When terrorists struck the U.S. on Sept. 11, the world turned to CNN.com. It also turned to CBS.com and NBC.com. But when it turned to ABCNews.com, it got stuck in traffic, as heavy volume overwhelmed the networks servers.
By tripling the servers for the site, ABC was able to clear the logjam within two hours. But by then, it may have been too late to regain the original audience.
Surveys by market research firm comScore Networks showed that ABCNews.com experienced a fraction of the record volume that went to major news sites during the entire month of September. While CBS.com and CNN.com saw traffic triple, ABCNews.coms traffic increased a mere 30 percent.
"While they did manage to get the servers back up within a few hours, people turned to other sites," said Daniel E. Hess, comScores vice for president marketing communications. "I think people do tend to develop attachments in the first few hours of an event and stick with them."
At CNN.com, the servers have handled more than 1 million requests per minute and a flood of streaming media. The heaviest traffic came on Sept. 12, with more than 337 million page impressions. That shattered the record set by the Nov. 8, 2000, presidential election coverage, which had half as many impressions.
Keeping the site running smoothly is critical as never before under CNNs effort to merge online and on-air venues, said Mitch Gelman, senior vice president and executive producer of CNN.com in Atlanta.
"We put the building blocks in place over the past six to nine months, and what happened on Sept. 11 is that everything came together around this one story," Gelman said. "The on-the-scene reports allowed the Web site to use the reporting that was coming from Afghanistan, Pakistan and elsewhere in the region as seamlessly and comprehensively as possible. And through the Web site, we were able to provide the TV with memory."
CNN also teamed up with other AOL Time Warner sites to plan coverage of the news, holding a regular 10 a.m. conference call with sister media outlets.
Like other sites, CNN.coms traffic came from all over the world, as the international aspects of the story erased media boundaries. Much of the volume for sites in Britain, India and Pakistan came from the U.S., Hess said. When ABCNews.coms servers in the U.S. failed to handle the load, many users ended up at another ABC site - the Australian Broadcasting Company.
"People look anywhere they can for news," Hess said. "If the American servers werent responsive, they would go to the BBC or SKY. Were actually seeing a sustained level of visits to those sites. What we dont know is whether those allegiances will remain in place."
Some anomalies among the Web visits included a 2,900 percent increase at 9News.com, the site of a Denver NBC affiliate that may have picked up viewers of channel 9 in New York and New Jersey, whose site is UPN9.tv.
CNN.coms audience grew to more than 38 million visitors worldwide, with more than half of that increase coming from users outside the U.S. That could represent an important threshold in the evolution of Internet-based news, Gelman said. Companies developing the tools for interactive TV - a blend of TV and the Internet - may also want to take note.
"Its logical to wonder how far we can be from the point where you can simply click into a second window on your TV set and call up the same application on the same box," Gelman said.
While newspapers were burdened by their daily production cycles in covering the stories, their Web sites managed to keep readers current. Sites such as www.nyimes.com and www.washingtonpost.com found that site traffic more than doubled, with nearly a third of those users coming from outside the country.