As online news sites were recording history this election, they were also making it. Record numbers of people went online for news, marking the first true test of the medium.
This past election set records around the country – and not just in the variety of ways the word “chad” could be used in a sentence.
Online news outlets saw record-breaking numbers of visitors – in some cases, almost rivaling the numbers of print subscribers.
Meanwhile, television news programs and newspapers referred their viewers and readers to the Internet for more detailed or up-to-date information.
“This was the year that the Internet truly became a mainstream source for current and breaking news and information,” said Mike Wendland, a Poynter Institute fellow specializing in new media. “The idea that Internet is a passing fad has proven to be an untrue premise with this election. It did become a key part of people’s lives and will continue to be.”
According to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 18 percent of Americans say they went online for election news during this year’s campaign-compared to only 4 percent in 1996.
And the online information had an impact. Forty-three percent said it affected their voting decisions, compared to 31 percent in 1996. Younger people felt even more strongly – more than half of those under 30 said the information they found online made them want to vote for a particular candidate.
The survey also showed that the longer people were online, the more they visited political news sites; 45 percent of those who have been online for at least three years used the Internet to access election information, compared to 17 percent of those who began going online in the past six months.
The Internet has become a habit with the public, Wendland said. Instead of waiting 18 minutes for the headline you want to come around on CNN’s Headline News, or waiting until 5 or 6 p.m. for the local news – or the following morning, for the newspaper – people who want information now simply log on to the Web.
According to Wendland, who is also the technology columnist for the Detroit Free Press, more than half of U.S. households now have access to the Internet.
“People have heard about it, know how it works, and are increasingly comfortable with it,” he said. “We are now a point-and-click society.”
For example, when the Supreme Court decided in favor of George W. Bush in December, Wendland compared the news available online and on television.
“I got a more quick take on it by looking at the online synopsis than from all these pontificating talking heads that were standing in front of the Supreme Court trying to read the decision,” he said. “I flipped from station to station, and it was laughable.”
After looking at the synopsis, Wendland said, he clicked further and read the decision itself.
What made that story — as well as many other stories coming out of the election — so suitable for the Internet was that they depended on information rather than visuals for their impact.
How many votes did Gore get? That is a question more easily answered by logging on than by waiting for a news anchor to get around to it. Although there were a few interesting visuals in this election — for example, Florida ballot counters looking for hanging chads — for the most part, it was about raw information.
“That’s where the Net really excels,” Wendland said. “You can go as deep as you want just by clicking the hyperlinks. You can look at past stories, commentary, streaming video. You can listen to all the Supreme Court testimony. It’s deep and very wide and yet it’s very immediate and you an get exactly what you need to.”
For example, at The Boston Globe’s boston.com, the election part of the site — up for almost a year — included all of the Globe’s articles, as well as a breakdown of where all the primary and presidential candidates stood on the issues, a campaign finance database, audio and video of more than 30 debates, chats and other interactive features, a running vote tally during the recount process, and the court hearings and decisions.
The Globe almost chose not to focus so heavily on the national election, but executive news director Eric Bauer said he was glad they decided in favor of national coverage instead of focusing mostly on local elections.
“We did not expect the level of interest in the nationwide results,” he said. “But, as it turns out, we were a destination site.”
The reason people went to the site as opposed to television or newspapers, Bauer said, was because the online site was better able to keep up with breaking news.
“Even television stations had a hard time keeping up,” he said. “Where else do you go to get Supreme Court decisions at 10 o’clock at night? The election really showed the medium off to good advantage. We were able to get stuff up and follow stuff much better than a lot of other media were able to.”
What was most surprising about the online coverage of this election, he said, was about how some news sites weren’t prepared for the numbers of people who were going to show up.
The release of the Starr report was an example of a hot news story that drove people to the Internet and the sites were prepared for a certain increase in traffic. But the Starr report was a one-shot affair; people logged on, got the report, and logged off.
With the election, by comparison, site visitors kept their eyes on the news sites throughout their work days.
“People were going to these sites and staying there, or refreshing their screens again and again and again,” he said.
Boston.com’s Bauer noticed significant spikes in the numbers of visitors during the working day.
People visited boston.com more often in the morning, between 7 and 9 a.m. when they were just getting to work, and between noon and 1:30 p.m. In addition, there was a slightly smaller spike between 4:30 and 6:30 p.m.
This was the same pattern that the site usually experiences during a typical work day, Bauer said — except that the total numbers of visitors were much higher during the election.
“We did have our two record traffic days on election day and the day after,” he said. “We had just shy of 3 million page views on both those days.”
This didn’t pose an undue burden for the site’s technical infrastructure, he said. “I don’t think we suffered as many slow downs as some sites.”
In fact, according to a report by rating firm Keynote Systems Inc., the worst offender in terms of performance was MSNBC.com, which forced election day visitors to wait an average of more than 17 seconds for a page to load — those that were able to get to the site at all. Almost a third of visitors couldn’t do that.
By comparison, Keynote’s benchmark index for the same time frame period showed average download speed of a typical major site at less than 4 seconds, with availability at 99.4 percent.
According to Keynote spokeswoman Mary Lindsay, if a page takes more than five or so seconds to load, visitors are likely to click elsewhere.
The reason for MSNBC.com problems, said spokesman Peter Dorogoff, was that the site underestimated the numbers of people who would come to the site for election results.
In addition, there was a bug that was serving up old and not updated content that caused additional problems.
Despite the problems, Dorogoff said a record number of users visited the site on election day. It placed MSNBC.com as the only media outlet in the top 20 Nielsen Web sites, he said.
“All of MSNBC.com’s top 10 traffic days are tied to this year’s election coverage,” he added. “In fact, 17 of our top 20 days were recorded in recent weeks.”
Other online news sites also had performance problems, according to Keynote. CNN.com visitors had to wait more than 15 seconds during part of the day, and USA Today’s site clocked in at a slow 20.43 seconds — though it later improved to just over 2 seconds.
According to rating company Media Metrix, CNN.com also saw a sharp rise in visitors during the election, from 8 million unique visitors in October to over 12 million in November.
News sites changed a lot since the last election. What will the next election hold? More multimedia, according to boston.com’s Bauer.
When deciding what to include on the site this year, one option was a searchable video library of all campaign events, stump speeches, and television clips.
“We did not join up this time and, in hindsight, I don’t know if that was a bad decision for us,” he said. “I’m not sure it would have been worth the cost.”
The reason? Not that many people currently have access to high-speed Internet access, meaning that watching video online is very difficult, if not impossible.
“The video that we did offer was not hugely popular,” Bauer said.
But when broadband becomes more popular and more people have high-speed access, online video will become much more attractive.
“It’s better to watch a debate than to read an account of it the next day,” he said. “A lot of what makes debates important is the visceral reaction to the way candidates handle themselves and the way they make you feel about their abilities.”
As a result, Bauer said that when he hires new people, he looks for multimedia experience.
“We’ve got a number of people who’ve come from backgrounds that are not newspaper.”