In the wake of the Mumbai terrorist attacks, Mindy McAdams has put together a short history and timeline of breaking news on the Internet.
Her first item -- the 1995 Oklahoma City bombings -- should be especially cautionary. That day I happened to be driving from Minneapolis-St. Paul to Milwaukee to appear on a panel discussion of online news at an SPJ meeting. As I drove through the forests of central Wisconsin, radio news reported a series of sightings of Arab suspects. As we now know, it was domestic terrorists with ties to a right-wing, white-supremacist militia movement. In any medium, first reports often entangle fact with fiction.
For years, every time there was a big news event we'd have people talking about how that event was the big breakthrough that finally "legitimized" the Internet as a journalistic medium.
But there was one story that really stands out: the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal. It gave us two big milestones. The first was Matt Drudge's exposure of a story Newsweek had been reporting but not (yet?) publishing.
J.D. Lasica has detailed the unfolding of that story, which eventually led to the second really big milestone: the September 9, 1998, publication of the Starr Report.
Demand for detail was as sensational as the Starr report itself. As Lasica wrote, "Congress had made no provisions to handle the crush of traffic at the three official government Web sites posting the report. Its servers were hopelessly jammed."
Dozens of major newspapers rushed to duplicate the Starr Report on their own websites. Mine (the Minneapolis-based Star Tribune) was one of them. For many of us, it was a breakthrough in getting print-oriented newsroom journalists to pay attention to the Internet. It also led to great debates about standards and practices, as the report contained salacious detail that some said would never appear in "the family newspaper." For many consumers, it underscored that if you're not on the net, you're not getting the whole story.
Ironically, it was the last time such an effort by major media sites was meaningful. We swiftly moved beyond a world of server scarcity and regional bandwidth bottlenecks. We still have cases in which it's important for journalists to obtain and post government information, but it's secrecy, not technology, that's we're routing around.