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Digital

Digital

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

In theory the World Wide Web is network TV’s chance for a radical shift in momentum.

Online, the legacy TV networks can potentially combine their newsgathering muscle, name recognition and brand loyalty to compete head-to-head with cable TV and other rivals without the limitations of a time slot. Suddenly, the vaunted networks can deliver news whenever it is happening or audiences want it — just like cable or anyone else.

The networks may even have advantages online. Their reliance on taped packages, in contrast to cable’s emphasis on live programming, may give them a leg up in the latest trend, online video.

How well are the networks taking advantage of all that?

It is still difficult to evaluate the financial commitments. Actual dollar amounts are generally not made available to anyone outside a corporate accounting office. Neither are internal politics. The star power and the big salaries are still on the air, which may or may not reflect the importance placed on the Web.

What we can evaluate concretely is what is on the networks’ sites. There, it is clear that the Web has grown in importance, with experimentation of all sorts at the top of the list. As Kevin Many, USA Today’s technology columnist, wrote, “The more aggressive media execs are ready to fling anything and everything at the wall to see what sticks.”

What they fling, though, varies from site to site, according to what they choose to emphasize and build brand around. While the TV news shows on the three networks morning and evening are remarkably alike, their online identities are not so similar. To evaluate the variety of what the news Web sites offer citizens, the Project conducted a close site study of 38 of them. We studied them first in September of 2006 and again in February of 2007. The overall findings across the 38 sites can be found in the Digital Journalism chapter, along with an interactive tool to help citizens evaluate their favorite news sites and a full description of the methodology. Here we discuss in detail the three sites tied to the Big Three broadcast networks and PBS’ Online NewsHour.

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.1 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.

In this analysis we studied six different categories that news sites might choose to emphasize: User customization, user participation, the use of multimedia forms, the name brand, depth of the content, and revenue streams. Each category was divided into four levels of emphasis from low to high.

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.

MSNBC & NBC News (www.msnbc.com)

It appears that MSNBC.com, the de facto Web site for NBC News, more than survived the massive layoffs that NBC Universal announced in mid-October 2006. According to Charlie Tillinghast, the Web site’s president and publisher, the site was expected to expand its staff by 25% in 2006 and could increase personnel by another 10% in 2007.2

The site has been among the three most popular online news destinations for several years now and had roughly 26 million unique visitors a month in 2006, according to data from Nielsen//Net Ratings. It appears to be attracting more young viewers than the NBC evening broadcast. Just 24% of the audience for NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams is under 34, compared with 54% of the Web audience.3

As Jeff Zucker, CEO of NBC Universal, put it, “This bodes well for the future.” Indeed, building a younger audience — on any platform — is good news for all three evening newscasts, where the average age now hovers around 60.

What is it that makes the site so attractive to consumers? It is a hybrid, home for NBC and its cable sibling, and one that draws original content from a variety of sources. MSNBC.com’s site profile is covered fully in the Cable section of the report. Below is a quick scorecard on the site from our inventory.

Over all, MSNBC.com falls in the mid-high tier for most categories. It scores highest in the weight it gives to its brand name and lowest in the depth of its content. In one key area, multimedia, where it scored in the second tier, the site is the least like the other two network news sites, because there is seemingly less video than its network rivals offer, at least on its home page. Rather, the site appears to be more text-driven, and more comparable to a traditional newspaper Web site.

This could be a function of the fact that MSNBC.com is based outside Seattle, on the Microsoft campus, and is staffed significantly by people from print. The site also is in partnership with the Washington Post and Newsweek, which creates an opportunity for longer, in-depth features that compete with the more typical selections of breaking news found on other network sites.

In November 2006, the site was the first among broadcast news outlets to offer complete video podcasts of two of its most popular newscasts, NBC Nightly News and Meet the Press. The free video podcasts were available directly from the site and on Apple’s iTunes as well.

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.4

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.

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.”5

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.6

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.7 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 streams. 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.

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.