By the Project for Excellence in Journalism
All three cable news channels now feature well-developed Web sites, but their performance over the air does not translate online.
Of the three, MSNBC and CNN tend to compete for the most-visited online news destination, while Fox News is a few spots behind.
MSNBC.com, which defines itself as an exclusive online channel with original journalism, is one of the most popular news destinations online, consistently among the top five, according to Nielsen Net Ratings, the leading online measurement agency (see Online Chapter). In 2007, the site was the second-most visited over all for current affairs and global news, just behind Yahoo News, with 29.2 million unique visitors per month.1
The Web site says that it employs more than 200 people, including editors, reporters and producers, housed with the NBC News and MSNBC TV staff in the Rockefeller Plaza in Manhattan (for more about the move, see Ownership). Its management includes its president and publisher, Charles Tillinghast, who rose in the ranks after joining the company in 1999. Jennifer Sizemore, editor-in-chief of the Web site, leads the editorial team.2
In November 2007, the site layout and look were overhauled, suggesting continuing interest by management. Like most redesigns, the emphasis was on promoting video and photo content, and making the site easier to navigate.
While the TV channel continues to struggle against Fox News, CNN.com is one of the most popular news destinations online. In 2007, it was in third place, just behind MSNBC (see Online Chapter), according to data from Nielsen Net Ratings. It saw 29.1 million unique visitors that month.3
The site is seen as a separate entity from the on-air channel and has a dedicated staff in CNN’s headquarters in Atlanta. Along with CNNMoney.com, it is one of CNN’s two U.S. Web sites. CNN International has its own Web site (http://edition.cnn.com) as well as three second-language editions of the site – in Arabic, Japanese and Spanish.
CNN Pipeline, the only fee-based portion of CNN.com, dropped its charges in July 2007. Introduced in December 2005, Pipeline offered four live video streams – international, weather, feeds from the CNN NewsSource wire and CNN video archives.
CNN news content also appears on cell phones and Personal Data Assistants (PDAs). CNN Mobile, re-launched in March 2007 independent of the Web site, gives users text alerts, color photos and streaming video on breaking news stories.
In May 2007, CNN signed with Internet Broadcasting Systems (IBS) to share content from its Web site with local TV sites. IBS is an online content designer with more than 70 local television Web sites as clients. Under the agreement, IBS will supply local news and event information to CNN.com (linking to the respective local TV station sites) and, in turn, CNN.com’s national and political content will be available on IBS station Web sites. The deal was seen as one more way that traditional media outlets could snag online advertising dollars.4
Fox News (www.foxnews.com)
While it has all the features and technology of its rivals, Fox News channel’s Web site doesn’t seem to attract the same level of audience. In 2007, for example, it recorded about 8 million visitors a month, a little less than a fourth of CNN’s and MSNBC’s audience.5
This is still better than it has done it previous years. The channel launched without the backing of any strong online portal (such as Microsoft provided MSNBC) or a strong brand (like CNN). While no data are available that measures the spillover effect, the site’s growing traffic might be a reflection of the large audience that watches the television channel.
In keeping with a strategic re-evaluation by Murdoch, News Corp. began focusing more on digital properties in the past two years, including starting up a rival to YouTube called Hulu, and the Fox News digital group – the technical name for the online news entities – pushed to invest in a better product. In September 2007, the group signed a deal with Maven Networks to improve broadband video capabilities.
The idea was to make the Web sites much more video-centric, almost like interactive TV, according to Maven’s CEO, Hilmi Ozguc.6 It also aimed to improve navigation and organization, link more videos on the site and provide archived Fox News’ television footage for users to browse through at their leisure.
The news channels online appear to be most enthusiastic about one particular feature of the Internet — user-shot video. Videos created and submitted by viewers are now a common sight on television news sites. They are frequently used and promoted during breaking news and help provide compelling visuals without much investment on the news organization’s part, although they do go through an editor before being published online or aired on TV.
All three news channel have branded the videos they get from the public, and each showcases them in different ways on their Web sites (where they are archived). CNN’s I Reports are the most conspicuous example of this trend. The network lets anyone upload videos – increasingly of breaking new events – on the site. These are then chosen by editors to air on a dedicated section on the Web site, highlighted just below the fold on the home page. The most compelling are also picked for the TV channel.
CNN.com I-Report Home Page
Fox News posts uReports, a link to which can be found at the top and bottom of the home page.
Fox News.com uReport Home Page
MSNBC labels its user-submitted material First Person, though looking for the section in the Web site is difficult – it is nestled within the “Community” section.
MSNBC.com First Person Home Page
User-generated videos gained further use in the U.S. when CNN obtained one from a student during the Virginia Tech shootings in April 2007, which gave the channelsome of the first up-to-date images of the event and became a milestone in the discussion on citizen-journalism. According to CNN.com, it tripled its daily unique visitors to 18.6 million on April 16 (the day of the shooting) while MSNBC reported 15.3 million. Two days later, CNN.com reported 11.4 million visitors had viewed video on its site, and 2.5 million of them saw the I Report videos submitted by viewers.7
Adding significantly to the Web site traffic was the fact that news outlets had gotten a video clip from the killer himself. NBC News, MSNBC’s network sibling, announced that it had received a videotape from the gunman, Cho Seung Hui, who taped himself preparing for the shootings. NBC News broadcast an edited version of the tape on its evening news program and then showed it at greater length on MSNBC, as well as on MSNBC.com. The video was available online long after the television channels stopped airing it, eventually making its way to video-sharing sites.8
In addition to user-generated video, all three channels’ Web sites also now make use of blogs. Fox News, as of December 2007, had the fewest and MSNBC the most.
Cable News – Weblogs
Source: Respective Web Sites; webblogs listed on December 5, 2007
1. According to Nielsen Online data, MSNBC had an average of 29,230,000 unique visitors per month in 2007.
2. MSNBC.com ‘ About Us’ section. Online at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com/id/21697053/welcome/
3. According to Nielsen Online data, CNN had an average of 29,144,000 unique visitors per month in 2007.
4. Leslie Brooks Suzukamo, “Internet Broadcasting forms alliance with CNN,” Pioneer Press, May 22, 2007
5. According to Nielsen Online data, the Fox News digital network had an average of 8,326,000 unique visitors per month in 2007.
6. Alex Weprin, “Fox News Expanding Online Video with Maven Networks Deal,” Broadcasting & Cable, September 6, 2007
7. Anne Becker, “Citizen Journalism Comes of Age,” Broadcasting & Cable, April 23, 2007
8. See PEJ News Coverage Index, “Campus Rampage is 2007’s biggest story by far,” April 15-20, 2007