Many problems plague on-line publications today, especially newspapers. Moving a traditional print media to a digital format creates aesthetic and informational obstacles requiring resources most small colleges do not possess: significant capital, technical knowledge and a large supply of news. School newspapers on the net tend to have too many large graphics, or contain large amounts of text without a good balance between the two. Often when an Internet publication’s original author becomes bogged down in work or graduates, the paper ceases publication.
Combating these difficulties was the goal of an independent Winter Study class. The new site for The Record Wired, which will be launched Tuesday night at 12:00, is built around a database server driven system relying on active server pages, a technology widely utilized on Microsoft’s site but in limited use elsewhere. Each page when visited issues a query to the database that then returns the current information required. As articles become less current they will not appear on the pages of The Record Wired, but will remain stored in the database, along with relevant data about the author and subject. In addition, photos and graphics will be kept along with their captions, dates and photographers.
Searching for archived pictures and articles is one of the primary advantages to using a database system. Many alumni, parents and prospective students are interested in getting a glimpse of the campus. The database of images and text will contain a huge inventory of Williams related information. The content on each page is unaffected by any changes in the site design, making future redesigns much easier. This flexibility ensures that transitions in style and appearance will remain possible even if The Williams Record changes dramatically.
With the printed version of the Record easily available to Williams students and faculty, getting more people on campus to see the site is always a challenge. On-line papers must offer different content from the paper to make them worth reading. To achieve this, the Wired’s format enables it to have articles entered in on a daily rather than weekly basis. News stories can be broken on Thursday and reported in the printed paper on the following Tuesday or uploaded to the Wired hours later. Through a collaboration with WCFM, campus events, such as lectures and sporting games, can also be broadcast to the net audience as they occur for a wide audience to listen in. Also, as soon information is available, current sports scores appear in a ticker on the sports section page courtesy of Sports Information.
The problems with re-creating the site were studied by Andrew Speck, Helena Johnson and Reed Wiedower, the three participants in the 99 project sponsored by Professor Cook of the political science department. In addition to reading newspaper articles about major papers such as The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post’s transition of format, they examined newspaper sites to see current solutions to the digital dilemma. Issues of bandwidth (the typical modem user is connecting through a 28.8 kbps modem) and appearance have already been fought and conquered on the national scene, with many different results. The decision of where to draw the line between being compatible to old browsers and employing new technology was also taken into consideration.
Having The Williams Record was a viable asset from the beginning for all involved. The paper was an easy source for quality news articles that could easily be entered into the database. Previously, much time was spent transferring the completed articles into html format. While large newspapers can afford expensive software solutions, the average college paper will end up relying on hand-coding many articles for insertion into the site. With a new web-accessible front end to the database, Wired staff can now cut and paste articles without worrying about the html code.
The Williams Record also provided another source of support for its on-line cousin: funds. Through the help of Williams’ alumnus Alec Ramsay and the financial support of the Record, the Wired was able to purchase several key software components enabling it to create the active server pages and the database itself. Most on-line newspapers in existence today have yet to make a profit, a combination of low readership and unproven advertising techniques.
With the money, technical expertise and news source squared away, putting the site together just required some design decisions and a bit of coding. The lack of resources currently available describing journalism’s role on the Internet was discouraging, but a few articles and books did cover the theory behind such an endeavor. As more and more papers begin to enter the field it will only be a matter of time before technologies such as the ones used at The Record Wired are considered commonplace, and the marriage of newsprint and networks is a commercial success.