Cruising for News: The State of Digital Journalism

What is the state of digital journalism? What progress are websites making to exploit the internet's potential to go beyond what any one traditional medium might offer? What capacities are sites developing, and which are they not? These and other related questions are addressed in the Digital Journalism section of the Project for Excellence in Journalism's annual report, The State of the News Media 2007.

The study was designed as a tool to help users understand news media options available on the Web as well as to assist news outlets in defining the capabilities they have developed so far, and explore where they might want to invest further.

PEJ studied 38 websites from a range of news sources. The goal was first, to identify which characteristics news websites were and were not developing online; and second, whether sites could be classified into groups based on these characteristics.

For a hands-on look at PEJ's findings, visit the Testing Ground, where you can build your own graphs and compare sites based on PEJ's rating categories for online media. These include:

  • Customization -- the degree to which content can be tailored to suit users preferences;
  • Participation -- the extent to which users can participate in producing content;
  • Use of Multimedia -- the degree to which content is offered in different media formats;
  • Story Depth -- the ability of the site to add further information and analysis through the Web;
  • Editorial Branding -- how strongly the site's own editorial standards, content and control are being promoted;
  • Revenue Streams -- the sources and level of financial support for the site.

PEJ found that online news media reflect the diversity of the Web itself. No single website has yet been able to tap the full potential of digital media, combining depth of coverage with user participation, multimedia features and the speed provided by the Web. The PEJ researchers found that most sites were only able to excel at one or two aspects of digital journalism. Though no single site encompasses all the Web has to offer, every site brings something to the table. Indeed, the internet is so rich in possibilities that sites may always be forced to make choices in how to present the news. This is one reason why the typical user is still reliant on multiple online bookmarks to gather the day's news and may continue to choose to do so in the future.

One appeal of online media lies in creating a dialogue with readers rather than simply posting a lecture or report, and some of the sites studied excelled in incorporating user participation. Daily Kos, Digg, and AOL News were found to be the best at allowing reader input into their news offerings.

Other websites took advantage of multimedia. While digital journalism is still dominated by the text and still images found in newspapers, a few outlets have incorporated substantial video and interactive graphics. While most of these were TV based -- ABC, CBS, BBC, Fox News -- others like the Washington Post and WTOP go beyond their original media roots and expand their coverage through the tools that the Web uniquely offers.

The extraordinary depth offered by the Web gives media outlets the opportunity to expand their coverage by providing links to past reports, graphics, further analysis and more. As a rule, however, news sites scored lower on the depth criterion than any other area studied. One site, Google, was a notable exception with 900+ related links attached to the average lead news story, far more than any of the other sites studied. Global Voices and CBS followed with more than 10 related links.

Four websites were classified as "high achievers," scoring in the top tier for at least three of the five content areas studied: CBS, Washington Post, BBC and Global Voices. These sites have little in common beyond the breadth of what they offer. None of these high achievers, however, were rated in the top tier for user interaction.

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