US Citizens Glued to the Net

With the outcome of the election hanging precariously in the balance, and with most Americans stuck at their desks Thursday -- far from a TV but nose-to-nose with a PC -- as the Florida recount is tallied, the Web is likely to be swamped with record traffic.

News sites experienced unprecedented traffic Tuesday night as Election Day returns came in, with many saying they had far surpassed previous records. And while some news sites suffered from technical difficulties during peak periods Tuesday night, there were none of the major catastrophes that occurred during the 1996 election, when a largely untested Internet proved under-equipped to handle all the attention it received.

CNN.com garnered the highest traffic numbers on Election Day, according to Jupiter Media Metrix (MMXI) . About 3.5 million unique visitors went to the site, while MSNBC.com drew the second-highest number, about 2.6 million visitors, according to the research and measurement firm. Both sites said internal calculations indicated even higher numbers.

But even as voters demonstrated a huge appetite for election news on the Internet, many did not find the experience entirely satisfactory. Some sites suffered delays in posting new developments, at times lagging behind television stations.

Other sites posted updated headlines that linked to old stories and mismatched maps and charts. The lag was surprising, given that the sites had months to prepare for what experts agreed well in advance would be an excruciatingly close race.

MSNBC.com was slow to update its lead headline when the networks backpedaled on calling the election for George W. Bush at 2 a.m. EST Wednesday. "That was one of those moments when those servers were not being as responsive as we would have liked them to have been," says Michael Silberman, executive editor at MSNBC.com.

The major news sites followed the lead of their parent companies when it came to projecting the winners in each state -- and ended up suffering the same embarrassment when they had to retract some of those calls.

When NBC News pulled back from its prediction that Al Gore had won Florida at 10:15 p.m. EST Tuesday, MSNBC.com's senior producer, Michael Moran, contemplated the consequences of the blunder. "It would be foolish not to be in sync" with the network on election night, he said at the time. "Sometimes you pay the price for that, and this day we are."

But news executives gleefully geared up for Day Two, with sleep-deprived but surprisingly uncranky staffers putting in 20-hour marathons at their computers.

"Your adrenaline goes into overdrive and you just keep on keeping on," says Kristie Kiernan, assignment editor for ABCNews.com, sounding suspiciously perky. Kiernan passed up the chance to catch a few hours of sleep at a hotel about 4 a.m. Instead, she just carried on through Wednesday afternoon. "I pulled a Superman in the bathroom," she says. "I changed my clothes, pulled my hair back, put on some perfume and headed back out."

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