Web Faces Life After Monica

It was the first Net blockbuster: The Intern and the President. For the first time, the new medium became a truly mainstream form of journalism.

But following the Senate's acquittal of President Clinton on impeachment articles, the same question that confronts mainstream media now confronts the Web: Where do we go from here?

"The offline and online components converged last year," says David Weir, managing editor of the online news magazine Salon. "This story continues to cycle back and forth, both online and offline, and that kind of relationship is really, really revolutionizing our business."

The public scandal started online on Jan. 17, 1998, when Matt Drudge told the Net community that Newsweek magazine was sitting on a time bomb about to explode in the White House.

He appeared on television, made the first mention of the infamous blue dress and even got his own TV show.

Drudge had his stumbles, including a discredited report that Clinton fathered a child with a prostitute while governor of Arkansas.

But the giants stumbled, too. The Wall Street Journal and the Dallas Morning News both yanked early stories from their Web sites when they proved inaccurate.

The major broadcast and print outlets also reported that Clinton stormed out of the room in fury during his taped deposition. That did not happen.

"A lot of the mainstream media made the same mistakes, or worse, than stuff you could find online," says John Pavlik, executive director of the Center for New Media at Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism. "The online sources in some cases did a better job than the traditional media."

And whatever the source, people wanted to talk about it. The Web became a digital water cooler.

In fact, the Internet almost came to a halt when millions of people tried to download independent counsel Kenneth Starr's report on the scandal.

"There were so many times when the news seemed incredible, the public wanted to absorb that," says Colby Devitt, supervisor for discussion forums at The New York Times' Web site. The forums and the Web "contributed to the feeling that they were part of the nation and a public community."

In 1998, The Times sponsored more than 20 online forums concerning Clinton and Lewinsky, receiving more than 350,000 posts, and that's just on one site on the Web. Throughout the saga the Internet had Clinton scandal sites springing up like popcorn in a microwave.

But now, with the story over, what comes next?

Eugene Delgaudio, president of the Council of Volunteer Americans, says he will press on. "The Internet is a godsend. It was literally sent by God to give the mimeograph crowd a way to communicate."

Delgaudio's group sponsors the Committee to Impeach the President, and runs the Web site, www.impeachclinton.org, where the toics include the deaths of Vince Foster and alleged illegal fundraising.

Its antithesis is www.moveon.org whose half million supporters, now that the impeachment trial is over, have set their sights on quashing renewal of the Independent Counsel statute and sending a message to pro-impeachment congressmen in the 2000 elections.

Regardless of what the future holds for Washington it is clear that news coverage on the Internet is coming of age.