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Digital

Digital

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism and Rick Edmonds of The Poynter Institute

Newspapers were early if often tentative entrants in the digital game. By the mid- to late 1990s most big papers had online homes.

But the content was often little more than what was in the newspaper, plus some occasional extras.

For the most part, newspaper sites have succeeded in attracting visitors. Over all, in most markets, newspapers have the best-trafficked Web sites.1 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, for instance, has extended its weekly reach by about 10% through its Web site. Many major papers, such as the New York Times and the Washington Post, now have more daily visitors than they sell copies of the paper each day, though most of those are the same people.

But as noted throughout this report, the economics of the Web are far more problematic.

Consider, for instance, that even with the radical growth in online ad revenues in the past five years —about 30% annually — they are still making only small contributions to the overall newspaper bottom line. All that online money still makes up only 6% or 7% of total newspaper ad revenues.

Those numbers vary from paper to paper. The Washington Post, for instance, earns 11% of its revenue from the online operation, according to CEO Donald Graham.2 At the Los Angeles Times, however, online ad revenues make up only about 5% the total. And forecasts are that the overall industry rate of online ad revenue growth will slow in the years ahead. The Newspaper Association of American estimates online ad revenues will grow by about 22% in 2007.

If print readership continues to fall (as it has for decades now) and readers move to online, ad revenues seem unlikely to keep up. An industry analyst with Deutsche Bank Group estimates each print newspaper reader is worth about $350 to that newspaper, while online readers are worth only 10% to 15% of that.

And whatever the cost savings to newspapers from the transition to online delivery, those are not fully realized until the day the paper actually stops printing on paper altogether. The printers, the presses, the trucks, the delivery system still all exist, even if the press runs shrink.

Ultimately, the future may really depend on whether newspapers can produce a better, deeper, richer journalism online than they can in what some wags call the “flat” medium of print. That is the promise of the Web. How far are we toward realizing it?

To get a better feel for what individual newspapers offer their users in an online environment, PEJ examined the sites of seven different dailies from around the country as well as two alternative weeklies. They were part of a larger inventory of 38 different news sites in September 2006 and February 2007 of various types from across the Web. The overall findings across the 38 sites (as well as an interactive tool to help citizens evaluate their favorite news sites) can be found in the Digital Journalism chapter.

We looked at six different measurements: The customization options the sites offered, their use of multimedia, the possibilities they offered for participation, the branding of the content (that is, how the site promoted its own name brand for content and presentation), the depth of information available and the economic picture for each, their revenue steams. On each of these measures sites were placed into one of four categories, ranging from a top group that placed heavy emphasis on a given measurement to a last group that offered the least amount.

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.

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.

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 site 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.

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.

Chicago Sun-Times (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.

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 writer, 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.

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.com also 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?”

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.

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.