Tragedy Results In Web News Gridlock

[NEW YORK] Although Web sites like MSNBC.com, CNN.com and
CBSNews.com
initially began their coverage of Tuesday’s tragedy by offering big
graphics,
live audio, and video, staffers rushed to distribute server loads and put up
text only sites, in an effort to make information as accessible as possible.

Initially, Internet users across the country reported being unable to access
national news sites as they frantically sought information about the
situation, receiving 500-13 error codes — “HTTP Error 500-13 – Server too
busy” — or 404 error codes — “Cannot find server or DNS Error.”

One firm, Ottowa, Ont.-based online measurement firm webHancer, said its
analysis confirmed that the problems were due to too many users attempting
to
view the sites at once.

Like Jupiter Media Metrix and Nielsen//Netratings, the firm measures
Internet activity using a 14 million-person panel that it says is
scientifically representative of actual Web-wide activity, and it reported
whopping traffic levels at the major news sites.

According to its figures, MSNBC.com saw a staggering increase in users
between 9 a.m. and 9:30 a.m. webHancer’s panel, which normally registers a
few hundred users on the site at any given moment, spiked to a level of
11,000 page requests shortly after the initial attack on the World Trade
Center; then to 22,000 page requests, according to webHancer spokesman
Andrew
MacDougall.

Similarly, CNN.com also experienced similar behavior, seeing a thousand-fold
increase in page requests by noontime, according to the firm’s
representative
panel.

That increasing traffic evidently took a serious toll on the sites. Shortly
after 9 a.m., the firm reported that median page load time on MSNBC.com
spiked from three seconds to 27 seconds — which is often greater than most
browsers will tolerate without timing out.

Atlanta-based CNN.com, likewise, saw an increase from a median nine-second
page load time to more than 30 seconds.

“Our administrators are aware of it,” said a spokesman at CNN.com on Tuesday
morning. “They’re trying to balance it out, but it’s being hit drastically.
They’re trying to … put some more space into it. It’s probably going to
be
that way for the rest of the day — very off and on until they can get
more
space added.”

The morning rush to the Web affected other national news sites, like
CBSNews.com and FoxNews.com, as well as several sites for terrestrial
televisions stations and radio stations. Newspaper Web sites, such as the
New
York Times’ and the site for the Washington Post, were faring somewhat
better, although operating much more slowly than usual.

“We’re seeing it across everyone,” said webHancer’s MacDougall. “It’s been
much the same story on all the major news sites. The numbers that we’re
seeing, that are reflected in our reports … are no doubt reflected on
their sites. Their traffic increased … by the order of hundreds and
hundreds of people.”

By 11 a.m. EST, MSNBC.com had adopted what spokespeople described as a
“light
site,” stripped of almost all graphics and ads, in an effort to cope with
the
traffic overload.

“We’re operating at almost a text-only mode,” said MSNBC.com spokesman Peter
Dorogoff. “That’s allowing us to handle the load at the moment. We’re just
promoting bare bones, stripped down news reporting. By all indications by
our
tech people, the site is currently getting slammed by users, but we seem to
be handling the load.”

Dorogoff said that in cases like this, the site didn’t consider advertising
and design issues a priority. “We’re just not kind of looking at that,
editorially speaking. That’s why our resources are going right now in
getting information out to the public.”

He added that the “light site” layout is part of a standard contingency plan
for breaking news days, “though certainly this is extraordinary, above and
beyond.”

webHancer confirmed that the site was able to reduce load times using the
strategy. According to its numbers, MSNBC.com’s median load time gradually
improved during the next two hours, ultimately reaching six seconds around
noon.

CNN.com took the same strategy after initial troubles, putting up a simple
text Web site — just a white background and black text.

Other news organizations trying to disseminate information via the Internet
turned to e-mail, which seemed to be functioning normally. The New York
Times’ site sent out e-mail alerts to subscribers to its “direct” service,
updating them with developments and linking to its site.

“In response to the attacks on New York and Washington D.C., NYTimes.com
will
be sending frequent digests of the latest developments,” read one
missive.

Outside of the New York City and Washington D.C. areas, the situation was
somewhat better as newspapers’ Web sites — like the Houston Chronicle’s
Chron.com and the Los Angeles Times’ LATimes.com — were up, albeit running
more slowly than usual.

Those seeking information over the Internet ended up communicating with
friends, family, and colleagues via e-mail and instant messenger
applications. Others sent out updates and discussed the disaster via e-mail
discussion lists, and even through wireless discussion groups.

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