|By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
It appears that much of what was said about who owned news Internet in 2004 was true again in 2005.
The most popular news sites were the same four that have long been at the top of the list. And the news sites generating the most traffic continue to be owned by the richest U.S. media corporations.
A few developments in 2005 were worth noting—-. After speculation that Time Warner planned to sell AOL, what came about was a limited partnership with Google. Thus further consolidation was probably avoided.
And one site that showed some of the highest growth in traffic during 2005, the BBC, was not American or even a for-profit corporation.
Online News Leaders
Two organizations are the central providers for online traffic figures: Nielsen//Net Ratings and Comscore MediaMetrix. Both show increases in 2005 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 10 .7 million visitors a month from January through December 2005. That was an increase of 9% over 2004.1
At the very top, four sites continue to generate the most traffic, though there was some reshuffling among those leaders.
In 2005, Yahoo News moved to the top, averaging 24.1 million unique visitors a month. That was up 12% over the previous year, the most of the major players.
At No. 2, MSNBC’s online audience stood at 23.4 million in 2005, an increase of 11%. CNN, the overall leader 2004, experienced a slight decline in 2005, dropping 5% to 22 million unique visitors.
And AOL News remained fourth at 16.2 million, up 11% in 2005, according to data from Nielsen//Net Ratings. After the big four, there was a steep drop – off in traffic — an average of around 8 million unique visitors a month, according to Nielsen//Net Ratings.2
Data from Comscore also shows the same four sites dominating , but has AOL News with a considerably higher monthly average than the one from Nielsen//Net Ratings. Yahoo led the way, with an average of 27 million unique visitors a month in 2005 with MSNBC (26.2 million) not too far behind. CNN (21.9 million) and AOL News (20.9 million) were the next sites on the list. After those four , there was a very significant drop off in traffic. The next news site on the list was Internet Broadcasting (11 million), an aggregation of television news sites. 3
As in 2004, “traditional” journalism brands still seem to hold the most appeal, judging by audience numbers. The Internet has long been known for a seemingly unlimited number of news sites from across the political spectrum. The most popular sites, however, are generally associated with the media establishment. Of the top 20 Nielsen//NetRatings sites in 2005, 17 were associated with traditional news companies — those that produce most of their content offline for newspapers, television, or magazines.
Madison Avenue has followed the audience trends, with more and more branding dollars going to the largest portals, such as Yahoo, MSN, and AOL. According to Pricewaterhouse Coopers, the 50 largest Web companies attract 96% of all ad spending, with most going to the biggest of the big: AOL, Yahoo, Google and MSN.4
The Rest of the Top 20
Of the top 20 sites for 2005, 12 were individual sites. In addition to CNN, Yahoo, MSNBC and CNN, they include, in order, AOL, the New York Times, USA Today, ABC News, Google News, WashingtonPost.com, CBS News, Fox News, and BBC News. The rest were multiple sites whose totals are aggregated under one corporate roof, such as the combined Web sites of the newspapers of Knight Ridder or Gannett.
The site that exhibited the highest rate of growth this year was the BBC, which has been recognized not only for its strong international reportage but also for an increasing number of interactive tools for its readers. Those strengths became especially evident during major international events such as the tsunami and the London subway terrorist attacks. In 2005, the BBC News Web site averaged 5.6 million unique viewers, an increase of 30% over 2004.
As noted in our discussion of the newspaper industry, national newspapers like the New York Times and USA Today bucked the trend of declining print circulation in 2005. They also fared well online. The audience for those sites grew 19% and 15% respectively in 2005. Some papers with more regional print circulation, such as the Washington Post, which suffered declines in print circulation in excess of 6%, grew even more online. The Post’s Web site traffic in 2005 surge by 31%.
Another site that fared exceptionally well is Google News, which launched in September 2003 and emerged from its experimental or “Beta” testing stage in late January 2005. The front page of Google News is based on an algorithm that crawls the Internet for stories and ranks them according to what the algorithm deems most relevant. This often results in a mix of material from sources outside the mainstream news pool. In 2005, Google News averaged a monthly unique audience of 7.8 million visitors in the United States — an increase of 25%.
Of the other sites in the top 20, the collections of sites, in addition to Knight Ridder and Gannett, include a host of local TV news sites called Internet Broadcasting, Tribune Newspapers, Hearst Newspapers Digital, World Now, Advance Internet , and the Associated Press.) Some of these sites experienced strong growth while others showed sluggish growth or none at all. For example, World Now, a network of local news media, grew 26% in 2005. But Gannett grew only 5% and the Associated Press appeared to decline.5
Online Media Ownership Trends
The traffic numbers for the top sites raise another issue. In its earliest days, the Internet was celebrated as a liberating force from what many derided as the homogenized, mass -market approach that characterized so-called old media: radio, television, newspapers and magazines. And while anyone with a modem and computer can now produce either a news site or a blog, the most popular online news sites remain very much a mirror image of other news industries in which a relatively small handful of media conglomerates own a large majority of news outlets.
Some media critics, most notably Ben Bagdikian, former dean of the graduate school of journalism at the University of California, Berkeley, see a dangerous lack of diversity in the online news world:
As we have noted in earlier years, of the top 20 online news sites, 80% are owned by the 100 largest media companies in terms of total net media revenue generated in the U.S., as reported by Advertising Age. For example, Time Warner was the top company in media revenue ($37 billion) and it is the parent of the third and fourth most popular sites, CNN.com and AOL News. Gannett is 12th among leading media companies, and it owns two of the most popular news sites, USA Today.com and the aggregation of its own many local newspaper sites.14
Compared to last year, the same percentage of sites (80%) are owned by the top media companies while the share of sites owned by the 10 sites with the most revenue fell from 32% to 25% in 2005.
What accounts for the relative stability in media concentration trends? Perhaps one reason is the FCC’s decision in 2005 not to rule on the “cross-ownership” ban that bars companies from owning newspapers and television stations in the same market. (For a more detailed discussion of potential FCC actions in 2006, see the ownership section in the local television chapter).
Two of the four sites not owned by leading U.S. media companies are the property of behemoths in their own right, BBC News and the Associated Press. The other two, Internet Broadcasting and World Now, are really aggregations of many sites.
BBC and the Associated Press are media organizations that offer a business model different from the traditional media corporation. BBC is financed by a television license owned by households and “does not have to serve the interests of advertisers, or produce a return for shareholders.”15 Meanwhile, the Associated Press is a not-for-profit cooperative with 3,700 employees working in 240 news bureaus around the world.16
Acquisition of Non-News Sites
One of the major 2005 trends in media economics was the acquisition of smaller Internet properties by huge media companies, enhancing their already dominant position. Over 16 months, Scripps bought Shopzilla; Dow Jones bought MarketWatch; the New York Times Company bought About.com; and Gannett, Knight Ridder, and Tribune Co. acquired 75% of the local-news aggregator Topix.net .
Other media companies may be keeping a close eye on the demographic changes that lie ahead for big media. In the late summer of 2005, News Corp. spent $1.5 billion on three Internet companies in just seven weeks, including mySpace.com, which receives 32 million visits in the U.S. each month.17 According to the New York Times, Rupert Murdoch “has been particularly concerned about younger audiences spending less time reading newspapers and watching television, while spending more time online and embracing such features as interactivity and virtual communities.” With the acquisitions, News Corp. will rank fourth in total monthly page views, behind Yahoo, Time Warner and MSN, but ahead of eBay and Google.18
Why has there been such a flurry of activity? Some analysts speculate that the acquisitions are a strategy to compete for a larger slice of the Internet advertising pie, which some fear is quickly being gobbled up by Yahoo and Google. In other words, some traditional media companies feel they cannot afford not to participate in the market right now.
Another reason is that such acquisitions please Wall Street. “Rather than taking small stakes in promising start ups,” one analyst praised Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., for instance, for “focusing on buying companies outright that are somewhat proven and generating operating earnings.” 19
5. Unpublished data from Nielsen//NetRatings.
6. Steve Case, “It’s Time to Take It Apart,” the Washington Post, December 11, 2005.
7. Saul Hansell, “Big Hitters Said to Want Piece of AOL,” the New York Times, October 13, 2005.
8. Ben Elgin, “Gunning for Google,” Business Week, November 8, 2005.
9. “The battle of the portals,” The Economist, October 22-28,2005.
10. Julia Angwin, Kevin J. Delaney and Peter Grant, “Google, Comcast Seek Piece of AOL,” the Wall Street Journal, October 13, 2005
11. “The battle of the portals,” The Economist, October 22-28, 2005.
12. Sandy Brown, “Google Does Web Another Favor,” TheStreet.com, December 20, 2005.
13. Ben Bagdikian, The Media Monopoly, (Beacon Press: 2000)
14. Advertising Age, “100 Leading Media Companies,” AdAge.com. Companies are ranked by their total media revenues collected in the U.S. in 2003. The list is available online at: http://www.adage.com/page.cms?pageId=1158.
15. BBC News Web site, last accessed January 24, 2006.
16. AP.org Website, last accessed January 24, 2006.
17. Saul Hansell, “As Gadgets Get It Together, Media Makers Fall Behind,” the New York Times, January 25, 2006.
18. In December, the Internet chief at News Corp. told investors the company was considering a partnership in sponsored search. (Seth Sutel, “Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp. Expands Its Online Strategy,” Associated Press, December 6, 2005).
19. Richard Siklos, “News Corporation, With IGN in Its Stable, Backs Up Promise to Be Bigger Web Player,” the New York Times, September 9, 2005.