|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
By 2005 users were already getting a significant level of choice in style and personality from news on the Web. Virtually all original newsgathering, though, was still being done by the old media, and some of the major new Internet-only challengers appeared to have made less progress in content over the previous year than the sites of the old media.
There was also a range of serious attempts to exploit the multimedia dimensions of the Web some places, immediacy in others, and to turn the Web into a space for advertorial revenue.
In our first two years of studying news online, we found that the extent to which sites were taking advantage of the potential of the Web varied dramatically, and that still appears to be true. We also found that the notion of a new form of journalism forming in this medium was premature. That is still true. Over all in past years at least the top stories people found online were often deeper in sourcing and content than what was on television, but it lagged behind print. Our sample this year suggests that may be changing. The Internet is an environment that may now, on some sites at least, be richer than what is available anywhere else.
In those previous studies, we examined a variety of news sites several times a day for 20 different, randomly selected days. This year, as part of our Day in the Life of the News study, we examined seven sites repeatedly through the course of the one day — May 11, 2005 — comparing them to what was offered elsewhere and to each other. Beyond just a purely statistical or quantitative look, we delved more deeply into the sites, forming qualitative impressions as well.
By the numbers, the Web environment was rich. The five national Internet sites we examined were more deeply sourced than any other media studied, including national newspapers. Fully 85% of top stories on the Internet contained four or more sources, outstripping any other media (in national newspapers it was 78%, and on network evening news, the most deeply sourced TV outlet, it was 31%). The two local-news Internet sites studied also scored high on sourcing.
The Web also rivaled major papers in how much was disclosed about sources. In both national newspapers and Web sites, 9 out of 10 stories contained at least two sources who were so thoroughly identified that audiences not only knew what their expertise was but any potential biases they might have. Consumers could evaluate for themselves what sources were saying.
The major Internet sites were also second only to the major national papers in how much context their stories offered audiences about events. In our index measuring how many contextual elements the big stories of the day contained, 45% of the ones online contained three or more, as opposed to 57% for national newspapers. The highest scoring TV outlet was network morning news at 39%.
The national Internet sites were also relatively free of reporters’ opinions, at least in their lead stories. Only 6% contained opinion from journalists, compared with 15% of all national newspaper stories, 48% of network morning news stories, and 46% of cable news stories.
The main national sites also tended to agree on the top story of the day. At 9 a.m., four of the five national sites had the same top story, violence in Iraq . Twelve hours later, four would again agree on their top story, the scare in Washington over a small plane that violated restricted airspace.
Beyond the numbers, however, there was far more difference to these sites than might appear at first glance.
The New York Times
Online, the Gray Lady of journalism has had a little more work done than people may realize.
The site is still distinctly that of a newspaper, and the differences between it and online sites managed largely by machines are enormous. But NYTimes.com makes notable use of interactive and multimedia functions. Even more important, it updates stories far more than many other newspaper sites, and a good deal more than it did a year earlier. By 5 p.m. on May 11, and even more so by 9 p.m., this was much different site from when the day started. The sense a visitor gets dipping in and out of NYTimes.com through the day is that of a living newsroom, with new stories coming in as reporters complete them, and adding to those again as new updates come in.
The news was always organized by a strong sense of what was significant, not just what was new, and that distinguished the Times from sites like Yahoo and Google.
In a sense, the approach may be “all the news that’s fit to post.”
The basics of the page, which as 2006 began had not changed since May 11, 2005, start with four top stories and a large photo. Next to the lead stories at the top, users are shown three other major stories, plus the editorials for the day, the op-eds for the day, and the latest on markets around the world. In the middle of the page, under the top four stories, was a section-by-section breakdown of the print edition that day, which gave users access to 61 additional stories, plus eight of the latest stories from AP and Reuters, all from the Web site’s front page.
At 9 a.m., the site is essentially the morning paper on-line but not completely. Already the updating has begun. As early as 7:24 a.m. EDT on May 11, the top story on the page was changed from the lead of the May 11 paper. The paper had already posted a bylined piece about violence in Iraq that occurred overnight. Next users could read about Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s plans for a leaner military, United Airlines winning the right to default on employee pensions and a piece on AIDS in Africa .
NYTimes.com Lead Stories
Throughout the day the news that got top billing changed as stories moved around on the site. And, unlike what we saw in cable’s use of immediacy, the time an event occurred didn’t necessarily determine where a piece appeared. Take the plane-scare story. It started as a secondary item when the news was still coming in. It wasn’t until later, after the event was better understood, that it became the page’s lead piece, at 5 and 9 p.m.
The Iraq story remained among the lead pieces all day, even after it was technically “old news.” It was updated three out of the four times we checked the site — the “at least 60 are killed in New Round of Attacks in Iraq” would become “At Least 79” dead by 4 p.m. that day. The byline would also change, from a co-byline early in the day, John Burns and Terence Neilan (editor-reporter for the Web edition), to a sole author, Burns, by the evening. A piece on a drop in the trade deficit went from a secondary story to a lead, back to a secondary and finally off the page.
By 9 p.m., five of the six top stories on the page would be new or significantly updated from the morning. Across the whole front page, basically more than half of the stories linked would be new — before the next day’s paper was posted. Across the whole front page, indeed, 31 of the 67 stories were new or significantly updated after 9 a.m. (28 of them altogether new). If you remove the 16 stories from weekly special sections such as Dining & Wine, Home & Garden or Automobiles, the degree of updating is even greater — 31 updated and 20 unchanged.
When it came to exploiting the interactivity and multi-media nature of the Web, the Times fell behind some of its TV-oriented rivals, but often ahead of the online aggregators. A quarter of its top stories (25%) contained links to video, such as the piece on Rumsfeld’s plans and the stories on the D.C. plane scare (compared with 45% on average of all sites examined). Just 5% of top stories offered audio links (the average was 6%). None of the main stories allowed users the chance to customize or manipulate data on this day (the average was 18%). And 30% of the stories offered users the chance to communicate with the Times if they had a question (the average was 39%). Incidentally, these figures are not particularly different from what we found two years earlier in a similar study of the Times Web site. In early 2006, the Times announced that all bylines on the site would become links through which users could contact reporters by e-mail.
Here the news is edited not by people but by algorithms, and the site produces no original content whatsoever. In other words, computers choose from a mix of content produced elsewhere.
“Search and browse 4,500 news sources updated continuously,” the page promises at the top. The result is less an ordering of the news than a kind of stacking it in different piles — with some 14,000 articles accessible from the front page of the site.
Yet in its computerized effort to be constantly new, the site also reveals the degree to which the continuous nature of the 24-hour, seven-day-a-week news cycle is not really so continuous. Most of the stories added to the site through the day are nearly identical versions of the same event from different news outlets. There is no really new information to report, just newer filings of stories. For instance, the plane story from the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, which led the site at 5 p.m. had different — and arguably more interesting — information than the plane piece that was the lead at 9 p.m. from Reuters. The Reuters piece was longer and with more official response, but the CBC piece not only described who the pilot was and what he was wearing — a t-shirt and shorts, which seemed to further emphasize that he was a student pilot who made a mistake — but it included a picture of his arrest. And by 9 p.m. the CBC piece was gone from the front page.
Google News Lead Stories
The site leads with two top stories in its main, middle column and five more headlines right of that, which vary from business to sports news. Below that are a list of subjects “In The News”— on May 11 the keywords included Delta Air Lines, Riverside County, Van Gundy and the Detroit Pistons.
That is followed by three top stories under each of eight different topic headings — World, U.S., Business, Sci/Tech, Sports, Entertainment, Health and More Top Stories.
For each news event, Google News offers apparently every related story it can find. On May 11, for instance, the top story at 9 a.m., about a grenade found near the site where Bush delivered a speech in the former Soviet Republic of Georgia, linked to 1,968 other stories about the event. In all, the 31 “stories” highlighted on Google News’s front page at 9 a.m. this day were actually links to 14,228 separate stories. The depth is breathtaking. The utility of it, for an average person, is harder to fathom.
With each subsequent visit, we found new stories in most of the spots. According to the numbers, 80% of the top stories were new on Google. Again, however, usually they were about the same news event, just new versions from a new outlet. At 1 p.m., for instance, the story about anti-American protests in Afghanistan was from CNN, plus links to NPR, the San Diego Union Tribune, Radio Australia and others. At 5 p.m., there were stories from the Associated Press, ABC News, the International Herald Tribune. At 9 p.m., a story from the Scotsman (UK) plus Reuters and the Guardian on top. The actual accounts didn’t vary much, sometimes not even the original source. At 5 p.m., for instance, the story on Afghan riots came from the Guardian Unlimited, but on a closer look it was actually an AP story. The story on the riots just underneath it is from ABC News, it says, but it is also the AP story.
On Google, some topics got more prominence than they did elsewhere. Sci/Tech, for instance, comes third in their list, followed by Sports, and Entertainment. Subjects that get more prominence elsewhere, such as politics, are not in the headings here.
In exploiting the potential of the Web for multimedia and interactivity, Google fell behind, at least on this day. Only 5% of the stories on the site had links to video of the event in the news compared with the average of the sites monitored of 45%, though again since that was a result of grabbing stories from a variety of sources, the inclusion of video was ultimately the call of those outlets. None of Google’s stories had links to graphics, maps or special text boxes (the average on this day was 17% of stories). Only 5% of stories had some link by which users could manipulate or customize data, whereas the average was 18%. And only 15% of stories on Google had links through which users could follow up with queries or communicate with someone, compared with 39% in our sample over all.
The only multimedia element in which Google was above average was in the use of audio. Some 15% of the top stories had such links, versus the 6%.
How did the news agenda offered by Google’s computers compare with those of the editors of NYTimes.com? At 9 a.m., Google led with the story about the unexploded grenade found near where President Bush had spoken, a story that never was near the top of the New York Times news agenda this day. Both sites had Iraqi violence at the top. Google had the Afghan riots next, a story the Times would not post for two more hours. But the Times had exclusives, an interview with Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and a story about AIDS in Africa that were nowhere on Google’s site. The United Airlines pension story that would dominate elements of the American press this day was not listed among Google’s top stories anywhere on its page.
By 9 p.m., the grenade story was again one of the “Top Stories” on Google (after being displaced by a general US-Georgia relations story at 1 p.m. and a piece on the Canadian budget at 5 p.m.) The Times also had the plane scare but continued to think violence in Iraq was important, a story now replaced on Google by the next day’s relative calm. Throughout the page, the stories also tended to differ, topic by topic. Apparently, at least on May 11, the choices made by Google’s machines differed from the choices made by editors at the New York Times.
Yahoo News takes the spirit of Google News — the user is the editor — a step further. It separates the news in multiple ways and allows users to pick the way they see it — by source, by topic, by genre (photos, opinion), by most popular stories, most viewed and even something called “weird news.”
Users also have the capacity, within distinct limits, to add or remove categories and change the layout.
But Yahoo isn’t culling from 4,500 news sources as Google is. It is focusing more heavily on the judgment of six sources — AP, Reuters, Agence France-Presse (AFP), the Los Angeles Times, USA Today and the Christian Science Monitor. Users also can select their own sources from a list of 14.
If Google News is about mining the Web for maximum depth, in other words, Yahoo News is more about navigating it within clearer limits for maximum choice.
(The page has been redesigned since May 11, 2005 , but the effect is similar. Users sort through the different sources using tabs, so that more classifications are easier to view. There are a few more top stories offered at the beginning of the page, and some new sources are offered, such as NPR. Heading into 2006 users were also now offered some minimal original content from Yahoo journalists, under the heading “YAHOO EXCLUSIVE,” though the quantity of original content was more symbolic than substantial.)
On May 11, the top of the page at 9 a.m. was a story about the bombing in Iraq , from AP, that featured a big headline, a photo of a badly damaged car and a one-paragraph lead-in with the dateline. It was the only story on the page played with such prominence. Then came mainly a listing of headlines: There was a “Top Stories” heading, an inventory of the six sources from which the site got its news, and five headlines from each of them. On this day, several of the stories were the same as elsewhere, but not all: The slayings in Illinois were a top story in four of the six outlets at 9 a.m. and the Iraq story was a top item on all the wire services at 1 p.m. The Christian Science Monitor, with its orientation toward news features rather than breaking headlines, also offered a different news agenda (“Pivotal days for Frist and the GOP,” “L.A. mayor’s race signals new ethnic alliances.”)
The page’s main listing of headlines was followed by a link to the New York Times homepage (no longer offered in the same place). Then came categories that traditional journalists sometimes find tantalizing, challenging and even a little horrifying: users can click on the stories that are “most popular” followed by “most viewed” and “most recommended.” It’s not entirely clear what the differences are. But at 9 a.m. on May 11, the “most popular” stories bore little relationship to the top stories as defined by any of the news organizations listed. The most popular story was “New World islands emerge from Dubai ’s waters.” The second was, “Mark Hamill Reminisces on ‘Star Wars.’ ” The “Most viewed” was closer to the AP news agenda. But the most recommended stories were the most intriguing of all: “Puget Sound in declining health,” and “Realtors fight cost-cutters with rule to keep fees high,” and “Experts: flares may have helped planets.”
By the numbers, Yahoo was fairly typical when it came to updating. Just under half of its top stories (45%) were replaced during the day. Another third were updated in some fashion. As with Google, though, the updating is not a decision made by the staff; in this case it is the latest postings from each of the key news outlets — or on this day from three of them (AP, Reuters and AFP). The difference from Google is in what the two sites draw from and how they offer it to users. Yahoo pulls from a small pool of outlets and lists the stories by the outlet. Google pulls from a nearly limitless number of outlets and lists them by topic.
When it came to exploiting the interactive and multimedia dimensions of the Web, Yahoo again was about average among the sites we found over all. Just over half its stories contained links to video of the events described (55% versus 45% on average) and the video links hit most of the big stories of the day — the Iraq bombings, the Zion slayings, North Korea ’s fuel rods. Two thirds (65%) offered photo galleries. A quarter of the stories had links by which users could customize or manipulate data (slightly higher than the 18% average). And three quarters of its stories offered users the chance to communicate or interact with someone to follow up (nearly double the 39% average) in a variety of ways, from e-mailing the piece to visiting message boards so as to post views. Here, Yahoo scored much higher than its online rival Google, and higher than the New York Times, and about on a par with sites that have their origins in television, like CBS and CNN.
Only in the use of audio did Yahoo lag. None of its top stories, at least back in May, had audio links (compared with 18% overall).
If Google and Yahoo represent Web search companies that are moving into journalism, CBSNews.com is at the leading edge of TV networks trying to manage their way into the interactive world. May 11 captured a day before the site was redesigned after the hiring of the online entrepreneur Larry Kramer as head of CBS Digital.
On the date of our Day in the Life study, however, CBS already offered users a clear top story that featured a photo, an interactive feature and video, followed by a second story that, with a click, also offered multiple features. A list of 14 more headlines sat under those. Some of the stories, however, were repeated in more than one place. This section was followed by the CBS Evening News Online Edition, a chance to watch the newscast online.
There were then 47 other headlines on the page, divided by categories — U.S., World, Health Watch, Entertainment, Opinion, Sci-Tech, Politics, Business, Evening News, Early Show.
Last May, the level of updating on the page was substantial, but there was also some effort to make the level of change look greater than it may have been. The top story and the second story, for instance, tended to be swapped back and forth, and other stories moved around the page. At 9 a.m. the Iraqi bombing led the page. By 1 p.m., the plane scare in D.C. grabbed the top story position, while the testimony of the actor Macaulay Culkin was second and the Iraq story moved to the right margin under a piece on the Zion slayings. At 5 p.m., the Culkin and plane-scare stories were reversed. There was also a noticeable slowing of the updating as time went on. At 1 p.m., 10 of the roughly 65 stories were either new or updated from 9 a.m. (though that wasn’t always signified to the reader). At 5 p.m. another 10 were new. By 9 p.m. just one more story was new, from WebMD.
CBS News Lead Stories
When it came to the numbers, the nature of a television-based site — versus an online aggregator or a newspaper — came into clear relief. Only some of the text on CBS.com came from CBS. None of the main text stories on the site through the day were produced by CBS alone, but 95% of them cited CBS staff and wires together. That is far different from the New York Times, where 90% of the stories were staff-written.
On the other hand, in non-text news, the amount of original content went way up. The site included dozens of video stories that were wholly original to CBS, mostly pieces from different broadcasts.
Indeed, like other TV-based Web sites, even back in May 2005, the site tended to excel at exploiting the multimedia nature of the Web. A remarkable 85% of its top stories had links to video of the events described, while none linked to just audio. Only 5% of the top stories gave users the ability to customize, and none of the top stories offered users specific links by which they could communicate with CBS about the presentation.
All that changed. The CBS page available in 2006 is significantly more of a continuous news source. The site includes a good amount of Internet-only video. It will track news events well after the nightly news is off the air, includes a section on “interactives” where users can find all the interactive features on the page in one place, and includes a special section for “Strange News,” an echo of the spirit of “Odd News” on Yahoo.
The site notably also contains a section called “Build Your Own Newscast,” where users can select and order from 20 top stories from the day and 18 other packages. This creates the capacity for viewers to see a newscast online that is far different from what is available from either the evening more morning news, and far larger. And there is a substantial section where users can download programming for podcast listening, PDAs and MP3s.
The left rail of the new site also contains an “Only on the Web” feature in which CBS News correspondents generate large amounts of video content that is unique, not “repurposed” from television.
Uniquely among the networks and most other sites, CBSNews.com also contains CBS Public Eye, an effort launched after Kramer’s arrival to allow consumers to react to, talk about, criticize and even interact directly with CBS news officials. More than a page, this is a site within a site. It includes essays from outside contributors, comments from viewers, responses by CBS journalists, and blogs by authors from Public Eye.
It is probably the most serious attempt at transparency and dialogue we saw in our sample. It adds a dimension to the CBS approach that makes it, along with one local newspaper we monitored, the most significant attempt to create a sense of a news organization offering a distinct product with a different personality online, rather than just a news source that is involves multimedia and constant updating. Yet Public Eye also feels like a work in progress, and the visitor senses that in a year or two it may be quite different, particularly if blogs begin to fade or evolve as a new dimension of the Web.
The Web site of cable news’s oldest channel has become one of the most popular sites on the Web, consistently among the top three (with Yahoo and MSNBC). What people find there is a site whose top stories on May 11 stood out by nearly all our measures — the level of original content, updating, newness of content, and use of the multimedia nature of the Web. Yet beyond those lead items, much like cable news on television, there is less underneath. The rest of the site relies on AP wire copy for most of its news and amounts to less than people can get in various other places.
CNN.com falls squarely in the camp of old media, making choices for people about what news is most important, though it does offer a button for “Most Popular” stories. Still, if the wire copy and original material are added together, CNN.com offers a diet of news very similar to what viewers could find on the cable channel throughout the day.
The page on May 11 (and its setup had not been changed as of early 2006) featured a lead story, which users were drawn to by a major photo. At 9 a.m., it was the news that “Six bombs kill 54 in Iraq,” the same lead as on many of the sites studied. (Incidentally, CBS.com at 9 a.m. had the number at 61, NYTimes.com at “more than 60,” Reuters “at least 70,” and AFP “at least 64”). This top story also had links to two separate video pieces — on the bombing and the general fighting in Iraq — plus a story about Senate funding for the war and a special report, “Iraq: Transition of Power.”
After the morning, though, the top spot would be dominated by the plane scare — at 1 p.m., 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. The story was updated throughout the day and there were fresh pictures and links, but like its cable TV parent, CNN’s Web site found the wayward Cessna’s journey into restricted airspace the day’s big story.
To the left of that lead, CNN’s site offered seven more headlines under its “More News” heading. And there was a lot of crime reporting on this day — at 9 a.m. the Illinois slaying, another multiple homicide, in California , the Jackson trial and the sentencing of a “cannibal-inspired killer” all made the list. But there was also substantial use of links and multimedia. Four of the seven stories featured video links, and there was yet another special report, this one on Michael Jackson.
CNN.com Lead Stories
That section was followed by yet more multimedia, the latest updates from CNN Radio and video on Britain ’s Prince Harry joining the military. Then came a link to the homepage of the news channel’s No. 1 show, Larry King, followed by a stock market report and stock quote check.
Below that came the rest of the news menu broken down into topics — U.S., World, Technology, Entertainment, Politics, Law, Health, Science and Space, Travel, Education, Sports, Business — each offering a couple of headline stories, 24 in all. Yet there CNN’s effort at original work had stopped. Those 24 stories were all wire copy, mainly AP.
Thus this is really two sites — the eight or so main stories for which CNN has produced packages and text stories through the day, including a couple of background non-breaking news reports, and the larger menu of news from the AP.
During the day, CNN paid fairly close attention to those stories that it produced itself. Nearly half, 45%, of those would turn over by 9 p.m., and another 40% would be updated in some manner. Unlike the aggregators’ computerized updates, these were the work of CNN correspondents, and also often linked to the latest TV reports as well as other video or audio components.
Three quarters of stories through the day included video and three quarters photo galleries. Three quarters of them would also allow users to customize or manipulate data. One in every five (20%) included audio links, and half included graphics and maps. By 9 p.m., for instance, the top story on the plane scare in Washington also included seven different links to sidebars, photo galleries, or video — everything from a timeline (“the key 47 minutes”) to a package on “How the decision to shoot down a plane is made.”
Yet the multimedia emphasis, updating and interactivity was again limited to the top eight stories. In the larger section below that makes up the bulk CNN’s homepage, only four of the 24 wire stories would be replaced by newer material through the day. And there was little in the way of multimedia or other links.
As for news agenda, excluding the AP, the Web site has something of a balance that the news channel on TV does not. Online, the plane-scare story was the lead, but it didn’t dominate the space on CNN’s Web page the way it did the time on TV. Users could sample as much or as little of the plane issue as they wanted.
Still, compared with Yahoo, the New York Times or Google, CNN’s popular page is offering users a much more limited menu of news.
JSOnline: The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
As the name implies, JSOnline represents the effort to create a news experience for users online distinct from what they find in print but related to it, all with the resources of a paper with a circulation of 240,000 on weekdays and 430,000 on Sundays.
That morning’s Milwaukee Journal Sentinel was augmented on the Web with a clear section signaling to users new breaking news in a self-described “Weblog,” plus a menu that broke down the news by city, links to online chats, staff blogs, reader photo galleries, and even ways to get RSS (a web feed format), and a link so that people could easily submit news tips.
JSOnline.com Lead Stories
Some of what follows, particularly the generous offering of staff-written blogs, is an update from how the site looked on May 11, 2005, but the general philosophy was already there.
The emphasis on JSOnline is not simply to update a given morning’s paper — to deliver the newspaper in real time. The Journal Sentinel seems to be approaching the task as if the Internet is a different medium, rapidly developing a different personality that goes beyond the capacity for real-time immediacy.
The Journal Sentinel, on May 11, was trying to exploit the possibilities of the Web as much as any site we found, and in some ways more than the online-only sites Google and Yahoo. The difference was the ability to offer original content and the fact that the paper clearly was connected closely to a community.
JSOnline at 9 a.m. that day looked a good deal like the morning paper, leading with a local election-fraud story in the right margin, a controversy over changing the name of the Marquette sports teams and a story on a local male student suspended for wearing a dress to his high school prom. As the day wore on, the site added “DayWatch, a Weblog of today’s developing news” — local home-sales figures, a legislative battle over taxes, and testimony in a local trial — in a box sitting atop the site’s top story. “DayWatch” is not strictly a blog in the typical sense. Rather, the paper is posting the first few paragraphs of stories that seem likely to appear in the following day’s paper. Rather than filling the page with new developing headlines, however, the new postings are strung together on one page in chronological order. As the day goes on, “DayWatch” grows. Updates are posted as new material, not changes in existing stories, the same feel as one gets from personal blogs.
Other changes on the site during the day were sparse, though at 5 p.m. the lead story was also new, as the Marquette name controversy had taken a new turn. The “Warriors,” who had seen their name changed to “Golden Eagles,” were again finding their nomenclature being reconsidered. The Marquette story bumped the election-fraud story into the right margin.
Below “DayWatch” users find the main stories from that morning’s paper unchanged. Under those come wire stories from around the nation and world that are updated throughout the day.
Down the left side, the news is offered not first by sections but by cities and towns — Milwaukee, Waukesha, Washington, Ozaukee, Racine. Here the stories are listed not just from this day but earlier days as well. Again, immediacy is not the only value here; localism is important, too. Under sports, the next header, users again can navigate directly where they want — Packers, Bucks, Brewers, Marquette, etc.
By the numbers, JSOnline was not particularly focused on multimedia. Only about 2 of its top 10 stories featured video, less than any site other than Google. No story on May 11 featured a photo gallery or audio. But the site was among the leaders in stories that allowed users to manipulate and customize information.
And every top story invited readers to communicate and ask questions — the only site to reach that level. Each story also included the e-mail address of the reporter — click and you are sending a message.
Since we studied the site, it has expanded its Web offerings. “DayWatch” averages somewhere around 20 posts a day, and the site added “FirstWatch,” a blog entry that offers readers a conversational preview of that day’s news. JSOnline has also begun investing more in multimedia, adding more audio slideshows, video and interactive packages.
The sense one gets, generally, is of a site that by design is trying to explore not certain aspects of what the Web may offer but, within the range of a paper in a medium-sized city, as many of them as they can think of.
Click2Houston.com, the Website of KPRC, Channel 2, the NBC affiliate in Houston, is produced by Internet Broadcasting Systems Inc., a company that designs and manages sites for about 75 different stations and programs, from Telemundo.com to the syndicated program Access Hollywood.
Click2Houston follows a basic template that several of the stations in the orbit use, though they appear customized somewhat for each station. That template represents the most serious intermingling of editorial and advertising we encountered. The sense one gets is that this site is not controlled by the newsroom. News here is a component of an advertising space.
The design for KPRC features nearly 30 tabs across the top of the page, a major emphasis on weather, and a middle column it calls “2 THE BIG STORY,” where it features a handful of major stories it is emphasizing that include a good deal of multimedia. On May 11, those stories were national as well as local and were changed or updated throughout the day, but the dominant story was a local one — the collision of a light rail train with a car. That story, with its updates, was the top story at 9 a.m., 5 p.m. and 9 p.m. The plane scare was the top story at 1 p.m.
Click2Houston Lead Stories
Below the top three stories came “Latest Headlines” starting with Local and Regional News, then National and World News, and Click2Video. The local and regional news section featured a combination of wire and station-produced content. The national and world news was obviously wire, and the click2video was video listed elsewhere on the page.
But the site stood out more for highlighting features that, though not always labeled explicitly, were clearly paid content, advertorial or just plain advertising, but some of it packaged to look like quasi-editorial content.
Something called “Local 2 Experts,” for instance, says “Learn from the Best! To find a variety of products and services from great companies right here in Houston visit the Local 2 Experts section and find the help you need from our local experts! Click Here for Local 2 Experts!”
Once there, a user found headings such as “siding, concrete restoration, pool, mattress,” and many more. Under each, the visitor got a one-line description of a local company and an invitation to “more details,” which in turn clicked to a formatted online advertorial with a video clip from someone at the local company. Anyone looking for the criteria for selecting the businesses wouldn’t find any. They were advertisers, not the result of any effort by the station to find the best or most expert.
The tab next to that one, “Click2Win”, let users enter contests run by local businesses. The tab next to that, Real Estate, took users to ads for local real estate companies, and so on. There were 20 such tabs linked to advertorial content at the top of the page — from “Dating” (a page “powered by” the online dating company eHarmony) to “Save on Everything,” a link to 34 pages of coupons.
Those 20 advertising tabs, moreover, appear above and below half as many tabs for the news sections of the site, “news, weather, traffic, sports, editorials, money, health, entertainment, and tech.”
By the numbers, Click2Houston fell in the middle of our sample. The top stories were frequently updated (45% were changed sometime during the day on May 11 and another 40% were updated). More than half (55%) of the top stories included video, and 0% still photos. None linked to audio.
But it was the more aggressive intermingling of advertorial and editorial that stood out. By proportion, perhaps more than half of the site appeared to be paid content.