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 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 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.

18 Comments on “Breaking news online: A short history and timeline

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  2. During my time at the BBC, there were two key events in 1997 that helped to legitimise the web as a news source in Britain.

    First were the 1997 general elections and the Labour victory, with the BBC covering the news live online and publishing the results as they came in –

    A few months later came the death of Diana, and suddenly we had to create a website to reflect this. The BBC site – – received more than 7,500 e-mail tributes at the time. On the day of the funeral, we were covering the event as live online and posting photos that captured the day in images. It was the first time the BBC had done anything like this online and showed the strength of the web as a platform for breaking news.

  3. Pingback: From Diana to Mumbai: Breaking the news online «

  4. I’d throw in the Minneapolis/St. Paul bridge collapse. While not exactly first and foremost reported on the internet, watching the history of the event’s Wikipedia entry is stunning.

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  6. I think you should also mention the 2004 Pacific Ocean tsunami. Video, pictures, emails, text messages — the amount of information coming from across South Asia during the first 12 to 24 hours after the event were astounding. The major networks, without anyone in place yet, used a lot of YouTube videos, amateur photos, etc.

  7. The 3-11-04 bombings in Madrid, Spain, by Al Qaeda, which killed nearly 200 people and wounded almost 2000.

    I wonder if your omission testifies to the phenomenal job that the Bush administration has done helping the US media forget these bombings, the most deadly Al Qaeda attack on a Western country second only to 9-11.

    In addition to triggering a plethora of citizen reports, SMS played a key role immediately after the attacks, which resulted in several spontaneous social movements that lead to impromptu demonstrations and protests throughout the country, and catalyzed a major political change. Pro-Bush PP party lost power, Spain withdrew its troops from Irak, and the US-Spain relations fell into an ice-age, which looks like will continue until the very last day of the current presidency.

  8. @Clark Boyd – Yes, I was out of the loop for the tsunami news, because I was in Malaysia at the time, and there was a bit of a news blackout there for the first 12-18 hours.

    @Manuel Maqueda – I followed the Madrid bombings almost exclusively on the Web site of El Pais, and I had heard that cell phones were down through the city for many hours — but was SMS working? Or do you mean in the following days, leading up to the surprising fall of the government? I didn’t mean to ignore March 11; I devoted a whole chapter to it in my book about Flash journalism.

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  15. Real Story of Inauguration: Live Streaming Video

    An open letter to Mindy McAdams, purveyor of online journalism teaching tips and tools and creator of that wonderful timeline noting significant moments in online news reporting:

    Inauguration Day 2008 was considered historic even before it happened (literally, with imploring Web surfers before the big day to be sure to “Watch History Unfold”). In the end, however, from a media perspective, it wasn’t WHAT we watched (Obama’s oath stumble and so-so speech, Cheney’s wheelchair entrance, Aretha Franklin’s big hat, Yo-Yo Ma’s amazingness) but HOW many of us watched it that has etched a place into online news history.

    Three words: Live. Streaming. Video. LSV has been battling for a greater stake in the media cosmos for a few years now. With Obama’s inauguration, it has arrived. As CNN reported yesterday, close to 8 million people watched the festivities online, making it ”the single most-watched event in the history of live Web video”:

    With many workers stuck at their desks during the late-morning swearing-in of President Obama on Tuesday, more people than ever went online to watch live video of the historic inauguration. News sites, including, shattered records for viewers watching live streaming video online. And, sometimes for the first time, news sites carried video feeds on their front pages.

    I am officially one of these new LSV junkies. I watched the whole shindig from Singapore at 1 a.m. via the live video on Steady cameras, commercially-uninterrupted, nice sound quality, and only fits and starts of the loading hiccups that have always been the death of LSV in the past. I also loved the CNN video sider showing your Facebook friends’ status updates (which were all variations of “Inauguration woo-hoo!”), in a way making me feel connected to the moment with those I know back in the States who were also watching (in their case while pretending to work).

    And so Professor McAdams, I humbly submit this suggestion: Time for an update to the online news timeline.

    All my best,


  16. Pingback: Timeline of online journalism events |

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