AJR  Columns :     THE ONLINE FRONTIER    
From AJR,   June 2002

Is It Journalism?   

Yahoo! News attracts a large audience but does no original reporting.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     

There are a couple of ways to achieve chart-topping success in online news. The conventional route is to link a team of new-media journalists with a print or broadcast heavyweight. And then there's Yahoo! News.

Yahoo! News (news.yahoo.com), the third most popular news site in the U.S., needs no reporters and creates no stories. It is the ultimate aggregator of online media, republishing the work of about 100 news sources and organizing links to thousands more. Its coverage ranges from world and business news to local headlines and op-ed columns. It boasts breaking news e-mail alerts, message boards, photo galleries, audio and video clips, and mobile delivery. It does everything except the main thing. And visitors don't seem to mind.

According to Jupiter Media Metrix's ranking of general news sites, Yahoo! News trailed only MSNBC.com and CNN.com in unique users from October 2001 to February 2002. It was leaps ahead of the ABC News, Tribune and Knight Ridder networks, more popular than NYTimes.com and USAToday.com.

Of course it helps that Yahoo! News is an appendage of the Web's premier portal. Of more than 230 million people who use Yahoo!'s sites each month, Yahoo! News would probably snag an enviable stream of visitors if it posted knock-knock jokes.

It also helps that most of the sites mentioned above willingly share their stories--and by extension their credibility--with Yahoo! News. Although the site relies heavily on feeds negotiated with the Associated Press and Reuters, much of its content comes from the New York Times, USA Today, National Public Radio and more than 60 local newspapers and television stations. The agreements vary; most partners trade their stories for exposure on Yahoo! News and links to their sites.

Yahoo! News is fast-loading and eminently navigable, and naturally the search engine works like a dream. In fact, it's often easier to browse a partner site's headlines within Yahoo! News than to deal with the site directly. In a medium plagued by horrible navigation, utterly hopeless search tools and general clutter, Yahoo!'s ability to build an orderly universe from a cacophony of news sources gives it value.

But is it journalism? Does Yahoo! News really belong in the same ranks as NYTimes.com and CNN.com? It has no reporters, no original work, no journalistic legacy.

It does, however, have a team of editors who react to breaking news and maintain "Full Coverage" sections for ongoing stories. A typical Full Coverage section offers the latest wire news, hundreds of headlines culled from national and international sources, infographics and video, links to related organizations, and editorials from a collection of newspapers. Hierarchy is based mainly on chronology, but Yahoo! editors shape the package through inclusion and omission. If one function of "new journalism" is to help people locate and evaluate information, this must qualify.

That Yahoo! News doesn't originate stories doesn't seem to undermine its authority with the public. According to the Online News Association's Digital Journalism Credibility Study (available at journalists.org), Internet users trust portals and aggregators such as Yahoo! News more than local TV and newspaper Web sites, though not as much as national TV and newspaper sites. And they visit them more frequently than all of the above.

For competitive purposes, the distinctions between Yahoo! News and other news sites are unimportant; it clearly is vying for the same viewers and advertising dollars.

Particularly in local and niche coverage, being an international portal does have a few drawbacks. First, the features that make Yahoo! ideal for scannable, just-the-facts news also make it anonymous and predictable. It can't replicate the personality and sense of community of a familiar TV or newspaper site. Nor does its resource repertoire venture into the alternative press. A strict Yahoo! News diet would be bland indeed.

Also, the survival of Yahoo! News--or any news aggregator--depends on the continued satisfaction of its partners and the persistence of free, traffic-based business models. It has already lost a couple of partners--ABC News and the late Inside.com--who decided that giving free video and stories to Yahoo! wasn't the best revenue strategy for them.

Yahoo! News might be overlooked in roll calls of the nation's top news sites, and it won't win any reporting awards. But its ability to reliably amalgamate and deliver information presents a challenge--and in some respects an example--for online journalism.