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Covering the coverage

I've spent much of the last several weeks on network news Web sites, tracking election coverage. I know covering this whacked election was a mammoth undertaking. Before I issue individual assessments, let me offer a few critical pointers.

Stop the sign-on, sign-up pop-ups. They are OK for normal news cycles, but not for times when people want numbers, and want them fast.

Next election night, pul-eeze try to update your Electoral College maps as soon as states are called.

Don't make local race results difficult to find. Last week, for example, the U.S. Senate race in Washington state was still being counted, and the results were to determine if the Republicans kept a majority in the Senate. That's big news. For those of you who didn't feature a link from your home page to this story, shame on you.

So who got it right?

If there was a clear election-aftermath coverage winner among the five national news network Web sites, it was In the middle of last week, dropped some of the slow-loading graphical elements on its home page in favor of a plain but visually appealing sky-blue background. There was a rich trove of links to nearly a dozen, staff-written, (as opposed to wire copy) news-oriented Florida stories, as well as a clear path to a page with a pull-down menu leading to an archive of national election stories, listed by day.

FOX also provided a chart listing election night tallies, plus recount-amended returns from all 67 Florida counties, with indicators noting how much Bush and Gore gained or lost after the recount was completed.

In terms of presentation, CBS News was equally as strong. At mid-week, the home page offered an attractive collage with photos of both Bush and Gore, wearing concerned looks on their could-be-President mugs. Between the combined photos was a drawing of the state of Florida, with Palm Beach County's now-infamous "butterfly ballot" in the background.

CBS News also did better than any of its rivals at offering quick clicks from its home page to a Campaign 2000 Results page with a pull-down menu leading to Presidential, gubernatorial and congressional races listed by state. On the state pages, you could read results broken down by county.

Yet there was one posting delay on CBS News' site. While the site showed the ever-amended Florida returns quickly, there was a time gap in the Washington state results. On Wednesday morning, the count shown for the U.S. Senate race between Maria Cantwell and Slade Gorton was two days old.

MSNBC began slow, but finished strong. As the election campaign was in its final days, I had some difficulty finding stories citing the latest Reuters/ Zogby/MSNBC daily tracking poll, which MSNBC's Chris Matthews touted on
. The site also seemed to have some difficulty integrating the contributions of its content partners, such as

and the
Washington Post
, into the indexes of the home and political page stories.

Yet MSNBC's election night coverage was both comprehensive and timely. Last Wednesday, as the officially counted Florida gap between Bush and Gore narrowed to 300 votes, MSNBC really stood out with a front-page graphic with a photo of Gov. Bush, and links to stories about the vote count, a poll about Americans' reactions to the vote-tabulating controversy, and streaming video clips (in MSNBC partner Microsoft's Windows Media Player format, naturally) of views of experts.

At log-on, played the annoying sign-up pop-up game, but acquitted itself handsomely last week, placing a description of, and links to, several of its recount-oriented breaking news pieces near the top of its home page.

Here's a quibble: On the home page, on Wednesday morning, there was a "Florida Recount Rundown," box showing sets of figures for both Gore and Bush. Clicking the "Florida Recount Rundown" link, however, led to a page with information that was older than the numbers in the home-page recount-rundown box.

In the final days of the campaign, occasionally was slow to post the results of its daily tracking poll, but to be fair, CNN had the best information about state referenda.

Russell Shaw's column about Internet and interactive
issues appears regularly.