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February 18, 1996

Oil spill
showcases the Web

By Timothy C. Barmann

Shortly after the barge North Cape ran aground last month and began leaking its oil cargo near the Rhode Island shore, the state's worst oil spill became a case study on how the World Wide Web has changed the publishing business.

That business has long been the realm of those who could afford printing presses and delivery trucks. But now, thanks to the Internet, anybody can be a publisher with a potential audience of millions.

The day after the spill, that ``anybody'' was Rick Catanho of Bristol, R.I.

After seeing news reports on television of the grounding the night before, Catanho went to Matunuck beach about 8 the next morning, toting his mother's video camera.

He videotaped what he saw: the grounded barge and the beached tug boat Scandia, a footprint in the oil-soaked sand and curious onlookers gawking at the spectacle.

Catanho went home and plugged his video camera into his computer. A short time later, he had electronically ``grabbed'' several pictures from his videotape.

By late afternoon, about 19 hours after the grounding, Catanho had put up a Web site with 10 images from the beach, with captions and a short summary of the accident.

Shortly after Catanho's one-man effort went online, there were others.

On Monday, a remarkably similar site was put up by Don Crockett, a Brookline, Mass., resident, who said he vacationed in Rhode Island as a child, near the area where the accident occurred.

Like Catanho, Crockett videotaped the scene, went home, and ``stayed up most the night digitizing images and putting them on Web pages,'' he said.

Meanwhile, at Rhode Island Horizons, the Providence Journal's online service, discussions were underway among top editors about whether to open up their own Web site on the spill, said John Granatino, director of electronic publishing.

Horizons, which is available through the national online service Prodigy, hadn't yet published anything on the Web, though its 10-member staff had been training to produce Web pages, he said.

But that Wednesday, they decided to give it a shot. That day, Granatino said, they learned that the University of Rhode Island was putting up an oil spill site, and realized this might be the time to make the leap to the Web.

``We thought, `Gee, we have to contribute here in terms of information about the spill and in terms of providing a context for people looking to find more information about oils spills and the environment in general,' '' Granatino said.

In two days, the Horizons staff put together an extensive oil-spill report, which includes all of the stories _ well over 100 _ and some of the photographs that have appeared in the daily newspaper since the accident.

The site received quick recognition _ it was highlighted as the ``Feature of the week'' by the Newspaper Association of America earlier this month, saying the Horizons staff ``can be credited with preparation, ingenuity, poetic soul.''

Not bad for their first time out on the Internet.

Horizons can thank Elizabeth Gibbs for the nudge to move to the Web.

She is the ``resident Web head,'' writer and editor for URI's Sea Grant program.

People are still calling her office for information about the World Prodigy oil spill in 1989, she said, so she decided to put up a Web site for this accident.

``I realized that people were going to be looking at us and the graduate school of oceanography for information on how it was going to affect the marine life,'' said Gibbs.

She and two students went to work, putting together a number of resources about the spill, such as a projection of where the oil would go, reports about seafood safety, and information about other spills like the Exxon Valdez disaster in Alaska.

And Gibbs has linked her site to the others as well.

Looking back at all the on-line coverage of the North Cape accident, Gibbs sees a unique experience for those who venture onto the Internet.

``The Web provided a medium to allow people to look at the spill in ways that the other media didn't quite touch,'' she said.

``The thing that's great is when you are done, you have this library, and all the information is there.''

These are the addresses of the oil spill web sites:

Computer calendar

Tuesday - The Providence chapter of the Boston Computer Society will demonstrate how to use a camera to add pictures to documents and other PC applications at its monthly meeting at 7 p.m. at the Community College of Rhode Island, Warwick, in the East Conference Room. Come at 6:30 for general question and answer session. Cost: Free. For information, call 434-2395, send e-mail to Louis Stein at louisstein@aol.com or see the group's home page at http://ids.net/~louissn/ribcs.html

March 14 - The Paradox Users' Forum of New England, Rhode Island Chapter, will meet at 7 p.m. at the Business School of Roger Williams University, Bristol, Room SB-334. Speaker: Bruce Landis, a newsroom computer specialist at the Providence Journal, will show applications he has developed for the newspaper. Cost: Free. For information, call Mary Lynne Poole at 421-6149, or by e-mail at mlp@ids.net or contact Everett C. Lewis at 738-1100 weekdays, or e-mail ecl@loa.com

Timothy C. Barmann is a Journal-Bulletin staff photographer. His column runs every other Sunday on the On Line page. Send him comments via e-mail at tim@cybertalk.com or U.S. mail, c/o the Journal-Bulletin, 75 Fountain St., Providence, R.I. 02902.