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Digital Trends

Digital Trends

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Introduction

Like their television programs, the major cable news channels’ websites attracted record viewership in 2008, driven in a large part by the political and economic news of the year.

The pecking order, however, barely budged. MSNBC.com remains the most popular site associated with a cable network, despite the news channel’s perennial third-place finish in television ratings.

The sites have also evolved into true multimedia destinations. All now feature video archives, RSS feeds and features for accessing the sites on mobile devices. They all offer live streaming content.

MSNBC.com featured more video content and blogs than the others. Foxnews.com, whose parent company owns MySpace, expanded its presence on social networking websites more than its rivals. And CNN.com remained the leader in sheer number of podcasts it made available through its site.

Web audience

Web audiences for the cable news channels in 2008 all grew, some by much wider margins than others.

CNN.com and MSNBC.com, both near the top of the most visited news sites, had some of the largest increases in audience in a single year when compared to their peers. Foxnews.com, also in the top 10, had an increase in visitors too, but not by as much.

The three major Internet audience ranking systems differ slightly in their methodologies. Some lump several digital properties together and tally their audiences as one (i.e., CNNMoney.com’s audiences would be added to CNN.com’s and listed as a single audience). Others measure each discrete URL and tally its audience. Others still merely rank the most popular websites in a list. Because of these differences, there is no one rendering of how the three sites stack up against each other. We present the findings of all three — Nielsen Online, Hitwise, and comScore Media Metrix.

MSNBC.COM (www.msnbc.msn.com)

A powerhouse in online news since it began in 1996, MSNBC.com remained one of the most visited news sites in 2008, outstripping the popularity of the other cable channels’ sites.

In 2008, the site posted a 34% increase in its audience (averaging 39 million unique visitors per month), and topped all other online news sources for the most-visited news site over the year, according to Nielsen Online. Its growth in 2007, by contrast, was about 14%.

ComScore’s analysis of MSNBC.com’s audience in 2008 was not far off from Nielsen’s. By its numbers, MSNBC.com averaged 32.8 million unique visitors per month in 2008, up 24% from the 26.7 million in 2007. This placed the site slightly ahead of CNN.com and far ahead of Foxnews.com in unique visitors for the year.

Instead of counting visitors, Hitwise ranks websites by the share of Internet traffic they attract. According to that, MSNBC.com ranked third for the year, right behind CNN.com, in a list of the most-visited news websites for 2008.

In addition to looking at a site over the period of a month, another way to examine popularity is to take a peak moment of news activity. Here, too, MSNBC.com looked strong. As an example, the site boasted that it beat rival CNN.com on the final day of the Democratic National Convention, a high-traffic day for all the news sites. MSNBC.com said it had 84.2 million page views. That compared with 77 million page views for CNN.com. MSNBC.com served 5.6 million online video streams that day, it reported.1

The website is also one of the most recognized online news sources, mentioned by 10% of the respondents in an August survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press.2

CNN.COM (www.cnn.com)

In 2008, CNN.com ranked among the top news websites in audience size, and posted sizeable gains in its audience compared to the year before.

Through the year, CNN.com averaged 36.3 million unique visitors per month, only seven percent less than that of its chief competitor, MSNBC.com, according to Nielsen. That number, 36.3 million, was 18% higher than in 2007.

ComScore’s average for 2008 was slightly lower than Nielsen’s, finding that CNN.com averaged 31.4 million unique visitors per month for the year. According to the company, that number was 34% higher than in 2007.

In Hitwise’s list of the top news websites in 2008, CNN.com was ahead of MSNBC.com, ranking second among all news sites.

FOXNEWS.COM (www.foxnews.com)

Fox News’ website has lagged behind its rivals in audience size, but there are indications that it performed better in 2008.

For the year, Nielsen Online ranked it in the top 10 visited news websites, but there was a wide disparity between its traffic levels and that of its rivals CNN.com and MSNBC.com.

According to Nielsen, Foxnews.com’s audience was roughly a third that of MSNBC.com’s and CNN.com’s, averaging 12.5 million unique visitors per month. In 2007, its audience was about one fourth the sizes of CNN’s and MSNBC’s.

According to comScore, Foxnews.com averaged 8.6 million unique visitors per month in 2008, up 28% from 6.7 million in 2007.

Hitwise ranked Foxnews.com as the seventh-most popular news website in 2008, behind both of its rivals, MSNBC.com and CNN.com.

Foxnews.com still ranks third behind the other two sites in terms of familiarity among online news consumers, but with 7% of survey respondents mentioning Fox News, the site has achieved a relatively high level of visibility.3

Staffing and Internal

In 2008, all three of the major cable news channels’ websites maintained sizable staff and operations. To varying degrees, the sites expanded their reach across platforms as well.

MSNBC.COM

The second redesign in two years brought a new slogan to MSNBC.com:  “A Fuller Spectrum of News.”

More than 200 people work for the site, including editors, reporters and producers, in Redmond, Wash., which is also the headquarters of Microsoft. It has newsrooms in New York, London and Redmond. Its content is also used on Microsoft’s internet portal, msn.com.

The operation was begun in 1996 and boasts that it combines the reporting resources of the NBC family of media – including the namesake network, Dateline NBC and others – with the technological prowess of Microsoft.

It maintains a separate management structure from Microsoft and NBC News. Its president and publisher is Charles Tillinghast, who rose in the ranks after joining the company in 1999. Jennifer Sizemore, vice president and editor-in-chief of the website, leads the editorial team. She has previously been an editor at several newspapers, including the Houston Chronicle.4

MSNBC.com tweaked the layout of its home page a number of times in 2008, but the site continued to group its top stories by category, including sports, weather, politics, entertainment, and others. Breaking news items are all featured prominently at the top. A sizable portion, roughly half, of its text content is drawn from outside wire sources, and an additional portion comes from major national news outlets. A small number of stories are generated in-house by NBC News or MSNBC staff.

Like the other major cable news websites, MSNBC.com offers a mobile version.

CNN.COM

The news channel’s main website, CNN.com, is one of CNN’s three U.S. websites. The others are iReport.com and CNNMoney.com. CNNMoney.com is the online home of Fortune, Money and Fortune Small Business magazine.

CNN.com is operated as a separate entity from the on-air channel and in 2008 had a dedicated staff of 200 employees in CNN’s headquarters in Atlanta.5 With the announcement of CNN’s wire service launch in November 2008 came expectations that CNN.com would hire more journalists. CNN.com had already been featuring its own original copy for many years before the launch of the wire service, which provides content for local and regional newspapers.

Another content distribution relationship involving CNN and a group called Internet Broadcasting Systems continued in 2008. In May 2007, CNN signed with Internet Broadcasting Systems to share content from its website with local television sites. Internet Broadcasting is an online content designer with roughly 70 local television websites as clients. Under the agreement, Internet Broadcasting supplies local news and event information to CNN.com (linking to the local television station sites) and, in turn, CNN.com’s national and political content is available on the station websites. The deal was seen as one more way that traditional media outlets could get online advertising dollars.

CNN International has its own website (http://edition.cnn.com) as well as one non-English-language edition, down from three in 2007. After Japanese and Spanish-language editions were removed, an Arabic version was the only one to remain.

CNN.com’s website layout stayed generally the same throughout 2008. Like MSNBC.com, it lists its content by topic, such as politics, national and world news, but in a more subtle way in a bar along the top of the home page. Unlike the material posted by its competitors, most of CNN.com’s content is created by its own staff, although there are also links to stories from other news organizations. Either with bylines or without, the copy written by the site’s own team was the incubator for CNN’s wire service launched later in the year.

CNN news content also appears on cellphones and PDAs. CNN Mobile gives users text alerts, photos and streaming video on breaking news stories.

FOXNEWS.COM

Foxnews.com is managed by Ken LaCorte, who is its vice president and senior executive producer, along with Stephen Bromberg, executive editor.6

The website has a staff of 80 based in its New York headquarters.

Foxnews.com offers a mobile version of its site, which makes live and edited video accessible on mobile platforms. Video content is available on the main site as well, and 2008 was the first full year in which embedded video features were integrated into Foxnews.com.

Like CNN.com, Fox News’ website integrates user-submitted content in the form of its U-Report page. It differs from CNN.com by integrating U-Report into the main site as a page, and not as a separate URL.

Foxnews.com has the look and feel of a tabloid newspaper in many respects. This is consistent with another major American property of News Corp., the New York Post. The basic layout of the site did not change substantially in 2008. Its content is a mix of wire and staff-written copy.

Cable news and social networking

Cable news organizations in 2008 made an effort to take advantage of the exploding popularity of social networking sites.

Although the number of people who say they get their news from these sites is low, about 10%, it is growing, especially among the young people coveted by broadcasters and their advertisers. In 2008, roughly the same number of people said they regularly get their news from social networking sites as say they regularly listen to NPR (11%) or watch late-night comedy programs “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” (10% each).7

MSNBC.com, like its rivals, expanded its social networking presence in 2008. Although its Facebook page attracted less interest than the others, MSNBC.com seemed to place more emphasis on promoting its advanced digital technologies.

As of December 2008, MSNBC.com’s Facebook profile had attracted 2,400 fans. That is fewer than those of Foxnews.com’s and CNN.com’s profiles, but four times greater than its number of fans just months earlier, in August.

MSNBC.com’s Facebook profile developed and promoted a suite of products for its users. These included new apps, which cater to different preferences in how one receives the news. The products also included news-themed games and widgets.

MSNBC.com did not limit its social networking to Facebook. In August, MSNBC and MySpace, which is owned by News Corp., partnered to host an online contest that would send users to the political conventions last summer.8

Foxnews.com has had trouble over the years keeping up with the popularity of its rivals’ websites. But Rupert Murdoch’s news channel has stayed ahead of the curve when it came to the development of its social networking presence. (For more on News Corp.’s other social networking investment, MySpace.com, see Ownership.)

Foxnews.com’s Facebook page is the most popular of those operated by the cable news networks. The profile features video clips from Fox News that users can share and post on their own profiles.9

As of August 2008, Foxnews.com had amassed more than 20,000 fans to the 600 then at MSNBC.com and CNN.com’s 6,700.10 The average audience age of Foxnews.com’s Facebook site is 23, right in the heart of the key demographics that are valuable to the cable news channels and their advertisers. This is especially important to Fox News, which tends to attract older viewers than its two major competitors.11

While its rivals have made an entrance into the world of more established social networking sites like Facebook and MySpace, CNN’s television personalities experimented with Twitter in 2008. One such personality, Rick Sanchez, made highly visible use of social networking tools on his weekday afternoon show, Rick Sanchez Direct. He encourages viewers to contact him via twitter.com. Several times during the broadcast he reads comments aloud and encourages more people to “join the conversation.”

The introduction of Twitter generated some ambivalent reactions: “It’s too fast for my taste,” said former CBS News producer Sam Roberts, “but the news business has to move on, and this may be the way it needs to go.”12 The feature seemed to take off among technophiles: in September, Sanchez had maxed out the number of people he was able to “follow,” and at 10,000, was quickly adding to the number of people “following” him.

Online video

The websites of the major cable news channels sought to take advantage of their extensive video production in 2008.

MSNBC.com was the leader in the amount of video content available on its site, but CNN.com and Foxnews.com featured live video feeds more often and more prominently.

All three cable networks use their websites as second homes for their television content. Since the websites have defined themselves by their live, up-to-the minute news coverage, this makes for awkward situations at times.

Segments that were shown live on television are made available for downloading throughout the day and sometimes into the next. Some of the pieces appeared stale and even out of date in an up-to-the-minute news environment.

In 2008, two of the cable news channels, MSNBC and Fox News, made their content more widely available outside their own websites in a move that may ultimately reach wider audiences but prove challenging for advertising revenue.

This twist in the online video wars is Hulu.com. The site is owned jointly by NBC Universal and News Corp. and is growing in popularity. Users view streaming news and entertainment television content for free. Its growing audience is good news for MSNBC and Fox News, whose content may now more easily reach the valuable audiences. CNN’s parent company, Time Warner, does not have a stake in Hulu, and thus no CNN programming is available on the site.

Video Links on Cable News Websites (Three-Day Sample Period)

Network Recorded/Edited Video Live Feed User-Generated Total Video Links
CNN 20 7 2 29
Fox News 25 6 0 31
MSNBC 45 0 0 45
Total 90 13 2 105

Note: Sample period of analysis was September 30-October 2, 2008. All three channels’ home pages were analyzed within the same two-hour time period each day (3 to 5 p.m.). All video links present on the site’s home page were tallied and compiled.

In 2008, MSNBC.com continued to be a leader among its peers in the use of video technology online.

In December 2007 it launched a video player that can be embedded into consumers’ blogs and websites, the first of its kind among the major cable networks’ online portals.13 And according to a PEJ analysis, the site still includes more video links, on average, on its homepage than its competitors.14 It also took the lead in terms of the sheer volume of video content being viewed.  According to Nielsen, in March 2008, MSNBC.com set a record when its visitors streamed 125.7 million videos.15

The site’s use of live streaming content, however, is less pronounced than on CNN.com or Foxnews.com. Unlike the other two, which feature a link to live video feeds nearly all day, every day, MSNBC.com rarely features this option on its homepage.

Foxnews.com generally featured about as much video content as CNN.com did, including its use of live streaming content. The site, not known for being an early adopter of new Web applications, did not roll out any major new features in 2008.

CNN.com, along with Foxnews.com, featured a steady amount of video content, including live feeds. Early in 2008, CNN also launched an alternative channel exclusively through the Web, which included some original content and anchors who worked exclusively on the channel. Called CNN TV, the Web channel has a pop-out option, and includes a combination of live content, packaged soft-news features, and dead air time.

Podcasts

Cable news websites use podcasts — audio or visual digital editions of their television content — to distribute programming online. With a podcast, a viewer can see a story or clip on demand.

Here CNN.com leads. The site features nearly three times as many podcasts as its rivals. Its home page features an entire podcast section, in which audio and video podcasts are prominently displayed. Evening host Anderson Cooper’s podcast has consistently ranked among the top downloaded on iTunes.16 (For more on podcasts, see the audio chapter.)

Cable News – podcasts
October 2008

MSNBC (10 podcasts) CNN (28 podcasts) Fox News (10 podcasts)
Meet the Press The Ali V Podcast Greta’s Podcast
Nightly News with Brian Williams America Votes 2008 Fox News Sunday To Go
Today Anderson Cooper 360 Daily Talking Points Podcast
Countdown Around the Track Common Sense
Hardball Business Update John Gibson’s My Word
JT’s Rant CNN All Access Brit Hume’s Political Grapevine
Morning Joe The CNN Daily Brian’s Sports Blog
News Headlines CNN Heroes Keeping it Reel Podcast
ZeitGeist CNN News Update Fox News Flash Video Podcast
Your Business CNN Politics Daily The Blast Powered By Fox News
CNN Student News
Fareed Zakaria GPS
In Case You Missed It
The Larry King Podcast
Late Edition Wolf Blitzer
The Lou Dobbs Commentary
Nancy Grace Cross Exam
News of the Absurd
Now in the News
On Screen
Paging Dr. Gupta
Reliable Sources
Robin Meade Expressed
SHOWandTELL
Showbiz Tonight
Special Programming – Audio
Special Programming – Video
You Can’t Make This Stuff Up
Click here to see the latest list Click here to see the latest list Click here to see the latest list

Source: Respective websites; podcasts listed on October 6, 2008

Blogs

MSNBC.com has the greatest number of blogs on its site (24) while Fox News still has the fewest (12).

Cable News – Weblogs
October 2008

MSNBC (24 weblogs) CNN (22 weblogs) Fox News (12 weblogs)
Clicked Anderson Cooper 360 On the Scene
Cosmic Log Business 360 GretaWire
Body Odd Cafferty File Fox Embeds
Alpha Channel CNN.com Behind the Scenes Weather Machine
The Red Tape Chronicles Consumer Tips E-Mac’s Stock Watch
Your Biz From Z to Z with Carl Azuz Cameron’s Corner
Ads of the World In Session Fox News Health Blog
Daryl Cagle’s Cartoon Weblog In the Field The Bourbon Room
Does it Work? Testing Health Gadgets Inside the Middle East In the Greenroom
Test Pattern the Marquee Griff’s Notes
The Daily Nightly Morning Express with Robin Meade The News According to Hughes
Deep Background News to Me Todd Starnes of Fox News Talk
The News Hole Olympics and the World
allDay Paging Dr. Gupta
First Read Political Ticker
Inside Dateline blog Salute to Troops
Worldblog SciTechBlog
Fieldnotes Security Files
ZeitGeist SIU Blog
Hardball’s Hardblogger WeatherFX
MSNBC.com’s PhotoBlog World’s Untold Stories
Beyond the Arc Young People Who Rock
Extra Points
Open Mike
Click here to see the latest list Click here to see the latest list Click here to see the latest list

Source: Respective websites; weblogs listed on October 3, 2008

Microsites

Cable news is a personality-driven platform. Seeking to take advantage of this, many prime-time hosts have added their own websites that link to their parent news channel but exist independently.

Some of these include Sean Hannity and Bill O’Reilly of Fox News, as well as Rachel Maddow of MSNBC. O’Reilly’s website www.billoreilly.com calls itself “The factor online…all the time.” Besides linking to video content on Fox News’s home page, the site includes such features as an interactive poll, an O’Reilly quote of the day and a crossword puzzle.

Other cable news personalities have sites that are more closely associated with their parent channels. One such site highly promoted by CNN, is AC360.com (although the full URL is http://ac360.blogs.cnn.com/) the site centered on Anderson Cooper, host of CNN’s popular Anderson Cooper 360. The site offers a blog, video and text. Its tagline is “News and Commentary – Direct From the AC360 Newsroom.”

The overall impact of these microsites is difficult to discern, but they seem to represent less a bold break in the evolution of cable news’ online presence as much as additional venues to promote cable’s already popular personality anchors.

User-submitted content

All three cable news websites continued to make use of user-submitted content in 2008. But perhaps because of challenges related to incorporating citizen journalism into a trusted news brand, or simply because the user-generated fad had lost some luster, the practice did not grow significantly.

CNN.com spun off its iReport feature with its own website, www.ireport.com.17MSNBC.com’s “firstperson” and Foxnews.com’s “ureport” are featured prominently on the respective news organization’s websites.

The challenges related to the adoption of this content was brought home in October 2008, when a CNN “ireporter” posted a hoax report that Apple’s Steve Jobs had suffered a heart attack.

Shares in Apple Computer plunged briefly after the report was circulated. CNN.com, which quickly removed the report from the site, released a statement stressing that ireport.com content was not edited by CNN staff.

Footnotes

1. “MSNBC.com Democratic Convention Coverage Sets Traffic Record,” Globe Newswire, September 3, 2008

2. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, “Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources,” August 17, 2008. See topline at: http://people-press.org/reports/questionnaires/444.pdf

3. The Pew Research Center for the People & Press, “Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources,” August 17, 2008. See topline at: http://people-press.org/reports/questionnaires/444.pdf.

4. MSNBC.com, About Us’ section,  http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21697053/welcome/

5. Personal communication with CNN.com public relations representative, October 27, 2008

6. News Media Yellow Book, Summer 2008 edition

7. The Pew Research Center for the People & Press, “Key News Audiences Now Blend Online and Traditional Sources,” August 17, 2008. See topline at: http://people-press.org/reports/questionnaires/444.pdf

8. Brian Stelter, “Fox News Joins a Social network, but Not its Parents’ Site,” New York Times, August 18, 2008

9. Brian Stelter, “Fox News Joins a Social network, but Not its Parents’ Site,” New York Times, August 18, 2008

10. Michael Wolff, “Tuesdays With Rupert,” Vanity Fair, October 2008

11. Alex Weprin, “News Divisions Retooling Facebook Apps,” Broadcasting & Cable, August 18, 2008

12. Glenn Garvin, “Rick Sanchez’s News Show Brings the Internet to TV,” Miami Herald, October 6, 2008

13. “MSNBC.com Sets Video Traffic Record,” Prime Newswires, April 7, 2008

14. The PEJ analysis of cable news websites was conducted over the course of three days in September and October 2008. A log was kept of how many video links were present on the home pages of each respective site: MSNBC.com, CNN.com, and Foxnews.com.

15. “MSNBC.com Sets Video Traffic Record,” Prime Newswires, April 7, 2008

16. One of the challenges in measuring podcast audience is that to date, there remains no standard measurement tool. Podcast Alley, an online podcast ranker, does not rank Cooper’s podcast at all.

17. Mike Shields, “Power to the People: CNN Launches iReport.com,” Mediaweek.com, February 11, 2008