WASHINGTON -- When looking at the most popular news sites on the Web, you get a fresh understanding of the old phrase, ''the medium is the message.'' Two of the top three are devoted to specialized news about their own medium, the Web.
Not only a major news subject in its own right, the Web is beginning to shape what we consider news and how we look at it. We often read the news online in a hurry, glancing quickly at one story before dashing on to the next page. Successful Web sites cater to this short-attention-span culture. Or are they pandering to it?
My bias here as a reporter for The Washington Post should be obvious, but it's still disappointing that so many readers have been sucked in by superficial, drive-through road stands such as Yahoo. It's as if these sites are so eager to be the medium that they shortchange the message -- winding up instead with, well, a mess.
But it is also encouraging that with a little extra work you can find interesting and comprehensive coverage.
That's the second way we look at news stories on the Web: as an introduction to an unfolding drama, with deeper background information lurking right behind a hyperlink.
So who's winning -- for now? The specialized computer-news sites CNet and ZDNet ranked first and third among home users in March. CNet, which enjoys a convenient franchise on the domain name news.com for a related site, pulled in 6.6 million unique visitors in March, a cool million more than the second-place news site MSNBC.com, a Washington Post partner. ZDNet attracted 5.4 million.
As many people go to the techie CNet and ZDNet as to the seven most popular traditional news brand names, such as USA Today, The New York Times and The Washington Post, which are fighting for reader loyalty to their brands. But traditional news Web sites love their tech coverage, too: During the ''Love Bug'' crisis, they all doled out up-to-the-hour and up-to-the-minute stories about the computer virus.
But news sites do not just cover technology; they use it with enthusiasm. Newspaper sites stream audio and video, crossing the line into broadcast roles. Television sites such as CNN's and CBS's cross back over, emulating wire services with written-word stories and illustrating them with photographs, just as print magazines do.
This reinvention isn't always a gentle process. The second-biggest site, MSNBC, is a hybrid of a software firm, Microsoft Corp., and a traditional news outlet, NBC. In character with Microsoft products, the technology side is over-engineered.
You must download a plug-in to get little displays of headlines when you roll your cursor over certain links (a process that has a much simpler Web-coding solution). And if you give your Zip code, a pinch of local information clogs up much of the home page each time you visit MSNBC, as if you didn't already know the weather outside. It is a good thing that MSNBC's staff produces excellent stories, rich in detail and well-written, to make up for the staggeringly silly Web design.
CNN.com, with a healthy 2.8 million unique visitors at home and 3.1 million at work, is the offering of Cable News Network, the first national cable news channel that stepped up to bat with round-the-clock coverage. It promised updates on the news with a flick of the remote control, but often just rehashes video clips it has had in rotation for hours.
Much of this regurgitation on the cable network has migrated onto CNN's Web site. There is only a smattering of truly original reporting, with the most resources going to presentation of news others have gathered.
Too bad the CNN folks can't trade places with another popular site, Entertainment Weekly's EW.com. The celebrity news on EW.com would be more interesting if it employed CNN.com's style of bite-size tidbits, and CNN.com should, like EW.com, flesh out details, although EW.com's details are usually meaningless dish on megastars.
Most news Web sites rely on wire services to provide news flashes. But Yahoo's two interrelated news sites (www.dailynews.yahoo.com and www.fullcoverage.yahoo.com) rely exclusively on them. They also provide a interesting study in contrasts.
The dailynews.yahoo.com site is a good aggregation of news. It packages a manageable number of news stories with links to the Associated Press and Reuters sites and stories from other Web news sources. There are related links from reputable sources. On the other hand, fullcoverage.yahoo.com simply replicates Yahoo's generally boorish pattern of organizing information into lifeless lines of data. The presentation looks like a DMV printout of your driving record.
But the Yahoo sites beg one question: Why rely on them to rehash good wire stories when one can get the wire stories directly from the wire service? The Associated Press site (www.wire.ap.org), although not found at the top of the rankings, belongs in all serious news-site bookmark lists.
In addition to updated AP stories, wire.ap.org offers a treasure trove of special features, drawing on archives that extend back to the 19th century. It is comforting that AP, which in its beginnings embraced one new form of information technology -- the telegraph -- is unafraid to dive into another.
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