

The site also does less than others, to promote its own brand. A slightly obscured category in the left-hand column is a link called “The Investigators,” which sends a user to CBS11 original reporting, special reports and consumer news. The work of three reporters is highlighted here, along with a picture. Outside of the Investigators section, much of the content on the site comes from the Associated Press. That is true even for some local news stories, though to a lesser extent than for national and international stories.

One of the more unusual content destinations on the site is a section called “Inspiring People,” which presents a gallery of videos about acts of kindness and heroism. The site also offers three lifestyle sections (“beauty & style,” “family,” and “new baby”) aimed at niche audiences, primarily girls and young women.

Most content on the site is free, though users do need to pay for material that is more than a month old. Their biggest hope for revenue, though, seems to come in the advertising realm. We found an average of 15 ads on the homepage, the bulk of which were not tied to any kind of self-promotion.

CBS News (www.cbsnews.com)

Over the past few years, CBS News has attracted the most buzz among the networks for its Web site. After hiring Larry Kramer, who founded MarketWatch.com, as head of CBS Digital in March 2005, it announced a ambitious plan in which a revamped Web site would “bypass” cable news by providing news to the consumer anytime, anywhere.

In 2005, the CBS News site was the first to allow users to build their own newscasts, and promised to put its entire archive of news video online. Its unique blog, Public Eye, gave readers a look at the inner workings of the editorial process that produced the evening newscast, a move that offered much-needed transparency after the CBS News’s Memogate affair tarnished its credibility in late 2004.

Heading into 2007, what is going on? The changes have given way to more changes. Kramer was ousted in November of 2006 and replaced by Quincy Smith, a 35-year-old venture capitalist, who said he planned to be “much more proactive making acquisitions across the board,” according to an interview with MarketWatch.5 Possible targets include social networking sites, the “hot” sites in 2006 and 2007.

Whether that emphasis will move resources away from the news site is unclear, but for now, CBSNews.com remains one of the Web’s most diverse and robust news sites. In our measurements, indeed, it ranked along with only three others — the BBC, the Washington Post and a citizen media site called Global Voices, for its breadth and depth. In our loose grouping, it was one of our High Achievers.

Upon opening the homepage, it is clear there is a lot going on. There is a slide show with rotating stories, a lead story in the center of the page, a list of “Top Stories” next to that, and a large advertisement. Above all that are links to streaming “Live Video,” E-mail alerts, RSS feeds, Podcasts, and more.

All of this quickly gives users a sense of exactly how much is available and gives them access to it all quickly. With that comes a busier feel than at some other sites, perhaps a bit too busy for some.

Over all, CBSNews.com scored in the top tier in three out of five content categories, one of only two sites to do so of all 38 studied.

The Web site is highly customizable for the user and scored in the top tier in that category with advanced searching, multiple podcast options, mobile phone delivery and several different RSS feeds. The one option it does not give users is the ability to tailor the homepage to their own interests.

The site also scored in the top tier for its mix of multimedia. It offered nearly every kind of multimedia option we had on our checklist. Only about half the content on its homepage was narrative text, with the rest a mix of video, photos, audio, live discussion, polls, slide shows and interactive graphics.

The site was also one of only three studied to score at the high end when it came to the depth of the content. The site updates at least once every 20 minutes and makes significant use of the ability online to “package” news by offering myriad related stories under the lead headline — an average of 18 in our study.

Some of those stories have only tangential links to the stories they are tied to. For instance, on January 8, the site’s homepage listed the headline “Genocide Charges Against Saddam Dropped” in its “Top Stories” column. The story was bylined CBS/AP and though it was attached to a CBS News video, that video was about how Iraqis might react to a U.S. troop surge, rather than about the genocide charges against Hussein.

There is a lot of CBS video here, but the site is more than a collection of items from what it airs on its news programs. For example, 60 Minutes posts lengthy interview clips that don’t air on the Sunday night broadcast.

The network, however, has stopped short of others when it comes to showing the newscast online before it appears on TV. The site offers a live simulcast of the evening news broadcast, the first to do so. ABCNews.com, on the other hand, offers a 15-minute webcast starting at 3 p.m. CBSNews.com simply offers the potential “rundown,” or a list of stories being considered for the night’s broadcast, late in the afternoon.

In content, the CBS name still carries weight, but not to the degree of some other destinations, and CBSNews.com earned a high mid-range grade on the level of brand control it tried to exercise. Homepage content comes from either CBS News, sister outlets owned by the CBS Corp., or wire services. The wire service news, though, gets heavy use. The print stories on the site are largely wire or wire that has been edited by CBS (usually bylined “CBS/AP”). But perhaps because of the heavy reliance on wires, the site makes sure there are few print stories that stand alone.

The reliance on outside news, though, may grow over coming years; CBSNews.com has formed partnerships with two major content producers. First, the site joined forces with WebMD in August 2006, tapping into a growing, somewhat underrepresented market of medical news, where research shows there is considerable consumer demand. Then in October it announced a deal with Answers.com, which allows readers to get more background and information on words and phrases that are hyperlinked in news articles published on the site. But even unoriginal content is subject to staff editing, and most links inside the stories keep people inside the CBS News Web site.

The site fell at the low end of the spectrum when it came to participation, letting the user take part in the news, an area that news sites over all tended to underplay. Users can comment on most stories, but cannot do much beyond that. There is no way to rate the story, to e-mail the author, enter into a user-based blog or contribute original news stories. User choices are recognized through a list of the most-viewed stories of the hour, though the site does not track the most e-mailed or linked-to stories.

One noticeable aspect of the site is the large role the promotion of CBS entertainment programming plays. The homepage page features an entire column of links to clips from that night’s CBS primetime lineup. Katie Couric has a prominent spot on the page, just under the lead story and “Top Stories” column. A small mug shot of Couric sits next to five video links from the CBS broadcast as well as a link to the Couric & Co. blog, where users can watch video and post comments.

Economically, CBSNews.com demands something from its users but not as much as others, scoring in the second tier on revenue stream. All content is free, even in the archives. Users can register if they choose, but don’t have to, What they must do instead is make their way through a number of different ads — we found an average of 18 just on the home page, many of which were self-promotions.

Ultimately, there is a lot on CBSNews.com. It is an example of a site that sees the Web’s potential as a multimedia news outlet, but also as a way to win viewers for CBS.

Chicago Sun-Times (www.suntimes.com)

Chicago’s tabloid daily, the Sun-Times, has created an online identity that is clean, well-organized and very local, with a dash of sensationalism thrown in.

Suntimes.com uses a two-column layout with a white background and mostly emphasizes news from the Chicago area, particularly the print headlines. But the video links, which are played high here, are focused more on celebrity and news of the weird.

What the site emphasizes is the personality of the paper. It earned its lone top mark for branding, the level of original content and its own editorial judgment and style.

As for the rest of the inventory, it sat in the third tier on customization. The home page cannot be modified to personal taste. Users cannot get podcasts or a mobile version of the site. It was similarly in the third tier on user participation. Beyond the ability to e-mail the author, there was little opportunity for users to contribute to the site. The only other participatory option was the most controversial one, an online vote or so-called poll.

The site landed in the lowest tier in its use of multimedia. There were video and slide-show links on the homepage, but more space was taken up by text than on other sites. The site also fell in the last tier relative to others for depth. It was updated less often and offered fewer links to go deeper into topics and events.

When it came to economics, or the number of revenue streams, Suntimes.com fell to the bottom tier. Advertising was the only revenue stream, and the number of ads was small.

The content here was again, highly local. Other than video AP links high on the page, national and international news takes a back seat on the site. Links to those kinds of stories come only after the lead item on the page, the videos and metro and tri-state headlines.

The site’s homepage on February 12, 2007, for example, led with a piece about car fatalities caused by a drunken driver in the Chicago-area community of Oswego, Ill. The feature under it asked users to “Outguess Roger Ebert’s” Oscar predictions. The film reviewer, incidentally, has his own navigational tab on the site. Then the site ran three local headlines ranging from the shooting death of an off-duty police officer to a winter storm watch. After that came two national headlines, two world headlines and two politics headlines. And that was after a big weekend for Illinois politics as Sen. Barack Obama announced his candidacy for president.

CNN (www.cnn.com)

Streaming an average of 50 million news videos a month, and averaging about 24 million unique visitors a month,6 CNN.com comes second to MSNBC among the three cable news sites in traffic.

While MSNBC has the advantage of being a partner of MSN, the leading Internet portal in the U.S., CNN benefits from its commercial relationship with Yahoo, which is the search engine for CNN and sells the advertising displayed on the site.7 It is also working to tie together its digital media components. In October of 2006, the channel formed “CNN Events,” a division devoted to cross-media marketing that allows a marketer to buy advertising across the CNN spectrum — television, the Internet, and newscasts provided through cell phones and podcasts.8

What impression does the site give its users? Like MSNBC, the site seems more about doing many different things than identifying itself around particular skills. Again like MSNBC, the site did not earn top marks in any one of our content categories, but scored in the mid-range for all, and earned low marks for none.

The site maintains the cable channel’s focus on up-to-the-minute information. But it also makes some effort to develop its own Web identity with less emphasis on the on-air personalities and more on user’s ability to customize the news. Beyond the top few stories, however, it also relies more often than not on outside wire copy for its headlines and its breadth.

On the homepage, the latest headlines take up the bulk of the screen view. The lead story dominates the site on the left of the screen, and is normally accompanied by three or four related stories that have some multimedia elements. On September 22, 2006 it was a story about the E. coli outbreak in spinach with links to a CNN video report on the lack of standards for spinach safety and a graphic map of states with E. coli outbreaks.

It adds new content at least every 20 minutes, with a time stamp for the latest update at the top of the homepage and time stamps at the top of each full story. The focus on continuous updates, though, seems to take priority over other depth to the news. The site averaged just four related story links to lead story and just over one for other top headlines.

The CNN name is important on the site, but as with depth, takes second seat to timeliness. Most headlines are wire stories, and those that come from CNN staff carry no bylines, except when stories are taken directly from the cable channel or occasionally from a sister outlet from the Time Warner family. The layout of the page is by top news and then by topic area like World, Health, Travel and Law, and the stories here are mostly AP as well. Overall, CNN.com fell in the high-mid range for the level of brand control.

Under the headlines is a list of video segments, offered again in two ways: either most popular or “best video” (though it is not entirely clear how “best” is determined). Next to that the site displays its premium video content — CNN Pipeline. A commercial-free subscription service of streaming video content, it was launched in December 2005 and has helped to make the site more appealing.9

CNN puts noticeable effort into letting the user customize the material. The site scored in the mid-high range here. Users can create a customized home page. They can also choose to have the information come to them through RSS with more than 20 feeds, ranging from straight news to blogs, Podcasts (both audio and video) or even to their mobile phones (an option not yet available at even some of the higher-tech sites we examined but available on all three cable news sites).

The site’s mobile content is in a section called CNN to Go, which includes news headlines, alerts on breaking news and an audio-video newscast produced specifically for the Web called “Now in the News.” CNN also offers a live audio feed of CNN Radio. What’s more, nearly all of the content on CNN.com is free. That includes all archives, a feature quickly fading on many Web sites. Users don’t even have to register to go through content, but can if they choose. The only fee-based content is CNN Pipeline.

In an attempt to be more interactive, CNN launched a citizen journalism initiative in August 2006. Called “I-Report,” it invites people to contribute news items for possible use on the Web and on the cable channel. On a subsidiary site called CNN Exchange, users can submit their own news reports, photos or video either on specific solicited topics or those of their own choosing. CNN editors then screen the material and decide what to publish. (CNN does not pay for the material).

The user content here stands out among news sites, but some of the more standard ways to invite user input are absent. There is no place on the homepage for users to post comments, enter live discussion, rate stories or take part in a user-dedicated blog. Even the ability to email the author is offered in only the most general capacity.

When it comes to multimedia components of its content, the site landed right in the middle of our ranking scale. It is still heavily based on narrative text—it made up roughly 70% of all the content on the homepage. Pre-recorded video and photography were still the most common other forms, but the site also offered live streams, slide shows and interactive polls. The lead story was almost always made into a “package” of reports offered in at least three different media formats.

When it came to revenue options, the site demands little of users and varies on its use of ads. The only fee-based content is on CNN Pipeline, a broadband channel providing live streaming video, video-on-demand clips and video archives. Its subscription fee is $25 a year or $2.95 a month.10 For the rest of CNN.com, the “cost” to users is putting up with a barrage of ads. When it comes to ads, one visit to the home page displayed 19 separate ads, only 6 of which were self-promotional. But another visit had just six ads, all but one of which was non-CNN related.

Crooks and Liars (www.crooksandliars.com)

The liberal blog Crooks and Liars labels itself a “virtual online magazine,” but the site is ultimately a relatively straightforward Web diary of links and excerpts of other material. The element that differentiates this blog from others is its heavy use of video links. And for that material it seems to rely heavily on cable news to provide the fodder, positive and negative.

In our site inventory, Crooks and Liars scored it s highest marks for branding, where it placed in the highest tier of the 38 sites studied. But that score is somewhat misleading. While the site does have bylined entries that included some editorial commentary (which helped its score) the majority of those entries were excerpts from other places.

Beyond that, the site didn’t score highly in any of the categories measured. Even its multimedia score was in the third tier despite the many video links on the page. That was largely because even with those links, the page was dominated by text. Crooks and Liars also fell into the third tier for the level at which it allows users to participate, offering little beyond the ability to e-mail authors and comment on stories. There was no user blog here.

The site also scored in the third tier for depth. It doesn’t offer much of an archive and does little to link stories together into compete packages. It also wasn’t updated as often as other sites.

Crooks and Liars scored in the bottom tier on customization. This is essentially a static site. There is no way for users to modify the homepage. There are also no podcasts for users and no mobile version of the site.

The home page reflects one revenue stream, advertising, and it had a fairly high number of ads, about 12.

In content, Crooks and Liars is similar to many blogs with a political agenda. It uses print and video clips to hit at issues, politicians and personalities on the right, and uses other material to support those on the left. On March 5, for instance, one of the site’s authors posted a clip of the MSNBC host Keith Olbermann’s “World’s Worst Wingnut Trifecta” (Newt Gingrich, Rush Limbaugh and Ann Coulter). On the same day a different author posted video of CNN’s Jack Cafferty calling the recently chronicled problems at Walter Reed Hospital “a disgrace.” The same post also quoted the New York Times columnist Paul Krugman as calling the Walter Reed fiasco “another Katrina.”

Daily Kos (www.dailykos.com)

With 20 million unique visitors monthly, Daily Kos, the liberal blog started in 2002, is one of the busiest on the Web, and the site shows it. With its orange and white color scheme and professional-looking banner, it does not look like a mom-and-pop operation. It also offers it own line of merchandise — t-shirts, sweatshirts and hats. And its founder, Markos Moulitsas Zúniga, has become something of a TV talking head, appearing on cable shows to discuss issues in the news.

In terms of format the site does the usual linking and quoting one expects on a blog, but there is more original text and commentary mixed in. Indeed, some posts are largely the author’s thoughts about the topic he’s discussing, with the cited material making up only a few lines. That is a big reason why the site scored in the highest tier on branding. This site is about the mind of Daily Kos.

Daily Kos also received high scores for user participation, sitting in the top tier in that category. It lets users blog, e-mail authors, add their own content and rate stories. It was the only blog we examined that scored in the top tier in this category.

The site scored lower, in the third tier, for customization, or the degree to which it allows users to make the site their own by customizing what they see or how it is delivered. Like most blogs, it does not offer some of the customizing features that bigger sites do. There are no podcasts, for instance, and the site has no mobile version. Users do have the ability to modify the homepage, however.

Daily Kos also scored lower on multimedia, again in the third tier. It does not offer photos or audio links on the front page and only a few video links. Daily Kos is largely focused on words.

It placed in the lowest tier on depth. Posts were not packaged together by issue or topic, and stories didn’t offer links to archived material to add context for users.

The site’s heavy readership has led to a fairly strong revenue stream. It was in the second tier of all the sites we looked at in that area with about 15 ads on the page.

Daily Kos’s approach to content varies depending on who is posting, but the site is more likely than other blogs to include extensive comments from posters. Excerpts from other outlets are often used as jumping-off points for longer, column-like entries. And the posts here, from the left side of the political spectrum tend to be more inside-politics than on other sites. There is less commentary on other commentary than there are posts about actual news. For example, many posts the week of March 5, 2007, addressed the inquiry into whether several U.S. attorneys had been forced from their positions for political reasons. The posts looked at the specifics of the case, who might be coming forward in the days ahead and what groups were filing additional ethics complaints.

Des Moines Register (www.desmoinesregister.com)

The Web site for the Des Moines Register bears the hallmarks of an online home that has been added to and expanded to make room for new features. Yet the content can seem to be competing with itself.

Dominating the top of the page is a DesMoinesRegister.com logo with a score of navigation buttons above and below it. The main story on the page sits in the extra-wide second column of the four column layout, with a headline and teaser text, but no picture. The space that might be used for a photo is occupied by a tabbed box that features, depending on the tab a visitor clicks, staff blogs, local news videos, photos or online extras. Under that lead story are nine more headlines, mostly local. Next to those are four ads, three of which include flash animation. And in the far-right column is a bit of a catch-all space that holds weather, a searchable calendar of local events, and a series of ads. After news at the top of the page, there is a section on sports in the middle, followed by “entertainment & life.” Those sections have photos connected to their top items. On the bottom of the page are links to a variety of sites the page says are “worth a click.”

Like many newspaper sites in our inventory Desmoinesregister.com earned its highest marks for branding, or the emphasis put on its own content and editorial standards and judgment. It scored closer to the bottom in other content areas.

The site was not particularly customizable, ranking in the third tier. It did not offer users the chance to modify the homepage, download podcasts or receive a mobile version. The site’s text-heavy front page, 70% of which was narrative, also placed it in the third tier on use of multimedia. There were photos and some video links, but no other multimedia options.

It ranked in the third tier relative to other sites, too, on user participation. The site did not give users the ability to e-mail authors or create blogs and offered no live discussions or other options. And it ranked in the lowest tier relative for depth, or the use of links and other methods to give users access to background material, archival content, documents, reference sites or more.

The site did rank at the high end for economics. There was no fee content, but there were more than 20 advertisements on the page, over a quarter of them from local advertisers.

The content on the site is updated throughout the day and is extremely local. A visitor has to hunt through the front page to find national or international news; they are down near the bottom with headlines from the AP and USA Today. And that means the majority of the copy here is from the staff, though not all of it. Even in the lead-stories section of the site, editors are not averse to running AP copy for pieces they don’t have staff to cover, though those stories, too, are from Iowa.

Many of the stories updated during the day are relatively short, some only a few graphs. But the main piece, which stays on top as the content beneath it changes, is a longer, newspaper-length piece.

Because the paper is based in Iowa, home of the nation’s first presidential caucuses, it has a blog devoted to politics written by the paper’s well-known political David Yepsen.

The video on the site is noteworthy because it is mostly local — everything from high school sports features to highlights from a karaoke contest — a pattern not seen on even bigger sites. Reporters off-camera ask questions of interview subjects or simply record action. There are links to USA Today video as well.

Digg (www.digg.com )

Digg is democracy in action. The site, which calls itself a “user driven social content Web site,’’ is all about user participation. Users do more than participate — they select, create and manage the content. Indeed, with its high level of customization and user involvement, it was among the most user centric sites examined.

It works like this. A user — any user—posts new stories that appear in a simple column format. They are originally posted in chronological order, but then users rate them as stories they either “digg” (like) or don’t like and want to bury further down the list. The list of stories constantly changes with new posts and rankings.

Each story has a headline, a line on who submitted the story to the site and a few lines of teaser text. Next to that a small box shows how many users “digg it” as well as a way for others to rate, blog or e-mail the story and its topic.

There is no editorial staff making decisions on the content or even determining what the page looks like. The only requirement made of users before they begin adding their input is a fairly unobtrusive registration process — choose a user name and password and submit your e-mail address.

While most of the layout is determined by the masses, users can customize it a bit to fit their own interests, placing the site in our top tier as one might imagine. When users register with the site and begin to “digg” and “bury” items they are able to get a feel for other users who post things they are interested in, and over time they can make those people “friends.” They can then remake the homepage to feature posts by “friends.” RSS is also an option prominently located on the front page. A podcast tab was also available, though in beta-test at the time of the study, and mobile-phone options were absent.

Over all, Digg scored in the top tier of user participation as well. The entire site, after all, wouldn’t really exist without users supplying content and they ultimately control where stories end up on the page through participation.

The site, like some other citizen based sites, was largely narrative, and it scored in the lowest tier on the scale of multimedia. Its home page offered no audio or video links and nearly 85% of it was text.

As an aggregator, Digg also scored near the bottom, the fourth tier, in branding. Editors don’t really play a role here and there is no site-generated content.

Ads are limited, helping place the site in the bottom tier of economics. Small Google ads appearing under the header and down the right column are the only sign of revenue-producing advertisements. And in terms of depth, Digg was a third tier site, with frequent updates and an archive, but no story packages.

So about what kind of things do these users post? Perhaps not surprisingly, since this is an online group made up largely of early adapters, there is a heavy focus on technology. For instance, on January 11, the morning after President Bush’s major speech on his policy shift in Iraq, only one of the top 15 stories on Digg in the previous 24 hours concerned Iraq — a map showing where the U.S. armed forces casualties were from. Eight of the top 15 stories were about technology.

The top story on Digg can also look dramatically different depending on what minute a user comes by — literally. At 5:29 p.m. January 10, the top story was “A First Person Shooter in javascript?” a piece about what users can do with the program Java. At 5:30 p.m. it was “Nastiest traffic jam EVER” with a picture of lions eating a giraffe carcass on a highway in Africa.

The Economist (www.economist.com)

The brand. The brand. The brand. If there is one thing that Economist.com accomplishes, it is clearly and successfully pushing the Economist brand online. Lest anyone wonder, the site is anchored in the top left corner by the signature white lettering in a red box — in this case spelling Economist.com — with a picture of the current magazine’s cover prominently beneath.

Like the magazine, the site is clean, well-organized and text-heavy. It is also, like its print sibling not heavy with pictures or graphics (there were six on a representative homepage, and four of them were quite small). Even the site’s ads, (often for petroleum companies or large blue-chip corporations) are designed without a lot of colors or jumpy graphics.11

There is a lot of free content here, but most of the stories from the print edition are accessible only to subscribers — those who get the magazine delivered or pay a fee to access premium online content.

At the time we did an accounting of Economist.com it was in the second tier in terms of customization, receiving points for having a multiple-component search and several RSS feeds. It was also in the second tier on multimedia, due to the photos on the page several and podcast options.

Its weakest scores came in interactivity and depth, where it was in the bottom tier. A user-based blog (one where the Web editor picks a topic of the day and users are invited to sound off on it) was essentially the only way for users to participate on the site, hurting its interactivity score. And the site’s twice daily updating – as a magazine site it seems less interested in being up-to-the-minute – cost it points in out depth raking.

The site was in the top tier for having a number of revenue streams, boosted by a significant number of advertising combined with the content available for a fee helped its economic score.

But it was brand that stood out. The content here all comes from the staff of the magazine. This is not a place to go to keep up with what’s on the wire. Nor is there content from other publications in The Economist Group, which includes Roll Call and European Voice.

Nonetheless, Economist.com does keep a steady flow of content coming by magazine standards. The top story is new every day, as are the items in Today’s Views — which includes a staff column and a Correspondents Diary (both unbylined) and Debate, a blog devoted to an interesting topic elsewhere on the Web. That is the closest economist.com gets to outside sources for news. The online pieces are short — in most cases, it appears, a bit shorter than the tightly written pieces that appear in the magazine — but they attempt the same kind of news blended with analysis for which the magazine is known.

One of the best features may be the staggering amount of data accessible here. Beyond the news and analysis pieces there are entire separate sections like the site’s Cities Guide, with information about happenings in 27 cities around the world, from Atlanta to Zurich. And there are the country briefings, which look at economic and political news from countries around the world. They include recent stories from the magazine on each country and an economic forecast, a fact sheet and information on the political structure of each.

For The Economist, which prides itself on giving readers data and raw facts along with its analysis, it is yet another way to extend the brand.

Fox News (www.foxnews.com )

Fox News, the star on cable, lags behind the other two cable news channels online. Its Web site has roughly a third the audience of its competitors, though it made efforts to address that lag in 2006.

In November, Roger Ailes appointed Ken LaCorte, Fox Television’s Los Angeles bureau chief, to head Foxnews.com and take over all editorial and design functions. He will report directly to John Moody, vice president of news for the Fox network.

The site was revamped in September 2006 in an effort to streamline the content. It also added new interactive and delivery features. Visitors to the site can now customize it as they like and have the option of getting Fox News headlines on their Blackberry phones and cell phones.12 As a result, the Fox site now earns the highest marks for both the level of customization offered on the site and for the level of multi media offerings, and mid-range marks in all other categories. It has become somewhat more competitive, by those measures, with its rivals.

Even so, Foxnews.com still feeds off the identity and strength of the cable channel more than it embodies an identity for itself. For the most part, the site is the Fox News Channel. The brand promoted here are the Fox personalities rather than individual stories, to a much greater degree than CNN or MSNBC.

The top of the page is dedicated to the news headlines, but up-to-the-minute news is clearly not given the same kind of priority as at other cable news sites. It updates every half hour, but there are usually just three or four headlines, which are brief unadorned reports from wires. Each headline stands alone, sometimes with a related wire story link underneath. There is little attempt to create coverage packages with multimedia reports or backgrounders from Fox News. About a quarter of the stories we captured had been augmented somehow by staff members, whose names, unknown to most, appear on the inside (i.e. landing) page at the very bottom of the story. What’s more, the page has just one overall time stamp of the latest update, rather than time stamps on each story as is common at other sites.

After top headlines and other “latest news” from the AP, the page focuses on promoting the Fox Brand with content involving Fox hosts and programs. In the upper right corner when we looked in September 2006 were Fox News videos, with a Web-exclusive interview with Senator Barack Obama. The interview was an exclusive that first aired about 10 hours earlier. That same interview also appeared as the lead item in the next section down, “Only on Fox,” along with a link to a science report “Black hole won’t devour Earth, scientists say.” Other subsections on the page also carry the Fox name and previously aired Fox News content: Fox411, Fox Online, FNC iMag, Fox News Talk and individual program listings.

The site does emphasize the use of multimedia more than those of its cable rivals. Just over half of the content was text-based (primarily the wire feed stories) with heavy use of video and still photos but also some live streams, podcast items, polls and interactive graphics. In October 2006, Foxnews.com launched two new video products, collectively called “Fox News Flash.”13 They include two one-minute newscasts, in the morning by Fox & Friends and in the afternoon by the Fox Report with Shepard Smith. Those news segments can also be received, without any need to subscribe to the site, in the form of video podcasts.

The site also targeted mobile phone users starting in January 2007 when it launched a new service called “#FOXN,” the acronym for the digits you dial to access it. It allows customers to listen to live audio of the cable channel’s on-air broadcasts. The service costs $2.99 a month and so far is available only to Cingular wireless service customers . It will also offer headlines on demand as well as a call-back service to let users know when a particular program is about to begin on the television channel.14

In promoting its brand, the site places little emphasis on making its users part of that identity, ranking in the low-mid tier of all 38 sites. The personalities on Foxnews.com speak to you much more than you speak to them or even to each other. The site had one of the lowest user-participation scores of any Web site in the study, offering only the most basic ability to e-mail the author of a report along with a poll on how visitors rated the Fed (related to a topic to be discussed on “Your World” later that day). Even the e-mail ability is only occasional, and the e-mail goes not to the staff member who worked on the piece but to the nameless “editor” of that section. There is no way to post comments or rate a story, no live discussion and no user-oriented blog.

When it comes to economics, the main revenue stream on Fox News.com is commercial ads. Upon entering the site, Foxnews.com visitors see a lot them—on average 21 ads on the home page alone, among the highest number we encountered.

There is a news archive, at least two years of which is free to users. It includes stories from all the main sections of the site, though video components are quite spotty at this point.

All in all, Foxnews.com is the lesser-nourished sibling of the Fox News Channel. Whether attention and resources begin to even out as the online world expands remains to be seen.

Global Voices (www.globalvoicesonline.org )

Of all the Web sites we examined, Global Voices was in many ways the least conventional. The end result was that it scored high in several of the areas we measured. It was the only citizen media site that would fit our definition of a high achiever, a site that earned top marks in three of five content areas.

The site is non-profit, with an emphasis on relating information that the staff editors find interesting, not on providing the top news of the hour (or minute or day).

But Global Voices takes a unique four-step approach to identifying what is interesting. First, rather than searching stories from mainstream news outlets, editors cull through a vast number of blogs from around the world. The editors, who themselves are located across the globe, then decide which postings are worth passing on. Next, they add their own comments or background information to put the blog entries in context. Finally, when necessary, entries are translated into English, often by a different “language” editor.

Take, for example, January 10. In the afternoon the lead was “Philippine free press under attack.” The entry featured a lead-in by an editor noting that the Philippine press has been “one of the freest in the world” since Ferdinand Marcos was deposed, but reporting that the current first family “is harassing journalists by filing libel cases” against them. The post then ran blurbs from the Pinoy Press and the site Freedom Watch. The next post used the same approach to look at the Iraqi government’s efforts to register bloggers.

In our inventory, the site scored well, in the top tier, on customization. While its home page could not be modified by users, there were many RSS and podcast options available to users.

Global Voices was also one of only three sites studied to score in the top tier for depth. It did well because of the large number of stories it grouped together in packages and the archive it included.

The site also earned top marks for the degree to which it was offering a unique brand in which its own editorial process and judgment was emphasized. With thestories chosen by paid editors and with content that came from wholly staff, even when citing other sources, it exercised significant editorial quality control. The banner across the top of the page pays tribute to its many authors. The page’s logo and name sit next to the headshots of four bloggers, each one linking a short bio and a compilation of that blogger’s work. Each post then has the link to the original blog as well as a tag-line of the Global Voices editor. And running down a side column is the list of blog authors and the number of posts each has contributed to date.

The site also scored well, in the second tier, for user participation. It did not offer live discussion and interactive polls, two of the more controversial elements of web participation. But it contained a good deal of opportunity for users interact. In addition to the editorial choices, user content — through a user-based blog — is a big part of this site. At the end of each piece users are invited to “Start the conversation” by posting comments, which are moderated by site editors.

The one content area where this remarkably well rounded site did not stand out is for multimedia. This site is about words, 95% of the content available from the home page was narrative.

The site’s score for revenue streams placed it in the bottom tier as well – perhaps not surprising since it is a non-profit.

The strongest impression one has when visiting this site, however, is its international feel. The largest box of text is a list of countries from Afghanistan to Zimbabwe. Next to that is a thinner blue box with a list of topics ranging from Arts & Culture to Governance to History to Youth. Under that is a slim one-line search box that runs the width of the page.

Global Voices is not a site to visit to get the latest headlines or find out what the media are talking about. But it shines a bright light on issues the big media often pass by.

Google News (www.news.google.com )

If you could constantly comb through thousands of news stories to cobble together a page of top news links from outlets around the world, you would be creating the front page of Google News. No person can do that, of course, but Google’s computer programs can. The result is a page that is broad, deep and somewhat serendipitous. Users never know exactly what they are going to get when they visit the site – maybe the lead piece is from the New York Times and maybe it is from China’s Xinhua news service – but Google’s algorithms ensure that many people are reading them. That determines what stories make it to the front page.

The stories also contain lots of links to other pieces on the same topics which is the why the site scored obscenely high in our depth category, not only in the first tier but far and away first overall. Stories were “packaged” with hundreds of other stories to give users more links on any one topic than they probably know what to do with – though often the stories are just the same wire copy repeated in many outlets. The site was also updated frequently.

Google’s news page scored fairly high on customizability – in the second tier. Users can modify the page, choose from multiple RSS feeds and access a mobile version of the site. There are, however, no podcasts here.

In all other areas we measured, though, the site ranked in the last tier. Its multimedia score was hurt by the fact there is so much text on the front page. And opportunities for user participation are largely nonexistent. There are no user blogs, no ways for users to comment on stories and no polls to take part in. And, of course, the site’s branding score was bound to be low considering everything on the site is from somewhere else.

There is essentially no revenue stream for the content on the page, with no ads and no fee content from Google.

The content here is from well-known outlets from across the globe and that can make for some interesting reading. On March 6 for example, the top story in the afternoon was about the just announced verdict in the Scooter Libby trial, though the account was from Prensa Latina. The second story was a New York Times piece about the Mega Millions lottery jackpot, which was at a record $370 million. But other top pieces (running along the right side of the page) included a Business Week story about Michael Eisner’s bid to buyout the baseball card maker Topps and San Jose Mercury News account of Virginia Commonwealth University defeating George Mason in men’s college basketball. Users, of course, can ultimately shape the page as they want – choosing what kinds of stories they want to see on top. But visiting Google News randomly can be a lot like going by a virtual newsstand that is constantly updated. What one takes away depends on when one stops by and where one looks.

KING 5 TV (www.king5.com)

The Web site of Seattle’s Belo-owned local television station, KING 5, stands apart from the average local-TV Web site. Its content, unlike many other local TV sites, is highly local. There is weather, a link to a free classified section, a box, updated roughly every hour, that spotlights developing local stories or other advisories, followed by three top stories that are presented as a package with headline, brief story synopsis, picture and at least one video clip.

But that layout is not a must. KING5.com earned its highest marks for being customizable. A button at the top of the page, “Customize KING5.com” allows users to “choose your news,” by constructing an individual news page with headlines they choose form KING5.com as well as other sites. The site also allows users to do advanced searches to find what they want on the site. And if you’d rather not come to the site, it will come to you via RSS, Podcast or even your mobile phone (a feature available on only on a handful of sites examined).

A major site redesign at the start of 2007 gave even more weight to the user. In October 2006, there was no way for the user to add their own voice—no way to comment or rate a story or even access a “most emailed” list. By February 2007, visitors who become “members” (something they are prompted to do after a few clicks on the site) are encouraged to contribute to the site’s content. One of the headers along the top of the page along with “news,” “weather” and “sports” is a link called “interact,” and invites users to contribute photographs, engage in forums to discuss news, politics, sports and the outdoors, comment on King 5 blog entries, and contribute to the local calendar of events. With no way to directly email station staff, have a live discussion, rate a story, or see a list of the most emailed or linked to repots, there is still some room to grow. Overall, it falls in the mid-low level here for participation. But this is a site that is focusing more than many others on users.

The redesigned KING 5 site also increased its use of multimedia forms for its content, putting it in the mid-high category here. Just over half of the content on the homepage is text-based. The rest features video news clips, slide shows and interactive graphics like a two-way calendar of local events.

KING 5 does not place nearly as much emphasis as some other sites on its own branded material or content control. It fell in the high mid-range of sties studied. There is a place, called “Investigators, designated to its news team’s original reporting” But these reports, primarily local in focus, appear only periodically: on January 30, 2007, the top 10 stories listed on the Investigator page were dated January 23, 2007 back to November 21, 2006. Over all, the primary source of content, for both video and narrative stories, is the Associated Press. KING 5 reporters have bylines for about half of the local news content, with the AP and other contributing sources (such as KGW.com) filling in the rest.

The site scored at the low mid level for depth. That, given the paucity of this characteristic in the sites studied, still ranks it better than many others. The site updates its content every hour, but again it is primarily with wire copy that does not offer many links either inside or along-side the story to provide readers with additional information.

Finally, for now anyway, visitors can use the site with little demanded of them. Registration is optional (though encouraged), all content is free including the archives and there are on an average of just five ads on the page.

Little Green Footballs (www.littlegreenfootballs.com)

Blogging from the right side of the political spectrum, Little Green Footballs has become a popular Web destination for conservatives by offering, largely, a critique of mainstream media coverage. It is of the category of blogs that focuses less on original content and more on aggregation. Much of the content is a few lines of author text tied to an excerpt or link from another online outlet. The entries are not always critical of the media, often pointing out approvingly stories the blog wants noted.

Like all the blogs we looked at in our inventory, Footballs scored highest on branding, landing in the top tier in that area, because its content all comes from the author of the blog, Californian Charles Johnson. Again, that is despite the fact that many of the entries on the page were largely content from other places. Even in those cases though, a few lines from the blogger usually introduced the item and put the excerpts in context.

The site didn’t score well in the other areas examined. It was in the third tier on customization. Though it did have a front page that users could modify, it had only one RSS feed and no podcasts or mobile version of itself available.

It sat in the bottom tier in the other areas we measured. It offers little in the way of participation. Users have no ways to interact with the site beyond posting user comments at the end of entries.

As for depth, the site offered an archive and updated fairly frequently, but it did not package links to give user a broader sense of issues.

The site was also not heavy on multimedia. All told, 84% of the page was made up of narrative text.

Again though, like Daily Kos, the site’s unique visitor number has helped with its revenue streams, where it ranked in the second tier. Though it depends on ads there were a lot of them, just under 20 on the homepage.

The content of Little Green Footballs is diverse with a strong foreign-affairs tilt. Topics can range from domestic politics to the news media, but international news has a special place here. And while the site’s view on such issues always comes from the right, one can read the site and get a fairly comprehensive view of the subjects in the news. The first six posts on the site on the afternoon of March 6 were the verdict in the Scooter Libby case, the way the Huffington Post was blocking nasty comments about Vice President Cheney’s blood clot, the story of a possible defection of a former Iranian defense minister to the U.S., the hunt for Osama bin Laden, and a visit by German bishops to Israel. Little Green Footballs is a site for those wanting a conservative look at the news of the world.

Los Angeles Times (www.latimes.com )

The online home of the Los Angeles Times is best known heading into 2007 for an internal study the paper conducted that was sometimes brutally frank about its shortcomings.

Our content inventory found the site crowded with material, but still organized. Latimes.com may not be a clean site, but it finds a place for everything — videos, photos, blogs and, of course, text.

The site uses a four-column layout set against a white background, which helps prevent it from looking overwhelmed and cluttered. But the sheer amount of content on this page is impossible to ignore. The site tries to prominently feature as many as eight stories at the top and in the middle of the page, more than most of the sites we studied.

Framing the page down the left side is a lengthy set of navigational buttons. Over it all is the blue Latimes.com masthead, and over that in smaller is the Old English logo of the Los Angeles Times. In look, indeed, the site in some ways echoes the Washington Post in the sense of trying to create a distinct online personality that differs from the print product.

There is a lot of content on the site, and it helped Latimes.com score well in some areas of our site inventory. The site sat in the second tier on customization with its multiple RSS feeds and a mobile version of the site. It also gave users the chance to modify the homepage and saved those modifications for future visits. In terms of multimedia, it was also a second-tier site. It was not overly text-heavy and offered users many video links, but little else — no audio, live discussion or podcasts.

The ability of users to post and add content helped the site’s user participation rating, placing it again in the second tier. It would have scored higher had it offered live discussion or other options. The site, in other words, seemed to have been constructed for more user participation. But the elements that would require staff to keep that opportunity fresh did not always materialize.

The site ranked lower, in the third tier, in another area that would require continuing attention, depth. That requires the kind of effort that occurs story by story, and probably involves team effort. It is also an area where most sites studied had room to grow.

Interestingly, LATimes.com also placed in the bottom tier on economics, or the number of revenue streams evident on the site. It offered fewer ads than most sites we examined — only six — and did not have any fee content or a fee archive. That may help explain why, according to the Times internal report, it generated less revenue for the company than other major newspaper sites.

In terms of content, Latimes.com may be based on the West Coast, but it is a national news site as well. The lead stories tend to have a few local entries, but the biggest headlines are usually national or international in their focus, and most are staff written. Wire bylines do appear on some pieces.

On February 14, for instance, the top stories for the site were about film makers in Hollywood, North Korea’s nuclear shift, the insurgency in Iraq, the Fed chairman Ben Bernanke’s feelings on the economy and the disappearance of a statuette of the Maltese Falcon at a local restaurant. The Bernanke story was form the AP, the rest from the staff. The smaller “More News” headlines in the top tend to be local in nature, however, and the photos from users in “Your Scene” are usually from California locations.

Video links on the site are a mix. Some come from the local news team at KTLA, some are Times-produced and some don’t have any attribution at all.

Over all, Latimes.com looks like something of a combination of Nytimes.com and Washingtonpost.com. It is a unique online entity that strives to be national in content with heavy multi-media options. But the potential in some ways seems unrealized.

Michelle Malkin (www.michellemalkin.com)

The blog of the syndicated columnist Michelle Malkin is clean and understated in its look, with a white background and a column of running posts from the author. But what may stand out the most about the blog is the lack of writing on it. Malkin, who writes a weekly political column for the Creators syndicate, seems happy to use the blog as a way to stay on top of breaking news, calling attention to news that she wants noticed without writing extensively online. That’s not to say there is a lack of viewpoint here. Malkin’s arch and sardonic conservative voice is clearly heard, but it comes in short, quick bites.

In our inventory, the site’s strength was its branding. It is all about Malkin, from the domain name to Malkin’s picture looking over the page to each item, which is posted by her. This is the writer’s online home. Michelle Malkin is the reason to go here, the brand and the appeal.

The site scored in the bottom tier in the other categories we measured. It offers users few chances to modify the site, our category called customization. There is an RSS feed, but no podcasts, no mobile version of the site and no way of altering the front page.

Malkin also scored low on participation. The site offered no way for users to interact beyond the ability to e-mail the author. Other than the picture of Malkin, the site was all text when we did our accounting, which led to a low multimedia score. There were no video or audio links and the page was 96% text.

And like other blogs its depth score was low because the site didn’t package pieces together to give users context and breadth. The site also didn’t update as much as others.

As for revenue stream, Malkin’s site was also limited. There were only a few ads on the page (roughly five) and no for-fee content.

That said, the site isn’t really about those categories or about generating revenue. It seems designed to give Malkin an online platform to talk about the things she wants and extend her brand online. Its content allows her to do that. For instance, in a March 6 entry about the Huffington Post’s blocking users from saying cruel things about Vice President Cheney’s blood clot, Malkin wrote “Huffington Post has disallowed comments on an article about VP Cheney’s blood clot. The first step toward recovery…” In a March 5 post about the Walter Reed Medical Center scandal, Malkin posted a “Note to haters” in which she told people who questioned her critique “I know perfectly well that Walter Reed is not part of the VA system. Duh.”

Michelle Malkin’s Web site is ultimately a place for her fans and detractors to go to find out what’s on her mind. On that score it is highly successful.

MSNBC & NBC News (www.msnbc.com)

MSNBC.com comes across as an amalgam. As the online home of NBC, MSNBC and the weekly magazine Newsweek, the site strives to give all three their due while at the same time creating its own identity. Those efforts, however chaotic they may seem, have succeeded in building an audience.

Unlike its performance on cable TV, MSNBC’s Web site (which launched simultaneously with the cable channel in 1996 as a joint venture between Microsoft and NBC) has long been one of the top three news sites on the Internet, with a monthly average of 26 million unique visitors.

What is in the brand that draws users to the site?

No one trait jumps out. In our study of 38 different news websites, MSNBC doesn’t strongly emphasize any one area. Indeed, it did not earn the highest marks in any category of content. But it scored fairly well at everything and did not earn low marks anywhere, one of the few sites that can make that claim. It really was a jack of all trades.

The site is word oriented. Roughly three-quarters of the stories on the homepage are text-based. Just 12% of stories took advantage of the video produced by either MSNBC or NBC. This puts it at the mid-low range of the spectrum for multimedia. On the days we examined, users could at one point access a slide show or an interactive graphic, but these were few and far between. There were no live components at all.

The lead story often has a video component attached to it, but most other video offerings on the page stand apart either within a section labeled “Video” or under the header “NBC News Highlights.”

A bigger draw may be the ways users can customize the news or add their own views, but even here the site doesn’t employ as much as others, falling in the mid-high range of the sites studied. Currently, the site has focused more on making its content mobile, rather than the site itself customizable. In November 2006, the Web site began offering free video podcasts of NBC’s Nightly News and Meet the Press. Earlier, in April 2006, the channel announced that a specialized, ad-supported version of the Web site would be available free on cell phones with Internet capability. MSNBC’s mobile phone service (called MSNBC.com Mobile) is available on all major phone networks. Initially it was only text, photos and podcasts, with a notice on the site saying that multimedia components were expected, but with no timeline mentioned.15 The new business model is seen to be a test to gauge how consumers react to advertising on their mobile devices. There are also additional RSS options.

The home page itself, though, is less flexible. There is only a simple key word search. And users can choose homepage layout, but only for the current view. At the next visit, it’s back to MSNBC’s design.

How about citizen voice — web 2.0? MSNBC is not the top destination we found for users who want to be heard. There is no user-generated content, no user-based blogs, and no live discussion. There are a few ways to be heard. Some stories allow users to enter into an online chat. Also, users can rate a story and the results are used in a couple of different ways. First, the results for that story are posted at the bottom of the piece in a star system along with the number of ratings to date. Second, on each inside page is a list of “most popular” stories at a given moment.

As the online home of multiple news outlets (even Newsweek’s own site often directs people here) it is not surprising that brand identity can get confusing. There is content from all of its family members—MSNBC, NBC, Newsweek—as well as the Washington Post and the wire services. In fact, wire stories make up a good portion of their top headlines. Staff editors control the content, but again, there seems to be a bit of a split over whether their mission is to promote the family names or the content itself.

The top stories of the hour command a good amount of the prime real estate. The next three sections promote reports from each of the three news outlets, followed by Web site-only content — “only on MSNBC.com.” Scrolling down the page, though, a visitor can eventually get to a list of content organized by topics in the news. The editorial staff also keeps tight control over where users go once they enter. None of the stories we examined ever contained links to outside Web sites.

Perhaps in the end, it is the revenue structure, or lack thereof, that attracts people to the site. MSNBC.com expanded how many ads it contained from September 2006 to February of 2007, but it still remained on the low end. In September there were just 7 ads, all of which were self-promotional. In 2007, a few more had been added, including one prominent outside ad per day and a list of “sponsored links” at the bottom of the page.

Still, the most visible ones are self-promotional and are relatively unobtrusive.

The site doesn’t make up for the ad-free environment by asking users to pay. There is no fee-based content at all, not even the archive. Nor does the site demand that visitors reveal personal information; it has no registration at all.

New York Post (www.nypost.com)

Love it or hate it, there is little question that nypost.com brings the spirit of the tabloid paper to the Web, along with a great deal of the appearance.

So strong are the ties to the print edition that the homepage for the site actually looks like a tabloid paper, complete with the ruffled right side of the page where a reader would turn print pages. There is also what looks to be a rip just under the masthead, where the top stories change as virtual pages appear to be turned. The Post’s familiar red and black motif is on full display and pictures dominate the page. Top stories feature very large headlines that are usually printed on top of a photo, as in the print newspaper.

If the challenge of Web for newspapers in part is that a screen is much smaller than a broadsheet, Nypost.com offers a hint of how a tabloid online can be different.

Yet after offering the contents of the paper, with some additional multi-media features, plus making use of more multimedia formats, Nypost.com does not score as highly in our systematic audit as some other sites. The only area where it earned top marks was in branding, or the level of original content and promotion of its own editorial standards and practices.

The New York Post’s site is not very customizable, for instance; it ranked in the third tier of sites studied. It offered no podcasts and limited RSS feeds. Users were also unable to change the page in any way, and there was no mobile version of the site.

Nypost.comalso sat in the bottom tier on user participation, or the degree to which visitors can contribute. There is little chance for users to get involved beyond e-mailing authors. There was no way for users to add content, no users’ blog and no interactive discussions.

It was also in the bottom group in depth, with few stories linked as packages, fewer updates than many sites and no embedded links in stories. And with few ads on the page and no fee content, Nypost.com also placed in the bottom tier of economics.

In its content, the Post’s Web site makes it clear that the organization believes its franchise to be “shocking” stories, “exclusive” photos and pieces about government malfeasance. All play a prominent role here.

In the three days after the death of the former Playboy model Anna Nicole Smith, for instance, the Post was still leading with a story about her and the battle over her baby. “MAD ‘DADDY’ IN HEIR RAID” read the headline.

Or consider the piece about how the state’s comptroller failed an economics quiz given him by a Post reporter: “TESTY POL GETS ‘F’ IN FISCAL ED.” Along with those stories, the paper’s signature Page Six gossip page gets an entire section on the site with stories about movers and shakers in New York, celebrity photos and poll questions for readers. One showed pictures of the actresses Scarlett Johansson and Cameron Diaz and posed the question, “Who’s Hotter?”

New York Times (www.nytimes.com)

The look of the newspaper is still there, including the paper-white background and the distinctive old-English masthead. The work of the correspondents, their bylines and their reporting, still form the core attraction.

But while retaining the feel of print, the Web site of the New York Times, redesigned in 2006, is more subtly a customizable, participatory news outlet that covers the news as it happens.

Indeed, to a degree greater than for most newspaper Web sites, this really is the newspaper and more; it is the New York Times….online.

That sense begins with the page’s design. Users will undoubtedly notice how wide the page is and how much information is there. The site is one of only a few with a five-column layout, another evocation of the newspaper, which has six columns. Most Web sites are three or four columns wide.

And the sense that this is the newspaper’s identity and brand in an online form is also reflected in the numbers from our content analysis. In our site inventory, the New York Times earns its highest mark for promoting and emphasizing its own brand and editorial control. Most of the content here, more than 75%, is from the Times staff. It promotes the bylines of its writers prominently.

Yet this is now more than a given morning’s newspaper. A visitor is also struck by the frequency with which the page is updated. Times correspondents are filing the news as it breaks, and then filling in more as the day goes on. There is a sense of the news breaking, the day evolving, the page changing; small red text indicates when a story first appears on the page. The site gives the impression of being in the Times newsroom and seeing as reporters come back and start filing. Even breaking stories on the site are usually written by the staff. Wire copy does appear in this lead story area, but it is usually replaced quickly by a staff byline.

Interestingly, the site has also found a way to use blogs to rely on wire copy less, at least ostensibly. For instance, the day of Anna Nicole’s Smith’s death, the site quickly had the story on its front page with a staff byline under “The Lede Blog” header. When users clicked the link they were taken to a blog that largely quoted other sources. Thus the site ran wires, with the look of running staff copy.

Beyond its exceptional emphasis on the Times brand, in real time, the site offers a good deal more, though not as strikingly.

NYTimes.com also scored well — in the second-highest tier — for the degree to which it allows users to customize the content. It offers multiple RSS feeds and allows visitors to create their own homepage layout to greet them on each visit. It has yet to offer, though, the newer delivery mode — mobile.

The site also makes some effort to allow participation. Visitors can e-mail authors now, and even add their own comments to stories and to blogs. The site scored, over all, high mid-range marks here.

NYTimes.com ranked in the bottom tier, however, for multimedia use. That may be somewhat deceptive, partly because most of its video links are on a separate page, not featured on the home page. That, again, reflects the fact that the newspaper is the core identity here, more than the site as its own environment. Yet even though the page incorporates some video and a bit of audio and graphic work, this is still by and large a text-heavy destination.

The site also scored somewhat lower, in the third tier, for depth, or the extent to which stories also linked to other material, original documents, background pieces, archival material and more. That, too, reflects its character; stories written by Times correspondents are what this site is about.

When it comes to revenue streams, not surprisingly, the Times also scored highly. It features, in effect, everything that a Web site today could. It has a lot of ads — 13 on the days we examined — many of them small and unobtrusive. And it adds revenues from fees it charges for premium content.

Nytimes.com is leading example of a franchise that has decided not to create a new identity online, but to transfer the old one, enriched and modernized.

National Public Radio (www.npr.org)

NPR.org is becoming something of an identity unto itself, a destination offering substantially more than just radio programs moved online. The site leads with a top story usually presented as a package with multiple links and multimedia components. That is followed by a list of other top news stories, which, once accessed, are offered as both audio and text.

Below the top stories comes a mix of news content, including a list of top e-mailed stories (updated continuously), a sidebar of news topics for further reading/listening, and Associated Press headlines.

Amid all this content is a clear sense of the NPR brand—a clear emphasis of this site, and a category where it got some of its highest marks. The vast majority of stories posted on the site are researched and written by NPR’s staff, something it accentuates by offering bylines to most stories as well as links to the author’s biography. In addition to the NPR content, the site augments its stories with a limited selection from the A.P.

The other area where NPR.org excels is in allowing users to customize the NPR content to their own interests or needs. Both RSS feeds (“really simple syndication”) and podcasts are prominent features, situated in the upper left-hand column of the homepage. The RSS link takes users to a page where they can choose to receive particular categories of news feeds (e.g., opinion), specific programs (e.g., Morning Edition), topics (e.g., children’s health), or particular member-station feeds (e.g., KQED in San Francisco). All in all, there are 52 categorical RSS feeds and 19 member station feeds. Another feature extensively employed on the NPR site is podcasts. The podcast link from the homepage takes the user to an extensive directory of podcasts organized by “this week’s picks,” topic, title and by station provider. As of February of 2007, though, the site had yet to embrace the latest trend of mobile phone delivery.

NPR.org was in the mid-level range when it came to use of multimedia forms. Audio features were prominent, with some live streaming options, podcasts and other MP3 downloads. These are supplements, though, to the more common text and photo elements on the home page. And, the site did not offer video content.

Clicking further inside the site, however, reveals more of a multimedia feel. Once users click on a story headline from the main page, they are taken to the transcript of the story (or a synopsis) and are then presented with the choice to read or listen to the story. Indeed, NPR.org stands out in offering about 85% of its content simultaneously as textual narrative and audio streams or podcasts.

A big question facing all online entities is one of economics. NPR.org hosted only two advertisements on its home page, one self-promotional, the other a PBS logo. Still, it does find a way to draw in some revenue. The site charges users for some archive material: $3.95 for a single archived transcript, or $12.95 for a monthly subscription to the archive (up to 10 transcripts).

OhmyNews International (English.ohmynews.com)

Lying somewhere between globalvoices.com and digg.com, OhmyNews International is a hybrid of citizen journalism and news editing. As with Digg, all the content comes from users, in the format of news stories rather than blog entries. There is also a heavy emphasis on narrative text. But, as with Global Voices, the editorial staff plays a heavy role in the internationally focused content. The approach in the end gives users a lot of ways to contribute and be heard but with strong brand identification.

The site itself is based in Korea, though the international version is posted in English. Although the content all comes from users, the site is far from an open forum or a clearinghouse for stream of consciousness. Potential reporters and writers must apply and accept the conditions laid out by the site, and if “hired” are paid for their work.

The process of submitting reports operates a lot like that at more traditional news outlets. There is a heavy editing process that instills a uniform style, which in the end reads a lot like a straight news or analysis piece. The contributors here are hybrids — edited citizens.

The diverse mix of largely international topics speaks to the individual interests of the citizen journalists who filed them. Stories come from around the world. On the afternoon of January 11, the lead item on the page was Part 3 of a series on the “History of French Nuclear Tests in the Pacific.” The next piece was a story on women in Africa using cell phones and the growth of mobile technology there. It was followed by a story about a Japanese politician visiting Pyongyang.

In addition to the stories themselves, the editors use a fair amount of the homepage to highlight certain features or help visitors find what interests them most. Next to the lead stories is a slimmer column with content the site is emphasizing in some way — special-report sections, podcasts, pieces on citizen journalism and a list of that week’s “Featured Writers.” And on the right is a map of the world showing the areas generating the most media attention, more featured-site links and headlines from the International Tribune.

Farther down are headlines arranged by topic area — Korea (the site’s home), World, Technology, Art & Life, etc., and finally a list of the most recent posts to the site.

As such, OhmyNews International sat in the top tier on branding. There is no wire copy on this site and the home page decisions are made by staff, not computers. What the site offers, instead, is branded controlled citizen journalism. If the number of citizen journalists posting to OhmyNews International continues to grow, one would expect the topics and regions covered to grow as well.

Thus, while the site may currently be the home of various bits of international news that have fallen through the cracks of mainstream journalism, it may be something very different in six months or a year

The site scored fairly well on user customization, in the second tier. It was helped by offering multiple RSS and podcast options high on the page. Visitors could not, however, remake their own homepage or get a mobile version of the site. As with Digg and Global Voices, multimedia was less of a focus, it placed in the last tier in that area. There was no video and no live streaming audio and, while the site is made up of content from citizen journalists, no blogs per se.

The site scored highly, in the second tier, on user participation. The site, obviously, has a lot of user content. It did not, however, accommodate live discussions, or the use of online votes.

The site did poorly in the rankings for depth and economics. Its depth score was hurt by not updating as often as other sites and not packaging stories together. And ads are largely non-existent on OhmyNews International. From its base in Korea it has a variety of Korean corporate “partners,” most notably Samsung, but there are no real ads on the homepage and the only ones on interior pages are Google ads.

The Online NewsHour (http://www.pbs.org/newshour)

The online home for the NewsHour is a lot like the program itself – it is focused on a few topics and doesn’t overwhelm the user with charts, graphs or information. A calm and deliberate site, the Online NewsHour uses a two- or three-column format to offer stories from the previous night’s program. Pieces are available in text, audio or video format. The name of this Web site sums it up fairly well. It’s an online version of the program.

In our site inventory, the Online NewsHour scored highest, in the top tier, in branding. This content comes completely from the program. The site does not rely on the wires or other outlets for news and it is put together by a human editor, not a computer program.

The site also ranked fairly high on customization, in the second tier. There was no way for a user to modify the front page, but there were a large number of RSS feeds and podcasts available to customize content delivery. The site also achieved a second-tier ranking in multimedia. It was relatively light on content overall, and almost all of what was there had audio and video links attached.

The Online NewsHour sat in the bottom tier of all the sites we examined for user participation and depth. Other than through occasional email addresses alongside the reporter’s byline, there was essentially no way for a user to interact with the site. And its depth score was hurt because it isn’t updated often and doesn’t offer embedded links in most stories.

As one might expect with a public TV site, the Online NewsHour doesn’t have a strong revenue stream, but it was in the third tier – not the bottom one – with eight ads on its home page.

As for the site’s content, it is largely repurposed NewsHour items, offered in multiple forms and with a few added features. Along with the audio and video links, there are links to past stories and external links to sites of interest. For instance the lead piece on January 9th was a transcript from the January 8th show, but it also included maps, lists of “key players” and a timeline among other things.

NewsHour is definitely not a site to visit if a user is looking for the latest news on a large variety of topics, but for focused coverage on a few – usually very current – topics, it offers a lot.

Reuters News Service (www.reuters.com )

Like 19 th century wire service of its name, the main thrust of the Reuters web site is the latest news headlines. The page is filled with news reports across a wealth of categories— U.S., international, Investing, business, science, and many more. As the wire service is known for, the reports themselves are unadorned, focused primarily on articulating the information at hand. A few key features though—one of which is it being open to the public—moves the Web site beyond the image of the age-old wire service.

Overall the site scored in the highest tier in only one area—editorial branding—and the lowest in four.

With staff reporters spread throughout the world, Reuters has no trouble filling its vast pages with original, bylined content, giving it the highest score possible for editorial control and branding. Branding here does not imply voice, but conveys the more traditional sense of original content and strict editorial practices. The bylines are clearly there for added authority and accountability rather than to feature the voice of staffers.

For a news outlet that was never before even available to the general public, Reuters places a good amount of emphasis on allowing the public to make the web offering their own–customization. Users can create their own home page structure to greet them each time they return, can subscribe to multiple RSS feeds and have news delivered to the mobile phone. The ability to search their vast array of content is more limited, with only a simple key word option and for now anyway, the site had skipped over the podcast phenomenon.

User participation and multimedia use appear to be not so highly emphasized. Beyond the ability to email the author of a news story, users must keep their views to themselves. When it comes to story forms, Reuters has initiated quite a strong video news service with many stories offered both as narrative and video reports. Other media forms, like live streams, Q & A’s and user polls are left for other sites.

The site also fails to take advantage of the potential depth of news stories. Though constantly updated, the site does not embed links into the news reports and often does little to try to link stories together.

For revenue, the site at this point relies more on advertising than on direct user fees. The site averaged 7 different ads on the home page with all content and archive material a free service for visitors.

Salon.com (www.salon.com)

Salon.com has often been thought of as Slate’s less affluent and smaller sibling — it was launched at roughly the same time, 1995, also as a Web-only magazine. Salon.com in 2006-07 is an attempt to carve out a niche as a place where “you’ll directly support independent journalism,” the site says. The result is something akin to an online version of Mother Jones, much more predictably liberal than Slate, with a few dashes of pop culture and sports thrown in.

It also differed in the scores it earned. The site stood out for promoting its own branded content, where it earned top marks. In every other category, Salon by our metrics earned mostly low-mid range scores.

Upon reading the content, the brand becomes quickly evident. Reports generally feature a first-person voice. Politics is a mainstay, but there is also a lot of culture as well. And often the two come together, such as the January 22 review of movies at the Sundance Film Festival. “You can start out a weekend at Sundance, as I did, irritated by all the minor inconveniences of this place,” the review began, “and end it as I also did, sitting in a roomful of strangers weeping at an impromptu late-night speech delivered live by Dick Gephardt.”

Also striking is the number of ways Salon.com aims at raising revenue. There are five outside ads on the site, split between two advertisers and a prominent advertisement for joining Salon Premium for $35 a year. That membership gives users access to Salon.com’s discussion forums and the ability to skip ads on the page as well as some benefits that have nothing to do with Salon — subscriptions to Wired and The Week. Despite this, the site was in the third tier of our revenue streams category in part because it didn’t feature many ads – only eight.

The site had been redone between the time of our inventory, October, and the New Year, and had added podcasts and video to its homepage. It did not score highly in most categories in our examination, however.

It was in the third tier in terms of customizability. Users could not modify the home page and there was no mobile version of the site available – though the site would have ranked somewhat higher after its additions. The same could be said about its multimedia ranking, where it was in the bottom tier. The big video link now on the front page would have lifted that score as well.

Its score for the level of user participation, also in the third tier, was unchanged though. There are live discussions and users can email story authors, but the site does not include user content or things like polls. Its third-tier depth score also would have been the same. The site’s relatively infrequent updates – three a day – helped keep the figure low.

San Francisco Bay Guardian (www.sfbg.com)

The San Francisco Bay Guardian is one of two alternative weekly newspapers in San Francisco, and one of the few papers in the country that is still independently owned. Like most “alt-weeklies,” it is known for its local investigative pieces and extensive entertainment listings. Its online version is pretty much the same thing—literally. All of the reported pieces come straight from the current week’s print edition. The web specific content comes if two forms. A right-hand column highlights (in red-text that often runs together) a list of daily “picks”—cultural events about town. Second, a block in the upper left-hand column offers five blogs. The blogs—one on music, arts and culture, politics, San Francisco and a featured blog by Bruce Bergmann—provide more recent musings than those in the print edition, but are not nearly as active as some. On the days we studied, the most recent postings on most of the blogs were four days old.

As a site that mostly proffers it print-work along with city calendar listings, it scores low in most areas of Web potential. Its highest ranking, not surprisingly, is in the editorial brand. The work is all by SFBG staff. The report’s byline is often not only attached to the story, but featured on the home page along with the headline. Voice is clearly a main thrust of the site.

It welcomes visits but doesn’t do much to compete with other online options. The ability to email authors and post comments to stories or blog posting gives the site a few marks for user participation, but there are no options beyond that, keeping it in the low to mid tier in this category. Customization is even scarcer with a simple key word search as the only way users can take control of the headlines they see. How about multimedia? Suffice it to say in our study we found 95% of the content to be straight narrative. The other 4% was still photos.

When it comes to revenue streams, the site has spent some energy placing ads—an average of 8—prominently on the home page. If you don’t mind wading through these, the rest of the content is available for free. Registration is optional and all past editions of the paper (and website version) are available free of charge.

Slate (www.slate.com)

Though it is one of the pioneers in the world of Web journalism, most Americans who regularly visit the Internet for news are probably at least aware of Slate, the online magazine founded in 1996 by Microsoft and run initially by Michael Kinsley, the highly regarded editor who helped revive the New Republic in the 1980s. Since it began, Slate has gone through several redesigns, a change in editors and a change in owners.

Through it all it has retained a distinctive look, feel and approach. Of all the sites examined, Slate probably uses visuals the most prominently — almost in place of headlines.

In our content analysis, Slate might be called the site that offers Its Brand, Your Way. The site clearly is offering a team of writers and commentators, with a high degree of editorial quality control. But, it also stood out for the level of customization allowed. It was one of the few sites studied, along with NPR, to stand out for that particular combination.

The opening screen features several prominent photos or cartoons, each linking to a story or feature. There is text on the page, but the pictures dominate. The lead piece in the center of the page, twice as wide as any other column, is anchored by a photo. The headline for the piece even runs within the picture, and there is no teaser text. Under that lead item are five smaller items lined up in a row, each with a small photo and a headline.

Slate may be owned by the Washington Post and have an affiliation NPR, but its content is its own. There are no links to pieces from the Post or the wires on the homepage to give users the latest stories. From the beginning the site has taken great pride in its editorial voice — usually “smart” and often counterintuitive. The pieces rarely stress reporting, but rather about offering different views on topics in the news. On January 19, for instance, the lead article for the site was “How the Camera Phone Changed the World — For the Worse.” The piece recounted the rise of the camera phone’s prominence in news events, such as Saddam Hussein’s hanging. “A camera on a phone has only aided the perverted, the nosy, the violent, and the bored,” the piece opined. As such, it scored at the very top of the sites studied for branded control of its content.

It earned its high marks for customization with multiple RSS and podcast options featured prominently. Mobile phone delivery was also available back in September; a feature found only on a few of the sites studied.

The site also put notable emphasis on allowing users to participate. They were welcomed to comment on stories. There were links to most-read and most-e-mailed stories and there were ways to e-mail the authors of stories.

After quality narrative and giving users a lot of room to participate and customize the site, Slate became more typical.

Even with the heavy use of photos, the site scored in the bottom tier for multimedia potential. On the days monitored, 85% of the content on the front page linked to narrative text only. There is some presence of video, slide shows and interactive graphics, but despite a partnership with National Public Radio there were few audio links.

It also is not doing much to exploit the potential of the web for depth. Its score there was hurt by updating less often than other sites and by not packaging related stories together.

When it came to the level of revenue streams evident on the site, Slate scored in the low mid range, second from the bottom. It boasts relatively few ads and its experiment with paid subscriptions was abandoned some years ago.

Slate has grown immensely, adding new features and blogs in its 10 years, and is climbing the ranks of most-visited sites. And in an age when people are pointing to multimedia as the Web’s next wave, Slate seems happy to stake it position as the Web’s version of the New Yorker — relying heavily on writing but minus the heavy reporting, of course.

Time (www.time.com)

At the start of 2007, Time revamped and re-launched its Web site. It added new features, limited its color palette and cleaned up a site that was fairly cluttered. The new site is more organized and simpler without being sparse. It looks and feels more like the online home of a new Web outlet than it did before and less an online parking space for the magazine.

Still, some of what we found on the site in October still held true in January. For instance, the first thing a visitor is likely to notice is that Time is not alone here. Signs of its partnership with CNN — another news outlet owned by Time/Warner — appear in the header. But there is more brand differentiation now than before. In the earlier incarnation, the site offered “The Latest Headlines from CNN.” That has been replaced by “Latest Headlines,” which lists 10 news items from a variety of sources, CNN among them.

The new Time.com is also an environment more distinct than before from the print magazine. The image of the current week’s magazine cover, for instance, is pushed further down on the page, rather than appearing in the top right hand corner.

One thing the old and new sites have very much in common, however, is that everything here is still free.

Visually, the new Time.com uses a cleaner three-column format as opposed to the four-column approach it used to have. And while the old site had pictures scattered all over it, the new one features only a changing slide-show picture, with an ad on the right side and a row of three photos in the section below. The layout is modular.

The old cluttered Time.com was not without its advantages. It was one of the more customizable Web sites, finishing in the top tier in part because it offered several different RSS feeds, podcasts and a mobile version of itself. It also finished in the top tier for branding, using human editors to make decisions about layout (rather than computer programs) and using bylines on staff copy. The site also relied heavily on its staff for lead stories – more than 75% of its lead pieces carried staff bylines.

It scored lower, in the third tier, in depth. Its score was hurt by offering fewer updates than other sites (something true of most magazine sites) and not using embedded links to take readers further into a subject

Time put even less emphasis on multi media (it finished in the bottom tier). This is a text based Web site. It also earned the lowest marks for user participation. It offered users little in the way of communicating or reacting, not even the opportunity to send emails to authors.

Time also does not have a significant number of revenue streams on the site at this point. It did not have many ads – eight – and it did not charge for any content.

The new Time.com seems to place less emphasis on allowing users to customize it — it certainly highlights customization less—and is more focused on presenting users with a clean, uncluttered first view of the page. It still has multiple RSS feeds and podcasts, and a link to get a mobile version of the site, but those links are at the bottom.

On the other hand, blogs have multiplied. Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish is still here (though Sullivan announced that his blog was moving to Atlantic.com), and it has been augmented with blogs about Washington (Swampland), The Middle East and entertainment (Tuned In). The site also added a column called “The Ag,” which stands for aggregator, which talks about what’s news in other media.

Interestingly, the redesign actually left the site with fewer ads. There were a total of four in September, placing it in the bottom 10 of the sites we looked at. But there were only two in January and they were coordinated for the same product — Bentley College. That approach, also taken by Economist.com, makes the ads feel more like an integrated part of the page and less noisy.

The strength of Time.com is its willingness to reach beyond its own pages for content. There is a lot here. The 10 stories in the “Latest Headlines” box are usually wire copy, but they do at least offer users a link to major breaking news. And such fare as Andrew Sullivan’s blog not only brings more outside content to the page, its teaser text can definitely bring a different flavor, as it did on December 9, 2006: “If the Democrats have the balls to restore our constitutional order I may have to stop being an independent for awhile.” Not exactly journalism in the tradition of Henry Luce.

Perhaps most interesting, the new Time.com does not make a point of offering content from the magazine. The daily stories from Time’s staff, on the page’s top left, are often shorter than magazine stories and feature either a different tone or some exclusive tidbit, and Time.com clearly differentiates between them and the stories on the rest of the site. And articles from the actual magazine are hidden down the page under the image of that week’s cover. Users have to click the image to get to those pieces.

It all amounts to a step toward a Web environment that is more than the magazine, with plenty of short items and Web-only content. That is what Time promised in the summer of 2006 when it said it was going to turn to the Web more and more, particularly on breaking news.

Topix.net (www.topix.net)

The first thing a user probably notices at Topix.net is the breadth of information available. The site does not generate content, but is an aggregator plain and simple. It draws from thousands of outlets ranging from U.S. newspapers to wires to foreign news sites.

That diverse mix is evident from the headlines that fill the homepage. The top nine may feature nine different news outlets from nine different countries. Under those are three headlines from your home area — something the site automatically identifies when you arrive.

Still, the site scored in the lowest tier of sites for depth, or making use of the potential of the web to go deep into a topic. Its rating here was hurt by the fact that it offered no archive and stories on the site existed as separate items, with nothing connecting related content together.

Topix.net scored somewhat higher, in the low-mid range, for customization. The site had strengths in that area – users, for instance, can further customize the local news section by choosing from a list of 30,000 different U.S. cities. And if a user changes his or her home location, the site remembers it. Other kinds of customization found on other sites, however, were absent here. There was just a single RSS feeds and at the time of the study, there were no podcasts or mobile phone delivery options.

The site puts somewhat more emphasis on allowing users to participate in the site. It scored in the second tier here. The page’s entire right column is reserved for readers’ comments, with a list of topics and the number of comments posted under each. Every headline also has a similar place for feedback.

As one might imagine with an aggregator site, the branding score for topix.com placed it in the bottom tier, with no content coming directly from the site and a computer program selecting the stories that appear on the front page.

Nor is Topix oriented to multimedia. It earned low marks in that category. Its home page was mostly text with roughly 90% of it being narrative. There were also no audio or video links.

The site also scored in the bottom tier for the level of revenue streams to the site. There was no paid content here and few ads.

That limited number of ads, though, helped with Topix.net’s clean-feeling front page. Ads are limited to the far right of the screen, after the user comment column. Here, too, localizing comes into play – the ads are local ones from Google about everything from cars to jobs to court records.

Unlike other aggregators, such as Google, Topix doesn’t change the top news headlines all that frequently. While there is no human editor on the site (its headlines are selected by a computer program), the program operates at a little slower pace than others. At noon on January 10, 2007, its lead story was about the possible of the chief of Al Qaeda in Somalia had been up for seven hours. Other “latest” stories had been there six hours, 10 hours and 13 hours. In other words, the stories that show up on the homepage are not just the latest wire copy. That can have the virtue of not piling the most recent story on top when it’s not necessarily the most important.

USA Today (www.usatoday.com)

As this report went to press, the Web site for USA Today underwent an extensive redesign. The redesign took steps to advance in several of the categories that we identified. It now offers more video and other multimedia components. It also facilitates more of an online community by allowing users to contribute their voice to the site and tailor it to their needs.

The study of the site—and this analysis—was performed in February of 2007, before these changes.

The Web site for USA Today carries over a lot of the newspaper’s look and feel. The blue USA Today header box is on the site as are the color-coded section names, a red box around Sports, a green one around Money, and so on. Other than a flash picture slide show on the top right of the screen usatoday.com feels a lot like USA Today online.

The site also has carried over the simple, modular layout of the newspaper. It essentially features a two-column layout, fewer than many of the newspaper sites we visited, that keeps things fairly simple. There is a lead story with a photo just under the masthead on the left and next it on the right is a list of six headlines, some with supporting material like photos and analyses and others without, and no teaser text.

But the impression that this is the newspaper in another platform is not entirely accurate. Indeed, this is one of the few newspapers that did not earn top marks for branding, or promoting its own content and editorial control. It scored in the second tier. To stay immediate, it relies heavily on wire copy.

Indeed, in our sit inventory, USAToday.com didn’t particularly stand out in any area. In our loose groupings, it was Jack of All Trades.

The site ranked in the second-tier on customization partly because of the large number of podcasts and RSS feeds available. That rating was also helped by giving users the chance to modify the home page. But the site is not as mobile as some others and offers no podcasts.

USAToday.com was also a second-tier finisher on multimedia . The site is not particularly text heavy; photos made up a larger percentage of the space. But there were no large audio or video components, and limited offerings, relative to other sites studied, in the way of video or audio links.

The site fell in the lowest tier relative to others when it came to the level of user participation. There was no chance for users to add content, no live discussions, and few chances to even e-mail authors.

And the site scored in the third tier for depth, the degree to which it linked stories in packages, or went deeper with paths to relevant archives, background, documents, interview transcripts and so on.

USAToday.com fell toward the middle in terms of the number of revenue streams on the site. There 13 ads on the page. The site does not charge for content, even its archive.

Unlike the paper, which publishes Monday through Friday, the site is always adding material, even on weekends, though it relies heavily on wire services to do that.

Staff people do sometimes contribute as news breaks, but much of the material comes from the Associated Press. Even in its lead positions the site is comfortable using wire copy.

On the afternoon of February 11, for example, six of the seven stories in the lead area were from the AP. That is particularly interesting since the site is owned by Gannett and could, in theory anyway, stock its page with stories from the papers the company runs around the country. The newspaper does pull stories from other Gannett papers at times.

Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com)

In contrast with some sites, particularly that of the New York Times, the Washington Post has gone out of its way to create a different identity on the Web from the one it has in print. The Web identity is high-tech and defined by multimedia and the ability of users to customize the site as their own.

The traditional logo of the paper is small and off to the side. The dominant masthead is the two-toned washingtonpost.com logo in black and red, which of course we do not see in print. The layout is a clean, three-column format, unlike the paper product.

In our content analysis, Washingtonpost.com scored highly in more categories than almost any other site examined. It was one of only two sites of the 38 studied, indeed, not to earn low marks in any category. And it was one of only four to earn the highest marks in three of our five content categories — in our loose groupings, one of four High Achievers.

The site earned top marks for branding, or the degree of original content and editorial control. More than 75% of the content was staff written.

Yet the site also earned top marks in our content audit for customization. Visitors could create their own page layouts, subscribe to content through multiple and highly promoted RSS feeds, and arrange to receive a mobile version of the site.

And it was also a top-tier site for its use multimedia formats. A visitor is more likely than on most sites to find video, photo and Q&A links on the homepage. Live chats with Post staff members and newsmakers are featured prominently. All this also meant that the amount of plain text was smaller than on other sites. This destination is about more than reading stories.

The site earned second-tier marks for the level of user participation. That, however, still put it in the upper half of all the sites studied in a category where only three sites earned top marks.

The site was a high-scorer on economics, landing in the top tier with somewhere between 15 and 18 ads usually on the homepage. That includes advertisements for site features and logos of sister sites like Newsweek, Slate and MSNBC.

Washingtonpost.com earned its lowest marks for depth, in the third tier. That meant the site did not embed a lot of links in and around stories for people to go deeper, to background, documents, full text of interviews and various other options, including easy access to archives.

To some extent, given the nearly infinite set of options the Web offers that may reflect the fact that depth and immediacy are hard to balance. The content here starts out in the morning, as most newspaper sites do, with stories from the print paper, and throughout the day the site is updated to add new material.

The overwhelming majority of the stories, upwards of 90%, feature staff bylines. But washingtonpost.com is not afraid to run wire copy, particularly in sidebar stories that provide supplementary information around staff-written lead pieces. And the site takes great pains to include a lot of supplementary copy to go along with its featured pieces, including links to photo presentations, staff Q&As and interactive graphics. Generally, each featured story has at least two extra sidebar links.

Washingtonpost.com is a site that takes advantage of much of what the Web has to offer, adding a lot of interactivity to expand the paper’s identity beyond its print franchise of heavy coverage of the federal government.

The Week (www.theweekmagazine.com)

The online home for The Week, www.theweekmagazine.com, can best be described as exactly that — a place for the online versions of the content that appears in the print title. It is a sparse environment, and appears by and large to be an afterthought.

Its narrow, three-column format is evocative of a magazine page and fills only about half the screen. Only the wider middle column holds real content, which is labeled “In the Magazine…” and features a large photo. The narrow left column is saved for navigation. The current week’s cover image is displayed prominently in the narrow right-hand column (it links to a page where users can subscribe to the print version) and is followed down the page by ads. Users coming to the site are greeted by only three images and three story links on their first screen.

All told, there are 24 links directly to stories on the page, an extremely low number among the sites we examined.

There is no place for breaking news and no attempt at posting daily staff-written content.

In fairness, The Week’s format, which involves giving a weekly summary of news accounts from around the nation and world, may not really be suited to the Web. First, publishing more often online goes against The Week’s raison d’etre: the premise that people are overloaded with information and need a simple, short synopsis of events that they can carry with them. Second, if one wants a quick look at what’s going on in the world from several sources while online, online aggregators already offer many such services.

But that limited approach is ending. The magazine has announced it will soon launch a new Web site that will do on a daily basis what the title does every week — condense news from around the nation and world.

Looking at the rankings in our site inventory, The Week was not a big winner in much of anything. It scored well in one category, branding, where it was in the top tier because editors choose what content goes on the page and all of it is generated in-house – though it must be noted the content consists of summarize stories from other outlets.

In all other categories, the site was in the bottom tier. There were, in essence, no opportunities for customization.16 The page’s only multimedia only components were the photos it ran. There were none of the participation options (user blogs, author email addresses, live chats) we looked for on the site. The site was not updated during the day (in fact only once a week, at the time of our inventory) which hurt its depth score. And the site had few ads – only six – and no fee content which placed it near the bottom in revenue streams.

While many people look at The Week as the print version of a Web aggregator, its Web presence pays little or no heed to the capabilities of the Internet or the on-line world’s 24-hour news cycle. It is the new-media home of a very old-media approach.

WTOP Radio (www.wtop.com)

Washington-based WTOP represents an entirely different look at radio online, one which is simultaneously local and national in scope. The homepage features an obvious lead story; an invitation to visitors to listen to WTOP radio news; weather and traffic information for the day; and a prominently featured local news section. Advertisements also have a heavy presence.

WTOP.com ranks in the top tier for offering customizable options. Users can subscribe to both RSS feeds and podcasts, and its RSS feeds are relatively varied (totaling 12 different feeds, all of which are different categories of news). WTOP also goes further than NPR in providing on-demand listening options: visitors can sign up for content delivery (headlines, weather, traffic and breaking news) to their mobile phones.

WTOP.com is still largely about narrative text (it makes up close to three-quarters of the content with still photos the second-most common form). Still, it did make some effort at multimedia forms (falling in the mid-level range of all sites studied) with some presence of video stories, slideshows, interactive graphics and yes, live streaming audio. Listening makes up only a small though prominent part of the Web site’s homepage with a section called “ Audio Center” that is devoted to live streaming of the WTOP radio station content.

The site puts less emphasis on its own original branded content, relying mostly on the A.P. The heavy use on wires reflects the larger reality of radio today — even in Washington, D.C., national and international news comes heavily from sources other than the station itself. And even for local stories, only some had WTOP staff bylines; most came from the A.P., along with a few contributions from the Washington Post.

Economically, WTOP seems to emphasize revenue streams from its Web site, as opposed to simply leaning on its radio station for cash-flow. It averaged close to 20 different ads on its home page, only one of which was self-promotional. Ad eyeballs, it seems, are the way users pay for use of the site. All the content is free and there no registration is necessary.

Yahoo News (www.news.yahoo.com )

At first glance the news page for Yahoo.com looks a lot like a dumping ground for the newswires, particularly the AP. The top stories are all wire, as are the pieces in the secondary “More Stories” area. But look a little closer and there is more going on here on this site. There is video from a number of sources, including CNN and ABC News. And further down the page there are tabs to look at headlines from a number of sources including NPR, USA Today, the Christian Science Monitor, Congressional Quarterly, Business Week, Fashion Wire Daily and the Sporting News. Outlets specializing in specific topics are grouped under their topics headers – like Business, Entertainment, Travel and Sports. The site is a mix of approaches seen on other aggregator sites. The news here makes a comprehensive “newspaper” like page, but news is segregated by outlet.

In our site inventory, Yahoo’s news page didn’t really stand out in one category. It scored fairly well on customization, ranking in the second tier. Users could modify the page considerably and the site remembered the changes they made on subsequent visits. There were multiple RSS feeds and an advanced search option. But the site didn’t offer podcasts on its page or a mobile version.

It was also a second-tier site when it came to user participation. It offered a link to a page with user content, let users rate stories and offered most viewed and most emailed story lists. But there was no user blog, live discussions or polls.

Yahoo News scored lower on branding, in the third tier. It was hurt by the fact that it simply pulls material from other places, but the site’s human editors gave its score a lift. It also scored in third tier on depth, hurt by the limited number of stories it linked into packages. And it was in the bottom tier on multimedia. There are some video links here, but no audio and the page is dominated by text.

Its revenue stream also scored fairly low, in the third tier, with only eight ads on the page.

The strength of Yahoo News’s content is that it is always fresh. The site is put together by real people, not a computer program, and they apparently comb the news all day long looking to make updates. So at one point on March 7 the lead story was an AP account of an airliner that overshot a runway in Indonesia and a few minutes later it was a Reuters story about civil strife in Iraq. Users of the site, in other words, are not likely to miss the big stories of the day with human editors constantly updating the news. But if there is a drawback it is that those lead stories are wire stories – long on facts, but often done as the news breaks and short on context.

Click here to view footnotes for this section.

The Testing Ground is a Flash-based interactive feature that allows users to analyze and compare news websites.

Click here to open this feature in a separate window. (Takes a few moments to load).