Ubiquity of wire services

An interesting experiment shows how many Web sites rely on the same sources for their news. After a baseball game between the Minnesota Twins and the New York Yankees, Matt Welch of Online Journalism Review checked several Web sites for reports of the game and found that the same story, distributed by Sports Ticker, appeared on three national Web sites: AOL and the sites for USA TODAY and the Los Angeles Times. A second story, by the Associated Press, was posted on CNN/SI, ESPN.com, Total Sports, and the sites for two Minnesota newspapers, the Rochester Post-Bulletin and the Duluth News. 1

The many news providers on the Web often rely on a few sources of news, particularly the same wire services that have provided national and world news for most newspapers in the past century. A large news-gathering organization such as the BBC uses wire services only to fill in an occasional gap in coverage,2 but the venerable British giant, which is publicly funded, is the exception rather than the rule. As a result, several news sites on the Web have roughly the same content.

For journalists at some Web sites, the biggest news judgments are long-term decisions involving which news sources to use. "We choose our partners partly because of their high standards," said a Web site content programmer. 3 Another Web journalist described her job as one of planning: "It's my job to establish the processes that will make the service go." 4

Even Web sites affiliated with major news providers rely heavily on the wires. Until recently, MSNBC.com had only a few reporters working on original stories, 5 and other national Web sites use wire services for afternoon updates. As a result, readers can often find the same news at different Web sites — those without reporters, such as Yahoo and AOL, and those affiliated with large newsroom staffs.

Readers may browse many sites but have few choices, and the choices tend to lack originality. "For most people, most topics, we're all ending up with the same take on the news," said a Web site content programmer. "So for headline news, we're headed for unbelievable blandness and lack of variety." 6

"Bland" is not necessarily an insult for the Associated Press, a cooperative venture by news organizations designed to spread basic facts quickly in the era of the telegraph. The service decided early in its history that it must concentrate on stories devoid of analysis so that it could appeal to newspapers of various political allegiances. 7 "AP — by design — squeezes the life out of nearly every story so as to make it palatable to everybody," said G.L. Marshall, a veteran journalist and consultant, in Online Journalism Review. 8

At newspapers, the staff must edit wire stories to make them fit the space allotted in each day's edition, and editors may call the wire service to challenge facts when necessary. Web sites, however, may lack the time or staff to put wire stories through this process. "We rely far too much on the accuracy of wire services," said a newspaper Web site editor. 9

Though the wire services dominate the major mainstream news sites, the Internet makes it possible for smaller publishers to post news. We've already seen the impact of the Drudge Report, a small operation that thrives on publishing scandalous material leaked to the site's namesake, Matt Drudge. In its early days, Yahoo was a project run by a few college students. 10 As we'll see in the next section, newsmakers and ordinary citizens alike can take the news into their own hands.