By: Steve Outing
My home city of Boulder, Colorado, is the center of the latest media frenzy. A sensational murder case is making headlines worldwide and has attracted more than 100 reporters to this usually sleepy college town: 6-year-old JonBenet Ramsey, a beauty contest winner whose father is the CEO of a billion-dollar company and mother a former beauty queen, was found murdered in the Ramsey home the morning after Christmas day. The parents found a 3-page ransom note in the house, indicating that the child had been kidnapped, but later the father found the child’s body in the basement of the family’s sprawling mansion.
There’s much speculation that the murderer is either a family member or knows the family, since the 3-page note was hand-written in the house on a pad of paper found by police; they even found a discarded “practice” note. The Ramsey parents each hired a different criminal defense attorney — plus a publicist — and have not yet had extensive interviews with police. Police remain very tight-lipped about what evidence they’ve found or who they suspect of the murder.
This is the kind of sensational story that really lights up cyberspace. The local daily newspaper, the Boulder Daily Camera, a Knight-Ridder property, has found itself at the center of attention over this case. Internet users from around the globe have been visiting the Camera’s Web site, hungry for more information on this case than they’re getting from their local media. The Web site of the local paper where the story broke is the obvious place to look.
Camera online editor Matt Houser says traffic to his 3-1/2-month-old Web site is 10 times the level before the JonBenet story broke. The site tracks hits, which are running between 100,000 and 250,000 a day, up from 15,000-20,000. The story clearly is of international interest, since Houser is seeing peaks in Web site traffic at otherwise unusual times of the day and night. He speculates that during office hours in various global time zones, office workers are logging onto the Camera site to get the latest news about the JonBenet case.
A global community forum
Truth be told, the Camera’s reporters haven’t come up with any more news about the investigation’s progress than any other media. But if you’re interested in speculation about “who-‘dun-it,” the Camera Web site is the place to visit.
The site’s Web discussion forums are, predictably, abuzz about this case. As of mid-week, some 200 messages had been posted to the forums about JonBenet. It’s here that the public is airing private speculation about who murdered the 6-year-old, dissecting every bit of evidence that has leaked out thus far.
Reading through the threads, you find that the discussion is very one-sided. The vast majority of correspondents think it was a family member, and JonBenet’s father is their prime suspect. That he and his wife have delayed speaking with police and hired attorneys has fueled the public suspicions.
The online discussion of the case is quite a contrast to the Camera’s printed letters to the editor section, which reflects an even split between those speculating on the case and those criticizing the speculators for being insensitive to a family tragedy. Online, there’s much criticism of the police department’s handling of the case — with numerous suggestions that the case is being bungled by a police force that’s not used to murder cases. In print, that’s balanced by numerous letters asking for restraint by the media in not revealing evidence that might blow the case for the eventual prosecution.
Hands off, mostly
Houser says the Camera has kept a hands-off approach to the JonBenet discussion threads. Whatever is posted to the forums goes up automatically, though the online staff watches the messages and is prepared to remove a posting if it’s clearly libelous or presents obviously false information as fact. Thus far, he says, nothing has been removed. Before entering the site’s discussion area, visitors must read the Camera’s disclaimer and rules, which stipulate that those who post messages are solely responsible for their words.
Houser says that forum participants — who, incidentally, appear to be joining in from around the U.S. — are rising above the usual level of Usenet newsgroup discussions. “I’ve been impressed with the quality of some of the postings,” he says. “People are thinking about what they’re saying.” While many newsgroup discussions include one- or two-sentence messages, many JonBenet discussion participants are writing two- or three-paragraph notes discussing their theories about the case.
Nor has the Camera staff had to guide or start up this discussion, as is typically the case in the Boulder news forum. (Until this case, the hot local topics were traffic control circles and an unruly school board.)
Indeed, the online discussion is so good — even if one-sided — that Houser says he recommends that Camera reporters read through it. “I tell the reporters, ‘If you want to know what the public wants to know about this case, read this.'” Even the Boulder police might do well to read the theories being floated online by the public; it might point them in directions they haven’t thought of yet.
Contact: Matt Houser, email@example.com
Ramsey Web sites
Numerous other media have set up Web sites devoted to the JonBenet Ramsey case. A local weekly paper, the Boulder Planet, has teamed up with the Digital Camera Network, registering a new domain name to create the site http://www.ramseycase.com. Meanwhile, the Ramsey family, through their publicist, has set up an “official” Web page with statements from the family.
Indeed, this is one of the odder crime stories to come along since the O.J. Simpson saga, made all the stranger by the World Wide Web.
Sara Glines has joined New Jersey Online as managing editor. Glines previously was with the New Haven Register, where she launched the CTcentral Web site for the Register and other Connecticut dailies owned by the Journal Register Co.
Elliot Wasserman has been named president and CEO of Electric Classifieds Inc. in San Francisco. He had been serving in a consulting role as interim CEO after the departure of Jordan Graham last year. Also, named to ECI’s board of directors is Douglas Fox, who previously has held executive positions at Landmark Communications’ publishing and video groups, Newsday/New York Newsday, and Times Mirror. ECI is best known for its online matchmaking service, Match.com, and recently introduced its Global Online Classifieds turnkey online classifieds system. The company recently announced strategic partnerships with Cox Interactive Media, Digital City and CompuServe.
Max Bertola has been hired as publisher of The American Reporter, a 21-month-old, online-only news service operating on the Internet. AR is jointly owned by its contributing writers, and earns revenues from subscriptions to an e-mail edition and from resale of articles and subscription fees paid by other publishers of AR material.
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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 firstname.lastname@example.org
The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company