• HISTORY: Web journalism and 9/11

By all accounts from just about everywhere in America, it was a normal Tuesday in September. It was certainly that in New York City and Washington, D.C. The weather was clear and bright, and people were beginning their daily routines.

Then an airplane crashed into one of the twin towers of the World Trade Center. A few minutes later, this time with television cameras trained on the site, a second plane crashed into the other tower. Then a plane crashed into the side of the Pentagon, the nation’s defense department headquarters, in Washington. A fourth plane full of airline passengers went down in a field in Pennsylvania.

Within two hours, both World Trade Center towers came crashing to the ground – a massively destructive event that simply had never happened before and that was hard to imagine.

The world soon became aware that

  • these events had been deliberate and part of a terrorist attack on America;
  • there was a massive loss of life;
  • there was huge physical destruction;
  • it was all happening in television, some of the events in real time.

The events of September 11, 2009 set off a decade of conflict and disruption that resulted in the invasion by American and allied forces into Afghanistan and Iraq; generalized conflict that pitted the culture and forces of the Western world against the Moslem religion; economic disruption that resulted in a world economic crisis in 2008 and 2009; political changes in the United States that led to the election of the first African-American president in 2008 and the displacement of the Republican as the most dominant force in U.S. politics.

September 11 had another major effect: It changed the direction of journalism.

As with any major event in the last half century, America and the rest of the world watched the day’s events unfold on television. They had been doing so since 1963 when, on a clear November day, John F. Kennedy, president of the United States, was killed by an assassin’s rifle in Dallas, Texas.

That sudden, shocking event brought the country – and normal television broadcasting – to a halt for the next three days. It demonstrated the power of television to deliver news with impact and emotion in a way that, at that time, had no precedent.

Television was still doing that in 2001. But this time there was something different. There was the Internet.

And the Internet showed us the limitations of television, powerful as it is, as a news medium, because television can give us only one and one picture at a time. On September 11, 2001 – with so much news happening in so many places – we needed more than that. The Internet had given us the World Wide Web, and on September 11, the web grew up as a news medium.

Here’s some of what happened on the web that day:

• From the time the second tower was hit (9:05 a.m.), the CNN web site got nine million hits an hour; that number increased to 19 million an hour by the next day. At that time, CNN had been getting about 14 million hits a day.

• The web portal Yahoo had 40 times its usual amount of traffic during the first hour after the attack on the trade center.

• MSNBC reported that in the first 24 hours of the disaster, 12.5 million people logged onto its site; the previous record had been 6.5 million on Nov. 8, the day after the disputed presidential election.

• People trying to check on friends in New York and Washington found phone lines clogged and resorted to email and instant messaging.

• Yahoo and other sites posted lists of victims and missing persons.

• Amazon.com, one of the major booksellers on the web, set up a donation for disaster relief for the Red Cross. By Saturday night, more than four days after the attack, the site had raised $5.7 million.

• To handle the increase in traffic, many web site including the New York Times and CNN stripped off advertising and graphics in order to increase the loading speed for visitors.

The events of September 11 demonstrated the power of the web not only to deliver news and information but also to connect people with a speed and intimacy that they had never known before. What happened that day gave us an indications of what journalism would become over the next decade.

The changes that September 11 wrought in journalism have not yet played themselves out. In many ways, they have only begun, and it will be for a new generation of journalists – those who are reading this module – to give them definition.

(Part of this text was adapted from James Glen Stovall, Web Journalism: Practice and Promise of a New Medium, Allyn and Bacon, 2004.)

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