In the space of a few minutes between 3:30 and 3:45 p.m. today, I trolled the usual news outlets to see what they were reporting about Anna Nicole Smith, who died today after collapsing in her hotel room in Hollywood, Florida. After reading an early report of the incident on TMZ.com, I cycled through CNN, MSNBC, the Miami Herald and TMZ again, all of which were reporting that she had been transported to a hospital and was unresponsive, but they had yet to announce her death. On a lark, I checked Wikipedia, to see if her entry was updated with this latest episode. To my shock, it not only had the story but had her birth and death dates modified (November 28, 1967—February 8, 2007) and all the tenses changed to past, along with the known details of her transport from the Hard Rock hotel to a hospital. I quickly scanned through the other sites again, and none of them were reporting yet that she was dead. So, as best as I can tell, Wikipedia was the first major site to break the story of her death, which occurred at 2:49 EST.
This should come as no surprise to anyone not living under a rock these days. As huge, traditional media companies struggle to adapt to the online world, the little guys—often with a widespread community of everyday users at their backs—are regularly beating the media companies at their own game. Even TMZ, technically a blog but still dependent on a limited staff of writers and reporters, was no match. They’re busily making up for it as best they can, with a flurry of 17 posts as of this writing at 6:10 EST.
On the other side of the coin are the numerous and tasteless defacements of Smith’s Wiki page that blipped to the surface as news continued to unfold (Gawker.com has a list). The fact that these were spotted and removed in such a timely fashion to only appear for the span of a few minutes—even seconds, in some cases—is an indication of just how tight a ship Wikipedia actually is. —John Mahoney