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Content Analysis

Online Content

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

If the news agenda of legacy media is shrinking, the evidence suggests a broader and certainly more international flavor online.

In 2008, a year dominated by the presidential election and the economic meltdown, and when coverage of the Iraq war plummeted, the leading news websites provided the most coverage of events outside the U.S. borders. And some domestic issues beyond the economy and the election were also more prevalent online.

The presidential election and the economy certainly dominated. But they did so to a lesser degree online than in the media over all. And as a result, much as we found a year earlier, the five leading news websites also offered more coverage of foreign news among their top stories and other matters as well.

Online, time of day also matters. Users who went to a site early in the day were more likely to see foreign news coverage than those who went to the same site late in the day.

The focus of each site’s leading news coverage varied. The Web aggregator sites differed significantly from each other, and varied even more from those tied to legacy news operations. Yahoo News, for instance, was much more focused on the three major storylines of the year. Google News, by contrast, offered the largest amount of foreign news coverage.

But they also shared certain characteristics that distinguished them from other media, too.

These are all among the findings of a yearlong examination of the five most popular news sites, some 6,539 stories, over 262 days. The sites examined were AOL News, CNN.com, Google News, MSNBC.com and Yahoo News.

Online as a Source for International News

The top online news sites got somewhat less international in 2008 than they were the year before.

In 2008, 18% of the news coverage on leading online news sites was about non-U.S. international stories, down from the 25% in 2007.

And another 9% was about U.S. foreign affairs, down from 22% in 2007.

International Coverage: Online vs. Media Over All
2008
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008

But this was still significantly higher than any other media sector in 2008. In the media generally, 10% of news coverage was about international affairs not involving the U.S. and another 6% was about U.S. foreign affairs.

Over all, seven of the top-10 stories of the year on the websites studied were international events. In the overall media five were.

One of the major reasons for the decrease in U.S.-related international coverage online was a decrease in attention paid to Iraq. In 2007, Iraq made up 17% of the online news coverage and was by far the biggest story of the year. In 2008, Iraq made up only 4% of online news coverage.

Top Stories Online vs. Media Over all
Percent of Newshole

Online

Media Over All

1 Election*

25%

Election*

36%

2 U.S. Economy

14

U.S. Economy

15

3 Iraq War

4

Iraq War

4

4 Pakistan

2

Domestic Terrorism

1

5 Olympics

2

Olympics

1

6 Domestic Terrorism

1

Blagojevich Scandal

1

7 Afghanistan

1

Afghanistan

1

8 Georgia/Russia Conflict

1

Pakistan

1

9 Israeli/Palestinian Conflict

1

Immigration

1

10 Zimbabwe Elections

1

Georgia/Russia Conflict

1

Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008
* Includes stories about the campaign, results, and the transition
† Includes stories about the financial crisis, economic issues, gas/oil prices, auto industry, and Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae
‡ Includes stories about Iraq policy debate, events in Iraq, and the impact of the war in the U.S.

Online, Iraq was replaced as a major story by events in a host of other hotspots. Pakistan, for instance, was the fourth-biggest story of the year on the news websites studied. Other than online, only the newspaper category had Pakistan in its top-10 stories of the year (at No. 8).

Other foreign stories that received more attention online than anywhere else included the Georgia/Russia conflict, the Israeli/Palestinian conflict, the internal unrest following elections in Zimbabwe and the major earthquake that hit China.  (In 2007, Pakistan and the Israeli/Palestinian conflict also received more coverage online than in any other sectors.)

Election as Top Story

As elsewhere, online the No. 1 story was the presidential election. But here it filled only a quarter (25%) of the newshole on the news sites rather than the 36% in the media generally. Only newspaper front pages (23%) were lower.

News websites generally feature one or two stories most prominently on their home pages at a given time, and the election was the biggest focus in those stories through the year as well. Almost a third (29%) of lead stories on the news home pages were about the election. One example occurred on April 30, when Yahoo News led with a picture of Barack Obama giving a speech condemning inflammatory comments made by his former pastor. The story had the headline, “Obama Tries to Dig Out: His candidacy is reeling from Jeremiah Wright’s comments. Now Obama is dropping nuance and showing some fire.” The headline then linked to an analysis by Time magazine reporter Karen Tumulty that Obama had been facing a series of setbacks including the controversy over Wright.

Frame of Campaign Coverage
Percent of Campaign Newshole
January 6-November 3, 2008

Online

Media Over all

Political Horse Race

63%

57%

Other Political

9

13

Policy

12

13

Personal

5

7

Public Record

4

3

Other

7

6

Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008

With online’s tendency toward breaking news, its focus of the presidential campaign coverage was even slightly more horse-race-focused than the media over all. From early January until Election Day, 63% of online campaign coverage was on the political horse race, which was more than the 57% in the media over all. (Meanwhile, 12% of the online coverage about the campaign was about the policy elements of the campaign, which was almost the same as the media over all, 13%.)

In part because of their greater tendency to focus on horse race, the leading news websites also tended to offer more coverage favorable to the candidate ahead in the polls than the press generally. During the last eight weeks of the campaign (September 8-November 2), 47% of the stories focused on Obama were positive (up from 38% in the press over all), 30% were neutral (vs. 34%), and 22% were negative (compared with 27%).

In contrast, Republican nominee John McCain received more negative coverage online than in the media generally. Almost two-thirds (64%) of campaign stories on the top websites focused on McCain were negative, which was more than the 57% of campaign stories in the media over all. Only 8% of online campaign stories about McCain were positive compared with 14% over all.

Domestic Subjects

Just under three-quarters of the top story coverage online was about domestic affairs (73%). While that was up substantially from the year before (53%), it was still low by the standards of the year (in the press over all it was 83%).

The primary reason that online still offered less domestic news than the media in general is that the top news websites had less coverage of the election and economy. Together, 39% of the online coverage was devoted to those stories compared to 51% of the media over all. The only sector that was close to online was newspapers (42% devoted to those two subjects).

The answer is in part tied to one of the strengths of online news — the ability for the sites to update stories frequently throughout the day and report breaking information almost instantly.

Top Broad Story Topics: Online vs. Media Over All
Percent of Newshole

Online

Media Over All

Elections/Politics 22% Elections/Politics 34%
Foreign (Non-U.S.) 18 Foreign (Non-U.S.) 11
Economics 12 Economics 10
U.S. Foreign Affairs 9 U.S. Foreign Affairs 6
Crime 6 Crime 5
Disasters/Accidents 6 Disasters/Accidents 4
Government 4 Government 4
Business 4 Business 4
Health/Medicine 2 Health/Medicine 3
U.S. Miscellaneous 2 U.S. Miscellaneous 2

Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008

While elections/politics (at 22% of the newshole) was the largest single topic covered online, that number was smaller for websites than for any other media sector except for newspapers (also at 22%).

Economic coverage was the second-largest topic area covered by online news sites at 12%, while business news was an additional 4%. Many of these stories would focus on breaking economic news that would hit the homepages soon after being announced. At approximately 4 p.m. Eastern Time on September 16, for example, the homepage on AOL News led with a breaking story that the Federal Reserve had decided to not cut interest rates despite the previous day’s big drop in the stock market.

But on a litany of other domestic topics, the Internet news sites studied actually offered among the highest amounts of coverage. And a good deal of this may have something to do with the orientation of Web news sites to events that are fast breaking.

Crime reporting, at 6%, for instance, was higher than all of the other media sectors studied except for cable television, also at 6%.

Also at 6%, disasters and accidents were reported online more than any sector except for network television (at 7%). These types of breaking stories, such as the tornadoes that struck on February 5 (Super Tuesday for the presidential primary campaign) were often among the lead stories that websites promoted as breaking news.

Morning vs. Evening Coverage

Web sites are unique among news products in that they can be updated and viewed at any time. A person who visits a Web site in the morning may find very different lead stories from one who visits the same site in the evening. What differences might one find?

Beginning April 28, 2008, and going through the end of the year, PEJ rotated the times that we captured websites each weekday. On one day the websites were captured between 9 and 10 a.m. Eastern Time, and on the next day they were captured between 4 and 5 p.m. Eastern Time.

Having this rotation allows us to discover how different the news agenda might be for users who visit the sites at the beginning and end of a typical workday on the East Coast. The differences, while relatively minor, do suggest that certain late-breaking stories become more prominent later in the day, while foreign coverage is more present early in the day, with much of the world hours ahead of the U.S. news cycle.

Differences in Broad Story Topics by Morning and Evening Online
April 28,2008 – Dec. 31, 2008
Percent of Newshole

Mornings (9-10 a.m. ET)

Evenings (4-5 p.m. ET)

Elections/Politics

23%

20%

Foreign (Non-U.S.)

20

15

Economics

13

15

U.S. Foreign Affairs

8

8

Crime

5

7

Disasters/Accidents

7

6

Government

5

6

Business

5

4

Health/Medicine

1

3

U.S. Miscellaneous

2

2

Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008

The biggest difference between morning and early evening is that there is significantly more international news early in the day. A fifth (20%) of the top news coverage online in the morning on the East Coast is non-U.S. international stories compared to 15% later in the day. This may be due in large part to the differences in time zones since many overseas visitors to those sites are more likely to view the sites during early morning in the United States.

Differences Between Sites

The mix of online outlets studied is more diverse in structure and news process than any other genre studied. The online sample for PEJ’s leading news sites consists of two types of sites: aggregators (Google News, Yahoo News and AOL News) and sites that are tied to other news organizations (MSNBC.com and CNN.com). (Starting in 2009, given a growing shift in audience to online news, the PEJ sample will include 12 websites rather than these 5). PEJ discovered that in 2007, despite the similarities in the way a site chooses its leading news stories, the subject matter between similar types of sites can differ significantly. This same pattern also held true in 2008.

Top Stories of Online Aggregators
Percent of Newshole

AOL News

Google News

Yahoo News

Election* 20% Election* 26% Election* 24%
U.S. Economy 8 U.S. Economy 7 U.S. Economy 20
Iraq War 3 Iraq War 4 Iraq War 6
Warren Jeffs and Texas Raid 2 Zimbabwe Elections 3 Pakistan 3
Domestic Terrorism 1 Pakistan 3 Afghanistan 2
China Earthquake 1 Georgia/Russia Conflict 2 Israeli/Palestinian Conflict 2
Hurricane Ike 1 Kenya Elections and Violence 2 China Earthquake 2
Afghanistan 1 China 2 Georgia/Russia Conflict 1
Israeli/Palestinian Conflict 1 Iran 2 Olympics 1
Olympics 1 Domestic Terrorism 2 Domestic Terrorism 1

Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008
* Includes stories about the campaign, results, and the transition
† Includes stories about the financial crisis, economic issues, gas/oil prices, auto industry, and Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae
‡ Includes stories about Iraq policy debate, events in Iraq, and the impact of the war in the U.S.

PEJ’s content analysis includes the three most popular aggregation sites—Yahoo News, AOL News and Google News. Of the three, Yahoo News, which uses human editors to select its stories, was much more focused on a few major stories throughout the year. AOL News, which also uses people to make the story selections, was the most focused on a wide range of domestic news. Google News, which employs computer algorithms to decide with stories are most prevalent, was the most international.

At Yahoo News, over half of the top story coverage (51%) was about the three major storylines of the year—the presidential election, the economy and Iraq, compared with 37% for Google News and 32% for AOL News.

At AOL News, domestic news filled 79% of the space among the top stories during the year (compared with 66% at Yahoo News and 61% at Google News). But the election was filled the least of this top newshole, just 20%, less than both Google News (26%) and Yahoo News (24%).

At Google News, the rest of the world was a bigger story (non-U.S. coverage filled 28% of the newshole studied). Eight of the top 10 stories of the year for Google News were international events.

Select Broad Topic Coverage by Online Aggregators
2008
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008

Who Produces the News on Aggregator Sites

Because AOL, Yahoo, and Google produce little to no original content on their news sites, they all rely heavily on wire stories such as those from the Associated Press or Reuters.

For Yahoo, 86% of its coverage was from wire services, compared to 90% for AOL. Google linked to many wire stories, but 79% of its leading news coverage was from news organizations other than wire services compared to 21% that was from wires. These other news sources encompassed a wide range of outlets from the New York Times to CNN to international-focused sites like the BBC and the Voice of America.

Story Format of Online Aggregators
Percent of Newshole

AOL News

Yahoo News

Google News

Wire

90%

86%

21%

Other news outlet

8

12

79

Internal Staff

2

2

0

Combo wire/staff

<1

0

0

Outside contributor/freelance

<1

0

0

Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008

These numbers are similar to what we found last year with one exception, at Yahoo. 1 In 2007, almost all of Yahoo’s leading news coverage (98%) came from wire stories. That number fell in 2008 to 86%. Much of this change came from more copy being featured from two sources, Politico and Time magazine, such as a March 26 Time interview with Hillary Clinton, in which she described her plan to win the Democratic nomination for president despite trailing Obama in delegates by a slight margin at the time.

Site Differences — Sites Tied to Legacy Media

Two of the sites in the yearlong study, CNN.com and MSNBC.com, were tied to the legacy media of cable news channels.

While the television channels associated with these sites differ more markedly according to our content studies, (see Cable TV Content Analysis for more) the two websites are quite similar in news judgment.

Each site gave roughly the same amount of coverage to the top three stories of the year. (CNN.com gave 28% to the presidential election, for instance, and MSNBC.com gave 26%.)

Top Stories for Online Sites Tied to Legacy Media
Percent of Newshole

MSNBC.com

CNN.com

Election* 26% Election* 28%
U.S. Economy 16 U.S. Economy 17
Iraq War 5 Iraq War 4
Olympics 2 Olympics 1
Pakistan 2 Afghanistan 1
Domestic Terrorism 2 Mumbai Terror Attacks 1
Afghanistan 1 Warren Jeffs and Texas Raid 1
Blagojevich Scandal 1 Blagojevich Scandal 1
Myanmar Cyclone 1 Pakistan 1
Georgia/Russia Conflict 1 Domestic Terrorism 1

Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008
* Includes stories about the campaign, results, and the transition
† Includes stories about the financial crisis, economic issues, gas/oil prices, auto industry, and Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae
‡ Includes stories about Iraq policy debate, events in Iraq, and the impact of the war in the U.S.

Both CNN.com and MSNBC.com also split similarly between foreign and domestic topics. CNN.com devoted 21% of its newshole to foreign topics compared with 23% for MSNBC.com).

And how did the two websites compare to their cable channel siblings on television?
To begin with, neither website was as election-heavy or domestically focused as their cable channel counterparts.

Story Selection: MSNBC Online vs. MSNBC Cable
2008 Coverage of Big News Events
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008
Election includes stories about the campaign, results, and the transition.
U.S. Economy includes stories about the financial crisis, economic issues, gas/oil prices, auto industry, and Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae.
Iraq War includes stories about Iraq policy debate, events in Iraq, and the impact of the war in the U.S.

Story Selection: CNN Online vs. CNN Cable

2008 Coverage of Big News Events
Design Your Own Chart
Source: PEJ, A Year in the News, 2008
Election includes stories about the campaign, results, and the transition.
U.S. Economy includes stories about the financial crisis, economic issues, gas/oil prices, auto industry, and Freddie Mac/Fannie Mae.
Iraq War includes stories about Iraq policy debate, events in Iraq, and the impact of the war in the U.S.

The election was the largest story of the year for CNN.com (28%) and MSNBC.com (26%), but those paled in comparison to the level of coverage on CNN’s cable channel (55%) and MSNBC’s cable channel (72%).

On the other hand, both websites devoted significantly more time to the other top stories of the year – the economy and Iraq. MSNBC.com devoted 16% of its leading news coverage to the troubles with the U.S. economy and 5% to Iraq, while the cable television station devoted 7% to the economy and 1% to Iraq. CNN.com devoted 17% to the economy compared to 12% on the cable channel and 4% to Iraq compared to 1%.

CNN.com and MSNBC.com offered more overseas news than their cable television siblings. More than three-quarters (79%) of the leading news coverage on CNN.com was focused on domestic topics, compared to 91% on CNN’s cable channel. On MSNBC.com, that number was 77%, but still less than the 96% of domestic coverage on MSNBC’s cable channel.

Beyond that, CNN.com and CNN both emphasize breaking news. 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. Most of these headlines come from CNN’s own reporting. The homepage features a list, updated every 20 minutes, of the most popular articles on the site. 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 “World,” “Entertainment” and “Science”). The site also has links to blogs and podcasts produced by some of CNN’s television personalities, but those are not as prominently placed.

Another area that CNN experimented with a great deal in 2008 was its iReport section. While this section was not included in PEJ’s study of the main news stories on the site, iReport is a way that users could upload their own videos and share their stories and first-hand experiences with other users.

MSNBC.com, on the other hand, has built its own identity, while also trying to be the home for both NBC and MSNBC on television. The site offers a combination of breaking news along with longer pieces from Newsweek and prominent links to the various NBC and MSNBC television-related websites. Multimedia features are prevalent on the site, as they are on CNN.com, 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 only on one or two developing stories.  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. MSNBC.com does have a way that users can send in pictures to the site, such as photos of their favorite locations to NBC’s Today Show, but it is not as prominent or unfiltered as CNN’s iReport section.

Footnotes

1. Comparing to the previous year, the makeup of the sources for the news for Google and AOL was virtually unchanged. For both 2007 and 2008, 90% of AOL’s coverage was wire news while Google changed only slightly, from 17% wire coverage in 2007 to 21% in 2008.