By Matthew Buckland

As United States and British forces push through Iraq towards Baghdad, another kind of war is in progress: a battle between TV, radio, newspapers and websites to be the first to bring their audience breaking news on Iraq.

Never before has a war been covered in such pervasive and explicit detail and on so many media platforms. Readers are getting the news via more mediums, in more forms and faster than ever before.

It was the Gulf War in the early 1990s that put CNN on the map. But since then a new kid on the block has arrived: the Internet. The fight to attract online audiences has been just as intense as the TV networks’. Many are saying the Internet as a news publisher will come into its own as a result of the Iraq war, in the same way the first Gulf War made television.

News websites across the world, including South Africa, have been reporting massive traffic increases since the war’s start. According to an international news agency, the Iraq war has even toppled sex, the net’s long-time winner, as the most popular search term on top search engines.

South Africa’s major news sites are attracting huge chunks of the country’s 3.2-million Web users. News24’s publisher Cobus Heyl says his website has seen between 50 000 and 100 000 extra readers as a result of the war. He describes the burst as “record breaking” and traffic became so intense at the outbreak of the war, the website streamlined its homepage by lightening its graphic load to cope with huge user volumes.

Independent Online’s (IOL) Content Manager Babs Abba Omar says his website’s traffic has been up by about 10-15% since the invasion began. The Mail&Guardian Online has seen a 33% increase in its daily readership. Its weekend readership almost doubled. Elan Lohman, Sunday Times website manager, which boasts a journalist writing reports from Baghdad, notes there has been “a lot of interest” in the Sunday Times website.

Websites were caught with their pants down after the September 11 attacks. It was one of the first events where the world turned to the Web en masse for news. Servers buckled under the flood of readers and the bigger sites were forced to create lighter, alternative emergency homepages to cope. But this time international sites like CNN.com and BBC.i were ready for the war. CNN’s homepage has been transformed into a special, streamlined version of the normal site, almost solely focusing on the war.

The war has also put the spotlight on a relatively recent internet phenomenon called “blogs”. Blogs are personal online diaries or newsletters published by individual users on the web. An article on Poynter Online, a well-known US-based journalism site, reports web geeks touting these blogs as a “new form of journalism and the wave of the future”.

In what has become one of the most intriguing stories of the internet, various newspapers and websites picked up on a blog of a 29-year-old Iraqi man somewhere in the suburbs of Baghdad. Known simply as “Salam Pax”, his online diary has been fascinating users with its observations of the war. This shows the internet as a powerful medium in carrying and publishing reports from ordinary people on the ground.

South African news sites have been slow to capitalise on the internet’s multi-media and interactive capabilities — perhaps pointing to as much a resource problem in the industry as a lack of bandwith.

The international web is full of interactive guides, video and audio reports on the war. Even traditional newspaper websites such as the UK’s Guardian Unlimited dabbles in audio and video reports — once the exclusive domain of television and radio.

Interactive guides provide day-by-day graphic explanations of the war’s progress, charting advances of US troops over Iraqi territory. Interactive guides allow a user to zoom around a map of Baghdad city, examine weapons of the war, or British troop deployment in the battle for Basra.

South African Web analyst Arthur Goldstuck notes that readers tend to visit the Internet to get depth, analysis, alternative viewpoints and background on the war — something TV is not geared to deliver.. There just isn’t enough time to probe and analyse…. and viewers don’t have the attention spans.

Goldstuck notes that the war in Iraq is another chapter in the development of news reporting on the internet since the September 11 saga.

The web came into its own with September 11 and what we are now seeing is an extension or follow-on… when the world turns to the web for minute-by-minute news.

Matthew Buckland is the editor of the Mail & Guardian Online. Visit the Mail & Guardian Online’s special report on Iraq at http://www.mg.co.za

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