While researchers have studied network news and newspapers for years, the data on news websites, a media about a decade old, is scant.
The PEJ Index includes five Internet news sites each day: YahooNews, MSNBC.com, CNN.com, AOLNews, and GoogleNews. (The first four are the top online news sites by traffic.)*
In the first three months of 2007, these web sites have carved out a fairly distinctive niche for news consumers. The online platform offered readers more wide-ranging and diverse coverage of events around the globe than any other sector. The online platform had the greatest percentage of stories (22%) that were about international subjects that did not primarily involve the United States. The next closest, and it wasn’t even close, were newspapers at 8%.
This was the clearly the place where one would be most likely to find out what was going on outside the borders of the United States. From hostage takings in Manila to political upheaval in Zimbabwe, the web sites provided a more international lens on the news.
Percent of Stories, Dec. 31, ’06 – Mar 31, ‘07
It was, for example, the only one of the five media sectors to have the situation inside Iraq as the number one story for the entire first quarter. (It filled 12% of its total newshole.) The newspaper, network and cable TV and radio sectors all had the more U.S.-centric, Washington-based Iraq policy debate as the top story.
Online, along with radio, also stood out because it gave less emphasis to the war on the homefront. And only the online sites gave enough coverage to the nuclear negotiations with North Korea (eighth at 2%) and the continued combat in Afghanistan (ninth at 2%) to have those subjects rank among their top-10 stories.
The increasing tensions between the U.S. and Iran over both Tehran’s nuclear ambitions and its role in the Iraq fighting also generated more coverage in the online sector, (third biggest story at 5%) than anywhere else.
This may reflect a sensibility that the audience for websites is international, bounded more by language than borders. Yet it also may reflect the sense that the depth of a website allows journalists to order stories more by their sense of significance, with the notion that the audience can easily find what it wants. A website front page might contain a few dozen story links. A newspaper front page typically holds no more than seven stories. A half-hour newscast in its entirety might include just 10 stories total.
One other characteristic of the online sector—which it shared with newspapers—was less of an impulse to devote extensive coverage to one or two big stories and more of a proclivity to offer a balanced variety of topics. The top three subjects in the online sector for the quarter—events inside Iraq, the Iraq policy debate, and tensions with Iran—accounted for only 26% of the total newshole. Only in the newspaper sector—where the three biggest stories added up to 21% of total coverage—was there less emphasis placed on the few top stories.
*The Index monitors the top five stories on each site, to make it roughly comparable to the size of a newspaper front page.