Too hot to handle
What Florida Web sites did on the wild election night
By Russell Shaw -- Broadcasting & Cable, 11/12/2000 7:00:00 PM
In many ways, covering as topsy-turvy a drama as last week's presidential election was the ultimate test of the ability of news-oriented Web sites, especially in Florida. I don't have to remind you of what happened in the wee hours of last Wednesday morning, when most major news organizations rescinded their election-cinching call in Florida.
Depending on your time zone, the race tightened during a time that few news organizations would have anticipated-falling within or near that three-hour gulf between 1 a.m. and 4 a.m. when the election-eve contingent clocked out and the morning wrap-up crew punched in.
Was your Web site ready? With my computer mouse in one hand and my TiVo remote control in the other, I went back and forth from site to site for some 12 hours. While there were a few glitches, I am happy to report that most online news organizations had reason to be proud. Why? Generally, sites were well prepared to deal with the currents and eddies of a news cycle that will go down in the history books.
Florida, of course, was where the action was. Dave Rodrick, regional managing editor for Internet Broadcasting Systems-an Internet company whose responsibilities include editorial guidance and Web-site services for WJXT-TV Jacksonville, WPLG-TV Miami, WESH-TV Orlando and WPBF-TV West Palm Beach.
In short, IBS was at ground zero, and those Web sites, as later analysis revealed, had 10 times as many visitors as they do on average news days.
From the beginning of the election-night-coverage planning process, "we knew people would be coming to [our sites] from [watching] our on-air broadcast, looking at our site for updates on local races," a sleep-deprived Rodrick told me late last Wednesday.
Rodrick had just returned to Internet Broadcasting Systems' Minneapolis-area offices from a hard day's night at IBS affiliate WPLG-TV in Miami.
"We assumed we would have heavy traffic until midnight or 1 a.m., scale back from 1 a.m. to 4 a.m., and then bring in people to ensure that we have complete results posted by 6 a.m."
Rodrick, of course, is referring to that second, third, or even fourth wind that on-air and online reporters get when unexpected news events erupt, and plans must be rearranged to adapt.
Stationed for the evening at the coverage's nerve center, IBS Director of News Beth Pearlman saw early on that this was going to be one crazy news cycle-crazy even for presidential-election coverage.
For on-air and online veteran Pearlman, the first whiff that something extraordinary was up started just after the major national news networks started making their initial "Gore wins Florida" calls in mid-evening. Bear in mind that, although the first Florida call was seen as a very influential factor in the Electoral College math, the ultimate understanding of the Sunshine State's leanings were still hours away.
Pearlman told me that most news organizations first called Gore the Florida victor when about 25% of the vote was in from that state. "Even though we called it, we started to feel that 'something is not right. We don't believe some of this,'" she explained.
Pearlman and colleagues had crunched some numbers that indicated that the apparent pattern of regional statistical results that led to the call for Gore was premature at best.
"There was kind of a group epiphany: 'This is getting too close to call,'" she added.
"As the night wore on," Rodrick said, the atmosphere at each Florida station was "pure adrenaline. No one wanted to leave." And few, if any, Web staffers did.
As you well know, sometimes "pure adrenaline" does not serve efficiency very well. I noticed that, throughout the evening, many Web sites that otherwise did an excellent job seemed to have a time lag between the posting of Electoral College math-altering state calls and the updating of their color-coded state maps and charts to reflect the new numbers.
This wasn't a problem on the IBS sites. At headquarters, the decision was made in advance to move Arah Bahn, art director for all IBS sites, up from her first-floor lair to the second-floor national content area.
"When we got the decision to call a state," explained Pearlman, "we yelled it out. She was able change the [Electoral College] map in about two minutes."
And, wow, there were many more changes than anyone had anticipated.
Russell Shaw's column about Internet and interactive issues appears regularly. He can be reached at email@example.com.
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