Modern American media can trace key moments of its development to times of national calamity. Mathew Brady’s stark images of Civil War carnage represented the birth of photojournalism. Television news came of age as it chronicled the days following the assassination of John F. Kennedy. The intensive, round-the-clock coverage of the events surrounding the 1991 Gulf War gave important credibility to cable news channels as a viable alternative to network news.
On the darkest day of this young century, the Internet proved again to be a dominant and pervasive source for information — not simply from online versions of traditional news sources but also to a surprising degree from corporations, many of which turned their Web sites into public media outlets designed to reach all audiences.
Within minutes of the attack on the World Trade Center, an upsurge in Internet traffic flooded the system. Matrix.Net, a company that monitors online performance, concluded that average reachability dropped from 96 percent to 88 percent within an hour of the terrorist strike. It took over an hour to get the system back to near-normal conditions. Here in New York, the infrastructure remained relatively intact, despite fires and power loss, which put several nodes out of commission. As local landline and wireless phone systems overloaded, email and instant messaging proved to be more resilient.
Thomas “Tip” O’Neill, former speaker of the House of Representatives, once said bluntly that all politics is local. In a similar sense, all news is personal; and as the major media outlets struggled to prioritize what they deemed important for a mass audience, individuals turned to the Web to collect information that mattered most to them.
In many cases, corporate Web sites complied. The American Airlines Web site replaced its home page with a confirmation that two of its planes had been hijacked, offering important details before the media reported them. Later in the day, as companies scrambled to assess their personal losses, their Web sites became important sources for updated information. Yahoo provided a direct link to the site of the building’s largest tenant, Morgan Stanley, which initially posted a statement from chairman Philip Purcell and later offered specific information both for employees and for customers. Keefe, Bruyette & Woods posted a complete employee list, identifying whose safety was confirmed and whose was not.
Corporate Web sites also provided practical assistance for thousands of workers, such as myself, scrambling to find ways to get home. City officials initially shut down all access points in and out of Manhattan. NJ Transit, which launched its redesigned Web site roughly a month ago, provided hourly updates on the availability of its bus and train services. Water shuttle services became one of the primary means to leave the island, and several of these companies used their Web sites to communicate which docks were operating. It took me six hours to leave the city that day, but the Web provided me a reliable road map for escape.
In a broader sense, the terrorist attack reinforced a trend that we have been witnessing since the World Wide Web burst onto the public scene. Consumers of information no longer wait passively for those relevant bits and pieces of news from established editorial sources. They know the Internet offers them an avenue to find what they want by themselves. Sometimes, those roads lead to savvy companies that make the commitment to become journalists.
Editor’s note: For more on the impact of the September 11 attack, check the special section of internet.com’s E-Commerce/Marketing Channel, The Trade Center Disaster: Industry Response.