Web hits rise

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Last week's terrorist attacks helped underscore the role different media play in communicating important news. For the Internet, the result was a decidedly mixed bag.

Certainly, traffic spiked. MSNBC.com, the joint venture between Microsoft Corp. and General Electric Co.'s NBC, estimated its traffic Sept. 11-the day of the attacks-reached just under 12.5 million unique visitors, nearly double the previous record of 6.5 million set during last year's presidential election. The New York Times Co.'s nytimes.com estimated that the site had 11.5 million page views on Tuesday, as compared with a July daily average, per Jupiter Media Metrix, of 5.7 million page views, surpassing an earlier record of 9.6 million page views the day after the election.

Few other traffic numbers could be obtained; both Jupiter Media Metrix and Nielsen/NetRatings were unable to provide data late last week.

According to Keynote, which tracks how big news events affect Internet performance, the tragedy had far and away the biggest effect ever on site accessibility. For example, the organization said nytimes.com took an average of 100 seconds to download and was available 77% of the time between 8 p.m. on Sept. 11 and 6 p.m. on Sept. 12.

There was anecdotal evidence that even with high volume, much focus shifted to TV. According to Brian McAndrews, president-CEO of online ad company Avenue A, "The volume of our ad serving was lower [Sept. 11], not surprisingly. Most people were probably watching television."

In the earlier part of the day of the attacks, sites scaled back greater ambitions at coverage in favor of getting the news out; many ran few or no visuals. But Google.com, a site known for its uncluttered interface, painted the most accurate picture of the Internet's role in communicating news. A statement on its home page said, "If you are looking for news, you will find the most current information on TV or radio. Many online news services are not available, because of extremely high demand."

But as the day wore on, many sites understandably tried to give visitors as complete a diary of events as possible, and that necessitated posting lots of video. Though purely optional for users to download, the video for many proved impossible to access, even on an office T1 connection. It added up to one inescapable truth: TV once again became the central medium on which to get the latest news.

Still, the Internet played a crucial role, which harked back to its heritage as a straightforward communications medium. For instance, the most noticeable difference in usage of AOL Time Warner's America Online services came in instant messaging. According to an America Online spokesman, people sent more than 1.2 billion AOL instant messages Sept. 11 either over the Web or within the AOL subscription service. But overall traffic within AOL, the spokesman said, followed "relatively normal traffic patterns."

Being able to give users e-mail alerts, and complete reports on the chain of events proved to be some of the Internet's strengths. The Net also proved a place to mourn on a grand scale. If TV returned to a prominence it arguably hasn't seen since the 1991 Gulf War, the Internet took on a role that no previous medium could really supply, given its unlimited ability to communicate condolences and outpourings of grief. A "How to Help" pop-up ad on AOL, allowing people to donate to three attack-related charities, raised $3.5 million in roughly a day.

There was a role, however minimal, for advertising as well. News sites pulled down their usual repertoire of online advertising; condolence messages and pro bono ads took their place. On the morning of Sept. 12, one day after the attacks, MSNBC.com received a call from the Israeli Consulate: It wanted to create an ad offering condolences from the nation of Israel.

The ad shows what uncharted territory the entire world was working in last week. Charlie Tillinghast, MSNBC.com's director of sales and business development, said the site felt it necessary to take some payment "so that we could not be accused of bias or favoritism." He wouldn't divulge the price.

"It's probably a class of advertising we'll need to establish on our site," he said. It would be wonderful if that weren't necessary.

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