Sunday Night Screenshots

How the news websites did bin Laden

This Monday morning, the headlines practically wrote themselves, and there was no question about which story would get top billing. Poynter has a selection of front pages from print editions taken from the Newseum website, with headlines ranging from the staid Wall Street Journal’s “U.S. Forces Kill Osama Bin Laden” to Edmonton Sun’s “BURN IN HELL!” to The Baltimore Sun’s (and several others) short and sweet “DEAD.”

But that’s today. On Sunday night, though, when the news started rippling across the net, late-shift weekend web editors had to decide just how big a story this was, and how to keep readers watching and clicking without (at first) having much information at all. For a quick comparison of an admittedly small handful of them, the following screenshots were all taken at around the same time, between 11:00 and 11:10 p.m. eastern. That was after the news of bin Laden’s death had been confirmed, but before any details about the raid had come out and before President Obama addressed the nation.

First up, The New York Times. When the news broke on Twitter (actually, I saw it first on Facebook) that bin Laden had been killed, I went here first. For the first half hour or so, there was only a breaking-news bulletin in red above the dateline, indicating that President Obama was about to speak, but not specifying what it was about. Then I refreshed the page a few minutes later and the bulletin disappeared. By 11:00 p.m. eastern, bin Laden’s death was confirmed, and the Times had a short placeholder story up. Note the singular “official”—did the Times only have one source at the time? Bonus points for using a different photo than pretty much every other website on the Internet that night:

At the same time, the Los Angeles Times cited an AP report in a breaking news banner, and cleverly embedded the video player in anticipation of Obama’s speech, even though it had not started yet, in order to keep readers on the site.

By comparison, the Chicago Tribune’s “more news to come” plea to stay tuned seems a bit lame. And no disrespect to Tom Thibodeau, NBA’s Coach of the Year, but his mug is probably not the best thing to have leading the site at such a historic moment.

The Washington Post kept it simple, perhaps a little too simple: a visitor to the site would hardly know that such a momentous thing had happened, or that there was more information—and a Presidential address—on the way.

…Which leads us to Politico, which, in a stark contrast to the Post, went all in, right away, visually speaking (while still hedging a tad with the word “reportedly).

That same photo of bin Laden’s strangely-serene smile was everywhere that night:

What was previously the biggest news story of the weekend on Talking Points Memo (for its audience, anyway) happened to look pretty good next to what then became the biggest news story of the weekend.

On, an L.L. Bean backpack gets just as much screen-space as bin Laden, which is annoying, but the yellow and black breaking news bar gets the job done. (CNN’s “sources” turned out to have been wrong about the location of the killing, though.)

Last but not least, because they are so often paired together—whether they like it or not—here’s a look at and, both screenshots captured at exactly 11:10 pm eastern.

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Lauren Kirchner is a freelance writer covering digital security for CJR. Find her on Twitter at @lkirchner Tags: , , , ,