Despite initial technological snags and industry-wide cutbacks, online news sites have contributed substantially to the coverage of last Tuesday's terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, according to media critics and online journalism experts surveyed by OJR.
"I think Internet news sites really came of age during this terrible crisis," said Howard Kurtz, media reporter for the Washington Post, in an e-mail interview. "They blanketed the story with all kinds of reporting, analysis and commentary, and provided readers with a chance to weigh in as well."
This is not the first major event to test the Internet's capabilities as a news medium. The release of the Starr Report in 1998 and last year's drawn-out presidential election both demonstrated news sites' ability to weather massive spikes in traffic and to speedily pull together useful source material and links to background information. This time, however, the swiftness with which the story unfolded laid bare some of the Internet's weaknesses and illustrated the medium's journalistic role alongside print and broadcast outlets.
"In the past, the Web has succeeded because [it] offered more information than television because TV was only broadcasting short reports or because there were only a few news stations carrying coverage," said Gabriel Snyder, a media columnist for The New York Observer, in an e-mail interview. "[Last] week, TV and radio across the dial were dedicating the entirety of their broadcasts to the terrorist attack. Generally, there was as much information on their broadcasts -- if not more -- than on their Web sites."
On previous big stories, online sources were better than television, because much of the news involved complicated information or lengthy documents, such as election results, Snyder said. "The terrorist attacks presented a complete opposite situation. Very little was known initially and facts were slow to come out. When they did, the fastest way to learn about them was often through a broadcast."
For Dan Kennedy, media critic at the Boston Phoenix, online media played a tertiary role to television and newspapers, but that role was significant nonetheless. "[I]n the early hours, at least, TV was doing a great job of simply running live, but a lousy job (understandably) of stepping back and updating you on everything that was going on," Kennedy said by e-mail. "So MSNBC.com and CNN.com were valuable adjuncts to the cable channels, because you could call up what you wanted to read right away, without waiting for an update on TV. And, of course, that was also true of The New York Times, the Washington Post, and the like (not to mention the Boston Globe's Boston.com), all of which were posting updates as fast as we could get them."
When the pace of events slowed, online news sites became more important, said Rich Gordon, chair of the new media program at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. "Once the news stops happening, and the developments aren't as substantial and they come at unpredictable times, the best way to keep tabs on this story was to scan the news Web sites every morning," Gordon said, citing the Internet's immediacy and on-demand quality as characteristics that give it an advantage over broadcast media.
In Gordon's estimation, all of the news sites that he monitored performed well. But, for all their technological advances, online news outlets still lack an interactive format to tell stories in ways that differ from traditional media, he said. "I am a believer that ultimately new media has to develop new vocabularies for storytelling in general," Gordon said. "You still don't see much of it, and when you do see it, it doesn't tend to be for major news stories, typically for in-depth projects that take months to plan out."
He added: "We're at a point where we're capable of producing an edited video story in a matter of hours, but to produce an interactive multimedia presentation, we're talking about a couple of days. And I think that's a challenge for all of us to think about."
Mindy McAdams, who researches and teaches online journalism at the University of Florida, said that the Internet has been particularly useful for accessing internationally produced coverage and commentary. For example, she logged onto the Bangkok Post's Web site to follow its localized stories about Thai citizens who worked in the World Trade Center.
Even more fascinating, she said, were the eyewitness reports posted by New York-based Webloggers, whose descriptions were often accompanied by images and video from the scene of the attacks. "They illustrated how news sources are not restricted to what we think of as the traditional news media," McAdams said. "The man-on-the-street interview is now authored by the man on the street and self-published, including his pictures."
Observers found praise for many other sites outside of the CNN.com-MSNBC.com-New York Times nexus. The Post's Kurtz commended opinion sites, from National Review to The New Republic, as well as one-man operations, such as andrewsullivan.com. "There was so much to talk about -- from the feelings of a battered country to the nature of terrorism to possible retaliation -- that almost everyone managed to get a piece of the action," Kurtz said.
Although Snyder relied mainly on links-collection sites like the Drudge Report and Yahoo! News, he also found value in The New York Times' full-text e-mail digests, Slate's Explainer section and the streaming video feeds from ABCNews.com. "You also have to marvel at the Internet when you look at the way The Wall Street Journal was able to publish on Wednesday," Snyder said. "With their offices at 200 Liberty Street -- blocks away from the World Trade Center -- evacuated, they managed to put out a paper with many of their editors and reporters working from apartments using their laptops and dial-in modems."
Sreenath Sreenivasan, professor of new media the Columbia University
Graduate School of Journalism, said that the past week's online coverage
should help news organizations regain perspective on their Internet
operations. "At a time when Internet journalism was being pooh-poohed by a
lot of people on the heels of the Internet crash," he said, "this has
shown in many ways the necessity and importance of giving resources and
attention to the Web and to Web journalism."