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American Journalism Review
Online Advances  | American Journalism Review
 AJR  Features
From AJR,   May 2003

Online Advances   

The Internet lagged far behind television and newspapers as a primary source of news about Operation Iraqi Freedom. But the conflict witnessed a number of milestones for Web journalism.

By Barb Palser
Barb Palser (bpalser@gmail.com), AJR's new-media columnist, is vice president, account management, with Internet Broadcasting.     


Each medium has had its war. Radio came of age with World War II. Vietnam was America's first televised war. The 1991 Persian Gulf War marked the rise of 24-hour cable news.

The war in Iraq was set up for the Internet: It came with plenty of lead time for news sites to build deep wells of background content, design special pages and fortify servers. Most of the action happened during the workday, prime time for online news. Traditional media partners were on board, providing a steady stream of photographs, words and video from the front. The war in Iraq even coincided with a renaissance in online video, with several major news sites launching free and subscription video services in the weeks prior.

Yet this was not "the Internet's war." Online reporting did not profoundly change the way most Americans experienced the story, or cause some tectonic shift in audience behavior. As usual, surveys of news consumers found that, among their media preferences, relying on the Web for war news ranked dead last--after television, newspapers and radio.

But surpassing the audience numbers of television news is not something we can, or should, expect from this medium.

The milestones for the Web came in other areas. Online news took giant steps forward in three respects: First, it prompted large numbers of traditional reporters to use the Web as a personal and professional communication forum, and news organizations to make the Web a key part of their war plans. Second, it gave rise to a cornucopia of creative and experimental presentation formats. And third--the momentousness of which can't be overstated--nothing fell apart.

Despite the depth and immediacy of online news, most people preferred to get their pixilated video and breaking news bulletins about the war from the other always-on medium, cable television.

"Online coverage provided a nice complement to television and newspaper coverage," says Mitch Gelman, senior vice president and executive producer of CNN.com. "It did what it does well, which is to provide news and information to people who don't have access to television and who have already read the newspapers--particularly the at-work audience."

Sixty-nine percent of respondents in a Los Angeles Times poll taken during the fighting said they were relying on cable networks for war information. Thirty percent cited newspapers, 23 percent chose local television, and 18 percent said they watched one of the three broadcast networks. Thirteen percent of respondents said they got their war news from the Internet. (Those percentages don't total 100 because respondents were allowed to name three news sources.)

Those findings are supported by a detailed report by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, which has tracked online behavior for the past three years. Pew surveyed 1,600 adults, 999 of whom were Internet users, from March 20 through 25.

Among those Internet users, 17 percent cited the Web as a principal source of war information. That's less than TV (87 percent), radio (22 percent) and newspapers (21 percent). But it's a competitive number and a big jump from the mere 3 percent who relied mainly on the Internet after September 11. (In this survey, participants could give two responses.)

"The Internet continued to grow as a news source, but in no way does it rival television yet, even for Internet users," says Susannah Fox, director of research for the Pew project. "The most dedicated Internet users still say television is their main source of news."

Even more people use online news to supplement other media. Forty-four percent said they'd gone online for war coverage at some point; based on Pew's estimate of 116 million American Internet users over the age of 18, that's roughly 51 million people.

Notably, both surveys reported that more people turned to the Internet prior to the war's start on March 19 than during the first week of conflict. Fox says the pre-war peak might be explained by a sense of anticipation that drove people to check news sites often. "That week before [the war started], most people were at work or going about their daily lives as usual, but with a heightened interest in news," Fox says. "There was the sense that the other shoe is going to drop. Everybody was waiting for that and worrying about it, whether they were at work, home, sending e-mail to their friends or shopping online."

According to Nielsen/NetRatings, visits to news sites swelled during the week ending March 23. The top three at-work news sites, CNN.com, MSNBC.com and Yahoo! News, saw visitor increases of 58 percent, 38 percent and 21 percent, respectively, Nielsen reported. (That's a total of 10 million at-work visitors to CNN.com for the week, compared with 6.3 million the week ending March 16.) NYTimes.com and AOL News held distant fourth and fifth places in Nielsen's ranking. (AOL, however, led the pack in at-home use, with 7.4 million unique visitors that week.)

It's no small triumph that all of those visitors were able to connect without incident: The Iraq war was the first blockbuster news event that did not precipitate server paralysis at any major American news site or jam the Internet itself.

Keynote Systems Inc. continually measures the performance of Web sites and the health of the Internet's infrastructure. Throughout the war, Keynote logged no significant changes in download time or availability among the news sites it monitors, which include CNN.com, MSNBC.com, NYTimes.com, ABCNews.com and USAToday.com, all of which suffered accessibility problems on September 11.

(A noteworthy exception was the English-language Web site of the Arab television network Al Jazeera, which hackers took down the day after it launched and shortly after the network and Web site had shown graphic images of dead and captured U.S. soldiers. The site was later dumped by Akamai Technologies, the company it had hired to restore stability.)

In general, news sites have better server capacities and contingency plans than they did a year-and-a-half ago. Of course, it also helped that this story came with a long lead-up and, thanks to President George W. Bush's ultimatum to then-Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a final countdown.

Spared the helter-skelter theatrics of ripping apart homepages and scrambling for backup servers, sites were able to put consideration into their special war fronts and post them in a graceful, organized manner.

Dean Wright, editor in chief of MSNBC.com, says that while any news event of this scale would involve some frantic activity in the newsroom, his organization was ready for the start of combat. "To the extent that you can be prepared for anything this big, I believe it really was just a matter of putting the thing in place, and it really went remarkably smoothly for us," Wright says.

Like most major news sites, MSNBC.com and CNN.com switched to special versions of their homepages and removed advertisements from war coverage during the first days of the conflict in Iraq--for editorial reasons, not technical ones. (A gallery of Web site screen grabs taken shortly after combat began is available at Poynter.org in the "Covering the War" section.)

CNN.com used a simple, clean page early on. "We had a light page for the first few days, and then went to a full page," says CNN's Gelman. "It was up primarily to focus concentration on the main story."

Behind those homepages, the millions of Americans who turned to online news found substance to a sometimes daunting degree. Across the board, top news sites excelled at immediacy, context and commentary, creating for themselves the challenge of presenting attractive and expandable pages.

Nora Paul, director of the Institute for New Media Studies at the University of Minnesota, says news sites are getting better at creating "story shells," or sections for particular coverage, that involve a well-organized entry point for all of the information surrounding a story. Paul says day-to-day consistency provides a sense of orientation amid frequently changing news. "Creating a logical shell has really helped people track however they want," Paul says. "Once you've been to one of the news sites a couple of times, you pretty much know where to go."

The typical online package on Iraq was anchored by current news and surrounded by a wide-ranging yet strikingly similar array of features. The essentials included:

* A summary of the latest military and diplomatic events. BBC News Online reported that its "Iraq latest: At-a-glance" feature was among its most popular pages throughout the conflict.

* Slideshows of high-resolution photographs. MSNBC.com's "Images of War" gallery is a well-executed example.

* Interactive maps of Iraq and Baghdad that tracked strikes and movements as the war progressed.

* Background reports on weapons, military structure and troop deployments.

* Text, audio and video reports from journalists in the region, either repurposed from stories filed for traditional media or created specifically for the Web.

(An extensive catalog of multimedia packages, journalists' diaries and complete coverage pages is available at www.cyberjournalist.net.)

Because the news sites found different ways to present essentially the same material, Paul says Iraq coverage will make a good baseline for learning what works best. She is surveying consumers to ask them to rate various news sites' approaches to presenting content--from bare-bones formats to high-tech, interactive concepts.

"Everybody has the troop-tracker, but there really are a number of variations on how it's done," Paul says. "There are so many ways to skin the cat--or display the skinning of the cat--and which is the most effective way to do it is still a very open question."

Realizing that video would rule war coverage, news sites positioned themselves to snag the throngs of office workers who would be separated from their televisions during the day. For a format that has enjoyed a surge in popularity and renewed interest from news organizations, the war in Iraq would be a chance to test video's traffic-driving and moneymaking potential.

On March 12, ABCNews.com launched a 24-hour live streaming news channel, available for $4.95 per month through ABC's News On Demand service, or $9.95 per month via RealNetworks' RealOne SuperPass service, which includes access to video on all of its partners' Web sites. The following week CNN.com, a SuperPass partner, phased out free video on its site. (CNNRadio, which offers streaming Iraq coverage, continues to be free.)

In the opposite corner are the sites that don't (yet) charge: MSNBC.com, CBSNews.com and FoxNews.com, which all showcased free video as a key part of coverage. "One of the most popular video features we had was the Baghdad cam," says MSNBC.com's Wright, "which not only had this really stunning video of the Baghdad skyline as bombs were coming down on it, but also sound so you could hear them. People were using the Baghdad cam in the morning and leaving it on their computers all day."

On the first day of the war, Reuters.com launched its Reuters Raw Video service with the intention of moving quickly to a subscription system--but then held off on charging viewers. "We have been bowled over by the success of this addition to our reuters.com site," Tony Donovan, managing director of Reuters TV, told Cory Bergman of LostRemote.com, a Weblog about television. "Like the war, it is certainly too early to say what happens next."

It appears that both free and paid sites can call this experiment a success. A spokeswoman for CNN.com says demand for video was 10 times higher during the first week of the war than the week prior. Web users had more opportunity to essentially watch TV on the Internet than ever before.

CNN.com's Gelman says the revenue from subscriptions allowed his site to invest in a better product. "This story affirmed the decision to make CNN.com's video subscription-based," says CNN.com's Gelman, "because through this conflict CNN.com was able to offer higher quantity and better quality video online."

Wright, meanwhile, says MSNBC.com's internal cost of streaming video wasn't as high as expected--and the audience turnout was higher. "We're proud of being able to deliver a lot of free streaming video, because of our relationship with NBC News," Wright says. "As part of the planning process we were able to make some adjustments in our back-end to keep the cost down really below what we expected it to be."

Between March 19 and 21, MSNBC.com provided a daily average of about 8.7 million video streams, up from a pre-war daily average of 400,000 to 500,000. Wright says the site served more than 60 million streams during the war.

While Internet audiences flocked to bona fide news sites, many in the mainstream press reported on the crop of Weblogs (or warblogs, a term coined after 9/11) that sprouted up to chronicle and critique the war and war coverage. One New York Times article described "a popular thirst" for the seemingly unfiltered information Weblogs provide.

However, the Pew report suggests the attention may have been overblown; only 4 percent of online adults said they'd used war Weblogs. "Our first soundings on the subject show that blogs are gaining a following among a small number of Internet users, but they are not yet a source of news and commentary for the majority of Internet users," the report concluded.

Nevertheless, at least a few Weblogs played a role--or made waves--in online war coverage.

One was KevinSites.net, the personal Weblog of CNN correspondent and veteran war reporter Kevin Sites. Sites launched his blog on March 9. Over the next 12 days, he posted several entries about his experiences as a journalist traveling through Iraq, along with a couple of audio clips and a handful of photos. In a March 17 entry, Sites wrote: "This experience has really made me rethink my rather orthodox views of reaching folks via mass media. Blogging is an incredible tool, with amazing potential."

Three days later, his employer instructed Sites to stop updating the blog and concentrate on covering the war for CNN. The move garnered mixed reaction on journalism Weblogs and discussion lists, some taking the position that Sites was in Iraq on CNN's dime and others arguing that he had a right to operate the blog on his personal time.

While his blog remained unplugged for the duration of the war, Sites did file a first-person account for CNN.com's "Behind the Scene," a special section of reporters' dispatches, about his April 11 capture, interrogation and subsequent release by Iraqi forces.

Another noteworthy blog was "Where Is Raed?" the online journal of Salam Pax, commonly known as the Baghdad Blogger. The Weblog, which appears to have been started in September 2002, consisted of frustrated political tirades, tales of daily life in Baghdad and surreal descriptions of U.S. bombers flying overhead.

Whether Salam Pax was really an Iraqi citizen blogging out of Baghdad was the subject of much conversation in the blogosphere and several newspaper stories, the consensus being that he probably was the genuine article. The answer may never be known, as Pax abruptly stopped posting on March 24 after reporting problems with his Internet connection. His Weblog archive is available at dear_raed.blogspot.com.

The Agonist (theagonist.org) is something of a poster child for the shady side of blogging. The site, maintained by Sean-Paul Kelley of San Antonio, achieved some level of eminence early in the war for its rapid-fire play-by-play of developing events, ostensibly culled from a wide array of news outlets and Kelley's personal sources.

The accolades stopped when Kelley was exposed by a fellow blogger--and subsequently Wired News--for lifting many of his entries from a Texas commercial intelligence company newsletter. Without appearing entirely repentant ("please understand the time constraints I am under," he wrote on March 21) Kelley agreed to start citing all sources in his blog.

The legions of print, television and radio reporters who filed personal online accounts from Iraq may or may not consider themselves akin to Kelley, Salam Pax or even Sites. Regardless, the edited reporter Weblogs (dispatches, diaries or journals) that appeared on countless news sites are an unexpected and encouraging sign of synergy to come.

The inclusion of "Web think" in early planning for war coverage, says Nora Paul, will be one of the ultimate legacies of this experience. "In a lot of ways this was very big in the legitimization of the online side, as not just the barely tolerated stepchild," Paul says. "News organizations incorporated what they would do for the online side in ways they hadn't in the past. It became a part of the thinking and the planning."

"What we were able to do with our partners was far more extensive than anything we were able to do before," says MSNBC.com's Wright. "We were far more closely enmeshed editorially with MSNBC news editors than we have been before, and because of that we were able to get lots of information from NBC News correspondents on our site."

Wright cites the dispatches filed by NBC's David Bloom, who died of a pulmonary embolism on April 6, as one of MSNBC.com's most popular features.

"I think the online component has gained increasing credibility over the past three years," Wright says, "and I would think that traditional media now regards us as a partner in the Fourth Estate."

Taking that participation a step further, a handful of news organizations sent Web reporters to Iraq to provide unique online coverage and facilitate Web reports from print and broadcast journalists. MSNBC.com was one of them, sending its London-based International Editor Preston Mendenhall to file stories, photos and video reports. In one of his stories, Wright says, Mendenhall discovered evidence of chemical-weapons research at an Islamic extremist camp in northern Iraq--an exclusive story for the site.

Washingtonpost.com photojournalist Travis Fox accompanied a group of Post reporters to Iraq, with the mission of providing video features and panoramic photographs for the site.

Tom Kennedy, managing editor for multimedia at washingtonpost.com, says the Web site wanted Fox to provide video pieces that would be distinct from those that a newspaper reporter might produce. "We felt that there was a contribution that could be made by having Travis' style of reporting, which is complementary to what the newspaper reporters would be doing," says Kennedy, who describes this style as "very subject-driven." Most of Fox's clips are of action taking place, he says, not of a person talking on camera.

Fox's technical savvy came in handy and served the site well. "We were able to also tap the Post reporters in the field on a regular basis for live online discussions and get audio sound bites from them, in the moment [that action was happening] or over video sat phone," Kennedy says. (All of the panoramic photos and video features are available at www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/nation/nationalsecurity/ abroad/iraq/field/foxtravis/.)

"What we're trying to develop is a style of execution that complements what the newspaper does and significantly enhances the value of such stories on the Web," says Douglas Feaver, washingtonpost.com's executive editor. "If we just place on the Internet that which appears in the newspaper, we're not beginning to take advantage of what the Internet can offer."

News on the Web sometimes is seen as a second-tier service, taking direction and information from the front lines of journalism. But in March, the top online news sites looked like strong and vital partners in journalism, with exclusive news, creative formats, a vast (otherwise unreachable) audience and real dotcom reporters rubbing elbows with their fellows in the field.

The Web may not have ruled the war, but the war was a triumph for the Web.

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