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Fox News' Digital Divide

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In the cable TV news world, Fox News Channel is a force to be reckoned with. So why does the network continually get its digital clock cleaned -- by CNN, of all rivals?

On the tube, Fox’s ratings are so dominant that CNN is turning to prostitution-tarred former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer to revive its prime-time lineup. In fact, Fox host Bill O’Reilly recently suggested that rival news nets are all but irrelevant, saying, “If you want to know what’s really happening in America, you have to come here.” But with millions of Americans turning to the Web for more of their news on a more frequent and immediate basis, can that assessment actually be true?

Foxnews.com averages around 12 million or 13 million monthly unique users, according to Nielsen Online, rarely approaching the 35 million to 40 million uniques that leaders Yahoo News, MSNBC and CNN regularly deliver in aggregate. Some of that disparity can be explained away, as both Yahoo and MSNBC draw heavy traffic from their portal counterparts, and CNN benefits from traffic driven by CNNMoney.com and Sports Illustrated’s site.

But even on its own, CNN.com consistently beats Foxnews.com by 7 million or 8 million unique users. Per comScore, the gap is even larger: 43.4 million uniques for CNN.com in June vs. 11.4 million for Foxnews.com. Plus, CNN.com regularly bests Foxnews.com in measures like page views, time spent and video streams -- and it has opened an early lead in mobile (14 million uniques vs. 9 million in May for Fox, per Nielsen).

Those numbers have led some to wonder whether Fox’s lack of digital success could eventually undermine its influence in American news -- particularly as a younger generation gravitates toward getting its headlines from iPhones and iPads rather than TV.

There are numerous theories as to why Fox lags so far behind online (executives declined to comment for this story). Longtime CNN.com producer Mitch Gelman, now vp of quality for Examiner.com, contends that it’s a simple question of quality. “CNN’s online service has been and continues to be better than Fox’s,” he said.

Fox was also late to a medium where habits are hard to break. “Six or seven years ago, Fox News was not as focused on the Web,” said Amy Mitchell, deputy director, Pew Research Center’s Project for Excellence in Journalism. In the early 2000s, said Mitchell, Foxnews.com was about promoting the net’s hosts. “That has changed.”

The other often floated theory/stereotype is that Fox News viewers are geezers who barely use dialup. But according to Nielsen, the median age for CNN this year is 63 vs. 64 for Fox News. However, Fox News’ audience is composed of significantly higher percentages of the 45+ and 65+ demos.

But many believe age doesn’t explain the Web audience gap, since CNN.com draws many millions of news users that never watch the TV network. “You can’t get 30 million or 40 million unique users by speaking to one particular political ideology,” said CNN.com svp/gm KC Estenson. “When people want to know what is going on in the world, they come to us.”

Indeed, it may be the different roles that TV and the Web now play in the news space that can explain the disparity, said Shelly Palmer, managing director of Advanced Media Ventures Group and host of the daily Web series MediaBytes. “How do Americans really get their news in the 21st century?” he asked. “Google Alerts and CNN alerts. Then you go to cable news to confirm what you think about that news.”

Still, Fox’s newfound dedication to the Web has paid off in user loyalty. According to a recent American Customer Satisfaction Index report, Foxnews.com registered the highest scores in the news category, 82 vs. just 73 for CNN.com. “A Foxnews.com visitor is a Fox News brand person,” said Eric Feinberg, industry director at ForeSee Results, which produces the research in conjunction with the ACSI. “The repeat visitor side of the equation for Fox News is huge”—indicating that the site is poised to grow its base sharply.

But given Fox’s huge ratings advantage and Foxnews.com’s users satisfaction scores, why isn’t the site bigger? Some theorize that what makes Fox so successful on TV doesn’t actually work on the Internet. “People shouting at each other doesn’t translate to a mass audience online,” said Estenson.

“Fox News is theater,” said Palmer. “But their site is straight news. In a funny way, it needs to be less CNN.com and more Fox.”

Overall, it’s doubtful that Fox executives are currently panicking over their digital performance since the network is such a ratings juggernaut. “I don’t think it’s necessarily worrisome,” said Greg Kahn, evp, business development director, Optimedia. “It is such a powerful brand...it delivers on reach and engagement.”

But five years down the road, shifting media habits may not be in Fox’s favor. As smartphones and tablets proliferate, Palmer wonders whether TV or Web companies will end up dominating those devices. He pointed to the unpredictability of the last five years, which saw social media, YouTube and Huffington Post becoming huge news forces. “There is no way to guess what consumers will do next,” he said.