Rating The Online Financial Sections At The Top 25 Newspapers

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The war for newspapers to stay profitable, and, perhaps long-term, to stay viable has become a race between the fall-off in their print advertising and the increase of their online sales. Based on a look at the numbers from publicly traded companies in the industry, things are going badly. The sole exception may be The New York Times Company, where online revenue is now well over 10% of the total.

One of the critical sections of most online newspaper sites is the financial and business area. Marketers tend to be willing to spend higher rates on business readers because they have money that the readers of the sports sections may not.

24/7 Wall St. looked at the business and finance sections of the online editions of the top 25 newspapers in the US based on their circulation as of March 31, 2007 taken from the Audit Bureau of Circulations.
The sites got ratings of “A” through “F” based on:  1) strength of content, 2) ease of use and navigation, 3) use of new web technology including comments sections, message boards, and multimedia 4) lay-out, and 5) presence of a strong set of current advertisers.

The Wall Street Journal and USA Today were not rated. They are national newspapers. The business content of WSJ.com is well beyond the reach of any other daily. USA Today has a very modest business section based on its desire to keep the news hole of both the paper and the website small. These are two of the 25 on the list.

The list of websites below runs from largest to smallest based on print circulation:

1. The New York Times. It would be hard for any other metropolitan daily to compete with the Times. It has substantially larger editorial resources than any other metropolitan operation. Its most significant drawback is that it runs a reasonable amount of copy which is duplicated elsewhere, particularly by Reuters and The Wall Street Journal. NYT.com makes impressive use of blogs, charting, video, and other interactive features. Perhaps the best content run in the section on a regular basis are the “DealBook” area which covers the financial sector and “Bits” which covers technology.  Ideally, the NYT business section would not have to run such a large amount of copy which overlaps with other sources, but being complete trumps that.  Grade: A

2. Like most of the other online financial editions on this list, the LA Times runs a great deal of copy from sources like Bloomberg and the AP. As might be expected, entertainment and real estate news are overrepresented in the paper, but that is almost certainly in the interests of the readership. Except for the standard buttons for Digg and Facebook after each story, the section does a fairly poor job of engaging readers. The stock and investing tools portion of the site are weak. “The Biz” section on entertainment and “Money & Co.” parts of the site are very good. Grade: B-.

3. The “Money” section of the New York Daily News is what readers would expect from a paper and website with a lot of blue collar readers. There is a great deal of emphasis on personal finance. Sections on mortgage rates and gas prices are front and center. Most of the financial content is from the AP. But, this really is a section about credit card debt, mortgages, and retirement. Not much interactivity, but this is not the crowd for that. Grade: B

4. The business section of The New York Post may actually not be written for the paper’s typical reader. The media, technology industry, and financial world coverage are as good as that in any other daily in the country. Since a lot of people in Queens and Staten Island are NY Post readers, it is hard to say whether this coverage helps them.  The site has some video, but from the standpoint of Web 2.0 features or state of the art design, there is nothing to recommend the site. Give the media and financial reporters a thumbs up, but there is very little else here. Grade B-.

5. The business section of The Washington Post’s online edition is not well done, especially for a paper with the Post’s resources. To cover this up, and do it fairly well, the section has a number of strong online columns which cover topics from federal government-related financial issues to consumer information to small business. The best of these is a section called “Government, Inc.”. The stock and financial tables being used by the Post are mediocre. A look at the site shows that it does get its fair share of national display advertising. Grade: C+.

6. It is hard to find the Chicago Tribune business section from the navigation on the paper’s homepage, and that may be good. The effort by the Trib is a disappointment. The lay-out is as bad as any online financial site we looked at. One or two of the local stories are good. Graphics and interactive features are unusually weak. Grade: D

7. The Houston Chronicle is probably as good as any newspaper website in the country. That extends to the business section. The financial site has a large number of relevant blogs and columns. Most of the major stories are from wire services. Navigation is excellent. Local touches like the Houston Stock Index and several Top 100 features are likely to keep readers on the site. Advertising quality is disappointing given the strength of content and design. Grade A-

8. The business section of the Arizona Republic looks like it was put together by a local weekly with 5,000 subscribers, not by a daily with 413,000 paying readers. The great majority of the business news is from wire copy. Some of the content is a day old. There are modest blogs for real estate and stocks. Graphics and photos are poor. Grade D

9. Newsday is in the process of being sold by The Tribune Company to Cablevision. The online version of the paper is one of the best parts of the deal. The business section is easy to use. The columns and blogs are well-done and relevant. The local financial coverage is complete, and the section has several “web exclusives”, interactive features to keep readers in the section. Grade B

10. The strength of the San Francisco Chronicle’s business section is its tech coverage, and it is very well done. Most of the major national business stories are from sources like the AP, which is to be expected. The section gives readers direct access to a number of outside tech and business blogs. The “Tech Chronicles” section is especially strong. The quality and quantity of the advertising is disappointing. Grade B+

11. The online business section of The Dallas Morning News is long on design and navigation and a little short on content. Finding what the reader wants is as easy as on any website on this list. The columns on the airline industry and tech are very good. Not much in the way of interactivity, but the advertising seems robust. Grade B-

12. The business section in the online edition of The Boston Globe is solid. The design is mediocre, but there are several useful interactive features including video, chat, and message boards. The personal finance and tech sections are serviceable. The content from the business columnists lifts the entire enterprise. Modest advertising presence. Grade B+

13. The business section of The Newark Star Ledger is buried, and it is a good thing. It was as bad as any business section in the survey. The business desk puts together summaries of news stories and then sends readers out to the original sources. It may be a good way to do a lot with a very little investment. Visitors may want to take Dramamine before they work through the site’s navigation. Grade D-

14. The money portion of the online version of the Philadelphia Inquirer is confusing and poorly designed. That is a shame because some of the content hidden inside is very good. Posts in the “Philly Inc” section are entertaining and well-reported. Another section called “Philly Deals”, which covers M&A, private equity and real estate, needs some work. Grade C

15. The Cleveland Plain Dealer’s online money section does better than most by leading with its strength which is local writers working on local subjects. Most of the rest of the section is moved off to the side, and that makes sense for wire stories and content from MSNBC and CNN. Readers can get that anywhere. The design is very modest. Interactive features are basic. But, the editor knows how to play his one ace. Grade B

16. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution has made a fairly complete effort with its online business section. The editor has put in useful sections on subjects including the mortgage crisis and a report on a local business scandal. The Top 100 Georgia companies should help readers keep coming back. The blog section is good, and there is a “Blog With Us” section and a set-up to get mobile headlines. The use of multimedia is modest and the lay-out is weak. Grade B

17. The money section of the online version of the Minneapolis Star Tribune leaves a great deal to be desired. The navigation and lay-out are especially weak. Local reporting is solid. The blogs on personal finance, daily technology, and innovation are the strong point of the coverage. Stock and investing parts of the product are as weak as they can be. Grade C+

18. The financial section of the online edition of the St. Petersburg Times is remarkably well-done. The graphics and lay-out are as good as USA Today’s. The interactive features on local companies are particularly well done. The site also has a very fine photo section, something lacking at most other online newspaper money sites. Contacting writers and posting comments are easy and intuitive. Grade A

19. The business section of the online edition of the Chicago Sun Times is well-designed. The paper clearly does not have scores of business writers and it does a good job of making up for that with blog posts from the paper and outside writers. The editor makes a little go a long way. The lay-out is very basic and there is not much interactivity, which is a shame. Grade B-

20. The Detroit Free Press shows online papers what can be done with what are certainly modest resources. Detroit is not doing well financially, nor is the car industry. The business section of the newspaper is dominated by auto news, which is to be expected.  The columns and blogs are particularly good and updated frequently. The “Special Reports” section, which covers issues from the credit crunch to car dealer issues, is extremely well done. The lay-out is modest as are the number of advertisers. Grade B+

21. The Oregonian has the same stream-of-consciousness lay-out we have seen at a couple of other newspaper money sites. Most of what runs in the news hole is from the AP, which is too bad. The writing by the reporters is strong. The additional content from blogs and columnists is modest and the amount of interactivity is close to zero.  Grade D

22. The business section of The San Diego Union-Tribune is easy to navigate and attractive. The way the local business news is highlighted shows that the editor knows how to set up the section to play to his strengths. The section uses AP video and has modest interactive features. Since the San Diego region is dominated by biotech and technology companies, the business section gives them special attention, another example that the editor running the section has an eye for detail and reader interest. Grade B+

23. Perhaps it is good for the Sacramento Bee that it has to squeeze so much advertising onto its business page that it is hard to find the stories. It may not matter much. The business section of the online paper is modest and appears to have been designed giving no thought to the fact that the reader is looking at content on the internet and not in a newspaper. The only pictures on the pages are from the advertisers, but, at least those are well-done. Grade D+

If there is anything to take away from reviewing the top online newspaper financial sites, it is how uneven they are. Some of the smaller papers which probably have modest resources have done an extremely good job of engaging readers, using the best tools of the internet, and putting up content which adds to the experience of the subscriber to the physical newspaper. Some of these sites are likely to draw multiple visits from the same person throughout the day, the Holy Grail of online content sites. Others are set up to keep readers away.

There is clearly not much benchmarking going on in the online part of the newspaper industry, and given its multitude of problems that is a real shame.

Douglas A. McIntyre