what happened on september 11 was an event made for television.Everywhere you went, TV screens were filled with the now familiar scenes of devastation. Cycling to my office moments after the second World Trade Center collapsed, the streets were disturbingly empty, as if everyone was inside huddled around a set watching CNN.
What happened in the hours and days that followed, however, brought the true purpose of online journalism and publishing into sharp focus.
After the immediate horror and shock, coverage on TV quickly became little more than a loop of exhausted news anchors replaying the same terrifying images over and over again. That didn't mean I didn't watch it. In fact, the television barely went off in my house, and I found myself getting up at 4 am, unable to sleep and switching on the tube to see whether anything new had happened.
If you wanted analysis and more than just shots of smouldering rubble, though, the unflappable Peter Jennings wasn't going to be your man.
Even as the event unfolded, I found myself logging onto favourite online news sources like www.cnn.com, www.bbc.co.uk and www.reuters.com to find out more. The astonishing number of people clogging up these sites -- traffic at CNN was up by more than 500 per cent on Tuesday, and staff at the CBC were asked to stay off the Internet to keep the lines free -- meant that I wasn't alone.
As the grim week wore on and the horror began to settle in, people began looking for more information -- more stories, photos and, in particular, some sense of why this happened.
Newspapers published special sections, and weeklies like Time and People rush-released special editions. The best reading, though, however shocking it might sound, was online.
In a medium where shoddy reporting and half-assed writing are often embraced, not just accepted, Internet publications offered up some of the most cogent and informative reporting in the days after Tuesday.
Timing had a lot to do with it. Long before their hard-copy comments on the disaster could hit the stands, magazines like the New Yorker (www.newyorker.com) had posted up intelligent pieces on the actual event and on the back story, including a lengthy archival profile on Osama bin Laden and a piece that first ran when the twin towers were built. Not bad for a Web site that went online three years late.
What really made for online must-reads were bonuses like that. The New York Times (www.nytimes.com) and the Washington Post (www.washingtonpost.com) as well as Canadian dailies like the Globe and Mail (www.globeandmail.ca) and the National Post (www.nationalpost.com) updated both their hard reportage and their comments several times daily.
Alternative papers like the Village Voice (www.villagevoice.com) also updated their coverage at least daily, providing street-level coverage that was noticeably different in tone from that of the major dailies while also providing perspective on what Dubya's new war could mean for Arab Americans and others now in the CIA's sights.
Creating a wider perspective dominated much of the online coverage. With the immediate facts readily available elsewhere and space on the printed page not at issue, webzines like Slate (www.slate.com) dedicated most of their coverage to larger issues, linking to stories around the world on everything from the roots of terrorism to blunt explanations of what war powers the U.S. president actually has.
The Web was also the place to go for perspectives from around the world. Papers like the Guardian (www.guardian.co.uk) and Le Monde (www.lemonde.fr) brought views to the discussion rarely, if ever, aired in the American media. And if you wanted to know what people in the Arab world thought of the attack, you could check out www.arab2.com/newspapers.htm, an online compendium of Arab newspapers, magazines and journals from around the world.
When it mattered, the online journalism world stepped up instead of folding.
Did it make the events any more understandable or real? No, but it was better than simply staring blankly at a television screen.