LESSONS FROM ELECTION WEB COVERAGE

By: Steve Outing

Much has been written in the last couple days about how the World Wide Web fared on election night in the U.S. I won’t rehash what you’ve read elsewhere, but I do want to spend some time considering the outcome of the election on this nascent medium, the Web.

Without a doubt, the U.S. elections gave the World Wide Web a big boost. Of all the major news events of the last year, none were better suited for the online medium than this major election. The Web promised near-instant results of political races national and local; the viewer was in control, calling up results on her own time frame, not the television networks’. The Web made this an election like no other.

Here are a few thoughts on what Web publishers might learn from the ’96 U.S. election experience:

* This election was a milestone in the evolution of the Web as a communications medium. It was the kind of event that exposed millions of new people to the Web, even if they only saw examples of it demonstrated by TV network anchors. We can be sure that it whetted some appetites among non-Internet users. It’s now up to publishers to take advantage of this new-found visibility and encourage more new users to get online. Indeed, Web sites that saw big traffic increases Tuesday night should be working hard to retain some of their new visitors. It will be interesting to see if the usage spike carries over into busier traffic on the sites long after the election.

* TV was the loser, it appears, with televised election coverage garnering smaller ratings than last time around. Meanwhile, online traffic was — as predicted — heavy enough to cause “traffic jams” for Web users trying to access the most popular political sites. While the numbers still pale next to TV’s — 27.8 million U.S. households watched televised coverage vs. estimates of 3 million people cruising election Web sites — the Web is on the rise as TV wanes. Web publishers can take heart from that.

* Although many of the big news and political sites geared up for what they knew was going to be an onslaught of users, many sites still couldn’t cope. CNN’s Web site was so overloaded that a CNN reporter was foiled while trying to log in to the site after 10 p.m. After NBC anchor Tom Brokaw read the URL for MSNBC’s site, it became so busy that the site became impossible to access. The New York Times fell victim to a hacker attack that slowed its server down severely, and the PoliticsNow site (Washington Post/Newsweek/National Journal) suffered the indignity of being knocked off line temporarily on its most important day by the the failure of a major Internet artery.

If there’s a lesson here, it may be that a major political Web site can’t prepare too much for a big election night. With so much of a site’s prestige at stake, installing new servers and additional Internet connections (even if rented just for the occasion) is worth the expense.

* Access problems on election night weren’t due only to oppressive demands put on the political sites’ servers. A troubling impediment to getting online was back at the local level, when some Internet service providers’ were overloaded at the dial-up level. Many Internet users who would have liked to cruise the Web on election night couldn’t get through to their ISPs because all the modem dial-up lines were busy. This is a troubling fact of life on the Internet which does not have an immediate solution. ISPs generally install enough modem lines to support normal demand, and many aren’t prepared for events that bring large numbers of users online at the same time. Even the best-equipped ISPs won’t have enough lines to accommodate a huge spike caused by an event like this election; it’s just not economically viable for them to support as many lines as it would take to meet this unusual spike in demand.

* I found myself on election night watching some televised coverage along with my wife, and occasionally I checked in on the political Web sites to see how some races were doing. But what was obvious was that watching TV was something that could be shared with my family, as we discussed the results and moaned about votes not going our way. But when I trudged off to my office to cruise the Web, I was alone.

The Web is a medium that cannot be easily shared, in the way TV or radio can; even the newspaper can be spread around to various family members during breakfast. Which got me thinking, for the first time, that the Web on my television set this particular evening would have been a really cool thing. I envisioned watching the TV networks’ coverage, but flipping over to the Web during a commercial or particularly annoying bit of broadcast excess. That would have been so much better than abandoning my wife in order to surf the Web. (Sure, I could have hooked up the laptop near the TV so I could partake of both broadcast and online media, but that’s a pain.)

* As a former newspaper editor, I was heartened to see the newspaper industry so much in the game during election night. Web sites allow newspapers to compete with broadcasters head-on during any hour of the day. If any publishers still doubt the power of the Web, they only need to look at the experience of this past few days.

Web political insights from Northwestern U.

The Online News and New Media class at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism (Illinois) spent election night watching political Web sites, and has produced a report on their findings. Check it out; you’ll find some interesting observations and commentary about the Web as a live news medium.

Reason to fear Bill Gates

A Bill Gates quote in yesterday’s Media Daily caught my eye. The Microsoft chairman was talking this week to a computer symposium in France about his company’s strategy of delivering a wide variety of content, from banking services to news and information, over the Internet. “It will take a huge investment, absolutely gigantic, but money is not in short supply,” Gates said, adding that Microsoft has “$7 billion in the bank.”

For newspaper publishers faced with Microsoft entering their markets with its new “CityScape” local online entertainment guides, this should make them more than a little nervous.

Latin American journalists in cyberspace

Latin American and Hispanic journalists will want to check out REDLATINA, a new World Wide Web site. Web editor Homero Hinojosa says the online service is designed to provide an online meeting place for journalists, and includes news, investigative maps, and information about events and seminars.

Contact: Homero Hinojosa, hhinojos@mail.giga.com

Post-election political ad on the Web

Dennis Gaub, online projects manager for the Billings Gazette in Montana, notes that “we bucked the trend” of little political advertising showing up on U.S. news Web sites during this campaign season. The Gazette site got a thank-you banner ad from U.S. Senator Max Baucus, who with this win goes into his fourth term. “We had to wait until after midnight (on election night to post the ad) to comply with election laws,” Gaub says. “Still, it will beat whatever appears in print by some 24 hours.”

Contact: Dennis Gaub, dgaub@bsw.infi.net

Movin’ On

Marcia Olmsted is leaving her Internet post at Southam New Media in Canada later this month to join IBM’s Canada Internet Consulting Group. SNM is the Internet/new media arm of the Southam newspaper chain.

Steve

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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company.

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Published: November 8, 1996

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