Web Site Use and News Topic and Type

Article excerpt

This study investigates the relationship between types of news events and daily traffic at the New York Times on the Web. CNN and ABC newscasts were content analyzed to represent each day's news coverage and compared with Web site usage data made available by the Times. The results indicate that level of disruptiveness and episodicity were positively correlated with online traffic. Also, several news topics-- international politics, education, and science and technology-were positively correlated with online news usage. During the period examined, dominated by the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, domestic politics, weather, and accident and disaster news were negatively correlated with Web site usage.

The World Wide Web is a great source of news because it is available twenty-four hours a day and Web users do not have to wait for a newspaper or newscast to find the story that interests them. Online news users can choose directly and immediately from a great variety of content and not rely on the necessarily more narrow selections of a newspaper editor or television news director. Two major news events in the United States, John F. Kennedy Jr.'s plane crash in 1999 and the presidential election of 2000, illustrated the Web's clout in the news marketplace. The week beginning 18 July 1999 saw a record high number of pages visited of the New York Times on the Web as millions of Web users checked on developments in the disappearance, recovery, and funeral of Kennedy and his plane's passengers.I In November 2000, news Web sites also reported substantially higher traffic as people sought news on the resolution of the controversial presidential race,2 and sites saw even greater jumps in use immediately following the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001.3

The response of Web users to these stories suggests that audiences may actively seek out online news sites for ongoing, breaking news-- stories that command people's attention. But if online newspapers are to serve their audiences effectively, what topics of news stories should they select and what qualities should the stories have? Will users be more likely to seek out updates of breaking events or stories that provide context and background on issues? Using multiple data sets, this study seeks to investigate the types of stories and topics that attract audiences to the Web by correlating daily newscast content with daily traffic at a major news Web site, the New York Times on the Web.

This study relies on the uses and gratifications approach, which maintains that "individuals differentially select and use mass media to gratify or satisfy felt needs."4 The uses and gratifications approach to studying media assumes that audience members are active and make motivated choices based on previous exposure to the media. It also assumes that media use is only one way among others of satisfying needs that audience members experience in daily life.5 These characteristics make uses and gratifications an appropriate theoretical basis for an investigation of the content that leads users to news Web sites, a conclusion supported by Morris and Ogan6 and by Heeter.7

Researchers have already begun to address numerous questions relating to online journalism. They have described visual aspects of online journalistic content,8 reported on the growth of Internet use,9 compared the acquisition of knowledge in online and traditional newspapers,10 observed the increase in the number" and popularity" of online newspapers, and testified to the skyrocketing rise of traffic at a news Web site.13 In addition, media scholars have analyzed factors, such as credibility, by which news audiences judge online news;14 used eye-- tracking technology to study how users interact with online news;15 examined the impact of multimedia elements on the processing and perception of online news;16 described dimensions of interactivity in online newspapers;17 and compared the user demographics of the Internet to those of traditional media. …