The Columbia Shuttle disaster demonstrated that digital content is simply the best tool available to understand a major unfolding news story. Not just because of its convenience or near real-time delivery, either. Because many organizations already possessed a vast database of Shuttle information, statistics, and history, for many outlets it was simply a matter of organizing existing econtent into useful and engaging micro-sites and then quickly pushing them online.
This was not the case, say, on September 11, when news organizations scrambled for architectural plans of the Pentagon or a list of occupants of the World Trade Center. Since these documents were not prepared in advance and available in a database, 9/11 didn't as readily leverage the advantages of digital content.
Many people recall precisely where they were when the Challenger disintegrated in a puff of smoke nearly 20 years ago. The stark headline on the Telerate screen I was watching at the time said simply: "Challenger Explodes After Liftoff." As that first headline scrolled by, I remember the blankness of the old "green screen" online world. With no graphics and no hyperlinks, all one could do was wait for the next headline, type in the story number, and see if there was any new information. The Challenger tragedy was best understood on TV then—an explosion against the clear blue sky. There was little that online news could add.
When I first heard about Columbia, like a Pavlovian dog, I reflexively went to the TV. A NASA briefing was scheduled, but NASA—and TV media as a whole—offered too little too late. After watching the same trails of smoke followed by canned images of the Shuttle crew for the tenth time, I gave up and went online.
Many news organizations had already transformed their home pages into Shuttle micro-sites that offered detailed information on the mission of STS-107 and its crew. A link to the NASA history office provided information on past disasters, including the STS-51L/Challenger accident at http://history.nasa.gov/. Other sites provided fascinating radar maps of the debris field over Texas, shuttle diagrams, and a calendar of past flights provided context.
Drawing upon knowledge of space programs, news organizations with local aerospace angles were particularly successful. For example, Orlando's NBC-TV affiliate WESH at www. newschannel2000.com with a vast Cape Canaveral historical database quickly posted useful information. Special sections expanded to include descriptions of the debris and possible explanations for the disaster at an amazing rate.
I also noticed some bizarre twists showing the flipside of econtent's power. At www.space.com, I found a huge advertisement from Space Adventures: "Win a Dream Vacation for Two to Star City & Experience Zero Gravity Travel!" I clicked the link and found I could book the same space ride with the Russians as Dennis Tito, the space tourist. Don't have the money? A sub-orbital space flight could be had for a bargain: $98,000. Interesting, but not necessarily the best, advertising to put up imme- diately after a Shuttle crash.
A widely circulated Associated Press story, "Columbia streaks toward Florida touchdown to end successful 16-day science mission," was filed a few moments before disaster struck. The story quotes astronaut David Brown's joking remark, "Do we really have to come back?" The AP story was just a standard wire service report intended to be filled in with additional paragraphs as the Shuttle landed. Unfortunately, many online news outlets, including The Boston Globe at www.boston.com, had kept the story as a standalone report even days later. This offers lessons both in the Web's advantage of writing and publishing in near real time, as well as the downside mandated by the need for constant site maintenance.
I had to chuckle when I turned to the New York Post, www. nypost.com, a few days following the disaster. At this stage in the news cycle, sites were covering the coverage of other econtent outlets. The Post's story, "SPACED OUT ANCHOR LEFT IN THE ROUGH," was critical of Aaron Brown, the CNN lead anchor who chose not to leave a golf tournament in order to cover the Shuttle story.
Perhaps most interesting of all were the blogs and chat rooms. As part of the Times' coverage at www.nytimes.com/columbia, a portion of an online discussion of Shuttle buffs on www. freerepublic.com was reproduced. From leadpenny at 9:19: "It should already be down. Nothing!" From don-o to leadpenny at 9:20: "Folks, I fear the worst has happened." These were among the first online words about the disaster, many minutes before anything appeared on mainstream TV or news Web sites.
Forget the remote. The next time a big news story breaks, I'll skip TV and head straight online.