Tragedy Results in Web News Gridlock

By Christopher Saunders

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NEW YORK Although Web sites like MSNBC.com, CNN.com and CBSNews.com are offering live audio and video of news about the tragedy, events at the World Trade Center and in Washington D.C. have made clear the inadequacy of the Web as an information dissemination medium in a crisis situation.

People across the country reported being unable to access national news sites as they sought information about the situation, receiving 500-13 error codes -- "HTTP Error 500-13 - Server too busy" -- or 404 error codes -- "Cannot find server or DNS Error."

"Our administrators are aware of it," said a spokesman at Atlanta-based CNN.com. "They're trying to balance it out, but it's being hit drastically. They're trying to ... put some more space into it. It's probably going to be that way for the rest of the day -- very off and on -- until they can get more space added."

National news sites like MSNBC.com, CBSNews.com, and FoxNews.com were affected, as well as several sites for terrestrial televisions stations and radio stations. Newspaper Web sites, such as the New York Times' and the site for the Washington Post were faring somewhat better, although operating much more slowly than usual.

By 11 a.m. EST, MSNBC.com had adopted what spokespeople described as a "light site," stripped of almos tall graphics and ads, in an effort to cope with the traffic overload.

"We're operating at almost a text-only mode," said spokesman Peter Dorogoff. "That's allowing us to handle the load at the moment. We're just promoting bare bones, stripped down news reporting. By all indications by our tech people, the site is currently getting slammed by users, but we seem to be handling the load."

Dorogoff said that in cases like this, the site didn't consider advertising and design issues a priority. "We're just not kind of looking at that, editorially speaking. That's why our resources are going right now in getting information out to the public."

He added that the "light site" layout is part of a standard contingency plan for breaking news days, "though certainly this is extraordinary, above and beyond."

Other news organizations trying to disseminate information via the Internet turned to e-mail, which seemed to be functioning normally. The New York Times' site sent out e-mail alerts to subscribers to its "direct" service, updating them with developments and linking to its site.

Outside of the New York City and Washington D.C. areas, the situation was somewhat better as newspapers' Web sites -- like the Houston Chronicle's Chron.com and the Los Angeles Times' LATimes.com -- were up, albeit slower than usual.

Those stuck in their offices but seeking information ended up turning to the phones, or to communicating with friends, family, and colleagues via instant messenger applications. Others sent out updates and discussed the disaster via e-mail discussion lists, and even through wireless discussion groups.