What Was There
The political front pages on the Internet varied widely in how many stories they offered, a sign that, unlike newspapers, there is no consensus about the look on the web, or how many stories users can absorb on a page.
Sites varied from as many as an average of 37 stories (Washington Post) to 11 (CNN).
Roughly half the sites (47%) carried between 11 and 20 stories at any given time. Another quarter of the sites (27%) featured between 21 and 30 stories. And fully 20% of sites featured more than 30 stories.
The only consensus seemed to be that there should be a lot of stories. Only 7% of sites ever featured fewer than 10 pieces on its political page. The bulk of that was represented by CNN, which carried 10 or fewer stories a third of the time.
The Washington Post carried the most stories of any site. All of the Post front pages we looked at contained more than 30 story links. Among the other newspaper sites, the New York Times political front page never had fewer than 21 story links, while USA Today most often contained fewer than 20 story links and never had more than 30.
The opinion sites, National Review and Salon, both featured fewer stories. National Review averaged 14 story links. Salon averaged 17. Neither ever had more than 19.
The TV sites demonstrated no particular pattern. Again, CNN stood out for the limited number of stories and perhaps a less chaotic look (averaging 11 story links and never more than 12). MSNBC, on the other hand, averaged 35 story links, and always had at least 21. ABC fell somewhere in between, ranging from 11-30 stories in the pages we viewed, with an average of 20.
The web-only portals were consistent from day to day. AOL averaged 19 story links, Yahoo 29.
Overall, this is more story links per page than we tended to see four years ago. The Washington Post, for instance, averaged nearly double the number of story links it had in the 2000 primary season.
Next in line was MSNBC, which was also at the top four years ago, though with 20 or more stories then, compared with tending towards 30 or more this year.
In 2000, two thirds of the pages featured 16 election related stories. This year, 93% of the pages examined contained at least 11 stories.
When you consider the number of stories that were original reporting, versus wire copy or modified wire copy, the depth of the political pages might be slightly less impressive.
Overall, 63% of the stories on these 10 web sites studied were staff written, or carried staff credit lines.
But even here there seem to be two levels of originality-those sites with original bylined stories and those with staff credit lines in which it is difficult to tell how much the story is wire versus original work.
Four of the sites studied here led the way in originality: CNN, National Review, New York Times and Washington Post (all 89% or more original copy).
Yet many of the CNN stories carried no byline, just a CNN credit line, and it was not clear how much involved simply modifying wire copy.
MSNBC followed a similar form. There 78% of the stories bore staff credit lines, but most did not carry named bylines and were usually wire copy that had been modified, sometimes in limited ways.
USA Today stood out from its newspaper siblings for its lack of original reporting. While 95% of the stories on the New York Times site were original (most of them from the newspaper) as were 89% at the Washington Post (including more original web copy), just 47% of USA Today stories were original copy. The majority were wire stories.
Meanwhile, AOL and Yahoo remained entirely reliant on second-hand sources. Yahoo had one story that was original, AOL none.
One of the findings four years ago was that surprisingly few of the top news web sites seemed to take advantage of the potential of the web to allow citizens to "take part" in the news through interactivity.
At that time, three sites contained no links at all. Three more featured just one or two interactive links.
Four more contained moderate levels of interactivity, between three to seven links on their political front pages.
And two of the 12 sites studied four years ago featured a great deal of interactivity with eight or more interactive links.
Four years later, the level of interactivity is even more modest than four years ago.
This year, four of the 10 sites studied offered no interactive opportunities on their front pages, National Review, USA Today, CNN Vote 2000, and Yahoo.
Three others–ABC, the New York Times, and MSNBC–consistently offered only a single interactive opportunity.
AOL, the Washington Post and Salon offered the most interactive opportunities of any sites studied. AOL was at the top, with two or three interactive links, depending on the day.
No sites studied this year offered anywhere near as many interactive opportunities as we found in 2000.
What many sites are opting for instead is the ability to customize static information, or search it the way a user wants. On several sites, for instance, users can click on a map of the United States to check details of a particular state's primary, or select candidates to compare on a particular issue.
This makes users less passive in their use of the web, but it stops short of being interactive in the sense of allowing the user to ask questions of reporters, send e-mail comments, vote or opine on an issue or otherwise actively participate.
This level of activity might be called proactive news consumption, or even play, and it may be a growing trend in web sites. It also requires less maintenance by web masters. What we may be seeing, however, is a stepping back from the kind of interactivity pursued four years ago.
Unfiltered Audio and Visual
Another powerful potential of the Internet is the multi-media dimension, or the combination of audio, video and text.
Here we found two distinct kinds of multi-media.
The first is web sites posting video stories they or their partners had produced.
The second is giving users access to direct video and audio of the candidates and other newsmakers, such as the chance for people to see or hear the candidates on the stump or in a debate.
We found the use of both kinds of multi-media media to be quite limited. The web remains at least in 2004 heavily a text-oriented medium, even at television-based sites.
Six of the 10 sites contained produced packages with audio-visual content.
If anything, there was even less chance for users to hear directly from candidates and other newsmakers than in 2000.
As in 2000, we found great variety between the sites when it came to this kind of unfiltered multi-media access.
Four years ago the split was mainly between sites that offered no such opportunities and sites that used this potential extensively. In 2000, four sites offered no access to direct audio and video of newsmakers (Netscape, MSNBC, AOL and the National Review). Four others tended to have seven or more such links (the Washington Post, ABC/Go, Salon, the New York Times).
This year, five sites offered no such audio and visual links. Among those that did, the overall use of the technology was more limited than in 2000.
The Washington Post kept its standing from four years ago by offering the most, though this year is was between two and five links rather than more than seven.
By contrast, the other two newspaper sites, USA Today and the New York Times, never offered more than one such link during any of the downloads.
Many sites opted instead to run text transcripts of the candidates in their own words. All sites except AOL, Salon and USA Today offered text-based transcripts.
Another way the Internet can help citizens is by offering specific kinds of background information about candidates or the election process. The study looked for three types of information-policy positions, candidate biographies and information about the primary process. The information could be compiled by that web site or by another source.
This feature allows users to go beyond whatever framework the reporters might be focused on at a given moment. The lead stories on a site might all be about polls or horse race. If voters are just tuning in for the first time and needed a primer on where the candidates stand on issues, or who they are in the first place, such links offer them a way to find that out easily. This is a big advantage over traditional media, where audiences have to take what is being offered that day.
Four years ago, the Project found only limited use of this potential. Less than half the sites regularly offered even one link to where the candidates stood on issues. Biographical information was slightly more common. The only thing that was easy to come by was basic information about the electoral process.
Things have improved some in 2004.
Seven of the ten sites studied contained links on their front pages for users to readily learn about candidates' policy positions-and several included handy ways to compare the candidates to each other.
In some instances, this was one link that opened up to an array of choices among eight candidates. Others had a separate link to each candidate. A number of sites included the President among those whose policy positions could be compared.
Seven of the ten sites also contained biographical background information on each of the candidates. The quality of these different links varied noticeably. Some, like the New York Times, included at-a-glance sketches plus links to the paper's longer profiles. Others, such as Yahoo and the Washington Post, had video profiles, though in both cases these were produced by the Associated Press.
As was true four years ago, the kind of background easiest to come by was basic information about the primary process–the campaign calendar, basic information on voting or in some cases, such as USA Today, the ability to download a voter registration application. Nevertheless, there were still three sites that had no such information.
The total number of links to background information on each site, however, in many cases was smaller than four years ago. ABC, Washington Post and New York Times all offered fewer such links than in 2000, at least from their main page.
The two sites that offered the least when it came to background may not be that surprising. Salon and National Review Online offered nothing in this regard.
The third site offering little, however, was MSNBC. The only kind of background information it offered from its political front page was biographical, and this was a link to archived Washington Post content called "The Contenders," where one could find some links to past stories, a photo gallery, old interactive chats the candidates had done and an excerpt of a stump speech.
This is a striking change from 2000. Four years ago, for instance, MSNBC was among the leaders in offering background information on the electoral system, with at least seven links on its front page each day. This year it offered a single link on one day.
External Web Sites
In addition to incorporating tailored background information, web sites also can serve citizens by offering links to external sites. In this sense, news sites function as portals themselves, helping citizens find other sources of information.
The study examined two ways that sites can do that, by linking to other news organizations' sites and to external non-news web sites, such as the Federal Election Commission for campaign contribution data, Congressional Quarterly for candidate voting records, and more.
To measure the extent to which each site took advantage of this potential, we counted the number of links on the political front page to other sites.
Non-news external sites: As we found four years ago, this was more limited than some might expect. Indeed, it was more limited than in 2000.
Seven of the ten sites studied had no links to external non-news sites. The only three sites that did contain such links were Yahoo, MSNBC and the New York Times. It may surprise people indeed that it was the Times that made the highest use of this, with five such links on its political front page. This marks a marked shift for the Times from what we found during the primary season in 2000. Then the Times offered no links to external non-news sites.
The other two sites with external links were more limited. Yahoo contained two such links, MSNBC one.
Four years ago, such activity was more common. MSN and Time Inc.'s Pathfinder each had more than seven such links. Yahoo, the Washington Post, Salon and National Review had at least one such link. One reason for the change may be the demise of several interesting voter sites this year such as Voter.com, a site that independently had aggregated useful information about candidates and the process.
External news sites: The other way in which news sites can function as more general portals is by becoming a gateway to other news organizations. To measure this we counted how many links there were to news organizations that were not owned by the same parent company. We did count as an external news link any site that was in some kind of formal partnership or joint venture with the host site, such as MSNBC.com is with Newsweek or the Washington Post. These links are to the sites generally (usually the home page), rather than to a specific story or content element. (Yahoo, for instance, contained links to biographical information from another source.)
Again, we found less depth than many might have expected. Six of the ten sites examined contained no links to other news organization, including some that four years ago were more collaborative. ABC, CNN, National Review, Salon, USA Today, and the Washington Post and Yahoo all had no links.
On the other hand, the New York Times, a newspaper historically chastised for behaving as nothing mattered until it had appeared in the Times, contained four links to outside news organizations (and in recent days has added to that), leading the way. The others with external news links were MSNBC (to Newsweek and the Washington Post, with whom it has joint ventures), and AOL.
This represents a decrease in connectivity for web sites.
In 2000, just three of 12 sites studied offered no links to outside sites. This year, six sites offered no such links (ABC, MSNBC, National Review, Salon, USA Today, and the Washington Post).
Four years, ago, similarly, four sites offered four or more links to outside news sites. In 2004, only the New York Times offered that many.