Just like the high-profile criminal cases of O.J. Simpson, Louise Woodward, and Timothy McVeigh, the announcement of suspected Unabomber Ted Kaczynski's guilty plea has been an example of the Web's role in disseminating real-time news to audiences eager for the scoop.
Within minutes of Kaczynski's guilty plea, which spares him a possible death sentence, Web sites already were posting reports and analyses from the Sacramento courtroom.
"You have to be a hell of lot faster on your feet to do it this way," said Rusty Coats, online content manager for the Sacramento Bee's Web site, SacBee.com, as well as Unabombertrial.com, a site dedicated to the trial. "We've been using the Web to break stories in the middle of the day, and this is a good example of that."
Like most newspaper Web sites, the Bee ran the Associated Press's version of the guilty plea; it did not post a story from its own staffers. CNN ran a version from the AP as well as one by its own correspondent. ABC and NBC also assigned a staffer to the story, but relied on the AP as well. All reported a surge in traffic today.
Many of the sites included related stories, such as reaction pieces. They also capitalized on the Web's interactivity by including bulletin boards for Netizens to post their comments.
Most print and TV media outlets are jumping onto the Net both to expand and to keep from losing readers to the emerging medium. For newspapers, the Web helps level the playing field against TV and radio, which can report news in real time, many executives agree.
"The great revelation of the Net for newspapers with [their own sites] is that it puts the newspaper back in the business of breaking news, which has been taken away from them by radio and TV," said George Shirk, news director for The Gate, the Web site for the San Francisco Chronicle, KRON television, and the San Francisco Examiner.
Some argue that having an up-to-the-minute Web site can put newspapers in the awkward position of scooping themselves with an online story that they post in print the next day. But many newspaper executives aren't worried yet, because most of their readers get their news from the print version, not online. That may change as PC penetration increases, however.
The Unabomber case has been closely watched on the Net, because of Kaczynski's disdain for technology. Some sites, such as Time Warner's Pathfinder, posted his manifesto online. Wired News has covered the story regularly.
"This case has helped us work through the stumbling blocks" of online journalism, Coats said. It also has helped the newspaper industry cross one of its biggest hurdles: getting more readers to participate. "They're participating in your site, and at some point they're shaping it," he said.
While many Web news observers applaud the medium's immediacy and consistency, some point out that cutthroat competition and around-the-clock deadlines may threaten accuracy--especially with a controversial case such as the Unabomber trial.
"Just about anybody can post something on the Internet, particularly in a case that's rife with contentious political debate or conspiracy theories," said Paul Grabowicz, who teaches at the University of California at Berkeley journalism school and is an investigative reporter for the Oakland Tribune. "There's no way to know a lot of what's being posted on the Internet is right."