A principal tenet of many normative communication theories is that competition among journalists is frequently in the public interest. In this view, competition for readers and viewers is thought to push journalists to work harder to meet the interests and needs of the consumers who read newspapers or watch television. In 1947, the Hutchins Commission called upon the federal government to use antitrust laws to maintain competition among the media. The Commission wrote, "We need a market place for the exchange of comment and criticism regarding public affairs. We need to reproduce on a gigantic scale the open argument which characterized the village gathering two centuries ago (Commission on Freedom of the Press, 1947, pp. 67-68)."
Such thinking has been implicit in the concern over both the decades-long decline in the number of daily newspapers published in the United States and increasing concentration of newspaper ownership in chains (Busterna, 1989). The notion that competition promotes better journalism also underlies US national policies that have restricted the number of broadcast stations that a single broadcast network can own and cross-ownership rules that restrict single ownership of broadcast properties and newspapers in a single market (Gillmor, Baron, Simon & Terry, 1990).
The World Wide Web provides new opportunities for journalists to compete with one another, as well as for nontraditional entrants to the field to challenge journalists' traditional role of providing information to the public (Gordon, 1995; Newhagen b Levy, 1995; Schudson, 1996). The technology that undergirds the web allows an information provider to store information in a variety of formats, including text, still images, moving images, and sound. The technology also permits the designer of a web page to allow a user to send electronic mail or to use connections -- hypertext links -- to move seamlessly to material provided on a separate computer (Krol, 1993).
Given this milieu of new technology and new competitors how, if at all, will traditional journalistic organizations respond? Many television stations, newspapers and other media organizations have responded by creating their own web sites that offer news and other information to users (Fulton, 1996; Gunther, 1995; Lasica, 1996; Pogash, 1996; Shepard, 1997; Tedesco, 1996). But it is unclear what features these sites offer or whether they even are constructed and operated according to journalistic values.
This paper reports an exploratory content analysis of web sites sponsored by commercial television stations in the United States. It examines whether the characteristics of the web sites in the study are related to the amount of competition faced by the station. Local television news is intensely competitive, as evident from their heavy reliance on reports of crime, disaster and other sensational topics thought to attract viewers (Fallows, 1996).
Litman and Bridges (1986) found that newspapers in competitive market environments devoted more space to news and subscribed to more wire services than did newspapers in less competitive settings. Based on these findings, Litman and Bridges proposed a financial commitment model of media competition that posits that managers at competitive newspapers secure larger newsroom budgets in an effort to compete effectively. Lacy (1992) further explicated this model, proposing that competition spurs a greater investment of money by a media firm, resulting in a media product that attracts more consumers. Lacy (1987) found that newspapers in competitive markets used more wire services and had more reporters than newspapers in less competitive settings. Similarly, Atwater (1984) determined that local television stations attempted to make their broadcasts different from others in the same market in an effort to compete with them. Gans (1979) found that network television broadcasts and newsweeklies try to have content that is different than that of competitors' as a way of attracting viewers or readers. …