Net gains in the delivery of news

THE BALTIMORE SUN

After the court clerk announced the jury's "not guilty" verdict to each charge of child abuse against Michael Jackson, many people argued over whether the system was broken.

The system they were debating was the legal one - not the Internet, which has made major strides over the past decade in being able to shoulder major breaking news like the Jackson trial verdict.

Seven years ago, news and government sites choked when thousands of people tried to download the report from Independent Counsel Kenneth W. Starr about President Clinton's affair with Monica Lewinsky. But events that followed - the billions of dollars invested in broadband capacity during the dot-com mania and the Sept. 11 attack that altered how Web sites respond to major news - have resulted in a much more nimble and reliable medium.

The Michael Jackson verdict created no Web traffic jams, reported Keynote Systems Inc., a California company that manages and measures Internet performance, even as sites such as CNN.com reported their busiest news day this year. Nearly 6.9 million people accessed CNN.com the night of the Jackson verdict, about 1 million more than after the U.S. launched war on Iraq in 2003, said comScore Media Metrix, an Internet research firm.

"The system itself ... is more robust. The routers are smarter, the caching systems are smarter," said Harrison "Lee" Rainie, director of the Pew Internet and American Life Project, a research group. "Back in the mid- to late 1990s when the Internet was taking off, a lot of commentary was about 'Can the system hold?' The worry has moved in a different direction, about security for the system."

Handling the stress

The test of any communications technology is how it handles stress. The reliability of the landline phone was considered, by many, its greatest characteristic. Wireless phones have transformed society, and yet even the providers recognize the need to be more reliable: Can you hear them now?

The Internet began as a defense project in the Eisenhower administration because leaders feared the telephone system was vulnerable. Scientists set out to create a more redundant, diffuse communications system less centralized than Ma Bell's network. Fears still loom over the Internet about security and viruses such as the "MyDoom" worm that infected millions of computers last year, but concerns about the network's ability to respond to spikes in traffic have abated.

Perhaps the greatest transformation in recent years has been the growth in high-speed broadband - essentially bigger "pipes" that can carry more voice, video and data. High-speed lines in the United States grew to 35 million last year, up seven-fold from 5 million in 2000, according to the most recent data from the Federal Communications Commission.

Providers and consumers have gotten smarter about the technology. Some experts envision a more active, intuitive Internet that will make today's still mostly static, point-and-click screens seem like early black-and-white television.

"We're a little past the 'Mr. Watson, come here, I need you' stage," said Paul Sagan, referring to Alexander Graham's Bell's first words transmitted by phone in 1876, "Mr. Watson, come here. I want to see you."

Sagan's company, Akamai Technologies Inc., has spread 16,000 computer servers around the world to speed connections to hundreds of Web sites. Akamai prospered after the event seen as pivotal in the life of Internet news - the Sept. 11 attack that also claimed the life of the company's co-founder. Daniel Lewin, 31, was on American Airlines Flight 11 that crashed into the north tower of the World Trade Center.

His partner in creating the Cambridge, Mass., company, Tom Leighton, cultivated his thinking about managing the Web during the mid-1990s while he worked down a hall at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology from Tim Berners-Lee, credited as the inventor of the World Wide Web.

Time capsule

The events that have taxed the young Internet read like a time capsule unearthed from recent years - the Victoria's Secret online fashion show that overwhelmed America Online in 1999, the Harry Potter phenomenon, and consumers clamoring for relief from telemarketers on the "Do Not Call" list. Online holiday shopping also stumbled early on but has performed better in recent years. Online sales doubled between 2000 and 2004, to $23 billion.

When a colleague suggested to Dan Hess last Monday that he summon live video of Michael Jackson traveling to hear the verdict in his trial, Hess' mind raced back to another famous celebrity trial in California a decade earlier. "I was a marketing consultant at a health care company on the East Coast, and there were 15 people crowded around a pocket TV awaiting the O.J. verdict," said Hess, a vice president with comScore Media Metrix. "Fast-forward to 2005, and every individual has this extraordinary ability to tune into live coverage."

Last fall, 180,000 people signed up with CourtTV.com to get free e-mail alerts on their cell phones when the Scott Peterson verdict was announced. The response was greater than Court TV expected, and subscribers complained when they didn't get alerts until hours after the verdict.

CourtTV switched vendors and warily rolled out a similar offer for the Jackson trial, but with less publicity. Still, about 45,000 people signed up for Jackson alerts to their cell phones, and the process went more smoothly. Court TV has also seen strong response to its thesmokinggun.com, which took off after it documented the criminal past of bachelor Rick Rockwell in the TV show Who Wants to Marry a Multi-Millionaire?

"We learned how challenging it was to execute, but the Web is the perfect environment to follow a trial, and it has truly caught up on the online side in other areas, to cell phones and satellite radio," said Galen Jones, chief strategy officer for Court TV, a venture of Time Warner and Liberty Media Corp. "People can follow the trial with their laptop at Starbucks, then listen to it on Sirius when they get in their car."

Fast information

Demand is growing for instant information. Election Night 2004 generated more than 600 million page views for Turner Broadcasting's CNN.com, 1 million a minute at its peak and nearly seven times as many as the previous presidential election. "I think we have attention deficit disorder as a society," said David Payne, senior vice president and general manager of CNN.com. "It's 'I want to see what's going on now,' get in, get out. At 5:13 on Monday night, everybody knew that Jackson was acquitted."

One-fifth of today's newspaper readers never see the print editions, according to a study just released by the rating service Nielsen/NetRatings.

Among the largest newspapers, the Los Angeles Times posted a Web site gain of 31 percent, from May 2004 to May 2005; NYTimes.com, 25 percent; USAToday.com, 15 percent, and Washingtonpost.com, 10 percent, Nielsen reported. Some newspaper people, wondering about the destiny of print, have surmised that a better model for the future might be for subscribers to pay for online access and get the paper edition free.

Still in black and white

Andrew J. Butrica, a historian with the Society for the History of Technology, recalled that 19th-century Americans marveled at how the telegraph shaved time from the process of getting information and still many people didn't learn for days in 1865 that President Lincoln had been assassinated. A century later, the nation sat transfixed as television delivered news of the assassination of President Kennedy and then of his suspected assassin.

"We're probably in the 1940s of the television age when it comes to Internet downstreaming. Look at how many people still don't have broadband," Butrica said. "The Internet exploits the ubiquity of cameras and microphones, especially since digital cameras are in the hands of everybody. If they can get television and the Internet to come together, that would be the next big explosion."

Tracking page view counts on CNN.com

News event...Date Page...views

Michael Jackson verdict...June 13...77 million

Pope Benedict XVI elected... April 19...64 million

Pope John Paul II nears death... April 1... 71 million

Death of Terri Schiavo...March 31...62 million

President Bush inauguration... Jan. 20...57 million

2004 election night (24 hours)...Nov. 2 ...650 million

Source: CNN.com

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