From Diana to Mumbai: Breaking the news online

Following on from the attacks in Mumbai, Mindy McAdams has put together a short timeline of key events that have affected the development of online news.

Among these are 9/11 attacks and the July 2005 bombings in London.

Her list got me thinking about two key events in 1997 that had a big impact on the evolution of the web as an accepted platform for news.

I was with the BBC at the time, working on the newly launched Election 1997 site. The election changed the course of British politics, with an end to 18 years of Conservative rule and the coming to power of New Labour.

The night of the vote, a small team of journalists were huddled in a room in West London, posting stories and and publishing the results online as they came in.

The site was due to be wound down after the election, but it had built up such momentum online that the BBC kept it going while it geared up for the launch of BBC News Online in November 1997.

In the intervening period came the death of Princess Diana and suddenly we had a major news event to reflect online. We created a new website to remember Diana and asked people to send in their tributes. We were inundated, with more than 7,500 messages – too many to process and publish.

On the day of the funeral, a handful of us covered the event live, rapidly writing stories on every aspect of the story and posting images that captured the day.

It was the first time BBC News had done anything like this online. It showed the strength of the web as a platform for breaking news and helped to legitimise the Internet as a medium for news.

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  • That’s a great bit of online journalism history, Alf. I remember someone e-mailing me a day or two after Diana’s death and asking for my thoughts about how it was covered online. I happened to be house-sitting for a friend and was watching TV when the first news reports came in.

    As we didn’t have wireless Internet in homes then, I had no access to the Web unless I went upstairs to my friend’s home office — on the third floor of the house. As a result, I saw almost none of the online coverage. So I had to admit (to the journalist who e-mailed me) that I had no idea what the online coverage had been like.

  • Ron Rodgers says:

    Similarly, I recall working on the desk at the Seattle Times that night when with an hour to deadline we got the news and ended up ripping the paper apart and putting out several editions that night. However, nothing of any substance, as far as I know, went up onto the Web site except for our standard shovelware. That indication of a lack of vision may well explain why the Times has been spiraling to its demise and has been decimated by job cuts, the latest only a few weeks ago.

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