Wednesday, February 06, 2008

Why quality is a moving target

I got my first regular job at a professional newspaper in my final semester of college. It was a job that no longer exists: Paste-up guy for The Chapel Hill Newspaper.

In those days, editors used pencils to draw page layouts on pieces of paper and stories came out of typesetting machines in long single columns. My job was to take those typeset columns, run them through a machine that coated the back of the sheet with hot wax, and then use an Exacto knife to assemble the stories according to the layout diagrams.

Photos came in pretty much the same way: Editors sized them, the imaging department sent them to a printing machine, and then our crew would cut them out, wax them, crop them, put them on the page and outline them with line tape.

Every once in a while an editor would call for a cut-out photo, and since I had a background as a commercial artist and did a decent job of cutting subjects out of photographs, my skills encouraged more editors to design more pages using more cutouts.

In those days, the definition of a "quality" cutout was a photo that had been cut by someone with a knack for it.

Then Photoshop came along, and suddenly it was possible to do digital cutouts.

And here's the message: On the day that newspapers gained that ability, the BEST Exacto-knife cutout artist became obsolete. It's simply not possible to do with a knife and a waxing machine what Photoshop users can do with the Magic Wand and various lassos.

New tools -- new technologies -- changed the definition of quality for that specific journalistic convention. The reason was obvious: What used to look good to our pre-Photoshop eyes looked ham-handed once we saw what the new software could do. We understood, without needing to argue over it, that we had to change our standards.

So why is it that when we talk about informational tools, Old School Print Journalists categorically reject the idea that new technologies make our old standards obsolete?

I spent more than decade running election coverage at two daily newspapers. Having a successful election night is really about logistical planning, which meant that I would typically spend a lot of time thinking about how to process poll results into reliable numbers on deadline. The hard numbers went to "Winner's Boxes," the percentages went to reporters and editors, and if everything ran smoothly, they'd all match-up by final edition.

That was the state of the art in the late 1990s: Dead data in stories and image files, collected over the phone and handwritten by a staff of clerks onto Xeroxed forms that we copied and distributed to be keyed into the system by more clerks. Valuable today, useless tomorrow.

Did we know about spreadsheets and databases back then? Sure. But we had no practical way of integrating those programs into our proprietary content management systems. We couldn't even type the numbers into that system and have them flow into the program that we used to create the winners' boxes.

Then XML came along, and suddenly everyone had the opportunity to build systems that could talk to each other across platforms.

XML allows us to mark up structured or semi-structured data for multiple uses and re-uses. Type it in once, edit it as you would an important story, and then archive when you're done. Write a simple script and the numbers in your winners boxes will update automatically every time you enter new results. Collect enough of it and you can do information magic: Comparisons, charts, searchable products. Combine that data with other tools (the Google Maps API, Flash, Action Script, etc.) and you can create products that were unimaginable when you collected the data in the first place.

That should have made the old "dead-data" system obsolete overnight, just like Photoshop killed all the Exacto cutout artists. But XML has been around since 1998, and most newspapers still aren't using it to manage the data that they process.

Take a look at the cable news network websites: They get it. Cable news spends more on technology because they're working in public in real time. Newspapers don't care, because we work in private and we only show you our final revision. To cable news, technology is a mandatory investment; to newspapers, it's an expensive luxury.

So most cable news sites put up election numbers that are actually being served from databases, rather than typing results from one document into another document. The difference? Change the database and you change all the instances. Without a databased system, you must manually edit each instance that appears on your site.

Because newspapers don't tend to think in terms of databases, they create documents. Even the cool "Interactive Map" that posted after the South Carolina primaries isn't really a true database product. Yes, it nicely mashes up election data to a Flash map, and it looks great. But the data is an isolated capture.

That is to say: because we didn't design the guts of the map around a central database, the data in the map wasn't automatically updated when the state parties provided their final tallies. That's why it's Feb. 6th and our Jan. 26th map still says that 1 percent of Richland County's precincts have yet to report.

To a newspaper editor, that's a quibble. We published. We had a map. It was cool. But I look at that 1 percent and see an Exacto knife cutout. It's a good Exacto knife cutout, but I know that technology has changed the audience's expectations. I know that this change is continuous and accelerating. I know that the data matters.

Why should a newspaper editor care? Because if he'd bitten the bullet on creating an integrated election-results database in 2007, he'd have all sorts of cool things that he could do with with that data in 2012. Or November. Maybe his reporters would play with it and find fascinating stories. Maybe he could open it up to users from the website and they would find fascinating stories. We'll never know.

If you cannot immediately grasp why this is concept is fundamental to understanding the immediate future of 21st century journalism and culture, well... I'll be posting on that later.