When the World Wide Web broke a major news story, journalism changed for ever

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Indy Lifestyle Online
A tremor ran through the American media on Friday, 28 February. The Dallas Morning News went public with information that Timothy McVeigh, a suspect in the Oklahoma City bombing that had shocked the world, had confessed to the crime.

The Morning News reported that the information came from documents, prepared by McVeigh's defence lawyers, which the paper had obtained. Big story.

But the story got bigger. The Morning News released the story on Friday afternoon - a full day before it appeared in print - on their Web site (http://www.

dallasnews.com). Friday, incidentally, was the deadline for 1,000 potential jurors to respond to a court questionnaire. Stop press.

The big story had suddenly become very, very big. Every US network news programme mentioned that the story had been broken on the Internet first.

John Cranfill, managing editor of the Morning News Web site, posted this note on an impromptu mailing list that sprang up: "I guess by now the whole world knows we posted the Timothy McVeigh story to the Web deliberately on Friday, Feb. 28, at 3:15 p.m. CST ... The AP story about this journalistic move calls it 'unprecedented' and The New York Times says this was the biggest story ever broken on the Internet. The story and sidebar about putting the story on Internet is up now on Web sites for CNN, Chicago Tribune and AP."

Less than 72 hours later, there was an aftershock. "The Dallas Morning News will ... publish no new articles based on confidential defense documents," said the Morning News on its Web site on Sunday.

On Monday morning, McVeigh's lead attorney, Stephen Jones, accused the Morning News of stealing computer files from the defence team. "Hacking for headlines," reported MSNBC.

Later on Monday, McVeigh's defence team issued a statement saying that the "confession" was a fake, cooked up to convince a witness and possible co-conspirator to talk to defence investigators. NBC broke that story in its morning broadcast and on its MSNBC Web site.

Initially, the big story was that an American newspaper had decided to report today's news today. Some claimed that the Morning News editors had "scooped themselves". Later, as the story unfolded, there were cries, mostly from practitioners of print journalism, that the rush to publish on the Net had compromised standards.

Television and radio stations have reported same-day news for decades. More than 500 newspapers around the world have Web sites, meaning that they, too, have the technical means to publish today's news today. But visit those sites, and you'll quickly find that they are mainly full of yesterday's news. The major exceptions are the few afternoon dailies - the San Francisco Examiner and the Detroit News are two - that publish news as soon as it hits their afternoon print editions. While some dailies offer constantly updated news (and the Charlotte News and Observer's www.nando.net even offers a desktop Java applet for updates), these mainly offer wire- service headlines.

Debate has raged in the newspaper community: why not use the medium to fulfil the promise of timely news delivery? Even as their circulation and advertising have been ravaged by electronic competition, print journalists have sniffed at electronic "sound-byte journalism", saying it is too shallow, and favours immediacy at the expense of ethical judgement.

The University of Wisconsin's Kurt Foss has been near the centre of electronic publishing since its inception. He quickly fired off a congratulatory e-mail to John Cranfill, then scheduled the event as the topic of his afternoon class.

Foss sums it up: "I'm a bit surprised by the repeated use of the phrase that The Dallas Morning News 'scooped itself' ... Even the Associated Press used that expression. One would think that a global communications service might have a better appreciation for the importance of distributing news of national significance in the most timely manner available.

"Can a media organisation truly 'scoop itself'? Or are its Web version and its printed version all part of the same news-gathering operation?' Foss asks. "Would the story have somehow been more 'legitimate' if it appeared first on paper? I think not.

"I hope this proves to be a new high-water mark for Web-based journalism. [The] notions of a news organisation 'scooping itself' by breaking important news stories on line will soon fade away."

Amen, Kurt, couldn't have said it better myself, in print or on the Web.