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Poynter: News Organizations Learn To Adapt In Virginia Tech Emergency

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The websites for the Collegiate Times -- the student newspaper at Virginia Tech -- and other local newspapers -- are back online today with news about the investigation into yesterday's shooting. But in the midst of the campus emergency, those sites shut down during traffic overloads. Reporters had to adapt as did people across the country trying to keep up with events on campus.

This is a problem that has plagued a number of news organizations during breaking news situations. For some insight, WAMU's Rebecca Blatt spoke with the Poynter Institute's Mallary Jean Tenore -- who has been reporting on how news organizations respond when websites fail.

How did the staff at the Collegiate Times react when the site went down?
The Collegiate Times online director Jamie Chung quickly created some backup plans. So the site, which typically averages about 38,000 visits per week got about 52,000 visits on Thursday, and 143,000 total views. That was far more traffic than the usually get.

The site started to crash several times, so the online director redirected the entire site to the breaking news section. When it crashed again, he created a WordPress site, which featured the newspaper's photos and tweets. The third time it crashed, he redirected the site to the paper's Twitter handle. The staffers had been tweeting updates all afternoon, so it made sense to redirect the site there.

Why can't news sites handle traffic? Is this a technology issue or a financial issue?
In many cases, it's a technological issue. In the case of the Collegiate Times, their site isn't used to having so much traffic. They ended up upgrading their server, which is an option for many news sites, so that their websites can actually handle the volume of traffic that they're getting.

Some news sites, either they're hacked, having technical difficulties or, in the case of yesterday's shooting, there's just so much information coming out of these websites -- there's so many people craving the information -- that the site just can't handle it.

Hopefully, now that there are these alternative publishing platforms, news sites can figure out new ways to use them so they can continue to produce news.

Some local papers had similar issues -- how common is this?
It seems to be relatively common. In May, PBS's website went under attack from hackers -- so they began publishing news scripts and videos to Tumblr. In April, a TV station in Tallahassee, Florida posted videos on Facebook after its 11 p.m. newscast was disrupted by technical difficulties.

So we are seeing some news sites finding alternate publishing platforms. These days, news organizations don't have to go dark when their websites go down, because there are so many free publishing tools at their disposal.

Are news organizations prepared for this kind of situation?
Some are and some aren't. The ones who are prepared are the ones who have had this happen to them before. The thing they want to think about is coming up with some sort of Plan B, and having a plan in place so when something like this does happen and the website goes down, they don't have to scramble to try and figure out what to do.

I think when websites can be transparent about what is happening, that can be really helpful. So if a website has redirected their main site to a temporary site, and isn't aware of what's going on, that can create confusion. So if they put a prominent note on the site or let their Facebook and Twitter followers know what is going on, that can be helpful.

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