Study reveals huge disparity between news sites

While traditional sites focus on Iraq war, user-driven sites opt for iPhone stories

The topics covered by mainstream news sites are "markedly different" from those on sites that allow users to determine what is newsworthy, according to a survey released Wednesday by the Project for Excellence in Journalism.

The study, called "The Latest News Headlines -- Your Vote Counts," found that while mainstream media sites focused on the immigration debate and the Iraq war during the last week of June, three sites that let users determine the story lineup -- Digg, Del.icio.us and Reddit -- focused on the release of Apple's iPhone and Nintendo surpassing Sony in net worth.

The survey compared coverage from June 24 to June 29 on the three user-driven sites with that on 48 mainstream news outlets. In addition, the project studied Yahoo News, which includes news picked by editors and news selected by users.

The study found that many user-selected stories did not appear at all among the top stories in the mainstream press coverage; often stories on the users news sites appeared once with no follow-up reports. It also noted that Yahoo News readers and editors rarely agreed on top news stories during the week.

The immigration debate in Congress, the biggest single story of that week in the mainstream media, appeared only once as a top 10 story on Reddit, and not at all on Digg and Del.icio.us, the report noted. While the war in Iraq accounted for 10 percent of the stories in the 48 mainstream outlets, it counted for about 1 percent of the stories from the user-driven sites.

Nicholas Carr, author of Does IT Matter? Information Technology and the Corrosion of Competitive Advantage, noted on his blog that the report demonstrates the likely result of letting a crowd select the news. Most telling, he argued, is that user-driven sites are less inclined to be interested in international news and more likely to present "lifestyle" news.

"The techno-utopians would have us believe that citizen journalism will provide an antidote to the mainstream media's long-run shift away from hard news and toward soft news, that it will counter the trend toward news-as-entertainment and entertainment-as-news," he wrote. "When you replace professional editors with a crowd or a social network, you actually end up accelerating the dumbing-down of news. News becomes a stream of junk food-like morsels. The people formerly known as the audience may turn out to be the people formerly known as informed."

But Scott Karp, who blogs about social media and journalism, blogged that the report mistakenly assumes that the news of Digg and Reddit reflect the interests of all of the Web community.

"The other issue, which the report does address to a limited degree, is that audience for Digg and Reddit is principally young, male, tech enthusiasts," he wrote. "The 'users' or 'citizens' of these sites are in no way representative of the broad, diverse group of mainstream news consumers. The problem is that a very small percentage of Digg's and Reddit's citizens control the news on the site -- very much like a group of traditional editors. They may not be 'professionals,' but they are acting as a traditional editorial hierarchy."

Steve Boriss, who is the associate director of the Center for the Application of Information Technology at Washington University in St. Louis, blogged that the language used in the report itself shows why user-driven news is becoming popular. The report refers to users "not as 'customers' to be pleased, but as 'citizens' who play some kind of vague roles in which journalists provide an indispensable public service for which citizens are grateful."

Boriss, who teaches a course on the future of the news, advised traditional media outlets to "drop the journalists' dogma and all its silly pretensions. If a professional self-image is important to them, it ought to be in terms of being a service, particularly satisfying their customers and helping their employers deliver a profit."

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Heather Havenstein

Computerworld
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