The money is invested in online news operations is becoming increasingly difficult to quantify. As the Internet becomes more an integral part of most newsrooms, it also becomes harder to distinguish between resources being devoted solely to the digital and resources being devoted to other platforms.
Of the top 200 sites analyzed by PEJ, fully 67% are tied to a legacy media outlet, meaning that they are at least partly funded by another platform such as cable TV or newspapers. Often most of the reporting resources come largely through revenue earned from other platforms. The newspaper industry, for example, still garners roughly 90% of its total advertising revenues from ad buys in their print product. The numbers for online ads at some papers are higher, closer to 15%. But those advertising dollars have seen a massive slide in recent years, leading to newsroom cut backs which affect both the legacy and the online product.
Thus, even as the content moves more online, the resources to support it there do not yet exist.(See PEJ’s Study “How News Happens”)
The remaining 33% of these 200 top sites are online-only entities. The biggest of these, accounting for the bulk of both audience and revenue, are Google News, Yahoo News, AOL News and Bing News, owned by Microsoft.
For all four, their news-related offerings are just one part of a very diverse mix of online services. And for three, the offerings are to help people find content rather than produce it themselves.
Google News, Yahoo News and Bing News are basically aggregators of others’ content. Whatever revenue they gain, then, is not directed back into newsroom reporting but to other services connected to news consumption. AOL News recently invested in producing some of its own content, but it still relies a good deal on aggregating content from other news sites. Thus, at best, its revenue may be split between reporting and other services.
Aggregators, if not originating content, are still a critical element of the online ecosystem, helping news consumers navigate and organize an ever-expanding volume of news content produced both by professional journalists and individuals.
Their newsroom resources, in other words, are investments in developing solid and efficient ways of organizing information, primarily though algorithms. And their audiences are among some of the biggest anywhere online. A closer look at the top three aggregators helps explain what goes into this process.
Yahoo News, Google News and Bing News rank Nos. 1, 7 and 30, respectively, according to Nielsen data.
All three rely to varying degrees on algorithms to help organize and rank news content.
One key criterion is the newness of the content. Newer content is generally pushed to the top, with prominent display of how long ago the content was posted.
The source of the content is factored in as well. Both Google and Bing attempt to judge the prominence of different news sources around the world. They do this through both the popularity stories from a source, discussed below, as well as some other metrics, including how often the source is cited by others, a proxy for the authority of the news source. Google does not disclose exactly how these other qualitative judgments are made using the algorithm, but Dylan Casey, a product manager at Google, explained at a Pew Research Center conference the difficulty of the task.1
“It’s not as simple as saying, O.K., well, we should promote this news story because it has the most number of clicks,’’ he said, adding that “we spend a lot of time and energy and intellectual power on trying to differentiate the significance and importance between popularity and social importance.”
And the different social media platforms today, he adds, make it even more challenging. “Somebody is saying, ‘Hey, go read this article,’ ” he said. “There some intent back there. These platforms are built in such a way that you are broadcasting to the public. You are also broadcasting to friends or people that have selected to follow you. It’s a very complicated problem and we aren’t even close to solving it yet.”
Yahoo works a little differently in that it has a confined list of sources to begin with, as well as human editors making decisions about stories that make it onto the home page. (This is one element that could change, now that Yahoo has become a part of the Bing search engine.
A third element brings in the popularity of each individual news story. The number of visits a particular story gets factors heavily into how high the story appears in a search result. (In addition, having many popular stories helps increase the value of the news source as a whole.)
These are just a few of the factors used, as these aggregator look to constantly adjust their algorithms to better reflect popular and trusted news content on the Web.
Goggle has also begun a different kind of relationships with news organizations, reaching out to work with them on news presentation. Two of its main experiments in 2009 were Living Stories and Fastflip, both of which were launched within the GoogleLabs domain with the involvement of journalists from news organizations like the Washington Post.
Some of the bigger websites that originate their own content now often mix some aggregation with original reporting. Some of this stems from a new emphasis on providing a full service to consumers rather than being limited by just what they have created themselves. It also, though, may reflect in part the diminished newsrooms available inside these organizations.
And some outlets clearly do more of their own original reporting than others. Here we look at the seven sites in among the top ten that produce at least some of their own content: NYTimes.com, ABC News.com, CNN.com, Washingtonpost.com, FoxNews.com, MSNBC.com and AOL.com.
Among the seven, NYTimes.com, ABC News, CNN.com and Washingtonpost.com clearly produced the bulk of their content themselves, adding just a small portion of Associated Press wire copy or other aggregated material. According to PEJ’s News coverage index, around 90% and above of the content on NYtimes.com, ABC News, CNN.com and Washingtonpost.com is produced by staff of those sites.
At Fox News, even though it has a full cable TV news outlet, about half the content on the site is produced by the staff, with the other half being wire service copy or staff-edited wire copy.
MSNBC.com and AOL are also a mix of originated content and the posting of other content.
At MSNBC, 50% of home page stories studied in 2009 were straight wire service stories or staff-edited wire copy, according to the PEJ analysis. Just 20% were bylined solely as MSNBC staff. This was by far the lowest percentage of staff-produced stories of any of non-aggregator sites, or those sites that put bylines or at least staff credit lines on the majority of their stories.
|Site||Wire or Combination of wire/staff editing||Staff Produced||Other News Outlet|
|MSNBC Digital Network||50.5||19.7||22.1|
These figures are based on PEJ’s News Coverage index, which tracks the top five stories on each of these sites each day throughout the year, for a more detailed description see the methodology for the NCI here.
AOL is also a mix of wire copy and original content, but sorting out which is which is more straightforward. It tends to either post wire stories without editing or adding a staff credit line, or it posts stories created solely by AOL staffers. There is some evidence that toward the end of 2009, AOL took steps to increase its original reporting [LINK]. That change is already evident on the front page. In 2007, 90% of the top stories on the AOL News homepage studied by PEJ were wire service stories. That percentage dropped to 70% in December 2009. Despite this, for the year 2009, fully 84% of stories on the front page of AOL were either wire-copy or elsewhere. Given that AOL’s push to produce more of its own content occurred later in the year, it remains to be seen if the amount of wire copy used will drop further in 2010.
1. Casey made his remarks at the Pew Research Center’s conference on Millennials in Washington on February 24, 2010.