Fox News’ Digital Divide

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? 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 and Sports Illustrated’s site.

But even on its own, consistently beats by 7 million or 8 million unique users. Per comScore, the gap is even larger: 43.4 million uniques for in June vs. 11.4 million for Plus, regularly bests 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 producer Mitch Gelman, now vp of quality for, 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, 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 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 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, registered the highest scores in the news category, 82 vs. just 73 for “A 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.

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