In this era of fragmented audiences, with newspaper journalism feeling the pressure of blogs and the Internet more generally, the Project for Excellence in Journalism (PEJ) undertook a study comparing mainstream media coverage of news with user-driven news and content sites Digg, Del.icio.us, and Reddit. The authors of the study also compared Yahoo News editors picks with audience favorites (most viewed, emailed). The results are very interesting and could have implications for the way that media organizations cover and even define news as they further evolve their Internet strategies.
The PEJ compared its own mainstream news index with the user-driven sites mentioned during the period of a single week. Here’s the PEJ’s discussion of the methodology:
The time period for this comparative study is from a randomly selected week beginning Sunday, June 24, 2007 and ending on Friday, June 29, 2007. The universe for this particular comparison consists of the top ten stories featured on Digg, Del.icio.us, Reddit and the Most Emailed, Most Viewed and Most Recommended stories from Yahoo News. A team of professional coders analyzed the top stories that appeared on the homepage (homepage refers to the main news page for each site). All Yahoo stories are hosted by Yahoo, but each sector—Most Emailed, Most Viewed, and Most Recommended—has its top ten stories listed on a different homepage. The content analysis of this study was conducted under the supervision of PEJ’s methodologist.
The PEJ said that user-driven news on these sites is “more diverse, more transitory, and often draw on a very different and perhaps controversial list of sources.” Here’s a representative snapshot of the differences between the mainstream press coverage and the user-selected content:
In a week when the mainstream press was focused on Iraq and the debate over immigration, the three leading user-news sites—Reddit, Digg and Del.icio.us—were more focused on stories like the release of Apple’s new iphone and that Nintendo had surpassed Sony in net worth, according to the study.
One potential question and issue with the study is the sample of user-driven news sites. All of the above are fairly technology focused and may skew more heavily male. Perhaps more representative of the general point the study makes — divergence between editorial coverage and user-selected stories — is the comparison of those differences on Yahoo News, the number one online news site:
We closely examined the top stories on each of these pages from June 24 to 29 to get a sense of how different (or similar) the user stories were from the editor-selected stories and also to see if there were differences in the stories that were recommended versus those that were highest read or the most emailed.
Looking at the broad topic areas, both Yahoo News and its user-organized pages (emailed, viewed and recommended) were more focused on international events not involving U.S. interests that week than the overall media studied in the News Index. A third (32%) of all stories on Yahoo News main page and 28% of those on its user-organized pages was coverage of events from overseas, such as the Israeli-Palestinian and Lebanese conflicts.
Beyond that, however, the topics differed. The user-ranked stories tended to be more about health and medicine (8% versus 0% of the Yahoo News stories), lifestyle (7% versus 0% on Yahoo News) and crime (7% versus 0%).
Indeed, Yahoo’s “Most Recommended stories focused more on ‘news you can use’ such as advice from the World Health Organization to exercise one’s legs during long flights; the Most Viewed stories were often breaking news, more sensational in nature, with a heavy dose of crime and celebrity; and the Most Emailed stories were more diverse, with a mix of the practical and the oddball.”
To draw any definitive conclusions about the future of news would be premature and foolish given the limitations and short duration of the study. But what it suggests is that audience interests are both more diverse and practical than the “big stories” orientation of the major media outlets. However, it would be false to say that the diversity of user-selected stories reflects a rejection of mainstream media. Yet major media outlets should take a look at the study and consider how they might complement the big stories with user-selected content, as many are already doing to varying degrees.
Yahoo News, in that regard, may be something of a model.