News moves fast in 2011, almost as fast as the websites that cover it. What it also reveals is that not all digital media is equal.
TheWrap spent one mind-numbing day on Jan. 24 looking at the world's most-trafficked news homepages — including the New York Times, L.A. Times, Washington Post, Huffington Post, CNN, Drudge Report and Gawker — to see how they handled big stories (suicide bomber in Moscow, ballot controversy in Chicago with Rahm Emanuel, Tuesday's early-morning Oscar nominations) over 24 hours.
Here's what we found:
The L.A. Times is slow. The Washington Post needs a redesign. Huffpo kicks ass on reader engagement. And when it comes to news, Gawker is an also-ran.
The homepages of major news sites have become the agenda-setting slates that newspaper front pages used to be. And if Monday is any indication of the future, CNN is set, the New York Times is in good shape, and the Huffington Post, Washington Post and Gawker could use more than a little work.
But Huffpo gets mountains of commenters when compared to the Times (any of them).
As far as speed, the sites were on par or even ahead of cable news networks — not surprisingly, CNN led the way). But they appeared to struggle with balancing breaking news with planned features, and struggled to pin down the exact number of casualties in Moscow, each reporting (was it 29? 31? 35?) different death tolls on a live, moving story.
What they did: Drudge was the first, at 9 a.m. ET, to report the news of the suicide bomb attack in Moscow — with a small line above its homepage “fold," though the site kept its lead story about the Pittsburgh Steelers and Green Bay Packers Super Bowl berths at the top of the page. Drudge eventually swapped it out with a large headline — “SUICIDE BOMBER ATTACKS MOSCOW AIRPORT” — linking to a Reuters report. Shortly before 10, Drudge updated the headline to include the death toll “31+ DEAD” and switched to the preferred red breaking news font.
Drudge was the last (at 1:30 p.m.) among the major news sites (including Gawker) to have the Rahm Emanuel story — but it was the first to use it to displace the Moscow blast at the top of its homepage.
How they did: As a near-pure news aggregator, Drudge should have a speed advantage over big-trafficked competitors that have to report, produce and format breaking news stories. But the fact that Drudge was late on Emanuel — a story that should be in Drudge's right-leaning wheelhouse — shows that's not always the case. Maybe he went to the bathroom.
What they did: The Times published the Associated Press version of the Moscow story at about 9:20 a.m., at the same time the Washington Post posted it and about 10 minutes before CNN.
At 9:56, it published its first original bylined piece on the explosion (by Michael Schwirtz from Moscow and J. David Goodman in New York) and placed it in the top left slot on its homepage — though a story on the frigid temperatures in the Northeast continued to run front and center. At 11, the Times was still running its frigid weather story at the top of the page, as it had been for almost three hours — though it did swap out the main image. The paper updated its homepage shortly after, with an above-the-fold image from the scene and a link to a video of the aftermath. By noon, the Times’ story had 35 comments; the Huffington Post’s, by comparison, had 483.
Shortly after 1 p.m., the Times updated its homepages with a “breaking news” bar above the Moscow news to report on Emanuel. At 3, it was still running Moscow in its top slot, adding a link to a map of the airport where the bombing occurred. By 4, it had posted an interesting TimesCast video focusing on the social media part of the Moscow story in its prime homepage slot. (Oddly, the Times tacked an unrelated video tour of late artist Al Hirschfeld’s home office on the back-end of the video.)
At 6, Rahm took over for TimesCast at the top of the page, though a statement by Russian President Dmitri Medvedev on the suicide bombing — calling it a “terrorist act” — kept the story above the Times’ fold.
How they did: In terms of speed and placement of breaking news on its homepage, the Times was the most consistent among major news sites not named CNN. Where the Times faltered was in its TimesCast — forcing it down users' throats who were strictly looking for information on the suicide bomb.
The Huffington Post
What they did: The Huffington Post posted the AP story at 9:20 a.m., too, though at 10:30 still had an excerpt of a New York Times report on the U.S. housing crisis ("MORTGAGE GIANTS LEAVE LEGAL BILLS TO TAXPAYERS") above the fold, with the Moscow explosion only visible to those who scrolled below.
Emanuel knocked Moscow’s airport out of the Huffington Post top slot, too, with HuffPo running a rotating, Drudge-like “breaking news” gif to the left of the headline.
HuffPo eventually changed the headline to “RAHMAGEDDON.” The story had more than 1,300 comments within its first hour. At 5, it was still declaring “RAHMAGEDDON,” though by 6 p.m. the page finally turned to “MOM, POP AND THE GOP,” a story about “how K Street corrupts small business.”
How they did: By keeping an aggregated story Times story on the U.S. housing crisis at the top of its homepage for more than an hour, the Huffington looked surprisingly out of touch compared to its competitors. But HuffPo was all over “RAHMAGEDDON,” and nailed the headline.
What they did: As if to underscore what Gawker Media chief Nick Denton has argued is a desperate need for a forthcoming redesign, Gawker’s lead story, at 9:42 a.m., was this: “Andrea Peyser Dies and Meets Hot Teen Lesbian Muslim in Paradise.” The suicide bomb had yet to be mentioned.
Gawker didn't post a story on Moscow until 10:51 a.m., and it lasted at the top of the homepage for a grand total of four minutes — replaced by “Popular Diet Drug Is, Of Course, a Fraud,” a recap of USA Today story about a weight-loss drug endorsed by Carmen Electra. (It all seemed like little more than an excuse to run an image of Electra in a tanktop.)
How they did: It's almost unfair to grade Gawker on its breaking news coverage — at least at this point. At this point, Gawker is still a gossip blog, albeit a 24-hour one, with a huge following. After its redesign, it will be interesting to see if its breaking news approach changes.
What they did: CNN had the news at the top of its homepage around 9:30. (The Wall Street Journal and London’s Guardian also had stories about the Moscow blast up around that time.)
Around 10 a.m., CNN had a full story on the blast at the top left of its homepage, though the main slot was front-and-center slot was reserved for a piece on Afghanistan's “youngest opium addicts.” Shortly after 11, CNN had a new breaking news story running at the top of its homepage: “Two St. Petersburg, Florida, police officers dead after being shot while trying to serve warrant.” At noon, CNN replaced its Afghanistan video with a blast-related one — "Victims' bodies scattered in airport” — that came with this warning: "WARNING: GRAPHIC IMAGES: Video from inside Domodedovo Airport in Moscow shows scenes of carnage in the wake of what authorities are calling a suicide bombing today."
CNN also updated its page with an above-the-fold call for eyewitnesses: “Are you there? Send photos, video.” The site kept the bombing in its top-left slot, but replaced the bombing video with a story recapping a “particularly violent 24 hours for law enforcement” in the U.S., where 11 police officers were shot. CNN turned its homepage over around 6 p.m., with Tucson shooting suspect Jared Lee Loughner’s “not guilty” plea getting top-story play.
How they did: CNN — which has struggled in primetime programming but excels breaking news on television — and it has learned to match its on-air hustle on the web. Its speed, placement and coverage of the Moscow bombing was as close to perfect as any of the news sites could get.
Los Angeles Times
What they did: The Los Angeles Times published a story (“Report: Explosion kills 23 at Moscow airport”) at 9:49 a.m. ET (6:49 a.m. local time) — the last to do so among major metro newspaper sites. But like the New York Times, the L.A. Times was among the first to publish images from the blast around 11 a.m. (ET)
At lunchtime on the West Coast, the Los Angeles Times pivoted to a new lead story — pegged to the shooting of Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords — about survivors of bullets to the head.
How they did: Perhaps due to the time difference, the L.A. Times appeared to struggle early in its web coverage of the airport bomb, but caught up as the day progressed. Its coverage of the Oscar nominations on Tuesday, however, was on point.
What they did: Like the New York Times, the Washington Post published the Associated Press version of the story at approximately 9:20 a.m. (ET). Around 11, WaPo supplemented its bombing coverage, pointing users to a blog post that provided “Live Web updates on Moscow explosion” and a poll on U.S. security. Shortly after 1, the Washington Post and New York Times both updated their homepages with a “breaking news” bar above the Moscow news to report the Emanuel news.
How they did: The Post, perhaps even more than Gawker, could use a homepage redesign — as its current format leaves little room above the fold to highlight breaking news. Its speed and coverage were certainly adequate, but for fickle news consumers, sometimes that's not enough.