The Web identities of the three cable news channels in many ways differ more than the cable channels on television. All, though, saw an overall increase in traffic to their various Web products, and, in turn, took steps to increase and improve their digital offerings.
Internet audience measurement is still something of a frontier, and there is no single — or agreed upon — way of counting traffic to particular websites.
Nevertheless, the data indicate that the digital brands of the major cable news channels were some of the most popular news destinations in 2009.
Two of the top Web audience measurement companies, Hitwise and Nielsen Online, reported that the websites belonging to CNN, Fox News Channel and MSNBC were clustered among the top 10 news and information sites in terms of popularity for the year. (ComScore, the other firm most often looked to for Web audience analytics, was in the process of revising its methodology and was unable to provide comparable data for this report).
Source: Hitwise, Nielsen Online
Hitwise ranked CNN.com as the number two news and information website of 2009, just behind Yahoo.com. It was followed by msnbc.com at number three and Foxnews.com at number five.
Nielsen Online’s data painted a slightly different picture: It ranked MSNBC’s network of websites (MSNBC Digital Network) as the number two news and information website of the year, followed by CNN.com at number four and Foxnews.com at number seven.
Why the disparity between the two companies’ measurements? MSNBC’s Web audience ranking may be more favorable according to Nielsen because that measurement firm bundles the outlet’s Web brands into one, but does not do so for other outlets, including CNN and Fox. Hitwise keeps them separate.
Another difference between Hitwise and Nielsen is that Hitwise measures traffic through Internet access companies, while Nielsen does it through panels of users. Many observers argue that Nielsen’s numbers may undercount traffic during the day, as a consequence of many businesses not allowing Nielsen software on their company servers. (For more on how Internet measurement companies track audience, see the backgrounder.)
A close examination of the features of each website and their developments in 2009 reveals some key differences in content, technology, and overall blueprint for growth.
Source: data compiled from each website by PEJ in December 2009
CNN maintains a digital network of four main websites — CNN.com, iReport.com, CNNMoney.com, and CNNPolitics.com. CNNMoney.com is the online home of Fortune, Money and Fortune Small Business (FSB) magazine.
The main news site, CNN.com, has a dedicated staff of 200 (as of 2008) based in Atlanta. The site is managed by Susan Grant, executive vice president of CNN News Services, and Kenneth “KC” Estenson, senior vice president and general manager of CNN.com.
CNN’s program hosts are not heavily promoted on the website, with their shows advertised at the bottom of the home page. The site’s top stories in 2009 were the foundering economy (15%) and the health care debate (6%). Nearly all of the content on the site was written by CNN staff (93%), a much larger portion than on MSNBC.com or Foxnews.com.
The site leads MSNBC.com and Foxnews.com in the number of blogs and podcasts it has. However, CNN.com features just over half the number of video links on its home page as the other two sites. PEJ’s content analysis revealed that just 1% of the site’s home page content was made up of video.
CNN.com took further steps to integrate user content into its site. This is perhaps in recognition of the growing ability of individuals to upload videos, photos and text from the ground, in an instant, essentially providing first-hand accounts of news events.
In September 2009, CNN launched an iPhone and iPod touch application that allows users to upload their own iReports. The application is a multidimensional tool, featuring written news content, live streaming video and other elements.2 As of late 2009, CNN was the only one of the three cable channels to charge for its mobile app, at $1.99. And as of January 2010, it remained on the list of the top 50 most downloaded apps that carry a price tag.
On October 26, more thorough change came in with the launch of a new design that highlighted user interactivity (users can personalize their cnn.com home pages), and better integrated CNN video and text. The new home page puts more emphasis on video by placing a video player front and center, with breaking news headlines relegated to the left-hand column.
In November, Estenson announced that the website would be shutting down its anchor-driven “live, multistream video service,” CNN.com Live. Its four primary anchors were let go, along with some associated production staff (see Cable News Investment for more on the channel’s resources).
According to a staff memo from Estenson, CNN would be “shifting resources to create a unit focused on streaming major live events, producing video packages especially for CNN.com and increasing our overall on-demand offering.”3
Foxnews.com, along with FoxNation.com, which was launched in 2009, is the online home of the Fox News Channel.
The site has a staff of about 100 based in its New York headquarters, up from 80 in 2008.4
Foxnews.com focused less on the economy than the other two sites (11% of its news hole), but covered stories about domestic terrorism (6%) more frequently. Nearly half (49%) of the site’s content was written by Fox News staff.
The site’s design hints at the tabloid style of its parent company’s other properties, such as the New York Post. Just as on CNN.com, the Fox News program hosts are not promoted heavily except at the bottom of the home page. But in 2009, it launched a new website to draw on their popularity. Its citizen journalism microsite, U-Report, allows users to upload their own photos and videos to the site, some of which make it to the Fox News Channel.
The site has fewer blogs than the other two sites, only seven, but it promotes them more by including several links to them in its right-hand sidebar.
On March 30, Fox News launched FoxNation.com, a website designed to leverage the popularity of Fox News Channel’s prime-time evening talk hosts.5 The site adopts some of the characteristics of a social networking platform in which visitors are invited to post comments and debate among themselves.
Fox made another foray into the world of interactive journalism, capitalizing on its corporate sibling, MySpace (see Cable Ownership). The project, MySpace uReport, gives users the ability to share their self-produced content with the MySpace community, and possibly be selected to air on Fox News.6 Fox’s uReport program was launched in 2007 (see the 2008 report for more details) following similar efforts by CNN and MSNBC.
Another of News Corp.’s ventures, Hulu.com (co-owned with GE and Disney) continued to grow in popularity in 2009. The website features streaming, high-quality video produced by the television and film arms of the owners’ properties, including Fox News and MSNBC news content. In October, News Corp.’s deputy chairman, Chase Carey, suggested that the Hulu model would evolve into a subscription-based one. “I think a free model is a very difficult way to capture the value of our content,” said Carey during a conference hosted by Broadcasting & Cable.7
MSNBC.com includes a broad range of content on its site. In 2009, it devoted more attention (25% of its news hole) to the economy than the other two sites. This intense focus is reminiscent of the tendency of cable news television to latch onto a story and follow it incessantly. More than any of the cable news websites, MSNBC.com uses wire copy (46% of news hole) on its home page. Only 20% of its content was written in-house. The site’s home page contains more video than the others, though, primarily produced by NBC or MSNBC staff. A sample tally revealed more links to video segments, and PEJ’s content analysis found that 4% of its home page content comprised video clips.
In 2009, MSNBC.com improved its mobile offerings and acquired a local news aggregator.
In June, MSNBC, in partnership with Zumobi, announced the launch of its iPhone and iPod touch application. While the application is free, it lacks the live streaming video feature that CNN offers. The Rachel Maddow Show also has its own application.
In August, MSNBC.com acquired EveryBlock, a Chicago-based local news aggregator. The site allows users in several major American cities to find hyperlocal news and information by entering their zip codes. MSNBC.com president Charlie Tillinghast stated that EveryBlock, which would remain its own site, would complement MSNBC.com’s editorial skills and presentation strengths.9
1. Hitwise data are based on U.S. visits between January 2009 and November 2009.
2. David Sarno, “CNN’s new iPhone app takes mobile news to the next level,” Los Angeles Times, September 28, 2009
3. Kenneth “KC” Estenson, note to CNN.com staff, posted on WebNewser, November 12, 2009
4. Personal communication with Loren Hynes, Fox News Channel publicist, February 25, 2010
5. Howard Kurtz, “Fox Ferreting Out Fans,” Washington Post, March 30, 2009
6. “MySpace and FOX News launch “uReport” community on world’s leading social portal,” Fox News Channel media relations, press release, April 20, 2009
7. Bobbie Johnson, “TV websites must begin charging, says Murdoch lieutenant,” the Guardian (Britain), October 23, 2009
8. Personal communication with Gina Stikes, MSNBC.com publicist, January 28, 2010
9. Marisa Guthrie, “MSNBC.com Acquires EveryBlock,” Broadcasting & Cable, August 17, 2009