Among the three U.S. newspapers that circulate print editions to over a million weekday readers, the New York Times, with a little over 1.1 million readers, ranks a distant third to USA Today (2.2 million readers) and the Wall Street Journal (2.1 million readers). Yet in online readership, the Times is unparalleled. It not only beats out its competition, it beats out its own weekday print edition. Last December the Times’ internal numbers recorded an astonishing 1.2 million unique daily online visitors. (All told, The Big Three circulate 5.4 million newspapers every weekday, and draw 2.9 million readers online.)

With that many readers relying on online newspaper Websites, the question arises: What are those readers getting? An informal Campaign Desk survey indicates the answer to that question is: Not necessarily what they think they’re getting.

The New York Times Online is not the same as the New York Times. The same holds true for the web sites of the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, USA Today, and the Wall Street Journal. To be sure, many of the stories are the same and the newspaper’s banner may appear atop the Web page. But according to online editors at all the news organizations, online users are reading a different publication than the ink-and-paper product.

Don’t feel too bad if you didn’t realize that; neither did two high-profile reporters that Campaign Desk has written about, John Harwood of the Wall Street Journal and Richard Stevenson of the New York Times.

Stevenson complained to Campaign Desk after we took him to task for a Feb. 18 story from Fort Polk, La., that appeared to swallow the White House line that President Bush’s had visited the fort on a spur-of-the-moment decision. In fact, in the final print edition of the newspaper, Stevenson’s story noted that Fort Polk officials had planned for the visit for days. Our mistake was relying on the version on the Times’ Website, in which a late update that Stevenson had filed never appeared. The Times does its best to update the Web edition as well as the print edition, but Stevenson’s files just slipped through the cracks, an editor told us.

That can happen occasionally, because the Web operations of most major papers represent worlds unto themselves. Just as newspapers have foreign news desks and sports desks, the New York Times, Washington Post and Los Angeles Times now have quasi-autonomous “continuous news desks” (called the extended news desk at the Los Angeles Times), staffed with editors and reporters dedicated to providing up-to-the-minute news coverage on the Web.

The editors of these continuous news desks start off their mornings by identifying the major stories of the day and contacting the print reporters assigned to those stories. Ideally the print reporter agrees to cover the event for the continuous news desk, as Stevenson did with Bush’s appearance in Fort Polk, La. Robert McCartney, assistant managing editor for continuous news at the Washington Post, says this is the “first choice always” because it brings the Website “credibility, knowledge, context, and sources that readers trust.”

But at times, the print reporter declines the continuous news request. As Stevenson told Campaign Desk, “If I feel that I don’t have a story nailed down sufficiently, or that I don’t have time … or that taking the time would prevent me from doing the reporting I need to do, then I won’t agree to do a continuous news version.

In such a case, the continuous news desk editors assign their own news reporters to the story. The continuous news reporter contacts the print reporter assigned by the print editors to obtain background and source contact information. If the print reporter is able to phone in reporting, the two reporters co-author a story. If the print reporter cannot phone in details, then the continuous news reporter uses the background info to report out the story on his own. That’s not as good as the real deal, McCartney says, but it does provide the online reader with a story that carries “most of the [print] reporter’s credibility.”

These continuous news stories go up on the various Websites and are identified with time stamps and special URLs. As the day nears its end, and final versions from the next morning paper’s become available, ideally the continuous news stories come down from the site and the paper edition stories go up. This is exactly how the Times’ Stevenson understands the process, he told Campaign Desk: The “continuous news versions … are replaced online by the presumably more polished newspaper version after the editing process is completed.”

Thomas Lang was a writer at CJR Daily.