AJR  Features
From AJR,   November 2001

Not So Bad   

The performance of online news sites on September 11 was better than the early reviews suggest.

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

One sign that online journalism has come of age is its appetite for introspection. Before September 11 was over, media observers had begun critiquing the Internet press' performance on that day. Here is a sampling of what was said:

"The Web was slow to catch up to the news of the devastation at the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, but when they did, many sites served as a nice supplement to TV."--Online Journalism Review, September 11

"But Tuesday, the network designed to survive a nuclear war failed.... It highlights the weakness of a medium not ready to compete with the reach and immediacy of television and radio."--latimes.com, September 12

"On what should have been the Internet media's biggest day ever, the infrastructure failed and the online audience was forced to return to traditional media--mostly television news." – editorandpublisher.com, September 19

It's true: During the biggest news event in the Internet's history, many news sites that promised to be immediate and on-demand were unavailable to many users.

However, not everyone agrees that online news failed during those first few hours or that September 11 was online journalism's judgment day. A closer look at day one and a broad view of the days and weeks that followed shows the picture is much more complex than that, and that even in those traffic-clogged early hours instant updates were widely available on the Web.

Shortly after American Airlines Flight 11 slammed into the north tower of the World Trade Center at 8:45 a.m. Eastern time, an aftershock hit the Web. Immediately millions of users – many of them office workers with no television access--began drilling online news sites. Many reports published since September 11 suggest that the Internet buckled at that moment. According to companies that monitor U.S. Internet performance, it did not.

Most of the accessibility problems on September 11 were caused by heavy demand on individual sites. Keynote Systems Inc., which tracks the performance of top business news providers, was unable to make contact with CNN.com, NYTimes.com or ABCNews.com between 9 a.m. and 10 a.m. Eastern time. Access to USAToday.com was reported at 18 percent of normal availability and MSNBC.com was at 22 percent.

"We never stopped serving pages," explains Bernard Gershon, senior vice president and general manager of ABCNews.com. "Our site was inaccessible to the majority of Internet users for about an hour after the attack because of the huge volume of traffic."

However, the Internet's infrastructure--the "backbone" that connects servers to each other--did not break. Both Keynote Systems (www.keynote.com) and Matrix.Net (www. matrix.net) have posted reports documenting a degradation in Internet performance shortly after the attacks, with recovery to near-normal performance within an hour.

The fact that the Internet remained viable was crucial to the speedy recovery of news sites and the ability of individuals across the country to communicate.

First, it allowed millions of people--including some trapped in buildings near the World Trade Center--to communicate with friends and family through e-mail and instant messages.

Second, it meant that determined users stood a strong chance of finding news somewhere. Some turned to local news sites or portals instead of the major national sites; others simply kept hitting their favorite URLs until they got a response.

According to a report released September 15 by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, 29 percent of Internet users--30 million American adults--attempted to get online news of the attacks on September 11. About 43 percent said they had "some" or "a lot" of problems reaching the sites they wanted to see. Of those, 41 percent kept trying to access the same site until they finally reached it; 38 percent went to other sites and 19 percent gave up.

Third, the integrity of the Internet meant that nimble and creative sites could still rely on the medium to get their messages out.

When possible, they tapped the resources of their partner and parent organizations, shifting some of the load to servers that had been dedicated to other functions. CNN.com utilized CNNsi.com and CNNfn.com; ABCNews.com tripled its capacity by using ESPN.com and ABC.com servers.

They stripped nonessential content from their front pages--images, navigation and even advertisements--in order to reduce the file size of each page and enable servers to answer more requests. According to Keynote Systems, CNN.com's home-page went from about 255 kilobytes of data to about 20 kilobytes. NYTimes.com suspended its registration system, allowing users to go directly to story pages without signing in. In a matter of minutes, the front pages of the nation's premier news sites were barren except for the single story that mattered.

Thanks to content sharing arrangements, many were able to continue publishing on the Web even when their own sites were inaccessible. For example, ABCNews.com's stories and video were available on Yahoo! through an existing syndication relationship. In a more spontaneous move, the search engine Google.com stored the front pages of CNN.com, NYTimes.com and washingtonpost.com for users who couldn't reach the real sites.

"We took it upon ourselves to deliver the news, because the rest of the Internet wasn't able to cope as well," said Google cofounder and President Sergi Brin in a September 13 Washington Post interview.

"If Google began to offer it, great," says Mitch Gelman, executive producer and senior vice president of CNN.com. "Anyone who would have called with the capacity, we would have provided them with our stories that day."

Some sites converted e-mail news alerts into full news delivery services. At 8:52 a.m. Tuesday, CNN.com's first breaking news bulletin was brief: "World Trade Center damaged; unconfirmed reports say a plane has crashed into tower. Details to come." While a typical e-mail alert consists of a single phrase or sentence and a link back to the site, CNN.com eventually began enclosing full stories for its e-news subscribers.

"We realized that there were a lot of people who were getting their information that way," says Gelman, "and what we wanted to do was send out more information and use the breaking news e-mail to communicate."

Wireless delivery also played a crucial role for people with Web-enabled cell phones and handheld devices. Gershon says that ABCNews.com's wireless news service experienced a 300 percent surge in traffic but was never overwhelmed.

The scramble to slim down and spread out paid off. Between 11 a.m. and noon Tuesday, Keynote reported significant performance improvements at the affected sites, and by Wednesday morning they were back to normal.

One theme amid the criticism is that online news blew its big moment on September 11. "Breakdown highlights weaknesses of medium not ready to compete with radio, TV," declared the deck over a September 12 Los Angeles Times article; writers at other papers reached the same conclusion.

That charge is interesting for two reasons. First, the Pew report and individual Web site traffic data suggest that most people who sought online information did find it. Second, it's questionable that users with access to television would have chosen Web coverage in the first few hours, no matter how flawless the delivery.

According to the Pew survey, 81 percent of respondents (Internet users and nonusers) surveyed after the attacks said that they had received most of their information about them from television. Eleven percent said they relied most heavily on radio; only 2 percent cited the Internet, and 1 percent cited newspapers.

"I work in the Internet space so I think the Internet has tremendous value to people's lives," says ABCNews.com's Gershon. "But I'm also a realist, and I recognize that millions more people have access to television and radio than the Internet. When there's a dramatic event like this, TV usage and TV news usage goes up dramatically. It has nothing to do with whether the Internet does exist or doesn't exist. People stopped what they were doing around the country to get more information, and they were getting that information from radio, television, the Internet, or watching tickers in Times Square."

As frantic as Tuesday was, Wednesday morning brought a new set of challenges and demands. Every online newsroom in the country was suddenly a national news site, covering one story from a thousand angles for millions of voracious viewers.

As nonnews sites reported slight dips in page views, online news traffic surged. CNN.com, which normally gets 14 to 15 million page views on an average weekday, reported 162 million recorded page views on Tuesday (at one point it couldn't keep track) and more than 300 million on Wednesday. In the next two weeks, subscribers to its breaking news e-mail lists would double from 250,000 to half a million.

One of the tasks before Web journalists was to sort through the reams of information exploding on the Web and on their own sites, and present the best stuff in a digestible, accessible format. They also had to figure out how to stretch limited resources to cover unfolding developments, provide perspective and background, and serve as community moderators.

By midday Tuesday, sites that had scrambled to tear the nonessential content from their pages and crank out breaking news were in disarray. "Like everybody else, we had a bunch of stuff jammed together that made the reader work to find what he or she wanted," recalls DallasNews.com Editor Chris Kelley.

Many sites answered the organization challenge with "Special Edition" pages designed to present in-depth coverage in a navigable and fast-loading format. The concept isn't new; sites like CNN.com already had tried-and-true templates from previous stories. Others, like DallasNews.com, chose to build theirs from scratch.

Between Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday morning, all the major news sites offered special pages resembling mini-Web sites devoted to attack coverage. Instead of subcategories like news, sports and entertainment, they usually divided information into topics such as "The Attacks," "The Human Cost," "The Economic Impact." Several also sorted features by media type: articles, audio, video, multimedia, interactive. Within that general scheme, the user interface varied. By September 27 MSNBC.com's "America on Alert" page scrolled approximately 20 page lengths, linking to scores of articles published since the attacks. CBSNews.com's "America Fights Back" page scrolled less than two page lengths, with five articles per major category and a "more" link for older pieces.

Initially, the special pages served as the homepages of most sites; within a week normal homepages had returned and the special edition pages took on subsection status.

There's little to say about the hard news coverage provided by the online media, except that it was reliable and plentiful. Like their traditional media colleagues, Web editors were vigilant for breaking news updates, dedicated to round-the-clock coverage and (mostly) wary of rumors and false reports. Text stories reflected the same combination of sources that Web editors normally use: print articles, broadcast scripts, wire copy, online research and some original newsgathering.

The most unique and remarkable examples of online journalism evolved in the assembly and presentation of raw data.

The Internet is very good at keeping lists, and there were many lists in this story: lists of passengers, companies, closures, donation centers and community events. The central lists in this story were the rosters of people missing or dead in New York, Washington, D.C., and Pennsylvania. DallasNews.com was one of several news sites that decided to maintain a searchable database of those names, as a memorial to the victims and a resource for friends and family of the missing.

"I came to work Wednesday morning knowing that we needed to do a memorial site," says Kelley. "People want to remember people. We knew that this had to be done tastefully, that it had to be done with dignity and honor, but also present information in ways that people can find easily."

The result was "Friends, Neighbors, Family," a database that can be searched by name, age range, city, state, crash location or deceased/missing status. Photographs and articles are available for many of the victims.

One of the remarkable dimensions of this effort, says Kelley, is the support he has received. Not only Dallas Morning News staffers have volunteered to help update the records; Kelley says other media organizations contributed their own resources as well.

"There's nobody asking about money or rights or reprint," Kelley says, "This is the right thing to do. We are cooperating with each other to tell the story--and the story is we've got several thousand people dead or missing, and there's a lot of people in this country who care about that."

Despite the taxing amount of labor required to keep the database current and accurate, Kelley believes it's one of the most important pieces of journalism his staff could be doing. "It's the public service component of our jobs. It's an obligation, it's a duty to do this. We just feel like we're obligated."

Online news sites have assumed the role of community moderator on a scale that no other medium could. During times of high emotion or controversy that job can be time-consuming; in the context of this story it was mind-boggling.

According to Gershon, ABCNews.com's bulletin boards had received 12 million page views by the end of the first week. The site can process between 45 and 50 posts per minute; the rate of submissions often exceeded that limit. Freelancers were diverted from other projects to monitor the discussions for profanity and hate speech, and participants were encouraged to report other users who violated the "rules of the road." The site also hosted live chats with experts like ABC News correspondent John Miller, one of only three Western journalists to have interviewed Osama bin Laden.

One difference between live chats and bulletin boards is that the former are moderated by Web staff in real time, while the latter are merely monitored--but Gershon says both formats are important to online news.

"The chats, which are moderated by journalists--that's definitely journalism. The message boards are much more like letters to the editor pages of newspapers; that's the public service aspect of running an Internet site."

If assimilating raw information and moderating discussions are part of online journalism, then so, too, are some of the specialized sites run by reporters and interested citizens to help organize, analyze and explain the story.

Sreenath Sreenivasan, who teaches at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism and is cofounder of the South Asian Journalists Association, maintains SAJA's Web site at saja.org. Since September 11, he has converted a section of that site into a directory of media coverage of the story. Although the page consists almost entirely of links to other sites, Sreenivasan believes that this compilation is a type of online journalism.

"What I'm doing with the South Asian Journalists Association is a form of journalism. What Romenesko does on MediaNews, that's a form of journalism. One that I use to track all these rumor stories, urbanlegends.about.com, that's not traditional journalism--but that is a form of journalism."

(Maintained by David Emery, Urban Legends examined several of the hoaxes and rumors spun off from the terrorist attacks--see "Anatomy of an Urban Legend," page 46. Jim Romenesko's MediaNews, on the Poynter Institute's Web site at poynter.org/ medianews, is a popular journalism weblog.)

Another forte of Web news is (or ought to be) visual storytelling. Often that simply involved transferring a newspaper or wire service graphic to the Web. Other times, it was Web-only work carried out by Flash specialists and multimedia editors. While there are too many good examples to enumerate, here are a few:
"Ladder Co. 6, Engine Co. 9," a slideshow narrative combining the work of a Dallas Morning News photographer and a TXCN cable news anchor, assembled by multimedia editors at DallasNews.com. (Slideshows rather than video turned out to be one of the most popular ways of conveying the visual impact of this story. Time.com and Newsweek.com both put together high-quality photo essays.) CBSNews.com's panoramic images of the World Trade Center site on September 17. Users can control their view, panning in any direction or zooming in and out. USA Today's interactive world map depicting the number of victims or missing citizens from each country. PBS' "Hunting Bin Laden," an extensive online profile based on a report and videotaped interview with Osama bin Laden that originally aired on "Frontline."

As the tragic story continues to unfold, it may seem ridiculous if not irreverent to start talking about lessons learned or preparing for "next time." But there are some logistical aspects of September's coverage that will inevitably resurface as Web journalism marches on.

Simply coping with the September 11 tragedy will leave online newsrooms better prepared to face the next big story. What's more, they can reformulate the frantic decisions made that week into a deliberate plan of action:

Identify Web servers in other departments or at outside companies that could be borrowed during a temporary traffic surge, and make a plan for utilizing them quickly. Create special, fast-loading layout templates--perhaps in "breaking news" and "ongoing coverage" versions--and teach the staff to use them. Don't neglect e-mail and wireless delivery in the rush to cover breaking news; for many viewers those might be the only channels available. Anticipate the times of day when users are most likely to need your site, and for what purposes; even during round-the-clock television coverage, people still used the Internet for concise updates and on-demand data.

According to the online news managers interviewed for this piece, September 11 may have been a defining moment in Web journalism, but not the defining moment.

"I've been running ABCNews.com for a little over two years, and I've been involved in Internet information for a little over five years," says Gershon. "Just about every six months to a year somebody says, 'This is the turning point in Internet news.' They said this about the Starr Report, they said this about the JFK Jr. crash, they said this about election night 2000, they said this about the World Trade Center and Pentagon attacks."

Says CNN.com's Gelman: "We did on September 11th, 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th and through today on this day what we do in every story, which is focus on getting people as much information as quickly and accurately as possible.

"The difference between this story as opposed to other stories was a matter of scale and of scope."

Barb Palser (bpalser@poynter. org), online news editor at the Poynter Institute, is AJR's new-media columnist.