Skip to Content View Previous Reports



(Note: the data on the ownership section was updated March 17, 2005 with adjusted figures from Nielsen NetRatings and with additional data from comScore MediaMetrix.)

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Who owns the Web?

Has the people’s medium been taken over by big media? Or does attention to the big companies and their popular sites, the most obvious part of the Web, miss the energy and verve of the Internet?

In our inaugural report last year, we suggested that there were, in effect, two Internets: one that aggregated large numbers of users around a limited number of sites, and another that was rapidly changing, full of energy and innovation.

The success of blogs in 2004 suggests that this other, less visible Internet is even more robust now than a year earlier. But data on where people go on the Internet also suggest that at the same time the biggest sites are getting even bigger.

In examining the top sites with the most traffic, there were three main story lines worth noting in 2004.

Big, Bigger, Biggest

While the Internet allows for a nearly infinite choice of news outlets, in practice a few sites dominate, and in 2004 they appeared to be separating themselves even more from the rest of the Web.

Two organizations are the central sources for online traffic figures, Nielsen//Net Ratings and Comscore MediaMetrix. Both show surges in 2004 traffic among the top sites, though their numbers for specific sites vary somewhat.

The top 20 news sites, as measured by Nielsen//Net Ratings, averaged 69.6 million visitors per month from January through October 2004.1

Unique Audience for Top 20 News and Information Sites
These numbers have changed from our original calculations which at times double counted visitors. These revised numbers come directly from Nielsen//Net Ratings and include no duplicated audience figures.
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen//Net Ratings

When it comes to who is at the top of the top, both Nielsen//Net Ratings and comScore show three sites dominating between January and October 2004. CNN, Yahoo News and MSNBC, each averaged around 20 million unique visitors a month in the first ten months of 2004. A fourth site, AOL, is either in line with these other three or slightly below them depending on whose traffic numbers are used.

According to Nielsen//NetRatings data, CNN led the way with 23 million, followed by Yahoo News with 21.4 million and MSNBC with 21 million. AOL News, according to these figures, trails behind with 14.4 million unique visitors, a figure quite different than that reported by comScore. ComScore reports Yahoo! in the lead with an average of 23.2 million, followed by AOL News at 22.6 million. CNN and MSNBC then follow with 21.3 million and 19.3 million, respectively.2

Top Online News Sites (Nielsen)
An average of January to October 2004 monthly unique visitors
Design Your Own Chart
Source: Nielsen//NetRatings
Beginning with Sept. 2004 data, Nielsen//NetRatings–to increase accuracy–has improved its NetView home panel sample weighting methodology by updating projections for key segments of the Internet universe. Caution should be used with trending data.

After that there was a huge dropoff in traffic – an average of around 7.1 million visitors a month. Through October of 2004, Yahoo News showed the most growth among the top three sites since 2003, up 27%. CNN was up 15% and MSNBC 3%.

“Traditional” journalism brands still seem to hold the most appeal. Of the top 25 Nielsen//NetRatings sites from January to October 2004, 17 were associated with traditional news companies – those that produce their own offline content for newspapers, television, or magazines.

Top Online News Sites (comScore)
An average of January 2004-October 2004 monthly data. All Persons at U.S. Home/Work/College-University Locations.
Design Your Own Chart
Source: comScore Media Metrix
comScore policy deletes historical data when a site’s make-up changes to a degree that they feel makes current figures incomparable to earlier figures. Thus, AOL News data and Tribune data are from April – October.

Five sites are unique and cannot be linked to traditional offline news providers. The three sites that aggregate data from other news services and do not do any original reporting are AOL News, Yahoo! News, and Google News. AOL News and Yahoo! News use editors who post stories from other news services and do not do any original reporting. And while Google News also offers a considerable number of wire stories from other news sources, it does not use human editors but rather an algorithm to find articles, and a specific search often turns up material from outside the mainstream news pool.

A second category among news sites not linked to traditional offline news providers comprises those that produce Internet-only content, such as Drudge Report and Slate.

And the last category is those sites that produce local online news content: Advance Internet, World Now and Internet Broadcasting Systems.

In short, despite the attention paid to blogs and the openness of the Internet, when it comes to sheer numbers, online news appears dominated by a handful of traditional big media sites, and for now that domination appears to be increasing.

Local News May Be Getting More Important

Looking further down the list, another distinction is worth noting. Several of the names are not actually single Web sites, but aggregations of various sites owned by the same company, such as Gannett’s local newspapers, or those of Knight Ridder.

Of the top sites for the first ten months of 2004, 12 were actually single sites. In addition to CNN, Yahoo! and MSNBC, they include, in order, AOL, The New York Times, USA Today, ABC News, Google News,, Fox News, CBS, and the BBC.

Some of the strongest growth online was occurring at those sites operating at the local level. For the first ten months of 2004, Gannett and Knight Ridder, which report the traffic of all their newspapers’ Web sites in aggregate, saw increases of 37% and 22%, respectively, over the previous year.3 And Internet Broadcasting Systems, a company that operates local-TV news Web sites, experienced an increase of 36%.

New Players in the Top 20

Still a third story line in online news growth in 2004 involves two other sites, the Associated Press’s CustomNews service and Google News, which gained footholds in the top 20 news sites for the first time.

AP CustomNews is designed primarily for smaller sites. The AP sends stories to a site in the newspaper’s own design and structure, thereby requiring minimal investment in hardware, bandwidth or staff.4 Over the first ten months of 2004, AP CustomNews received 6.2 million unique visitors a month.

Google News is unique among the news sites in the top-20 list in 2004. In addition to its famous search engine, which allows visitors to search for a seemingly endless supply of news stories on topics they are interested in, the site uses a computer algorithm that selects headlines based on how and where the stories appear in other places on the Web. 5 While the headlines are often from major players like, they are frequently news stories from obscure and unorthodox news and political sites. The site grew from 4.1 million unique visitors in January 2004, the first time it was reported, to 7.5 million two months later. Over all, from January through October, it averaged six million unique visitors a month.

Where People Are Going for Online News

Survey data about what kinds of sites people go to for online news help explain the increases seen among sites like Yahoo! Such sites don’t create original content but rather pull together and pass along information from other sources. More people report regularly going to news pages such as Yahoo! or AOL than to any other form of Web site (13%), according to the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, followed by network TV news sites (10%). Just 3%, on the other hand, report regularly going to opinion or online magazine sites.6

Destination of Online News Consumers

ISP News Pages (e.g. Yahoo, AOL)
Network TV Pages
Major Newspaper Sites
Local TV/Newspaper Sites
Online News/Opinion Magazine Sites
qu: Now I’d like to know how often you read certain types of publications. As I read each, tell me if you read them regularly, sometimes, hardly ever or never.
Source: Pew Research Center for The People & The Press, “Pew Research Biennial News Consumption Survey,” June 8, 2004.

Another polling company, MORI Research, looked at where people go specifically for local news and found that internet service providers’ pages were making headway there as well. For now, local newspapers are still the most popular places, but the data suggest their popularity is declining and facing stiff competition from Google. According to the MORI data, 40% of people who go online for local news use newspaper Web sites, down from 62% in 2002. Google, on the other hand, went from less than 3% in 2002 to 39% in 2004. Yahoo!, meanwhile, seems also to have lost ground as a local news source online, declining as a destination from 55% in 2002 to 37% in 2004.7

Online Media Ownership Trends

Of the 25 online news sites (see footnote #1 for complete list of the 25 sites), eight in ten are owned by media companies in the 100 largest in revenue as reported by Advertising Age.8 For example, CNN was the most visited news site and AOL News was fourth. Both sites are owned by Time Warner, the leading media company in total U.S. media revenue in 2003.

Ownership of Most Popular News Sites
By company size, January through October, 2004
Design Your Own Chart
Advertising Age, ‘‘100 Leading Media Companies list’’
The top 100 list is determined by domestic media revenues.The top 25 sites are based on Nielsen//NetRatings data for January-October 2004.

Nearly a third (32%) of the top 25 news sites in 2004 were owned by the top ten U.S. media companies; more than half (56%) were owned by the 20 biggest companies. So the data point to heavy concentration of ownership of the news the public is getting online.

With the reelection of President Bush in November, one can only speculate how Bush’s second term will affect trends in media ownership and concentration. The FCC was partly successful in his first term in increasing the size of the national television audience that any one company was allowed to reach, but many of the modifications it sought were thrown out by the courts.

Click here to view footnotes for this section.