2009
09.02
Kaleidoscope

On my desk at work, back in the ever present dust, behind the gargantuan 30″ monitor I inherited from someone who found themselves suddenly unemployed, is a kaleidoscope.

The lettering on it reads:

sacbee.com
Charter Member
July 15, 1996

There were once 7 of those at The Sacramento Bee but today there is just one: and it is mine.

All this brouhaha about newspaper’s “original sin” (see: Alan Mutter, Steve Buttry, Howard Owens, Steve Yelvington and lets not forget Jeff Jarvis for starters) got me thinking about those pre-historic online newspaper days. In looking back, I don’t see any singular “original sin” per se. If anything a Gomorrah-like den of iniquity perhaps, but no single point of failure.

Everything was new and we were pulling the whole thing our of our collective asses as we went (perhaps that was sin #1).

There we’re only 7 of us back then, and of those only 4 who’s day-to-day job was to work on this newfangled web thing. We had a web designer, two content people and me, a “web engineer”. There was also a guy we didn’t see much of at first who had something or other to do with advertising (sin #2 anyone?) and there was, of course, a manager ostensibly in charge of it all. He, in turn, reported to the Director of Advertising.

Yeah, you read that right, sacbee.com was born as a subset of the Advertising department (sin #3?).

We we’re supposed to launch the new site on the 1st of July, but even after months of planning and work we weren’t ready. Our new go-date slipped to the 15th, and that’s when we ultimately launched. I remember staying insanely late that night before, well past midnight, and on the way in the next morning I passed the web designer on his way out — that’s just how we did things then.

I also remember a few days before launch the advertising guy mentioning that we needed a way to rotate the ads on the site, oh and by the way count the “hits” on them too. From scratch, on the eve of launch, I wrote an ad management setup (sin #4?). It was cartoonishly crude by any standards of today, but it did the job — that’s just how we did things then.

On the first day of sacbee.com’s life we broke 100,000 hits. That was damn good for a heretofore unknown site in 1996 and I was pretty pleased about it. The ad guy had mentioned, however, something about hits not being all that important, that he wanted something called “pageviews”. Eh, what the hell was a pageview? (sin #5). A little “grep” action on the Apache logs and we had pageview counts — that’s just how we did things then.

The pageviews were much lower :).

Sacbee 1996

After launch all of us got taken out to lunch. Not to the teriyaki place down the street, which would later become a staple, or anything along those lines, oh no. This was still the Golden Age of Newspapers and in case that was unclear they took us out to the Capitol Club, an exclusive, members-only type of place with cloth napkins and actual silver silverware where not having a jacket would generally be enough to keep you out. As we ate, Erwin Potts made an appearance, congratulating us on our accomplishment, as did McClatchy’s then brand new CEO, some baby-faced guy by the name of Gary Pruitt.

Pruitt asked me right off how many hits we’d had and I told him. I was impressed that he knew enough about the operation to even ask that. When he then added, “and how many pageviews?” I was flat out stunned. Crap, I’d just been told about these so-called pageviews earlier in the day, clearly this new guy was sharp.

On the technical side, our operation was supported by Nando.net, the technology company acquired by McClatchy as part of it’s purchase of the Raleigh News and Observer. Nando.net, which would later become “Nando Media” and ultimately “McClatchy Interactive“, was at the time still going through some of the somewhat violent upheaval that came as McClatchy tried to er… align their strategic direction with that of McClatchy’s… ahem (there’s probably a sin in there too).

Nando TimesBecause of this, their attitudes toward us were somewhat, fluid. Some of them didn’t give a rip, about us, our needs or their roll in them. Others flat out resented us. Having to watch while 70% of your friends and coworkers are cut loose will do that. It was not uncommon at all in those days to pick up the phone and be told that the person you were working with just last week was no longer with the company.

Anyway, I digress somewhat, the point to take from all this is that sacbee.com, in it’s earliest form, was hosted on a single Sun Ultra 1/140, that literally sat on some guy’s desk at Nando.net (sin #… what are we up to?) — yeah, that’s just how we did things then.

Despite some recent revisionist history, our relationship with the newsroom in those days was nothing short of frigid (sin #whatever). There were internal politics which I’ll never understand and there was undoubtedly the fact that we were all 20-something upstarts (mind you, all of us came from newspaper backgrounds) which couldn’t have helped. That the then Executive Editor, Gregory Favre, would have his secretary print out his emails and he’d only reply, in writing, via interoffice mail probably set some kind of “tone” we were unaware of. In hindsight, being a part of Advertising I’m sure made us some kind of radioactive to the newsroom as well.

So, we were at the mercy of the “nightly dump” for most of our content. In those days the “nightly dump” was a series of quasi-formatted text files regurgitated out of the even-then-archaic SII editorial system at around 2:00 am every morning. There were no end of problems with these files and even Perl’s legendary Regular Expressions could only do so much. In the end it was a torturous shift, stepping through news stories via a crude web-based front end at 4:00am, that got the bulk of our content up by 7:00am — that’s just how we did things then.

Wait, come to think of it, not much has changed here (sin #2,643).

So there were lots of sins because we were making it up as we went along. Ultimately we figured it out though, learning from our mistakes (remind me to tell you about the time no one paid the sacbee.com DNS registrar bill and the domain got revoked) and eventually we became the savvy and knowledgeable web staff that you’d assume would be at a mid-size metro daily newspaper.

Over time, however, the various kaleidoscopes wandered off, tucked into boxes and carried off by their owners, off to different jobs or different careers. Perhaps that was the original sin.

  1. Dang, you’re a heck of a writer for a visual guy.

    And also a great analyst.

    And also right.

    I don’t think your last point was the original sin, but I think it’s the one that’s continuing to have the greatest impact today. While most folks have, I think, quit printing out their emails, huge gaps still exist.