A power outage in Brookline, Massachusetts, stole the Internet's thunder today.
Today was to be, for many, one of the Internet's biggest chances to prove itself as the premier disseminator of breaking global news, carrying the judge's decision on the verdict in the Louise Woodward homicide case as soon as it came down.
Unfortunately, the electricity went out just as a court clerk was about to email the decision to 25 designated news organizations, leaving traditional news outlets to break the story.
Woodward's charge was reduced by Judge Hiller Zobel from second-degree murder, which carries a mandatory life sentence with a possibility of parole after 15 years, to manslaughter, which carries no minimum sentence.
Zobel also sentenced the English au pair to the time she had already served, 279 days, effectively setting her free. The sentencing was available via the Internet in real time.
The delay in posting the decision, even though it was only by minutes, confirms many of the fears that the public and established news organizations have about the reliability of the Web when it really counts.
"People are afraid of the future, of different media," said Erin Moran McCormick, vice president of technology for Lawyer's Weekly, the publication originally slated to post the decision online.
The Lawyer's Weekly Web site was slowed by the onslaught of traffic this week but never crashed, contrary to previous reports, McCormick said. She estimated that traffic has jumped from 30,000 hits per day before the trial to 500,000 hits per day last week.
The mailing list for the decision was actually expanded to 25 news organizations because of doubts that one regional site could handle the traffic generated by a case that has garnered international attention.
McCormick disputed the notion that the Internet failed to live up to the hype that has been generated this week. "The decision was posted within a minute of the power going back on," she insisted. "It's just a fluke, I guess."
She also pointed out that although the decision was not posted to the Net instantaneously, the Internet still holds some valuable advantages over traditional news outlets reporting the story.
"What the Internet offers, is [access to] the actual opinion, which is one of the most eloquent and intelligent pieces of writing. The fact that that can be in everyone's hands is incredible," she said.