American soldiers in Somalia shield themselves from the wind created by a helicopter as it takes off. Photo courtesy of The Philadelphia Inquirer.
Three years ago I wrote an extended series of articles for The Philadelphia Inquirer entitled “Black Hawk Down,” a detailed account of the tragic battle on October 3, 1993 between elite American Rangers and the heavily armed citizenry of Mogadishu, Somalia.
While the battle had been a dramatic turning point in U.S. foreign policy, particularly military policy, the full story of what happened that day had never been told. Eighteen American soldiers were killed and 73 were wounded. Estimates of Somali casualties numbered over 1,000. No American reporters had been in Somalia to cover it, even though it was the most severe combat involving American soldiers since the Vietnam War. I set out to capture both the drama and the importance of the episode and thought the best way to do that would be to write a narrative account, to tell the story of the battle through the eyes of the men who fought it.
In the three years since, “Black Hawk Down” has become a best-selling book, and is on its way to becoming a feature film. Its success has far happily outstripped any of our expectations. But one of the most remarkable things about the project, and one of the big reasons for its ultimate impact, is the pioneering way it was presented on the Internet.* Assembled by Editor Jennifer Musser of Philly Online, the Inquirer’s official Web site, the daily unfolding of the series in cyberspace during 28 days in November and December of 1997 drew in hundreds of thousands of readers from all over the world. At its height, the electronic version of the story was getting 46,000 hits every day.
The Web site’s rendering of the story featured the full text of the series along with photographs, video and audiotape snippets of the battle itself and interviews with key participants, maps, graphics, documents. As the article moves forward, readers can click on a variety of these hyperlinks to consult a map or hear an interview from which I extracted a quote or read a document that I refer to in the text. Its interactive “Ask the Author” feature nearly wore me out. But the Philly Online display offered a powerful glimpse of this medium’s potential for journalistic storytelling, both heightening the experience for readers and significantly enhancing the strength and credibility of my reporting.
I’d like to say that I planned it this way. I am an old-fashioned newspaper reporter, one who blanched 25 years ago when the editors first announced plans to replace our beloved typewriters, scissors, paste pots and Wite-Out with computers. Five years ago, when I started working on “Black Hawk Down,” I hardly knew what the Internet was, other than some vague technological tide that someday, we were told, would sweep away the practice of printing words on paper. By then I figured to be long retired, if not dead and gone. My only concern for “Black Hawk Down” was to report and write it in such a way that it would read like good fiction, but would be rigorously and demonstrably true. I envisioned it as a newspaper series for the benefit of readers in the Philadelphia area and then a book that might reach a broader audience. None of us at the Inquirer foresaw the story’s ultimate reach.
When we began planning the series’ publication at the Inquirer in the summer of 1997, I never even considered how the story would be presented on the Internet. Max King, then the newspaper’s executive editor, and Bob Rosenthal, then his deputy (now executive editor), decided that if the newspaper was going to run a series during an entire month it ought to exploit the story in every way possible. King envisioned it as a multimedia event. He drew in the Inquirer’s film department, K-R Video, which primarily made short video clips for Philly Online, and producer Chris Mills began creating a documentary film to be aired on the local PBS affiliate, WHYY, in conjunction with the series. Public Broadcasting had an impressive history of tying together documentary TV and book publishing, and I viewed working on a film companion to the series as an exciting and different opportunity.
In those early meetings I remember seeing Philly Online’s editor, Jennifer Musser, at the table quietly taking notes, and assumed she had a simple job—mounting the text of the series on the Inquirer’s Web site. To the extent I thought about it at all, I thought the Web site would give readers who picked up the series in midstream an opportunity to go back and catch up on the earlier installments, which would be particularly beneficial because the story was such a long, dramatic narrative.
To make the documentary, Mills sent cameramen to Somalia, which I had already visited to interview those who fought against American soldiers, and dispatched crews around the country to reinterview some of the scores of soldiers I had tracked down. He also obtained from the Pentagon snippets of videotape from the battle itself. We worked together to fashion a narration for the film, and Mills hired a professional voice to read it. I divided my time between working on the documentary and huddling with David Zucchino, my editor, to get the series in shape for the newspaper. We were pushing to get the series in the paper on time and had already decided to begin it without having the last few parts finished.
Sometime that fall, Musser stopped by my desk to ask if I had any resource material she could use.
“What do you want?” I asked.
“Audiotapes, documents, photos, maps…everything you’ve got,” she said.
There were plenty of maps, documents and photos in my files. Soldiers had been sending me snapshots they had saved from their service in Somalia, and Peter Tobia, an Inquirer photographer, had traveled with me to that devastated country and brought back an amazing portfolio. I handed them over. As for audiotape, I had piles of it. When I began the project the year before, I had taped my interviews with the soldiers. I eventually stopped, because the sheer number of interviews made transcribing the tapes too time-consuming, but I still had shoeboxes filled with cassette tapes at home. I had even managed to collect bits of audiotape from the radio transmissions of soldiers during the battle, sounds that captured the frenzy and terror of the fight. So I swept all the tapes into a bag and dumped them on Musser’s desk the next morning. I expected her to complain.
Instead, she was thrilled. She asked to see my handwritten transcriptions of the tapes and began painstakingly studying them, finding and highlighting some of the most dramatic passages, then locating them on the audiotapes. I still didn’t have a clear idea of what she planned to do with all the material. Weeks before the series was set to run, as Zucchino and I still worked to finish it, Fred Mann, the Director of Philly Online, asked me if I would mind answering questions from readers on the Internet as it unfolded.
“We’ll probably get about a dozen or so,” he said.
The series debuted on Sunday, November 16th. The Friday before, I sat with King in his office discussing it. “I don’t know how this is going to be received,” said King, who had invested an unprecedented variety of resources in the series. “If nobody is interested, we’re going to look pretty foolish with a series running day after day for a month. But you know what? If a story like this doesn’t sell, then I’m not sure I want to be involved in journalism anymore.”
He needn’t have worried. Sales of the newspaper jumped by 20,000 during the month the series ran. Every day my desk with piled with letters and phone messages from excited readers. The head of the Inquirer’s circulation department paid a rare visit to the newsroom, asked to meet me and shook my hand.
But this turned out to be only the smaller part of it. Jennifer Musser’s presentation of “Black Hawk Down” was exploding on the Internet. Prior to this series, the most heavily read story on the Web site had been an account of the death of Richie Ashburn, the Phillies baseball great and popular TV announcer, which had collected 9,000 hits in a day. “Black Hawk Down” debuted with numbers higher than that, and with each day it kept growing, to 15,000 a day, then 20,000 a day, then more. When the number of hits hit 40,000, the Web site’s overworked server crashed, forcing them to go out and buy another to handle the demand. The online division tracked the sources of those hits to military bases, government offices, universities and headquarters for some of the largest corporations in the military-industrial complex. These were all places where workers, students, soldiers, sailors and cadets were computer literate and had access to high-powered, fast computer connections.
The outpouring was easy to understand. Whatever the drama and importance of the story itself, Musser and her team—designer Ches Wajda, photo editor John Williams, and programmer Ranjit Bhatnagar—had created an extraordinary way for readers to experience the story of “Black Hawk Down.” The technology of the Internet, paired with the creativeness of the editing team, meant that far more could be offered online to the reader than by the series in the newspaper. On the Web site, the story became part illustrated book, part documentary film, part radio program. It was all these things and more, because it allowed readers (who at times became viewers) to explore the story and its source material in any way they chose.
Those who arrive at the Web site can read the story straight through and then go back and view the audio, video, photos, etc., or they can click on hyperlinks as they read and just explore at will. All of the source material, things usually simply noted in agate in a bibliography or endnotes, were on display. Unlike the maps in the newspaper, those on the Web site, designed by Matthew Ericson, were animated. Ericson created one that showed the whole plan for how the Ranger raid was supposed to have unfolded, with helicopters flying in over the target house, Rangers roping to the street, and trucks pulling up to load up prisoners and soldiers and drive them away. There was a copy of the stirring handwritten letter sent by the American commander, General William F. Garrison, the day after the fight.
Even more remarkable, when the series was launched, was the interactive aspect. Those “dozen” questions from readers? They flowed in by the hundreds daily, from men who had fought in the battle, from soldiers at military bases all over the world, from appreciative and critical readers. I sat for hours every morning while the series ran answering them one by one. Inquirer Managing Editor Gene Foreman, concerned that the final parts of the series had not been finished, walked by my desk one morning and announced how pleased he was to see me writing away so furiously.
“Is that the last part?” he asked, hopefully (no doubt with visions of my being hit by a truck and the paper being left with its highly popular story unfinished).
“No, Gene, I’m answering the email. If I don’t do this every morning I’ll never keep up with it.”
For the rest of the month I was completely swept up in this Internet phenomenon. The Web site vastly improved the story in several ways. It gave readers all over the world a chance to instantly comment—and correct. Military experts are notably finicky about getting the details of weaponry and equipment exactly right, and I was given a great number of helpful corrections. And because the story was mounted in cyberspace, instead of merely running a correction and apology the next day on an inside page of the newspaper, we could immediately correct the story. Readers who pointed out errors returned the next day to find them corrected, with an e-mailed apology and thanks from me.
This greatly enhanced the account’s credibility. Instead of dealing with the reporter as a distant “expert,” and speculating on the reasons for mistakes or omissions, readers saw my own eagerness to simply get the story right, something which in my experience is the primary motivation of most reporters. Those who sent e-mail messages offering more information on key points in the story were contacted immediately, by phone or e-mail. Interactivity helped to break down the normal wall of suspicion between soldiers and reporters, and I found myself suddenly offered whole new sources of information. I struggled to take advantage of them as the series unfolded and later spent months plumbing these new sources for the book version. It also made the process of running the story memorably fun. Instead of leaning back and wondering how the work was being received, I was in an arena with my readers, explaining, defending and correcting the story as it unfolded. I never had so much fun with a story.
Credibility was enhanced in another way. Stories written in a dramatic, narrative fashion, as I tried to write “Black Hawk Down,” typically dispense with the wooden recitation of sources. If you write, “according to so-and-so” in every sentence, in the manner of old wire copy police stories, storytelling quickly loses its pace and clarity. Often writers who avoid this kind of belabored source-noting in the text are accused (and in some notable cases have been guilty) of embellishing the truth, filling in gaps of knowledge with flights of fancy, or rearranging time sequences and other details to smooth out the narrative. It’s easy to see why. Without clear delineation of sources, even careful readers can’t tell where the reporter has gotten the information, so they tend to be suspicious of it. Hyperlinks solved that problem.
If a reader, for instance, wondered how I could possibly know exactly what was in Staff Sergeant Matt Eversmann’s head as he slid down the rope into battle, then they could click on the hyperlink at Eversmann’s name and listen to him explaining what was in his head. That was one of those audio clips Musser lifted from my interview tapes. In some cases, because of the work Mills and his documentary crew had done, there were video clips of interviews. Because readers could listen to some of the hundreds of interviews and view some of the broad documentation that was the foundation for this simple, fast-paced story, it gave the account weight it might not have had, had it run only in the newspaper. Along with the finished product, discerning readers could inspect the building blocks of the story, could see how it had been assembled. These audio-visual features not only added to the fun of reading the story, but grounded it more firmly in reality.
Philly Online’s presentation of “Black Hawk Down” won the Editor & Publisher Award for the best journalistic series on the Internet in 1997. I have felt free to brag about it ever since because not only did I not create it, it didn’t occur to me to do so, and if it had, I wouldn’t have known how to do it. What Musser, Mann, Ericson, Williams, Wajda and Bhatnagar had done was groundbreaking, and suggested to this old typewriter hacker how amazing this new media soon will be. Because of limitations in the speed of computing and Internet connection, the most “Black Hawk Down” could offer were tiny windows of video and small samplings of audio. Imagine what such an experience will be like when full-screen color video and audio can be accessed instantly. Multimedia presentation of news stories, investigations, history, sports will offer storytelling opportunities no solitary medium can match.
Imagine, just for fun, an Internet presentation of a Super Bowl. Within hours of the game’s end, an enterprising journalist could combine written accounts of the game with video, so that as a reader goes back to look at a key play, he could click on a hyperlink and watch it on screen from a variety of angles. He then could click on another hyperlink to hear the players involved talk about that play in post-game interviews, or hear coaches and commentators break it down critically. Such a display could offer the complete seasonal history of every player in the game, breakdowns of every game played by each team, etc. A serious fan could spend days wandering happily through the site. Or imagine a work of history presented complete with all its source material, historical reading, background material, commentary and analysis available at the click of a mouse. Such a presentation would combine the authority of a book with the entertainment value of a film and give scholars not just advice on where to go for more detailed information, but the information itself. In the future, I suspect, nonfiction writers will routinely consider how to present their work with sounds, images and source material as well as their own well chosen words. I know I will never again write a major work without doing so.
Still, the medium is in its infancy, and by any standard I’m a dinosaur. Whatever uses I can imagine for Internet journalism will seem narrow and dated to those who grow up using computers. By definition, creative minds will come up with ways of using this new medium, combining sound and image and text in ways that we cannot yet foresee.
Mark Bowden, author of “Black Hawk Down,” “Bringing the Heat,” and “Doctor Dealer,” has been a reporter at The Philadelphia Inquirer for 20 years. He is at work on a book to be published in March 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Press, which will debut as an Inquirer series and Web page. It is scheduled to run in November.