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How does the lead news agenda online differ from that in other media? Is it a replay of what we find elsewhere? Is there any shifting of priorities? And among the most popular sites for news, commanding the largest share of the online news audience, how much original content is there to be found?

Throughout 2007, the Project for Excellence in Journalism conducted a study of the lead news coverage every weekday on five of the most popular news sites on the Web — AOL News, CNN.com, Google News, MSNBC.com, and Yahoo News.1 These sites range from generating their own content to solely aggregating content from other sources to having a mix of original reporting and reliance on other news sources. While much exists on these sites beyond the lead stories, the goal of this study was to investigate what stories and topics the Web sites were choosing to emphasize above all others.

The most striking finding over all was a heavy emphasis on foreign news, particularly topics not involving the U.S. directly. One consequence of that, in turn, is that we found a smaller focus on major domestic news.

We also found that the sites varied tremendously — not only aggregators versus originators of news but also among the aggregators themselves. Yahoo was the most focused on the events in Iraq, while Google gave more attention to the 2008 election and AOL covered smaller, one-time news events. The two cable news Web sites mirrored the characteristics of their cable counterparts but with an added emphasis on international news.

International Takes the Lead

Over all, the lead news agenda online was the most international of any media we studied. At least in their top five stories, which is roughly analogous to the number of stories found on a front page of a newspaper and generally describes the number of stories featured at the top of a Web page, the leading Web sites studied put a premium on international news that far outweighed any other medium. Fully 25% of the top coverage dealt with non-U.S. international stories. This was nearly six times that of cable (4%), three times that of commercial network evening news and the network morning news (8%), nearly twice that of newspapers (13%), and about 60% more than radio news programming (15%).

International Focus, By Media
2007
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007

In addition, 26% of the space was devoted to U.S.-international events, again more than any other genre, though not to the large extent as foreign news.

Looking at the specific news stories covered enhances the finding. Of the top 10 news events in our online sample, six were foreign events, some of which involved U.S. policy and some of which did not. Events inside Iraq constituted the biggest story over all, accounting for more than one-tenth (11%) of the newshole of the lead stories online.

Other events in the top 10 list were Iran’s weapons build-up (No. 4 at 3%), Pakistan (No. 5 at 3%), the U.S. military campaign in Afghanistan (No. 7 at 2%) and, at No. 10, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict (2%)

By contrast, Afghanistan and Israel were not among the top 10 stories in the media over all and the other foreign stories all got a smaller share of the news agenda.

Top Stories for Online Sites in 2007
Percent of Newshole

1
Events in Iraq
11%
2
2008 Campaign
7
3
Iraq Policy Debate
6
4
Iran
3
5
Pakistan
3
6
U.S. Economy
2
7
Afghanistan
2
8
Domestic Terrorism
2
9
Fired U.S. Attorneys
2
10
Israeli/Palestinian Conflict
2

Top Stories for All Media in 2007
Percent of Newshole

1 2008 Campaign 11%
2 Iraq Policy Debate 8
3 Events in Iraq 6
4 Immigration 3
5 Iran 2
6 Domestic Terrorism 2
7 U.S. Economy 2
8 Iraq Homefront 2
9 Pakistan 2
10 Fired U.S. Attorneys 1

This emphasis on foreign coverage online was a trend that occurred throughout the entire year of 2007. In every month except one (December), these sites devoted the most attention in their lead news to an international story. From January through October it was the war in Iraq — either events on the ground there or the debate over U.S. policies about the war. In November, the top story did not even involve the U.S. The chaotic events occurring in Pakistan led, accounting for a full 14% of the online newshole for the month. December was the only month where an entirely domestic story, the presidential campaign. was the biggest online story (16% of the newshole).

Non-U.S. International Coverage, Online vs. Overall
2007, by month
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007

No other overall media sector studied came close to giving international news such consistent top play. It is only at the more specific programming level that resemblance appears. On the commercial evening newscasts, international news events got the most coverage seven months of the year and the PBS evening news gave it top billing in nine. Morning network television, on the other hand, only had three months where an international news story got the most coverage (all three months being the debate about U.S. policy in Iraq). Even in newspapers, the sector with the second-most focus on non-U.S. foreign news, a domestic news event got the most coverage for eight months. Cable television had a domestic story in the lead 10 months in 2007.

Domestic News in the Background

One result of the emphasis on international news is that certain domestic topic areas and specific news stories got less prominence. Elections and other U.S. politics, for instance, received the lowest percentage of coverage in the online sector —just 8% of the online newshole studied, 17% in cable television, 11% on newspaper front pages and 10% in network television.

Online Topics for 2007
Percent of Newshole

Government 6%
Elections/Politics 8
Crime 7
Economics/Business 5
Environment 1
Health/Medicine 2
Science/Technology 1
Immigration 1
Other Domestic Affairs * 7
Disasters/Accidents 6
Celebrity/Entertainment 1
Lifestyle/Sports 4
Miscellaneous & Media 4
U.S. Foreign Affairs 22
Foreign (non-U.S.) 25

Totals may not equal 100 due to rounding.
Note: * Other Domestic Affairs includes such things as development, transportation, education, religion, abortion, gun control, welfare, poverty, social security, labor, aging, court/legal system, race and gender issues, etc.

One area of domestic news that the Web sites gave more attention to in their lead stories was crime. Only cable television spent more of its news coverage (13%) on crime than the Web sites did (7%). In fact, for all of the domestic topics covered online, only stories about politics took up more space than coverage of crime. The greatest percent of this coverage were one-time events rather than continuing stories, followed then by coverage of the Virginia Tech shootings and the trial of I. Lewis (Scooter) Libby Jr., the White House official whose prison sentence was commuted by President Bush.

Crime Coverage by Media, 2007
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007

A number of domestic stories commanded less attention online than in other genres. Immigration, for example, was the No.12story of the year online (1% of the online newshole). While it received considerable more attention on cable television (5%) and radio (4%) and was the No. 4 story in the media over all. The tragedy of the Virginia Tech shootings was the No.13 story online (1%) while it was the No. 7 story on cable (2%) and No. 9 on network television (2%).

Certainly users can find news stories about a large variety of topics lower down on these sites, in the margins of the news sections or through user-generated searches. But, to the extent that editors or algorithms are making a news agenda, there is higher priority placed on international news. And the PEJ has found in past research [LINK HERE TO TYPOLOGY] that it is often only these lead stories that take advantage of the online capabilities, offering users multimedia components such as slide shows, video clips or links to background information.

A User’s News Agenda?

If the Web is all about democratization of the news and the flow of information, there is an interesting chasm in the priority of news public interest. Through the year, the one area that the public consistently said the press gave too much attention to was foreign news. President Pervez Musharraf’s decision to declare a state of emergency in Pakistan, the Mideast peace summit meeting at Annapolis, Maryland, the agreement by North Korea to abandon its nuclear weapons program and the Lebanese Army’s battle with Islamic militants were all stories that the public felt generated too much media attention. (See Overview) Does this suggest that the Web sites, at least in their lead news coverage, are less reflective than other media of users’ interests? One important difference is that the audience for many of these Web sites, according to online news professionals, is more international in origin. The audience for network evening newscast, for instance, lives by and large in the United States. The audience for Yahoo News lives around the world.

Site Differences – The Aggregators

The mix of online outlets studied is more diverse in structure and news process than any other genre studied. Three of the sites aggregate news, one with a completely computer-based algorithm (Google News) and two tied to cable news channels (CNN.com and MSNBC.com). We’ll first consider the aggregators.

Google News uses a computer-based algorithm to determine the most popular stories being read throughout the net. It does not include any originally reported material, but takes its headlines and links from a wide variety of sources that originate from all over the globe.

Yahoo News is another frequently updated aggregator site, but it uses human editors to select stories throughout the day. The editors rely heavily for their top stories on wire services such as the Associated Press (98%) and, as we have found in past research, update it continuously. At least in these top stories, Yahoo News tends to emphasize breaking news as it happens rather than offering different angles on a given story, analysis pieces, or multimedia treatment of top stories.

AOL News also relies heavily on wire news services for its content, but the home page looks less like a listing of the top stories and more like an interactive newspaper in that each of the highlighted top stories on the center of the page is given a teaser, a photograph, and perhaps an interactive feature. In addition to the feature stories, AOL News is incorporating more and more user input by having sections on the home page devoted to “blog chatter” and “user-submitted news.” These sections are different from the prominent stories highlighted by the editorial process from AOL.

How did the various structures sites play out in the featured news coverage? How did Google’s algorithm-based selections compare with the stories on a aggregator such as Yahoo, a site that is still mostly written by outside news organizations but involves an editorial selection?

Geographic Focus for the Top 5 News Web Sites
Percent of Newshole

All
AOL News
CNN.com
Google News
MSNBC.com
Yahoo News
U.S. National
49%
62%
52%
36%
56%
35%
U.S. Interests Abroad
26
23
23
26
26
33
Foreign
(Non-U.S.)
15
16
25
37
17
32

Google and Yahoo stood out for a similar devotion to international events, more than other outlets. Fully two-thirds of the lead coverage on each site was about foreign news (65%) for Yahoo and 64% for Google). Google devoted a little more space to non-U.S. international events (37% versus 32% on Yahoo).

But within this geographic breadth, their specific story lineups were quite different. Google’s top story of the year was domestic — the 2008 presidential campaign, accounting for 10% of the lead coverage. This was close to five times the attention it received on Yahoo, where it barely made it into the top 10 list (coming in at No. 9 with 2%).

Top Stories for Google News in 2007
Percent of Newshole

1 2008 Campaign 10%
2 Iraq Policy Debate 7
3 Events in Iraq 6
4 Pakistan 4
5 Iran 3
6 Fired U.S. Attorneys 2
7 Israeli/Palestinian Conflict 2
8 North Korea 2
9 Afghanistan 2
10 Rival Factions in Gaza 1

Second on Google’s list was the U.S. debate over policies in Iraq (7%) which was also the second story on Yahoo’s list (5%). Beyond these, though, the only other U.S.-based story to make it in Google’s top 10 was the scandal over the fired U.S. attorneys (No. 6 at 2%). This and the percentage of foreign coverage over all suggests that beyond these stories, much of the day-to-day coverage was spent on international news.

Google has even structurally imposed priority for foreign news. Beneath the top two or three stories featured on the center of the page are topic-related sections, the first of these is “World” news, followed by “ U.S.” news.

Yahoo News stood out in its lead news stories for a devotion to events inside Iraq. Those events alone accounted for a full 16% of lead coverage, making it the top story over all for 2007. Those events ranked first on the other three Web sites as well, but not at that degree of coverage. (MSNBC.com devoted the second most attention to it at 12%.) Coverage of these events got three times the attention on Yahoo as the second- place story, the debate over U.S. policies there (5%).

In fact, events in Iraq got the top most billing—the No. 1 lead story in more one out of every four weekday mornings (27%) in 2007.

Top Stories for Yahoo News in 2007
Percent of Newshole

1 Events in Iraq 16%
2 Iraq Policy Debate 5
3 Iran 5
4 Pakistan 4
5 U.S. Economy 4
6 Israeli/Palestinian Conflict 4
7 North Korea 3
8 Afghanistan 3
9 2008 Presidential Campaign 2
10 Domestic Terrorism 2

The other story that stood out on Yahoo’s news page was the U.S. economy. Throughout the year, its lead stories tended to give more attention to the U.S. economy, 4%, than the 2008 presidential campaign, 2 %.)

Top Stories for AOL News in 2007
Percent of Newshole

1 Events in Iraq 7%
2 Iraq Policy Debate 5
3 2008 Campaign 5
4 Iran 3
5 Domestic Terrorism 2
6 Fired U.S. Attorneys 2
7 Afghanistan 1
8 Iraq Homefront 1
9 Global Warming 1
10 Valerie Plame Investigation 1

If Yahoo was the most caught up in one news story, AOL News was the reverse. Readers of its news page got the greatest mix of lead stories day-to-day. AOL spent less time on the Iraq War (13% total) than any of the other Web sites, and no single news story took up more than 7% of the coverage. Over all, the top 10 stories accounted for just 28% of the newshole, at least 20% less than any other Website studied (MSNBC.com 42%, CNN.com 35%, Yahoo news 49%, Google news 41%). And the last two stories on the list — global warming and the investigation over the leaking of Valerie Plame’s association with the CIA, each accounting for 1% – did not show up in the top lists of any of the other four Web sites.

Another way to consider AOL’s tendency toward smaller, one-time news events is by looking at the top story for each download. What landed in the No. 1 spot? Here again, the big news events of the year were less common. On 13% of the days tracked, the lead story was not among the list of major stories that PEJ was tracking as part of its weekly index. Among the other sites, an average of only 9% were not big news events.

For example, on the morning of July 9, AOL led with a story about the NAACP planning to hold a symbolic funeral for the “N-word,” a story that did not attract much attention in many other media outlets. On that same day, MSNBC.com led with a story about a tougher immigration policy in Oklahoma, Yahoo News led with a story about President Bush invoking executive privilege to prevent some of his staff from having to testify in the investigation over the fired U.S. attorneys, Google News led with a story about Pakistan’s President Pervez Musharraf trying to deal with a conflict with militants at a mosque in his country, and CNN.com led with a story about the shutdown of the Pennsylvania state government over a budget dispute. All these stories on the sites other than AOL were stories that received much more coverage in the media over all than the story that AOL chose to lead with.

The differences in subject matter between AOL News and Yahoo News cannot be accounted for by the sources that the sites use for their lead stories. Both AOL and Yahoo use wire services for more than 90% of the lead news coverage on their sites, most of it coming from the Associated Press. So while each site often relies on similar sources, they make very different editorial decisions about which stories to lead with.

Source by Web Sites
Percent of Newshole

CNN.com
Yahoo News
MSNBC.com
Google News
AOL News
Internal Staff
61%
<1%
16%
0%
2%
Wire
32
98
54
17
90
Combo Wire/Staff
3
0
4
<1
0
Other News Outlet
3
1
26
82
8
Outside Contributor/Freelance
<1
0
<1
<1
0

Google News, on the other hand, a site that produces no original content itself sends its users to other sites for their news content. And when a user follows a link from one of the lead stories on the Google News site, 17% of the coverage was wire content that appeared on some other site while 82% of the coverage was original reporting by the cited news organization, most often newspaper outlets.

Site Differences – Sites Tied to Legacy Media

Two of the sites in the year-long study were tied to legacy media, in particular cable news channels. In what ways do the sites tied to legacy media differ from those who are not likewise connected? And how similar is each to their cable identities?

The CNN.com and MSNBC.com homepages mirror to a certain degree the news tendencies of cable counterparts but augmented with the characteristics of online news such as a greater emphasis on foreign news.

CNN.com is similar to the CNN cable network in that their specialty is in featuring up-to-the-minute news and spends less of its focus on its on-air personalities and more on the ability for users to customize the site. On the CNN.com homepage, the latest headlines are featured prominently on the page with one story usually getting the clear top billing because of a large picture and sizable headline. CNN.com also offers ample opportunities for users to watch streaming video clips that accompany the news stories of the moment. Below the top lists of breaking stories, CNN.com has sections for two headlines for various groups of news (such as “Politics,” “Entertainment,” and, “Science”). The site also has links to blogs written by CNN’s television personalities and information about their programs, but those are not as prominently placed.

MSNBC.com, on the other hand, has built its own identity by being the home for NBC, MSNBC and Newsweek magazine. The site offers a combination of breaking news, often from wire stories, along with longer pieces from Newsweek and prominent links to the various NBC and MSNBC television-related Web sites. Like CNN.com, multimedia features are prevalent on the site, although unlike CNN.com, MSNBC.com will often feature multiple stories on the top of the page with pictures and story teasers rather than focusing on one or two emerging stories only. Beneath the top stories on the page, MSNBC.com also has sections devoted to specific topics, but, unlike CNN.com, the sections include six or more headlines along with multiple video news reports for each section.

A quarter of the lead coverage for CNN.com (25%) was about stories that went beyond the boundaries of the U.S., while only 17% of the lead coverage on MSNBC.com did so.

Top Stories for CNN.com in 2007
Percent of Newshole

1 Events in Iraq 11%
2 Iraq Policy Debate 5
3 2008 Campaign 5
4 Iran 3
5 Pakistan 2
6 Afghanistan 2
7 Immigration 2
8 Fired U.S. Attorneys 2
9 Virginia Tech Shootings 2
10 Western Wildfires 2

Top Stories for MSNBC.com in 2007
Percent of Newshole

1 Events in Iraq 12%
2 2008 Campaign 10
3 Iraq Policy Debate 6
4 U.S. Economy 3
5 Domestic Terrorism 2
6 Iran 2
7 Pakistan 2
8 Fired U.S. Attorneys 2
9 Iraq Homefront 2
10 Afghanistan 1

Comparing the CNN and MSNBC Web sites, both had the same top story for the year, events on the ground in Iraq. And both sites spent about the same percentage of coverage on the Iraq policy debate (CNN.com at 5% and MSNBC.com at 6%). However, MSNBC.com gave twice as much coverage to the presidential campaign (10%) as CNN.com did (5%). MSNBC.com also gave more coverage to the U.S. economy throughout 2007 (3%) than CNN.com did, which at 1% was not one of the top ten stories of the year on their site.

MSNBC.com’s emphasis on the presidential campaign reflects an identity that the cable channels established this year. (See Cable news investment section for more) In the programs studied throughout 2007, the cable channels devoted almost a quarter of its newshole (24%) (See Cable content section for more) to the campaign, more than any other news outlets studied. While the percentages are smaller online, the priority of politics relative to other news and to other Web sites stands out.

Top Stories of 2007: MSNBC.com and MSNBC
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007

Similar ratios’ exist in coverage of the policy debate about the war in Iraq. It was one of the most covered stories on both MSNBC.com (No.3) and the programming studied on MSNBC cable (No. 2). But the percent of newshole it garnered was much smaller on the Web site (6%) than the cable channel (16%).

The similar ranking but smaller percentages on the Web site suggest the slightly different role each outlet plays in daily journalism. The cable television news programs, especially ones like Hardball and Countdown, are more about pundit-driven analysis and discussion of one or two news events of the day. The Web site that at least in brand name is associated with the cable channel (they are separate companies produced on separate coasts) is a place more for event-driven coverage of breaking events. This also helps to explain why the reports of the war in Iraq, which were almost all event-driven stories, were the lead story on MSNBC.com at 12% and the policy debate about Iraq, at 16%, was the No. 2 story on the cable channel.

CNN and CNN.com have a closer relationship: they are at least the same company and are produced in the same city, although the television people are not directly responsible for the Web site. And here the contrasts between cable and the Web were not as sharp. For CNN.com, the presidential campaign was the No. 3story of the year (5%) while it was the top story on the cable channel at 10%. Likewise, CNN.com focused more on the events in Iraq (the No.1 story at 11%) while the cable channel focused more on the policy debate about potential planning for the war (No. 2 at 10%).

Top Stories of 2007: CNN.com and CNN
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2007

The most striking difference between CNN and CNN.com’s lead news coverage is in the emphasis on immigration. On the Web site, immigration was the No. 7 story of the year at 2%. However, on the cable channel, immigration was No. 3 at 7% of the airtime. Much of this difference can be explained by the presence of on the cable channel of Lou Dobbs, who devoted 22% of his airtime to immigration. It is clear that the focus Dobbs has on immigration on his cable show does not carry over to the editorial decisions made about the lead stories on the CNN.com Web site.

The focus of the Web sites in this study on international news is even more evident when comparing CNN.com and MSNBC.com to their cable counterparts. CNN.com (at 25%) and MSNBC.com (at 17%) devoted much more coverage to issues not involving the U.S. than did the corresponding cable channels, with CNN only devoting 6% of its airtime to non-U.S. stories and MSNBC giving even less with only 2%.

Footnotes

1. For each site studied, the Web sites were captured every weekday between 9 and 10 a.m. ET. The Project captured and coded the top five stories on each site, as those are the most prominent as determined at that time by the news service.