Thursday, November 1, 2007

Love that Dirty Water ...

So, for the second time in four years the Boston Red Sox have won a World Series, after NOT winning won for 86 years. The city, no, the entire region seems to be euphoric.

What this all meant for us at the Web site was almost an entire month of covering baseball games, stretching the staff out to make sure we had the latest game stories, which is a bit ridiculous since our numbers indicate that almost NO one goes to our Web site for this kind of sports information. At the end of the month, the story that garnered the most page views (about 500,000) was one about a 9-month-old baby that appears to have drowned in a bucket of bleach. Time and again, the stats indicate that what people want from us is a) NEWS about BOSTON; b) stories you can't get anywhere else (i.e. on a sports site, or Yahoo, Google, CNN, etc.) c) TEXT stories (as opposed to videos) and d) interactive content (where they can send in their own slideshows, etc.)

Unfortunately, we try to be all things to all people with a staff of three and it's a bit pointless. Endlessly spinning our wheels. The times where it works are those where we're offering uniquely Boston content. This week we livestreamed the Sox victory parade and there were more than 125,000 page views for the stream, and more than 114,000 unique visitors that day. We also received emails from as far away as New Zealand thanking us for making this available to people who love Boston but wouldn't be able to see it (0bviously) on TV.

The thing is, eventually everyone will be able to see EVERYTHING on the Internet. The computer screen and TV screen will become one.

Tuesday, October 23, 2007

The Boys of Summer

Imagine this. You have to cover news 24/7, but you only have three people. The same three people. Who are only supposed to work eight-hour shifts.

This is the situation I'm faced with every day. We could go around the clock, with only one person working each 8-hour shift, but there's no point in staffing overnight because there's only about 80 people looking at the site overnight. The numbers also decrease drastically after 8 p.m. and they peak around noontime. So we staff during the high-traffic times.

Except, of course, when the Red Sox are playing. And they're in the playoffs. And then they're going to the World Series. We've been working around-the-clock schedules, switching hours, for the past three weeks, as the Sox worked their way past the Angels and then the Indians ... always going the full seven games.

Now, of course, it's the World Series and there are seven MORE games. I've had one day off in the past two weeks and will probably go in to work both days next weekend as well (which I've done the past two weekends).

Don't get me wrong. I LOVE the Red Sox, I really do. But it's insane trying to keep up with the TV news staff, which numbers over 100 people, with our three. We are burning the candles to nubs.

We livestream the news conferences, write and publish stories, and we post the locker room interview videos and we create slideshows, and really, people don't come to sites like ours for sports.

On the one hand, I always enjoy the work because (as someone in the newsroom said recently) it's not stories about dead babies. On the other hand, we all have lives and families and groceries to buy and laundry to do etc. and that doesn't get done when you're only coming home to sleep and eat and go back to work.

This is the state of the Internet at this moment in time -- do it all on a shoestring. It's only computers, right? But if they only knew the actual brainpower that's involved. Someday I hope we have enough people to do this job properly, but I'm not holding my breath.

Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Keeping The Balls In The Air

It's been a busy fall and we're heading into an even busier baseball post-season with the Red Sox heading into the ALCS games.

Over the past few months we had a couple of Boston firemen killed fighting a restaurant blaze. They were given what amounted to almost state funerals and we livestreamed both of them ... one lasted about three hours.

Then a few weeks later, their autopsies found a high blood alcohol level in one and traces of cocaine in the other. So that was a big story as well, and viewers did not like the fact that this information was reported at all. We received what seemed like hundreds of angry emails about it.

On one day last month, an MIT student went to Logan Airport to pick up her boyfriend wearing a circuit board strapped to her chest. She was lucky that she did not end up dead as police there surrounded her with machine guns thinking she had a bomb strapped to her chest. LIGHTS ON, NO ONE'S HOME. We did a good job getting that story up right away with a lot of background on her.

So, all that kept us very busy through much of September and now we are trying to stretch our tiny staff to cover the Sox in these playoff games, most of which take place at night.

Because I work the early shift (4:45am start time each day) the other two people on the Web staff are trading off on covering the night games and I worked last Sunday to cover one of them. Six or seven hours for a lengthy play-by-play story and added post-game videos, etc., and I don't even want to say how many page views we got. Let's just say not a lot.

As a result, we've had lots of discussions about whether we are allocating our slim resources toward something that isn't going to do much for traffic in the first place -- primarily because people are not coming to us for sports news. For that they go to ESPN or or one of the other sites, and they do not allow us to post any of their game highlights or shoot our own, so it really limits what we can do.

There's a lot of frustration to go around and I strongly feel that we have to think outside the box to come up with some other solution -- some other way to do what we need to do. I guess what should be done at a higher level is "define" what the site should be and then be that, instead of trying to be all things to all people, because we end up being a mile wide and an inch deep (to throw one more cliche in there.)

In the meantime, we continue to try to mentor all the people who are tech-challenged. It's like a million people who all want to drive but have no idea how to turn the key. The station is trying to encourage people to blog (for instance) but as simple as using this tool is, several of them still have trouble. And there's only so many ways you can explain something. I guess the fundamental cultural thing they don't understand yet is that this is a new medium and it still has a lot of "bugs" -- stuff that needs to get worked out. They just expect that it's all always going to work all the time. There's one person who wants me to explain Blogger to him and I think I've said about 27 different ways that "it's not my tool," but he still seems to think I am personally responsible for making it work and showing him how to use it.

Well, I suppose it could be worse. I'm not cleaning sewage for a living!

Monday, September 24, 2007

Thursday, September 13, 2007

Feast Or Famine

It's a truism of the news business (and a cliche as well) that it's either feast or famine. We've been following the story of the New England Patriots allegedly "spying" on the New York Jets during their season-opening game last Sunday.

NFL security caught a Patriots cameraman taping the hand signals one of the other team's coaches was making during the game.

Yesterday, we had some meat in that Pats coach Bill Belichick issued a statement apologizing to his team and others for the entire incident. It's amazing what you can do to stretch a two sentence statement into an entire story. I'm sure the Pats organization labored over it too.

Today, however, the station didn't do much to follow the story in the early hours and it was a relatively quiet news day. We were scratching around for some new content to post on the Web site, always a priority because the conventional wisdom and research indicates that people check the site all through the day to see if there are any new stories posted. We are constantly feeding a voracious beast that is never satiated. Then, at night when I go to the gym, all the TV sets are showing the "old" news of the day ... stuff we've given people all day long. And the TV folks are scratching their heads at why Nielson numbers show a declining television news audience all across the board.

Like the newspaper industry, television has to re-invent itself or die, or just do with a much smaller piece of the pie. Maybe at the network level they've been thinking about that, but I think they're eons behind where they need to be. It's intresting to be here in my industry at this place and time.

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

'What a World, What a World ...'

We have transitioned rather easily to the new video capture system, but it only works for newscasts that have been pre-programmed. We do not have a solution yet for capturing live video or unscheduled video.

In the meantime, the technology continues to confound us all from time to time. Yesterday, a complete meltdown of our content management system (cms) left all of us across the network writing haiku poems to wile away the time until the techs could diagnose the problem.

Many were quite clever, along the lines of:

Blank blue screen sits mute
I can do nothing but wait
Phaedra you mock me

The cause of the meltdown remains a mystery, although all systems were up and running today. There are so many ways we can fail in this tenuous dance of connections. There can be disruptions within our station, if the line sending data becomes too clogged. (This is the layman's description, obviously.) There can be some kind of failure at the Hearst Service Center in Charlotte, N.C., where all of the information must go before it wends its way to the Internet Broadcasting servers in Minnesota. From there, it comes back to us, distributed through Akamai.

When looked at this way, it's amazing that the system works at all, much less as well as it actually does. I imagine this network is replicated in other systems nationwide.

What's more complicated, in many ways, is simply trying to maintain a balance as a "credible" news source. Stories published on our site about our crumbling infrastructure of fragile bridges and tunnels don't garner near the page views that a story about finger-painting gorillas at the local zoo does. Britney Spears stories are always traffic generators, whereas articles about changes to our auto insurance rate system fall short. Last week, we livestreamed both funeral services for two Boston firefighters who died battling a restaurant blaze. Both made the "Top 10" lists, but did not garner huge page views. (Even so, there were quite a few emails from people who were glad we provided the opportunity.)

All this constantly leaves me somewhat frustrated. OF COURSE people are going to eat junk food if that's all you give them. What kind of a service are we providing to the public, and at what cost? Do we even have a right to argue for the protection of a free press that doesn't provide much beyond titillating infotainment? More importantly, do we really have any other choice than to do so?

Sunday, August 26, 2007

Change Being The Only Constant

We are in the midst of changing the way we capture and process videos on the Web site and (once again) going at backwards.

For years, we've used a combination of Vegas Videos and Digital Rapids apps to capture, livestream and digitize videos. It's a time-consuming process. To put it simply, it got to the point where it would take 20 to 25 minutes to produce a video for the Web site that was on the air for about 2 minutes. In other words, if we captured a weathercast that lasted for 3 minutes, it wasn't on the site for close to 30 minutes.

It was time-consuming, but it works and allows us to do things we need to do, such as capture and livestream at the same time.

A decision was made, however, that this was all taking too long (which it was) and the powers-that-be decided to use a different process. A company called Anystream has a system where all the newscasts are programmed and the material is captured automatically. We still have to delineate which video clips we want (which takes MUCH more time using Quicktime Pro than it does with Vegas) but they are processed much faster.

One of (several) problems with the new system, however, is there is no quick/easy way to capture the images we need to associate with the videos. The guy from Anystream who came to put the system in place is a great guy, but it became apparent over the course of two days that NO ONE gave a thought to how we actually do the work at the Web site before choosing a new system to integrate into it. (This wasn't his fault, by the way -- those decisions were made way above his head.)

No one came went to a site and watched what we do, observed the work flow, etc. Instead of choosing a system to use based on what we already do, they chose it based only its merits alone.

What is WRONG with this picture?!

So, the process is going to be extremely gummed up for awhile, even as we head into election season and the transition is not going to be pleasant.

A lot of time gets wasted this way when it would be much more efficient and cost-effective to simply figure out what we do AHEAD OF TIME. Would it ever kill anyone to ASK US before making these decisions? At no point did any of the engineers involved in investigating and implementing this new system ASK US WHAT WE DO OR HOW WE DO IT.

I continue to be dumbfounded.