The Web's Campaign Contributions
News sites may have offered fewer original stories during the primaries, but they’re now flush with multimedia extras and interactivity.
By Barb Palser
When the Project for Excellence in Journalism released "ePolitics", a review of early Internet coverage of the 2004 presidential campaign, the study's authors made an intriguing observation: Although more people are getting political news from the Internet than in previous election cycles, there may be fewer original political stories on the Web this year. During the Iowa caucuses and the New Hampshire primary, 37 percent of stories on the main election pages of 10 major news sites were wire copy, up from 25 percent in 2000. Of the remaining stories, many were edited or enhanced wire copy rather than original, bylined work. (The sample group included three Web-only properties and seven sites with traditional media partners.)
Barb Palser (firstname.lastname@example.org), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.
Early-season analysis, according to PEJ, suggested that "political news web sites have clearly evolved but have also taken some steps backward," as evidenced by the shrinking percentage of bylined stories, fewer links to external sites and less audio or video of candidates. On a bad news/good news note, the study's authors suggested the preponderance of wire stories "means that, contrary to fears about the web as a source of unsubstantiated rumor and innuendo, the content here is carefully sourced and documented." (Gee, thanks... I think.)
The PEJ's omnibus annual report on journalism, "The State of the News Media 2004," found that Web sites generally trail newspapers and TV when it comes to percentage of staff-generated stories — even if you count stories produced by traditional reporters in partner newsrooms. There are several explanations for this.
News sites rely on non-Web reporters when they have the option. For efficiency's sake, it's senseless to send two journalists to report a story if one can do the job. Efficiency's best friend, convergence, says we should report once and publish to many: Across all media, reporters do more repackaging of stories for other platforms than in the past.
The more controversial aspect of the PEJ study is the volume of wire stories on news sites. Speed is one good reason to use wires. It's common to post an Associated Press or Reuters article while in-house reporters start to work the story. Also, the Web's virtually limitless newshole means that wire stories can be added without cutting any bylined pieces — there's no tradeoff. Even Salon, a rare Web-only success, supplements original work with an ample helping of wire copy.
Simple necessity is another reason to post wire stories: In the era of shrinking staffs, small sites may have no choice but to switch to autopilot for routine news.
So, what does this mean? If it's true most news sites are padded with stories created by non-Web reporters and wire services, what does that say about Web journalism? Is it in decline? Are sites selling their viewers short? Are they contributing to the sameness of news?
Not necessarily. At top sites the most valuable, original work appears beside the story. In a media marketplace where consumers can choose almost any news source in the world, what sets a site apart is not only its basic information, but whether it provides additional depth and context in a way that's easy to absorb.
While the "ePolitics" study found that, during the primary season, news sites seemed less interactive and offered less multimedia than in the past, the big sites (and medium-size sites) are now flush with resources, multimedia extras and educational exercises. To name a few: Washingtonpost.com's "Veep-O-Matic," which was designed to suggest a running mate for John Kerry based on issue choices made by the user; MSNBC.com's video catalog of campaign ads; the South Florida Sun-Sentinel's touch-screen voting simulator; and the numerous vote-by-issues tools that help people align with national and local candidates.
There has also been a surge in commentary and context on news sites, provided by traditional political reporters and online journalists. The typical format is a column, newsletter or Weblog: MSNBC.com's First Read, ABCNews.com's The Note and NYTimes.com's un-blog, Times On The Trail. Even the AP, which has been slow to optimize its services for the Web, had plans to launch its first blog for the Democratic and Republican conventions.
We'd love to see more original stories on the Web; we'd love to see Web journalists do primary reporting more often. We also want — no, need — more resources. But looking at today's virtual newsstand, it's hard to see how we've moved backward at all. Overall, news sites are richer, more interactive and easier to use than ever before. Traditional reporters are providing more supplemental material, and our interactive know-how is getting better all the time. The original journalism is there, if you look beside the story.
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