Posted on November 29, 2008
Breaking news online: A short history and timeline
The events in Mumbai, and news coverage thereof, have got me thinking about big news events I remember having a significant impact online, or via online reporting. Maybe these are milestones in the evolution of news reporting.
April 19, 1995: American terrorists (not Muslims) bombed a federal government building in Oklahoma City (168 people died and hundreds were injured). I was working at The Washington Post’s very new online news operation, which had no Web presence yet (it ran on a proprietary platform, sort of like the old AOL). We journalists used the Web frantically and continuously to gather facts and background information throughout the day and into the night. The Web was our primary tool, and we were many hours ahead of the print newsroom. But in 1995, most journalists did not have access to the Internet at their desk.
September 11, 2001: The Internet failed. Sites such as CNN.com were inaccessible within minutes after the second plane struck the World Trade Center. News sites scrambled to adjust, with all Ted Turner’s properties (for example) converting their servers to carry CNN news. We watched this event on television — for days. However, the Internet also triumphed: We received numerous eyewitness reports from inside New York via blogs and e-mail, at a time when phone access was compromised for almost everyone trying to call in and many trying to call out. An early study of how people used the Web at this time: Online Structure for Civic Engagement in the September 11 Web Sphere, by academics Kirsten A. Foot and Steven M. Schneider.
July 7, 2005: Bombs exploded in London tube trains and on a bus, and passengers reported the aftermath by sending photos snapped with their mobile phones. Longtime journalist Tim Porter documented this on his blog, and even National Geographic saw fit to comment on the role of cell phone cameras in reporting these events.
February – April 2006: Paris was burning, and hundreds of Flickr users posted photos throughout the protests.
September 2006: A coup d’état in Thailand, reported to be peaceful and bloodless, was shown to be exactly that in contemporary photos posted on Flickr.
April 16, 2007: A gunman opens fire at Virginia Tech, killing 32. Students on the campus shared rumors and news reports among themselves via their native communication channels, such as Facebook; big media eavesdropped and re-broadcast these reports. In addition, a Wikipedia page created at 15:16 UTC (11:16 a.m. local time) on April 16 was updated and edited throughout the day by multiple authors. I may be wrong, but I think this was the first really significant use of a Wikipedia “current events” page. Noam Cohen wrote a good article about this phenomenon for The New York Times.
August – September 2007: Protests and government suppression in Burma (Myanmar) could not be covered on the ground by most journalists, of any nationality — so people inside the country risked everything to send news out, mostly via mobile phones. BBC News made particularly good use of these wrenching eyewitness reports.
November 26, 2008: Terrorist attacks at several locations in Mumbai, India, were reported on Twitter almost immediately after they happened. An article at Forbes.com sums up the role played by Twitter.
Have I forgotten anything?
Related: See Paul Bradshaw’s blog-specific post from earlier this month: Are these the biggest moments in journalism-blogging history? You’ll see references to Matt Drudge/Monica Lewinsky; Trent Lott; “Rathergate”; and other famous incidents of journalism blogging. Not quite the same as what I’m listing here. Maybe I should call this “from the scene” or “eyewitness,” to distinguish it from Paul’s excellent list, which is more about uncovering, questioning, and caling to account — the functions of blogs acting as a cohort to MSM. Paul and I do have some overlap in our lists, particularly September 11, the London bombings, and Burma.