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Online Trends

Online Trends

By the Project for Excellence in Journalism

All indications are that local television, challenged now by cable, satellite and mobile devices, is beginning to take the Internet more seriously.

What does it have to compete effectively in the new platforms? The answer being offered by the industry is local content.

Viewers and advertisers may be lured away from traditional broadcast by compelling gadgets, the thinking goes, but local stations have the crowd-pleasers — weather, news, sports and traffic — and are increasingly reformatting them for newer platforms.

The Internet

The evidence that the industry is moving more seriously to the Web is more than anecdotal now. For the second year in a row, the survey by Robert Papper of news directors found that nearly all stations have Web sites. In the last quarter of 2006, the survey found that 97% of local television stations have their own Web sites and virtually all of these (98%) include local news.1

And they continue to add more staff. According to the latest survey of local station Web sites, news directors had in 2006, on average, about four newsroom staffers dedicated to their station Web sites, with two working full time.2 This is about half a person more than they had reported in 2005 (which in turn was more than the year before). It still, though, represents a small fraction of the average newsroom size over all (see News Investment), which was 35.8 people in 2006.

Salaries for these digital-savvy positions were not far behind those of key traditional news staff (also see News Investment). In 2006, Internet specialists (whose primary responsibility is the Web site and who report to a news director) had a median annual salary of $33,800, and graphics specialists earned $29,500. These are slightly lower than salaries reported for 2005 ($35,000 for Internet and $30,800 for graphics specialists), possibly because more stations are adding the position, effectively bringing down the average. But over a five-year span, there was 13% growth for Internet specialists and 18% for graphics specialists.

Many local newsroom staffers are dividing their time between the Web and their more traditional roles. Four in ten (41%) of the news directors surveyed said newsroom staff also help on the Web, as compared to the 34% who had reported the same last year.

News directors themselves are also getting more involved. More than a quarter (26%) said they are now in charge of their Web sites entirely, not just the news content, up from 20% a year earlier, and only 7% have no role at all, down from 15%.

Much of the content on these Web sites is generated by the television newsroom: 80% of news directors reported sharing content with their stations’ Web sites.

Like most other news media, the most popular feature is still text, which appeared on nearly all (97%) local station sites, according to the survey. Still photos came in second – 82% of all news directors reported posting them online – followed by news video (79%).

Those numbers reflect a fair amount of movement toward multi-media from even a year earlier. The number of stations reporting video grew 20% from 2005 followed by audio (14%), still pictures (10%) and live camera footage (5%). Over all, nearly half of the 974 local stations sites surveyed featured all of these multi-media elements.

In what could be a trend to watch, one in 10 news directors said their station Web site was assembling its own newscasts to offer the latest news developments online .

Local TV Web Site Elements
Design Your Own Chart
Source: 2007 RTNDA/Ball State University Survey
Note: Based on survey responses of news directors

In 2006, more news directors also said their Web sites are making money, and this is true across all markets. But television stations lag behind other media outlets when it comes to online advertising revenues.

Local Television Web Sites

Making Profit Breaking Even Showing a Loss
All TV
Market 1-25
Market 26-50
Market 51-100
Market 101-150
Market 151+

Source: RTNDA/Ball State University Surveys
Note: Based on survey responses of news directors; remaining news directors did not know or could not comment on Web site profitability

The Online media research firm Borrell Associates reported in the Wall Street Journal in April 2007 that television’s share of the online ad market is far behind newspapers or online-only media outlets.3 Two months later, another Borrell report found television sites generating 1.5% to 3.5% of their revenues from Web operations (compared with newspapers at 3% to 8%).4

While the money may still be small, local television companies are getting more aggressive about their online ventures – to whatever degree they can.

Hearst-Argyle, one of the top 10 largest broadcast companies in terms of revenue (see Ownership), was one of the few to take the lead in Web development. With 26 stations across the nation, all of which offer online-only local content, the company reported a 29% growth in Web traffic in 2006.5

The 2006 profits were only the beginning. In June 2007, Hearst-Argyle entered into a revenue-sharing agreement with YouTube, the online video-sharing phenomenon owned by Google (see Online Ownership). For Hearst-Argyle, the deal provides a ready-made, far-reaching distribution platform for its content; YouTube gets content that will pull in more paid advertising.

By November 2007, all 26 Hearst-Argyle local stations could stream content to a dedicated channel on YouTube, which offers current news, weather, sports and archived stories. For example, on its YouTube page, Baltimore station WBAL-TV, a Hearst-Argyle station that is an NBC affiliate, streams online videos of its on-air broadcasts and provides a link to the station’s own Web site.6

The deal marked the first time a television station would be paid by YouTube for content. The two sides would not disclose the amount of the payment, but it was understood that both sides would divide the money made from advertisements. According to the Hearst-Argyle’s former executive vice president, Terry Mackin, the deal was a way for the company to “expand distribution for our content and to broaden our reach beyond the boundaries of our media markets.”7

Other partnerships

The relationship between the video-sharing sites and traditional big media has been complicated, characterized by broken deals and odd bedfellows. Since 2006, CBS has been in a partnership with YouTube to sell ads and split the revenue.8 Meanwhile, CBS’ former sibling, Viacom, sued Google in March 2007 for copyright infringement over its programming showing up on YouTube and is seeking more than $1 billion in damages.9 NBC Universal also took a shot at a video-sharing deal with YouTube in 2006, but pulled out in October 2007 and teamed up with News Corp. to create its own rival site.10

Other local broadcasters also are taking their content and local television brand online, although not on the same scale (see last year’s report for deals in 2006). WCAU-TV, an NBC station in Philadelphia, started a dedicated Web site ( in April 2006, offering local information, classifieds and video sharing. In Nashville, WKRN-TV, owned by Young Broadcasting, set up specific topic blogs such as health, education, music and politics.

Going Mobile

To what extent are local stations climbing onto the newest video platform — cell phones? Heading into 2008, there is evidence this has begun in earnest.

In April 2007, local stations joined forces to take advantage of two growing trends — the rise in cell phone use and the impeding shift to digital television (see News Investment ). The Open Mobile Video Coalition11 was formed with a mandate to bring over-the-air broadcast programming to mobile phones and other hand-held devices by February 2009, the month that stations switch over to digital transmission.

The coalition includes almost 800 local stations and nearly every major station group in the U.S. and has the support of the broadcasting trade body, the National Association of Broadcasters. It plans to use the digital television spectrum to transmit live video and data, without being limited to cellular networks.

The ambitious plan involves technical challenges and heavy investment. But distributing content over hand-held devices also provides local television with a new avenue for advertising and subscription revenues, although exactly how much that might translate into is still unknown.

Take the mobile news market alone. Though it remains niche, cell phones are becoming an increasingly popular way for Americans to access online news, making it a potentially lucrative business for advertisers and content providers (for top mobile news sites, see Online Chapter). According to a study by Internet research firm eMarketer, “mobile information content” was a $1 billion business in 2007 (distinct from spending on mobile entertainment) and is expected to grow to a substantial $7.5 billion in just three years.12

While the small screen represents a new frontier for local television, there’s a sea change ahead for the bigger one.


1. The annual Radio and Television News Director’s Association survey was conducted in 974 local stations in the last quarter of 2006. Only one station in the survey did not have news content on the Web. Robert Papper, “Net Worth,” RTNDA Communicator, May 2007.

2. Ibid, p.12.

3. Television had a 7% share in 2006, compared to the 36% share of newspapers and 38% share of “pure play” outlets (those that have no traditional media affiliation), Brooks Barnes and Emily Steel, “Lagging online, TV stations get moving,” Wall Street Journal, April 11, 2007.

4. Gavin O’Malley, “Borell: Local Online Ads Climb 31.6% This Year,” June 5, 2007.

5. Brooks Barnes and Emily Steel, ibid.

6. J. Max. Robins, “New, Old Media Team Up,” Broadcasting & Cable, June 4, 2007.

7. Michael Malone, “Hearst-Argyle Launches More YouTube Channels,” Broadcasting & Cable, November 1, 2007.

8. YouTube Press Release, “CBS and YouTube Strike Strategic Content and Advertising Partnership,”, October 6, 2006; Anne Becker, “CBS Launches YouTube Channel, “ Broadcasting & Cable, October 18, 2006

9. Jeremy W. Peters, “Viacom Sues Google Over YouTube Video Clips,” New York Times, March 14, 2007.

10. Kenneth Li, “NBC Universal Removes YouTube Channel,” Reuters, October 22, 2007.

11. The coalition was incorporated formally in October 2007.

12. Glen Dickson, “ Mobile TV Takes Flight,” Broadcasting & Cable, November 12, 2007.