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From AJR,   November 1998  issue

Web Feat    

The Starr report was a major breakthrough for the Internet as an information provider.


By Kelly Heyboer
Kelly Heyboer is a reporter at the Star-Ledger in Newark, New Jersey.      

IT WASN'T HOW MOST WEB VISIONARIES imagined the Internet would make its mark--119,059 words transferred page by lurid page from a floppy disk to a government computer and sent out to the waiting world. Despite the hype, it was just a simple text file. It showed off few of the Internet's bells and whistles.

But it came to the Web at the right time, and some media critics claim neither the Net nor journalism will ever be the same. Beneath all the frenzy surrounding Independent Counsel Kenneth Starr's report on President Clinton and Monica Lewinsky, the medium had finally become the message.

``It's one of those great moments--you're living through media history and you know you're living through stuff people like us are going to be talking about for a hundred years," says media critic and Freedom Forum First Amendment Center scholar Jon Katz. If television news was legitimized by the Kennedy assassination and the Persian Gulf War cemented the relevance of cable, then the Starr report ``ratified the Internet as America's premiere means of rapidly disseminating critical civic information," Katz wrote in his online column in the days following the document's release.

Nearly 24.7 million individuals saw the Starr report the first two days it was online, according to RelevantKnowledge, a Web traffic tracker. That's larger than the combined circulation of the country's top 50 daily newspapers.

America Online set an all-time usage record with a 30 percent spike once the report was posted. AOL's 13 million users logged a collective 10.1 million hours online in one day. Anyone with a connection could download the entire report from a variety of sites before CBS's Bob Schieffer and CNN's Wolf Blitzer finished fumbling through their copies on live television. But was it the Internet's ``defining moment"?

``To quote our fearless president, you have to start by defining the term," says Chris Feola, director of the media center at the American Press Institute. ``If you define it as when it becomes a mass medium...when it comes out of being a toy and becomes a part of American [culture], I think it was a seminal moment for the Internet."

The mass meltdown some predicted for the afternoon of September 11 never materialized. Breaking news sites like CNN.com, MSNBC.com, USA Today and Yahoo! all raced to get copies of the report up, spreading traffic around the Net and away from heavily used government sites. There were scattered ``server busy" messages but no catastrophes. ``It got ugly, but it didn't collapse," Feola says. ``It was the Internet working as designed."

Of course, there'd been plenty of practice runs, with mixed results. Last summer, the Mars Pathfinder pictures were declared the Internet's big breakthrough. In November 1997, it was the abortive online release of the judge's decision in the murder trial of nanny Louise Woodward that was supposed to make history. Then, in June, it was the video simulcast of a live birth that proved to be too crowded for most users to get in.

This summer, the Web's growing number of news sites plowed ahead and, thanks to an uncharacteristically busy August, logged record numbers of visitors. Hurricane Bonnie, stock market fluctuations, Hurricane Earl and President Clinton's August 17 grand jury testimony were all hot days on the Net, according to RelevantKnowledge. The number of visitors to news sites went up 14 percent between July and August.

But that volume was ``dwarfed" the day the Starr report was released, says RelevantKnowledge CEO Jeff Levy. ``It certainly was the biggest day for breaking news the Web has ever seen," he says.

There's little doubt that Internet entrepreneurs reveled in the big numbers attracted by the report. Says Levy, ``My analogy is the gulf war was to CNN what the Starr report was to our company."

Which sites did users turn to for breaking news? The answer, not surprisingly, was they often headed straight to names they were hearing on television. ``Almost all the big receivers of traffic were sites that had some branding from television--CNN, ABC," Levy says. Whether they'll come back after the Clinton scandal dies down remains to be seen.

What is known is the number of online news sites is nearing saturation levels. Of the nation's roughly 1,500 daily newspapers, between 735 and 1,100 have Web sites, depending on which survey you are reading. So do half of the major weekly papers and half of the nation's magazines. Couple that with several hundred more radio and television station Web sites and Web-only sites like Salon and ``you are there," says Steven Ross, a Columbia University associate professor and associate of the school's Center for New Media.

The lesson of the Starr report, Ross says, may be that Web site staffs need to be where the news is breaking, instead of tucked away in remote offices far from the action. ``All of these things accelerate the trend to bring the Web operations in the newsroom," Ross says. On the day the report was released, even America Online stationed a staffer on Capitol Hill for the first time in its history.

It should be no surprise that cyberspace proved to be an efficient way of disseminating the Starr report. ``The Internet is a very good vast distribution tool, but we knew that," Ross says. More interesting is what was done with the Starr report after its release. That's where you get a glimpse of the future, Web watchers say.

The software company Trellix (www.trellix.com/icreport/) put the document into a new format that allows viewers to read the report with the footnotes scrolling down at the bottom of the screen and the table of contents to the side. Graphics on top of the screen detail what page the user is on and give an overall view of the document. It is a better way to read a long text document than print, Ross says--an idea that has frightening implications for the print media.

Similarly, the day Clinton's grand jury testimony aired, Alta Vista (www.altavista.com) separated the videotape into small clips, so users could search for text just as with Nexis. Just a few hours after the video ran on television, visitors to Alta Vista's Web site could type in key words like ``cigar" or ``phone sex," and view relevant sections of the videotape--another idea traditional print and broadcast media can't touch. Readers and viewers getting documents at the same time as reporters. Computer companies developing better ways to look at information than print and television. Should traditional journalists start getting nervous?

Maybe, says Ross. When your source material is available online, by necessity you must be a better journalist because your audience can, and will, check up on you. Pulling an easy sound bite for a story becomes dangerous in the digital age. ``The content is going to drive the story," Ross says. ``There's less room to slide. Increasingly, the journalist can't be so lazy." But most critics agree that even if everyone has the tools to become a newsgathering machine, there will always be a place for someone to help sort it all out.

``People have always wanted an editorial process. It filters and it looks and it condenses it down to the news you can use," says API's Feola. Massive amounts of raw data have a limited appeal to the average news consumer. But it raises the stakes for the journalist, who has to remember it's out there a few keystrokes from the reader. ``I think there is a reward and a danger here," Feola says: Sloppy reporting will be found out, and good journalists will be vindicated.

Katz--a longtime print journalist who now does the bulk of his writing online--says most journalists remain frightened by the interactivity that the Internet age will bring. The future may include readers who gather some of their own information and have online dialogues with reporters. Katz says his move from monthly magazines to online columns with his e-mail address attached has changed the way he does his job.

JOURNALISTS HAVE TO GIVE UP A little of the control and elitism that come with being the first to report information to readers, he says. ``A lot of people in journalism sort of wring their hands and say, `Oh my God, this is the end of us.' But I think this just makes journalists very valuable...because we need somebody. We can get the document, but we don't really know what to do about it, what it means. We don't know how much sense to make out of it."

But reporters have to recognize that their mission is changing, he adds. ``Journalism is not in the breaking news business anymore. You know, one of the many significant things about the Starr document is that it demonstrates that new technologies disseminate new information more rapidly and more broadly than journalism does."

The Starr report episode may actually prove that traditional media are needed more than ever, Katz adds.

The independent counsel was able to present his entire, one-sided report in an instant. The White House's rebuttal came out within hours, but it was only accessed by about a tenth of the Web audience that saw the original report.

Around the world, newspapers looking at the American circus editorialized about the horrors of convicting someone on television with reporters sitting at computer screens reading the report like it was gospel. The public was given less than a day to form an opinion on mountains of evidence.

In this new world of digital justice, media critics theorize newspapers will find their niche in playing the levelheaded sheriff. By moving away from the frenzy of breaking news, newspapers can focus on providing a more balanced analysis of events unfolding at breakneck speed. For once, the slow speed of daily print journalism can be an asset.

Already, we see with the Starr report only a small fraction disenchanted with the media has abandoned print and television altogether in favor of getting information directly from the source on the Internet, says Ross. ``You had a couple of million downloads, but clearly you were also watching CNN or also reading the Times," he says. ``These people are not bypassing the regular media."

Even those working on the most booming of news Web sites stop well short of predicting the rise of the Internet will coincide with the death of newspapers or broadcast news. ``I haven't heard any of that talk," says Michelle Bergman, a spokeswoman for ABCNEWS.com. The 17-month-old Web site has seen a staggering 80 percent increase in use since June, but the staff doesn't see a day when the site will exist without the television network.

``We recognize at times we serve the same audience and at times we serve different audiences," Bergman says. Instead of competing, the traditional news operation and the Internet site will complement each other, growing into a ``vast newsgathering" operation.

If in the United States the Starr report made journalists worry about their futures, then overseas it made some reporters question whether they've already fallen behind. In England--where the Internet is not as prevalent in newsrooms as it is in the U.S.--the release of the report could not have come at a worse time. Though American papers were getting the document mid-afternoon, it was 7 p.m. on a Friday in London. First edition front pages had to be ready in an hour or two, leaving the city's 10 dailies to see who had the best technical know-how to obtain the report and process it quickly enough to make the early press runs. At the Times, an assistant editor tried in vain to grab the report off of official goverment sites as soon as it became available. Only after someone watching CNN noticed a reporter reading the Starr report off a computer screen did it occur to the staff to log onto CNN.com, where they found a copy. Unlike the paper's competition, a good chunk of the report made the Times' first edition. By midnight, 41,717 words had been edited and sent to the presses.

In the end, a nonjournalist--the son of a Times systems engineer--was able to download the report when an editor of the paper's Web edition failed. England's most venerable daily paper had someone with no news training to thank for boosting Saturday circulation by 65,000.

Veteran journalists were amazed, says Times Associate Editor Brian MacArthur. ``This for them was journalism venturing into a totally new area," he says. ``All of these wet-behind-the-ears 22-, 23-, 24-year-olds were able to perform magic."

If it was the right time for the Internet to prove itself by successfully distributing the Starr report worldwide, it wasn't the right time for the Web to show off its video capabilities.

Broadcast.com was ready for a deluge of people to log on for the video of Clinton's testimony once it became available. Instead, it got a trickle. Traffic was no better than for the Super Bowl, the Emmys or WWF wrestling. America Online also saw only a 10 percent increase in usage when the video was released, though a systems failure that morning may have deterred some people.

The relative disinterest ``didn't surprise us because we really thought the video was more of a TV story than an Internet story," says Pam McGraw, AOL spokeswoman.

Still, the effects of the Clinton scandal are resonating all over the Internet. And in turn, the Internet is influencing the scandal. The story began on the Web with the Drudge Report, reached a crescendo on the Web with the Starr report, and continued to break online with Salon's story about House Judiciary Committee Chairman Henry Hyde's affair 30 years ago. Even the government is taking notice.

In the partisan battle over impeachment proceedings, House Minority Leader Dick Gephardt (D-Mo.) argued that Congress needed to adjust its timetable to compensate for the fact that all the documents on the Clinton scandal were available at the click of a mouse. If information moves more quickly, so should the government investigation, Gephardt said. ``This does not need to take eight or nine months as it did during the Watergate period," Gephardt told reporters. ``We're in a new world.... Information moves at warp speed."

But using the scandal to determine the future of the Internet and journalism may be futile, says Houston Chronicle technology reporter and computing columnist Dwight Silverman. With every event, the Web gets larger and the media declare yet another defining moment. ``I was sitting there thinking [the Starr report] reminded me very much of the Mars Pathfinder, which was also called the defining moment of the Internet," Silverman says.

You can't declare the Starr report as the day the Internet became mainstream, Silverman says. Instead, the Web has millions of personal defining moments: The first time a grandmother e-mails her grandchild; the first time a downsized worker finds a new job online; when a patient diagnoses his illness based on information he found on the Web. ``To me that defines it as a medium a lot more than people wanting to read about cigar tricks," Silverman says.

The Internet may turn out to be more like the telephone, a vital part of daily life that had no great event cementing it in American culture.

A decade ago, few reporters could have envisioned a presidential scandal that played out over computer screens. The Internet has proven most predictions of what lies ahead are useless.

``It came out of nowhere for most people. It continues to take surprising twists and turns," Silverman says. ``It continues to define itself."