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Panpa Bulletin : September 2006
6 | PANPA BULLETIN September 2006 NEWS Although newspaper sales also 'soared', the clear win- ners yet again in capturing "readership" and in lifting their profile by breaking and provid- ing accurate coverage of a major Australian news event -- this time the transfixing story of the death of Crocodile Hunter Steve Irwin -- were the major news websites. Millions of disbelieving people worldwide joined Australians in swamping the sites, first to get confirmation of Irwin's death, then to get the details of how he succumbed so tragically from a stingray's barb through his chest in a freak diving accident off Australia's northwest coast. The first hint that Irwin, after spending most of his life risking death from snakebite or wres- tling with crocodiles, had died from the attack by the 2.5 metre stingray was picked up just after 1 pm on Monday, Sept 4, by the police rounds desk of Brisbane's Courier-Mail. After getting confirmation from three separate sources, the Courier-Mail broke the story on News Limited's news.com.au web site at 1.56 AEST. Latched on quickly by Google, the story trig- gered an immediate global reac- tion by internet users. Saturation media coverage, par- ticularly in the United States, puts the iconic TV naturalist's death into contendership for listing as one of the top ten news stories of the decade. Web measurement company Hitwise said Australian internet traffic to newspaper and other media websites rose to its high- est point since mid-May when the Beaconsfield mine rescue was under way. By 2.30, after Google had kicked in, the weight of international traffic -- mostly people checking that the fatal stingray attack was not a hoax -- was badly affecting the performance of some of the main Australian sites. Websites that came under the heaviest pressure included the News Limited sites, particularly those of its Queensland newspa- pers, Fairfax Digital's smh.com.au and theage.com.au sites, ninem- sn, which was slowed to a crawl, and the ABC's online operation. The ABC site temporarily crashed because of the high num- ber of visits. Its editors responded with a home page displaying only one item - Irwin's death. A new phrase is being used to describe the problem that now arises when unexpectedly large numbers of people access a web- site causing it to freeze or shut down -- flash crowds. News Limited is claiming a combined total of three million hits on its sites -- the highest re- sponse to any item ever run on news.com.au. Its journalists con- stantly updated the story as new information flowed in and five updated versions were published. The Courier-Mail site expe- rienced the most traffic growth -- up 550 per cent on a normal day's traffic. Chris Griffith, the paper's in- augural on-line reporter, who worked in the computer industry before becoming a journalist, told the PANPA Bulletin that one of the problems that arose in pub- lishing the updates was that it had become incredibly slow to do so because of the large numbers of people accessing the site. Griffith opened a Steve Irwin Tribute Blog page which wel- comed people from around the world to post their thoughts. It re- ceived more than 3,000 messages. Thousands more were posted on other sites, reflecting the grow- ing demand on site editors to ac- commodate readers' views. News.com.au editor Hugh Martin said the parent site's fig- ures -- up 400 per cent -- confirmed that Australians saw the News Network as the most trusted on- line source of breaking news. Fairfax Digital's editor-in-chief, Mike van Niekerk, said the im- mense response to swift website coverage of Irwin's death under- lined how people were now be- ing attracted to credible, familiar news brands, especially those that had developed real-time newsrooms akin to those of cable news networks. Irwin's death had been a "mon- ster story" for the SMH and The Age sites, providing their biggest traffic day ever, closely followed by the next two days as the story developed, including public re- action to the controversial com- ments of Germaine Greer. Van Niekerk said online news readership is continuing an up- ward trend, swelled every now and then by a traffic spike driven by a major news event. "But then it never goes back to where it was before, For instance, the huge increase in traffic we ex- perienced on Sepember 11, 2001, now wouldn't even reach our baseline average weekday. "Because of the growth in broad- band and Fairfax's development of video, even more dramatic figures were being seen in that area. "It wasn't long ago that we first severed one million video down- loads a month. We were well over that figure just in the week of the Irwin tragedy." Van Niekerk said that similar growth was happening with audi- ence participation. Reader forum and blogs had grown and grown. Fairfax Digital was well pre- pared for the unexpected and had contingency plans to deal with something as big as Irwin's death. Balancing the enormous traffic load had worked well." Van Niekerk claims the Herald and Age sites had been the only sites that maintained availabil- ity to the news content and also serve all the advertising demand through the peak. "Where we suffered was in the area of video preparation and reader comments, which were so much higher than anything for which we had prepared. It strained that part of the system and for a couple of hours we suf- fered a minor meltdown. "Despite that we achieved record video downloads and the com- bined reader tributes contributed to the two sites exceeds 3500." Websites the winners in Irwins unexpected death The Courier Mail may have broken the story but the websites drew global attention writes Jack Beverley Steve Irwin with a six-week-old Bengal tiger cub at Australia Zoo newspix
November December 2006