A Watershed Event for Online Newspapers
By Wendell Cochran
Wendell Cochran teaches journalism in the School of Communication at American University.
The editors at USA Today's new online edition were preparing for their third day of operation on Wednesday, April 19, when the truck bomb that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City exploded, killing more than 160 people. Suddenly, the staff was scrambling to cover one of the biggest stories of the decade with unfamiliar tools for a medium that has few conventions or rules.
"We had quite the baptism by fire... But, you know newspeople. Everybody loved it," says Lorraine Cichowski, head of the USA Today division that produces the online edition.
Indeed, April 19, 1995, might go down as the day that many fledgling electronic newspapers sprouted their wings and started to demonstrate their potential.
"I think this was a watershed news event for online newspapers, as evidenced by the big jump in traffic at news sites around the Internet," says Steve Outing, an online newspaper service consultant. "A story like this is ideal for online news operations. It's one of those events that people can't get enough news about. They don't want to wait till tomorrow's print paper arrives...with stale news. They don't have to turn on the tube and see what TV producers want to show them at a particular time."
Online publication editors showed that they could move quickly, nearly keeping up with television and radio, but adding a range of material that broadcasters would find difficult to match.
"We updated the front [page] with an edited wire story within 10 minutes after the AP story moved," Cichowski says. "We had photos, frame-grabbed off TV within the hour. By noon we had an index, a package of stories and photos and the first graphics."
The staff of the Raleigh News & Observer's 10-month-old Nando Times online newspaper is a little more experienced than its counterparts at USA Today (see "The Digitized Newsroom," January/February). But the day of the bombing and the weeks that followed were no less hectic for them.
Michael Carmean, editor of new media at the N&O, was watching CNN in the Raleigh newsroom when he saw the first bulletins about the blast. "I had my editor start writing a headline and we started working on a special report," he says. The result: "Less than 20 minutes after the bombing, we had a story out there."
Journalists at the Oklahoma Daily, the student newspaper at the University of Oklahoma at Norman, less than 30 miles south of Oklahoma City, took on a double challenge. Not only did they marshal their meager resources to cover the huge local story, but they decided to offer their Thursday morning newspaper on the World Wide Web, something they hadn't done before.
Mas'ood Cajee, a senior chemistry and English major who is the Daily's web page producer and editor, says that as soon as the magnitude of the bombing was clear, "I felt I needed to do something. The first thing I thought of was to get some presence on the Web."
A four-member student team moved quickly, starting shortly before 11 a.m. – less than two hours after the bomb blast. "We were online by about 1 p.m. with a basic page. By 1 a.m. we had published the next day's newspaper," Cajee says.
Throughout the online newspaper world, editors added depth to their reports in a number of ways. First, they pushed out as much copy as they could, providing stories from such sources as the Associated Press, Reuters and the New York Times News Service. Second, they added supplementary material. For example, Digital Ink, the Washington Post's online service, had a complete transcript of President Clinton's statement at his first news conference just after he delivered it. Third, they found other Internet sites that contained bombing-related information and posted links to those sites.
A popular site was one in Oklahoma offering updated lists of victims, survivors and information on blood needs. As the story unfolded, links to sites that provided information about the militia movement also became popular.
Eric Meyer, who operates NewsLink, a World Wide Web site that furnishes links to many news organizations, believes such interconnectivity will be a principal feature of the online newspaper world.
"Just as CNN now plugs into the local feed to go live on a moment's notice, Web papers or, if you will, 'news malls,' can go 'live' to a scene by plugging into locally created home pages, and others with special interests can serve as summarizing points while the professional online journalist integrates these into a complete whole," Meyer says.
There's still the question of who will guarantee the accuracy of information not gathered and checked by journalists. What good is it to send readers to sites that don't verify the material they are posting?
Regardless, one thing seems clear: Readers want all the information they can find when a story like Oklahoma City breaks. And those with Internet connections quickly realized that the 'Net offered a good place to get the news they wanted. For example, at the N&O daily "hits" or accesses jumped from 250,000 a day to 415,000 on the day of the bombing. For the entire week, hits reached a new high of 1.94 million, and the following week they surpassed 2 million.
The challenge is to keep the readers coming back, especially when there is no compelling breaking story on the scale of the Oklahoma City disaster.
"I don't think that this event yet makes online newspapers a stand-alone medium. They're still supplemental to the printed paper, and will be for several more years," Outing says. "But they did a great job in the Oklahoma bombing of doing what newspapers could not do: provide immediacy and an alternative to turning on the tube to get the latest news, and offering incredible depth of coverage of the event by bringing together news resources from multiple channels."