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War briefly draws traffic to news sites

U.S. Web surfers flocked to domestic and foreign news sites in March as the war with Iraq escalated, but the traffic increase was short-lived, surveys say.

U.S. Web surfers flocked to domestic and foreign news sites in March, as the war with Iraq escalated, but the traffic increase was short-lived, according to industry surveys released Thursday.

A number of U.S. news sites, such as CNN.com and MSNBC, saw traffic surge only to see it slip to prewar levels in April, according to survey results released by online research service Hitwise. In a separate survey, Nielsen/NetRatings found that foreign news sites, such as those of Al Jazeera and of the British Broadcasting Corp.'s BBC World Service, posted greater gains in March than did popular U.S. news sites.

"The Web (allowed) Americans to complement their mainstream domestic news sources with an international perspective not as readily available during the first Gulf War in 1991," said Greg Bloom, a senior Internet analyst with Nielsen/NetRatings, in a statement.

Al Jazeera's site, for example, saw its number of U.S. visitors soar to 1 million in March, compared with an estimated 79,000 in February--a 15-fold increase, according to Nielsen/NetRatings. Those figures are for "unique" visitors--they don't include return visits made during the same time period. About a third of the visitors went to the English version of the Al Jazeera site. The BBC World Service's site saw its number of unique U.S. visitors jump 165 percent in March, to 5.3 million from April's 2 million.

CNN.com and MSNBC.com, two of the largest U.S.-based news sites, posted smaller growth compared with that of foreign news sites. MSNBC.com increased traffic 24 percent, to 24.3 million, in March compared with the previous month. And CNN.com climbed 23 percent, to 26.2 million, in March compared with the month earlier.

The largest spike for both those sites came March 23, when an Arab TV station aired footage of prisoners of war and American bodies. But by April 15, the day the U.S. military took control of Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit, traffic had dropped to prewar levels.

"Americans are clearly turning to the Web for breaking news in times of crisis...the challenge for news sites, as they well know, is to turn event-driven visitors into everyday visitors," said Chris Maher, North America general manager for Hitwise, in a statement.

Based on a percentage of traffic to Internet sites in all categories, CNN.com captured 0.73 percent of Net users March 23. But by April 15, that slice of the pie had fallen to 0.34 percent--slightly less than its prewar level, according to Hitwise.

MSNBC.com captured 0.45 percent of traffic to all Internet sites on March 23, but that figure also fell to prewar levels in April, according to the survey. The New York Times saw traffic to its site jump to a 0.32 percent cut of all Internet traffic on March 16, the day of the Azores Summit, but it declined below prewar levels on April 15, to 0.15 percent of all Net traffic.

A number of other news sites, from Fox News to USA Today, showed only modest traffic gains in March. They also lost those visitors by April.