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DECISION 2000

News Web Sites Report Record Use

November 08, 2000|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

CHICAGO — Often overhyped as the new medium for breaking news, the Internet appeared to find a comfortable niche on election day--as much as anything as a workplace substitute for television.

As perhaps hundreds of thousands of wired workers learned, however, hundreds of thousands of others were trying to log on at the same time--and popularity is one thing even some of the most sophisticated Web sites are still learning to cope with.

Some of the largest news sites, including MSNBC.com and CNN.com, reported record usage by late afternoon in the East, before the workday had ended and before any polls had closed.

MSNBC.com, the most popular such site, surpassed its previous high of 3.1 million visitors--set July 25, the date of the Air France Concorde crash--by at least 2 million by late evening, according to the company. CNN.com, which measures usage in "page impressions"--essentially each item viewed at the site--also smashed its previous record of 40 million impressions. That mark was set Oct. 12, a day of dramatic news that included the bombing of the USS Cole in Yemen, an outbreak of fighting in the Middle East and fallout from the previous night's presidential debate.

"The traffic has been mostly the at-work audience," said Peter Dorogoff of MSNBC.com. "They're looking for things both in their local areas and nationally."

The early indications of online success were welcome news for a medium that has at times struggled to live up to its own billing, most recently during the Republican and Democratic national conventions.

Most of the larger news operations, and a host of sites geared to aficionados of politics, promised streaming-video Web casts from the convention floors, live chats with party officials and daily updates from delegates.

Frequently, though, the video didn't stream, the chats seemed less than fascinating and the dispatches from delegates drier still. And relatively few delved deep enough to be underwhelmed at all.

Several popular mainstream media sites, as well as politically focused sites including SpeakOut.com and Pseudo.com, actually entertained fewer visitors during the week of the Republican National Convention than during an average week, according to Jupiter Research, which tracks Internet traffic.

On Tuesday, sites tended to focus less on glitz and more on old-fashioned reporting. "You really have to have the news to back up all the bells and whistles," said Paul Schur of CNN.com

Officials at several of the larger sites said customizing features were proving popular, with users able to locate polling places, study a primer on the electoral college and follow the results of local races as well as the presidential contest.

The most anxious of poll watchers could sign up for e-mail updates on chosen races. And bona-fide junkies, including some staffers on both Vice President Al Gore's and Texas Gov. George W. Bush's presidential campaigns, received those updates via Web-accessible cell phones.

Still, for each success came a reminder that the Web-based news is still in its infancy, or perhaps entering a moderately uncoordinated adolescence.

Despite months of planning, six of the seven news sites monitored by Keystone, a company that monitors Web performance, were unable to handle the traffic and had to turn users away.

Washington muckraker Matt Drudge had pledged to post exit poll information on his famously gossipy Web site, figures that mainstream outlets do not release until polls close. But his site crashed early from the load and remained inaccessible most of the day.

Lucianne Goldberg, who figured in the impeachment proceedings against President Clinton, then posted Drudge's information on her own Web site--which crashed almost immediately.

At 9:38 p.m. EST, a headline at MSNBC.com declared "Bush Retakes Electoral Lead," but a color-coded chart said Gore was ahead.

At 10:16 p.m. EST, Fox Television was reporting Bush leading Gore 202 to 168, but the network's Web site had the vice president up 193 to 190.

Still, glitches at most sites were the kind found in any medium in the midst of a developing story. And by evening, many producers were considering Tuesday something of a milestone in Internet news.

"This is a real clear example that with big event news, people want the in-depth [offerings] that the Internet can deliver," said MSNBC.com spokeswoman Cherylynne Crowther. "We're looking at a very big win for the Net. And tomorrow will be another very big day."

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Times researcher John Beckham contributed to this story.

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