What is ‘digitally native' news?

Most news on the Internet still originates with digitally transforming traditional news organizations: newspapers, news services, and television and radio networks and stations. Digital forms of news they produce appear on their own news sites and reappear in many other places throughout the Internet. Fifteen of the twenty most-visited American news sites in 2012, as measured by Nielsen, were those of television and cable networks and newspapers and newspaper groups—including ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, CNN, The New York Times, The Washington Post, Wall Street Journal, and Gannett, Tribune, and Advance newspapers. Several also had relatively large followings on Facebook and Twitter, according to com- Score data. They're being read and followed by young adult web users, too; 17.6 million of the nearly fifty million total unique visitors to The Washington Post's digital news sites in May, 2015 were aged 18 to 24.

At the same time, an increasing amount of digital news is being offered by start-up "digital native" news organizations that are only available on the Internet. Some are for-profit general interest websites with large audiences and increasingly well-known brands. Many others are relatively small nonprofit news organizations focused on niches like investigative reporting or community journalism.

Some of the for-profit digital native websites with the largest audiences began as aggregators of news content picked up from the websites of established media. The digital native sites have never paid those news media for that content, although they have helped drive some traffic to the originating news sites. Ezra Klein of the digital native site Vox, which aggregates some of the content it reworks into its explanatory journalism, with attribution to its original source, has noted that this is not a new practice. "Time Magazine, for instance, began its life as an aggregation shop," Klein wrote on the Vox site in 2015. "It promised, on behalf of the busy American, to climb through 'every magazine and newspaper of note in the world" for the news that its journalists rewrote each week in what became Time's unique voice. ("How Vox aggregates" posted on Vox technology, updated by Ezra Klein April 13, 2015).

The Huffington Post, now owned by Internet pioneer AOL, has built one of the Internet's largest audiences by combining links to and rewrites of content from major news organizations with its own journalism, plus numerous blogs from unpaid contributors, about everything from politics and world news to parenting and health, plus a potpourri of popular recycled digital stories and videos about celebrities, entertainment, lifestyles, sex, animals, and what it labels "weird" occurrences. Among examples of its own original journalism, The Huffington Post's military affairs correspondent, David Wood, won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize for a series of feature stories on the lives of severely wounded veterans and their families. Arianna Huffington, the website's founder and CEO, has attributed its huge audience (200 million unique visitors a month in 2015, according to comScore) to a mix of hard and soft news, original and borrowed, which, she said in a 2014 digaday.com interview, makes it "a leader in terms of all the content people want."

The digital formula of The Daily Beast, founded and formerly published by celebrity journalist Tina Brown, has been very similar to that of The Huffington Post, which, along with Huffington herself, had once been seen as arch rivals of The Daily Beast and Brown. Now owned by IBT Media, the Daily Beast has featured a similar mix of links to content aggregated from other news organizations, contributed blogs, and entertainment features from around the Internet.

One of the newer aggregators, Mashable, has combined general and entertainment news content from other media with its own reporting on social media, technology, and business. One of the oldest, Yahoo News, part of the giant Yahoo! Web portal and search engine, has recently been expanding its original news and sports reporting, while hiring prominent journalists from newspapers and television. Its merged website with ABC News has featured mostly news from ABC and other news media.

Some for-profit websites started by tech entrepreneurs have built large audiences by analyzing web traffic data to determine what content would attract the most people. They often feature the same stories, photos, or videos that had gone viral on the Internet, with their own catchy headlines and garish display to attract the most traffic. BuzzFeed, for example, features trivia lists, animal features, and popular web videos, to which it has more recently added much more original journalism, including investigative reporting. Gawker Media mixes sensational news stories with celebrity gossip, animal features, and unusual occurrences. Hollywood-based TMZ specializes in gossip and titillating videos about entertainment personalities and other celebrities. All three have occasionally broken stories of great impact with information, recordings, or videos obtained from undisclosed sources. For example, TMZ posted both a video of then Baltimore Ravens football player Ray Rice punching his wife inside an elevator and an audio recording of then Los Angeles Clippers basketball team owner Donald Sterling making racist remarks.

In a way, these popular digital sites have followed in the footsteps of newspapers that long mixed original journalism with news stories from wire services, entertainment and lifestyle news, gossip columns, advice to the lovelorn, bridge and chess columns, comic strips, and astrology charts. The major differences were that newspapers have paid for all that content and their ratio of news to entertainment has been much higher.

Some newer digital native sites—such as Vox and FiveThirtyEight—specialize in explaining the news and analyzing noteworthy data in digitally innovative ways, in addition to aggregating other content. Some other start-ups like Syria Deeply have focused on a single subject with aggregated content from other media and their own blog posts. Those sites are all similar to explanatory, data analysis, and single-subject blogs on the digital sites of traditional news organizations, including The Washington Post and The New York Times, where Ezra Klein of Vox and Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, respectively, had previously worked.

There are also for-profit startup websites that primarily do original news reporting. Politico specialized in news about politics, government, and the news media for an insider audience, part of which has paid substantial subscription prices for its Politico Pro specialized information products. Business Insider focuses on business and technology, while Re/Code, bought by Vox in 2015, and Tech Crunch also cover technology. Salon and Slate, comparatively older digital magazines, feature staff-produced stories and blogs about politics, public affairs, culture, media, and entertainment. Vice, a Canadian print magazine that morphed into a digital upstart, covers some of the same subjects plus international stories, aimed at a younger audience, and has specialized in edgy videos, such as a series shot in 2014 in the company of extremist Islamic State in Iraq and Syria troops in the Middle East.

Fewer commercial digital-only news sites have specialized in local news, and only a few of them have survived. An exception is Hearst's SeattlePI.com, which replaced the Seattle Post-Intelligencer newspaper when it closed down in 2009. One of the newest independent for-profit startups, Billy Penn in Philadelphia, combines links to news produced by other Philadelphia media with its own reporting, entertainment features, and community events aimed at the city's growing population of young adults.

More numerous "hyper-local" for-profit news sites, resembling blogs with advertising, have been started by entrepreneurs in smaller communities and neighborhoods scattered around the country. Some, like the Local News Now sites in several Washington, DC neighborhoods, operate independently. Others collaborate with local newspapers; several dozen neighborhood sites in the Seattle area, for example, share story links and advertising sales with the Seattle Times.

Perhaps most significantly, startup digital native for-profit news sites have so far augmented rather than replaced increasingly digital traditional commercial news media. In fact, without them, much of the news content of the digital startups would disappear. In addition, the economic models that the newcomers are trying to establish—varying mixtures of venture capital, advertising, digital subscriptions, ticketed events, and digital services for commercial customers—have yet to prove more viable for the future than the changing economic models of older news media.

 
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