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By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

Even in a tough year, the news industry moved toward digital journalism with new seriousness.

Only two years ago our sense was that traditional media were still hesitating. In addition to the more obvious fears about a drain on resources and the culture clash over new technology, journalists worried that the medium was by nature so immediate and demanding that it tended to threaten two of the qualities the best news people covet —taking the time to verify the news accurately and understand and report in depth.

A year ago, we saw evidence that attitudes had begun to change. One reason was that online activities were one of the few areas that were creating revenue growth, especially for newspapers. Inside the boardroom, that made digital journalism a priority. Inside the newsroom, the Web was coming to be seen as less a threat and more a promise of something that could stem a growing wave of cutbacks and declining audience.

As an internal report at the Los Angeles Times put it in late 2006, “news organizations are experimenting energetically.”1

Those experiments differ greatly in emphasis and scope, even within media sectors. At the Washington Post, for instance, the site is forming an identity distinct from the print newspaper. According to one report there are 200 full-time Web staff people, and the Web is already contributing 15% of the Post revenue, with 50% in sight.2 Our content analysis also found the Post site to be one of the most broadly based and richest in appeal of these we studied.

The Los Angeles Times’s candid internal appraisal of its own site concluded that the paper needed to become far more serious about the Web and indeed make it the primary rather than the secondary goal. “We are Web-stupid,” the report declared.3 Some papers are experimenting with blogs, real-time traffic coverage, localized community sections written by readers, reporters carrying digital cameras and more — almost all in just the last year or so. Yet our content analysis also finds that some papers have yet to act, still mostly using their sites as a morgue for old copy.

The networks in 2005 had already begun to approach the Web as a major opportunity, developing ways to free themselves from the limits of time slot. In 2006, while their efforts were growing, behind the scenes there were more questions. CBS ousted its head of digital, the widely respected Larry Kramer, in favor of someone who is more strictly a business figure, though its Web site appears to be one of the strongest we have studied. MSNBC’s site, while popular, still has been eclipsed in some ways as an innovator. ABC may have the furthest still to go.

In cable, too, there were signs of movement. All three national news channels began to make content available to the third screen, cell phones. Of the three sites, Fox trails rather than leads in online audience, in contrast to its TV audience, and its site in 2006 lagged measurably behind the others in what it offered as well. But it underwent a significant redesign late in the year that according to our analysis made a clear difference. The site, however, is still more a platform for promoting talent than its rivals. For its part, CNN’s site still relies heavily on wire copy. It also features only a few stories that get major treatment. Despite all that, the site attracts 20 million visitors a month.

The new array of Web-only news outlets, meanwhile, reflect a growing diversity in the kind of information offered, the editorial approach, and the features they provide. The aggregators continue to emphasize searchable, up-to-the minute news while still relying on others for the content. Bloggers offer voice and citizen input but have also taken steps in the last year to set their own reporting guidelines. Citizen-based sites, according to our study, have shown some of the most sophisticated experiments in newsgathering and dissemination — embracing original reporting and a wide mix of voices, as well as firm editorial control.

Even the digital laggards apparently began to move in 2006.

Local TV news was among the slowest media, our content assessments found, to make a commitment on the Web. The resources still appear to be relatively small, according to surveys– an average of just three people working on each Web site. But there are clear signs of movement. More sites are making a profit. More stations are producing their own sites. And the two local TV news sites included in our content analysis evinced more effort than anything we had seen in earlier years.

The magazine industry, too, has begun investing more online. The leader here is Time. The biggest name in newsweeklies remade its Web site and identified a plan to count its audience as a print and online group combined. There are also signs of movement at the other news magazines, but perhaps in directions quite disparate from each other.

If there are conclusions to be drawn, for now we see two. First, there is no one model or formula for news success on the Web. Second, increasingly, sites are moving away from their legacy media, splitting into distinct approaches based on ideas rather than history.

As audiences sort through the options and creators look for economic formulas, that diversity will encourage more experimentation. For those who lack vision and resources, it will also make simple imitation more difficult.