When John Nicol, director of technology for MSNBC's Internet news site, came to work at 7 a.m. Jan. 22, he smelled trouble. MSNBC's powerful computers were being strained to the limit by Web surfers frantic for the latest on some former White House intern named, uh, Lewinsky.
Nicol launched an emergency plan developed after the October stock market drop, when investors desperate for market data nearly halted MSNBC in its electronic tracks. Technicians swiftly stripped the luxuriant MSNBC front page to a bare-bones report of the scandal for quick downloading. Though volume shot up from an estimated 300,000 daily users to 716,000, the site didn't crash.
The next week, traffic on MSNBC never came down. "Volume went higher day after day," Nicol says, reaching 800,000 daily users, then 900,000. MSNBC -- a hypercharged joint venture of NBC and software giant Microsoft -- finished the month as the most popular news site on the World Wide Web, edging out the CNN and USA Today sites, according to Media Metrix, a New York company that tracks Web usage.
Whatever her other accomplishments, Monica Lewinsky has been good to the Web. In the scandal's first weeks, America started clicking as it had never clicked before.
"When President Clinton went on TV and wagged his finger at the American public and said, 'I didn't have sexual relations with that woman,' our traffic went crazy," says Leslie Walker, editor of the Washington Post's online edition.
The volume on washingtonpost.com, where Oval Office trouble is local news, nearly doubled some days. Walker began posting big scandal stories at 8 p.m. rather than waiting for the first print edition to hit the streets.
"It's kind of an ideal story for the Internet. People want the latest right away," says Steve Outing, a Boulder, Colo., consultant specializing in online news. Millions of workers who would never switch on a TV in the office clicked on from their desks, he says.
Linda R. Tripp and her tapes now are stale news, but new Web users are sticking around. "Whenever something like this happens, traffic spikes," Outing says. "But when the story is over, traffic stays higher permanently."
The rush for computerized scoops has renewed a debate over what the Internet means for the future of news. There can be little doubt that it means something: Since the first news sites appeared in 1994, the number of news-related Web sites has rocketed to 7,535, a third of them operated by newspapers, according to the journal Editor & Publisher. Of Web users surveyed by NPD Group, a marketing firm, 40 percent frequently read newspapers online.
So far, few sites are making money. In a recent meeting with Wall Street analysts, news executives revealed huge losses for online ventures in 1997: $15 million at the New York Times, $16 million at Knight-Ridder newspapers' 32 Web sites, $30 million for Tribune Co., publisher of the Chicago Tribune. But they make the investment because they believe the Web offers formidable competition for advertising and news.
The Internet can be a bewildering place for beginners, who may feel they have wandered into a sort of information swamp. Type in a search for "Monica Lewinsky," for instance, and what comes back is a hodgepodge of legitimate news stories and e-mail speculation, commercial Web sites and pure pornography.
Start-up costs for a Web site are so modest that the medium has created a Babel of gossip and prejudice masquerading as news -- witness "The Drudge Report," the one-man Internet rumor mill that broke the Lewinsky story.
"When anybody's a publisher, there's bound to be a lot of garbage out there," says Larry Kessner, who heads SunSpot, The Sun's Web site. "But that's what makes the trusted brand names of newspapers so valuable."
Yet skeptics say the Internet's speed encourages even legitimate news organizations to flash dubious "exclusives" to millions of screens in a scramble to be first.
"New technology has practically obliterated the news cycle," says S. Robert Lichter, head of the Center for Media and Public Affairs in Washington. "Journalists can never stop and take a breath and think things through clearly."
Critics point to two high-profile mistakes on the Lewinsky tale that first appeared on the Web -- a Dallas Morning News story saying a Secret Service agent had seen Clinton with Lewinsky in a "compromising situation" and a Wall Street Journal report that a White House steward had offered similar testimony to the grand jury.
In December, SunSpot posted a headline on former Maryland Sen. Larry Young's receipt of a Lincoln Town Car, not knowing that editors had belatedly ordered the article held for more reporting. The premature headline was online briefly before the glitch was discovered, says SunSpot publisher Kessner.