Analysis of News Sites
The Chicago Tribune has mastered the idea of adding extra news and features than the newspaper runs. The best of these features is their use of interactive databases. In December 1997, they have an interactive database that gives a breakdown of how Illinois schools are doing. The database is searchable by school name and city. The database returns information about statewide test results, school spending per student and teacher-student ratio along with other information about the school. A comparison of the schools is also offered by district, county and state.
This feature allows parents to find out which is the best school near them. It also would benefit people who are moving into an area. This is a great way to add something extra to the site.
They have an interactive database for homicides Chicago. Homicide numbers can be looked up by area. A map shows where homicides have occurred. Using the number listed on the map, information about the crime can be looked up. They also included many articles about 1996 crimes. Links to audio interviews were also included. A quiz asked the reader questions such as "Where were 1996 homicide victims most likely to be killed?" After the reader answers they are then taken to part of the story. Each question corresponds to a different part of the story.
They also have a daily news quiz. The quiz asks questions from the top headlines of the day. The number of correct responses is listed along with the answer. This adds a little fun to the site. To make this feature better they could have the answers hyperlinked to the stories the questions came from.
The Tribune has an expanded technology section that contains many articles that do not run in the daily newspaper. The only problem with the technology section is that some of the web sites listed in articles are not hyperlinks. This inconveniences the reader by making them copy and paste the site's address into their browser. The technology section has a calendar of technology related events in the Chicago area.
Communication between readers and Tribune staff is done through forums and an e-mail listing of Tribune staff. All editorial employees have their e-mail addresses listed. The forums allow readers to post messages that can be read and answered by other readers and Tribune staff.
In the July/August issue of Columbia Journalism Review John Pavlik wrote that the Chicago Tribune has shown how journalists can employ the limitless space by the content they provided when columnist Mike Royko died. The Tribune had 14 news stories about Royko, an electronic message board and an archive of some of Royko's best columns. One of the things that makes the Tribune great is they have learned how to master putting a vast amount of information about one subject online.
Although the Chicago Tribune has many good features, it also has several bad features. They use too much AP stories. Readers can get AP stories off the AP's site. They can also receive these stories from many other sites. They need to focus on more original news content. Local news needs to be easy to find. They have links to the news briefs not one specifically for local news.
U.S. News Online's best feature is the links to other web sites provided with the articles. In an article about Bill Gates' house they had links to information about what Gates has been doing lately, a map to his house, a web site about Gates' wealth and a link to send Gates' e-mail.
Although a reader may not need to know information about Bill Gates it can be helpful in other instances such as an article on food safety or an article on car buying. The links to other web site are varied. In the story about Gates' house, links were to a Microsoft web site, Yahoo and personal home pages people have created about Gates.
Another good feature is the Citizen's Toolbox. The section contains short articles about upcoming legislation. It includes links to web sites where the reader can take further action, such as e-mailing President Clinton, senators or representatives. Links are also made to organization concerned about the subject. This feature helps the readers get involved in politics and causes. It is a great convenience to readers who may not have the time to find the sites by themselves.
U.S. News Online site includes an extensive education section. The education and career section has links to other sites as well as their database of colleges and universities. They have a student calendar that lists common deadlines and plans for when to start preparing for scholarships, SATs, financial aid and admission.
A forum on different issues allows readers to post and read responses to articles. The forum is a joint effort between U.S. News and Atlantic Monthly Magazine. The forum would be better if staff members were leading discussions or periodically talked about their articles and why they wrote them.
The main problem with U.S. News Online is they do not use all of the technology available to them. Stories do not include interactive databases, video or audio. A complete e-mail listing for U.S. News staff is not available. They list only a few e-mail addresses for staff members.
MSNBC's strongest point is the amount of information at the site. They have stories form many of their shows such as the Today Show, Dateline, and Nightly News. The wealth of information at the one site lets you get the top news headlines along with longer articles about topics like the American with Disabilities Act or automobile safety tests.
One of MSNBC's major advantages is they have access to video and sound, so they use it with the more in-depth stories. This allows users to see part of a broadcast that they might have missed. An example is a story about disability access where the site used NetPlayer to show part of the broadcast online. The also show pictures with most stories.
MSNBC teams up with Ziff-Davis to produce a great technology section. They cover industry news, review equipment and have features about technology issues. Since online users usually own a computer they are interested in technology. News sites need to be able to provide that kind of information on order to gain a larger market. MSNBC has done a good job with the variety of technology information that they offer.
At the end of the stories they have a rating system for readers to rate how likely they would be to recommend the story. The top ten is for the last 24 hours. It allows readers to find stories on the sites that other readers think are good. Unfortunately, it is one of the only a few interactive features of the site.
MSNBC needs to strengthen the communication aspect of their site. The site has a list of e-mail addresses for the shows, but not for staff members. Readers want to know who is reading their e-mail. Communication to a general e-mail is very impersonal. How do readers know that a real person is actually reading the mail? Readers need to know that someone is listening.
How The Sites Stack Up
The best overall site of the three is the Chicago Tribune. The Tribune combines many of the different elements. Their use of interactive databases, forums, e-mail listing, and audio placed them well beyond the other sites. These are all things that good web sites should have beyond photographs and articles. U.S. News Online excelled in their use of additional information through hyperlinks. And MSNBC excelled at the use of video and audio.
A combination of the best features of the three sites would produce a news web site that would blow away all the competition. The future of great online journalism is approaching everyday. In the future web sites will combine all of these features to produce a product readers can not live without.