Online newspapers and the 2006 election: bland ambitions?

Alexis de Tocqueville once characterized American newspapers as a roadmap for citizens, especially as they come together and meet in the public square:

A newspaper then takes up the notion or the feeling which had occurred simultaneously, but singly, to each of them. All are then immediately guided towards this beacon; and these wandering minds, which had long sought each other in darkness, at lengths meet and unite. (Democracy in America, Book Two, Chapter vi.)

As we wrap up another U.S. election, one may ask: are newspapers, in their modern online versions, still meeting de Tocqueville’s great expectations?

Research from the Pew Internet Project shows that the number of Americans who now turn to the Internet for information about campaigns on a typical day has jumped from 11 million in 2002 (the last mid-term election cycle) to 26 million. Surely, a considerable chunk of this 26 million may be visiting national sites such as CNN, NPR, MSNBC, blogs, and increasingly, YouTube. But as the late Tip O’Neill once said, all politics is local, and most online newspapers can offer their readers a uniquely local focus that sites such as CNN and MSNBC cannot.

To better assess the online newspaper industry and its commitment to providing citizens with information on the election, I decided to conduct an inventory of each daily newspaper website in the country from October 14 through November 3, 2006.

According to the 2006 International Year Book printed by Editor & Publisher, there are 1,452 daily newspapers in the United States. Only those online newspaper sites that were free for readers and had fully functioning websites were included, which ultimately reduced the total number to 1,312 sites.


First, I determined if the site had carved out a section of the site and devoted it exclusively to the 2006 election. It had to be a section that was a clearinghouse created specifically for the campaign that a voter would be able to access if he or she wanted news and information just about the election. While virtually all sites integrated news about the election in their general local and national news sections, this alone would not meet the criteria.

Next, I examined the individual components of those sites with special election sections to determine their depth and richness. First, I calculated the number of sites that exhibited multimedia, other than polls. Were there podcasts or video clips of debates, or staff-generated interviews of the different candidates, for instance?

Second, I tallied how many sites offered information specifically on the candidates, and sought to break down the issues for the reader. For example, could visitors read individual profiles of a particular candidate?

Third, I surveyed how many of the sites provided readers with a chance to interact with either reporters or other readers. Were there blogs or forums in which readers could express their own opinions?

And fourth, I determined the number of sites that included details on the logistics of voting: registration information, polling locations, voter-eligibility requirements, and primary results.


I found that the industry’s overall performance can probably best be assessed as uneven. Just 27% of all online newspaper sites offered a separate section for campaign and election news. Digging deeper, a few findings stand out.

First, it may be that the rich are getting richer. Those sites with the largest print circulation, and arguably, the most revenue and resources to allocate for an online election section, were most likely to display one. According to the International Year Book, the average daily circulation of all newspapers in the country is roughly 36,700. Meanwhile, the average daily circulation for those newspapers sites that offered a special election section was more than double that number at 86,500.

Breaking down the numbers by state also shows that those states with the highest concentration of registered voters were more likely than others to have sites with election sections.

Among those states with the highest number of sites that included election sections were Florida (56% of all daily sites displayed an election section), Maine (50%), Maryland (60%), Oregon (59%), North Carolina, (40%), Oregon (59%), South Carolina (40%), Vermont (43%), Virginia (42%), Washington (57%), and Wisconsin (43%). With the exception of Virginia, all of these states had a voter registration percentage equal to or higher than the national average, according to the latest registration data from the U.S. Census Bureau. One might assume that registered voters were already the most engaged citizens while unregistered voters could have most benefited from additional coverage.

On a different note, there was also the possibility that ownership affected the overall number of sites offering an election section. As other research has shown, there is a heavy concentration of ownership among the country’s newspapers. While conducting this study, I noticed that many sites were straight-jacketed by the homogenous online format associated with a particular newspaper owner. Thus, if there was one company that did not offer an election section, all the sites owned by that company did not do so–if they were locked into a general Web structure. The one exception to this trend was Gannett.

The sites fared slightly better when their individual components were measured. Fully sixty percent of all sites with election sections offered in-depth information on the issues and candidates participating in the elections. There were many biographical and professional profiles, and “Q & As” allowed citizens to quickly compare and contrast opposing candidates.

Meanwhile, 56% of all sites with an election section provided readers with the opportunity to interact with stories and other readers. Not only did many sites offer readers the chance to post a comment on a news story or profile, but several sites established campaign-specific blogs for the election.

Next, 54% of the sites with election sections listed information on voting logistics. Perhaps this is the most surprising finding since it involved seemingly so few resources. Many sites simply linked to the local Board of Elections where voters could find their polling place or request an absentee ballot and this was sufficient to meet the criteria for this aspect of the study. Why only a small majority was able to do so baffled me.

And finally, roughly four in 10 included multimedia in their election sections. Since it could very well be that resources were the key factor for online website editors and staff, it is perhaps not surprising that so few sites could offer video, audio, interactive maps, or slideshows for citizens.

Many Americans may be satisfied with the breadth and depth of online coverage of the election. National sites like MSNBC and CNN offer a dizzying array of multimedia and investigative journalism that only a handful of newspaper sites have the personnel and resources to provide. Moreover, there is the 800-lb gorilla–television–that still serves as the overwhelming choice for most Americans when it comes to election news and information. But because newspapers have long been considered the standard bearer of quality and reliable reporting on local politics, particularly as the nature of the web is able to overcome the limits of space that limited print newspapers, it seems rather disappointing that such a small number of sites are able to meet the lofty ambitions set by de Tocqueville over 150 years ago.

About David Vaina

Hi, I am a research associate at the Project for Excellence in Journalism. I write and conduct research on online news and network television. I am interested in blogging, broadband policy and regulation, online video, and economic models for online media properties.