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Six months in purgatory

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The last time I wrote for this spot, it was nearly half a year ago and I was writing about the end of days. This led a regular reader to inquire whether I had, in fact, been swept up in my own personal rapture. Nothing, sadly, could be further from the reality. In fact, I was swept up in this company's conversion to a completely new newspaper and website production system, a process that has been a little like the conversion from sail to steam in the shipping industry. Only without the ocean breezes.

I won't bother to bore you with the minutiae. Suffice to say, it took four and a half months of meetings, training, in-house setup, more intensive training, more frantic in-house setup and final, frenetic preparation before we “went live” with the system. As readers of the Times know, that first week was difficult and the subsequent month has been no picnic, either. Fortunately for my sanity, I was able to get a desperately needed vacation once the system was up and running (or perhaps “up and limping along” would be a more accurate description).

On the cusp of returning to work, I have spent a few days pondering this entire process. The staff at the Times has been through a lot in the past six months, not much of it all that pleasant. While the paper has moved through major changes in production — not that long ago, in the grand scheme of things, the paper was being produced on linotype machines with galleys of metal type — most of our changes have been phased in. But not since the conversion from “hot” to “cold” type have we changed nearly every element of our production, from basic typesetting system to the page production program to the way our pages are sent to the pressroom and every aspect of our electronic publishing process. So everyone is trying to learn everything all at once — a daunting and difficult task.

Just so you know, everything you read in the Times and on the Times website and in the Times electronic edition is no longer really produced in Watertown — it's really produced on servers in Atlanta by the crew in Watertown (and, for our northern papers, by the folks up north) and beamed back and forth through the magic of the Internet. It's called cloud computing, and if the term cloud evokes pictures of dense impenetrability for you — well, stay with that image.

The change is one that the Times has had to make to stay current with new technology. It is the reality of the newspaper business in the breaking years of the 21st century that those that don't change — those that cannot marry the “ink on paper” delivery of the news with the digital, Internet-driven delivery of the news — will likely not survive. Times management understands the need for this paper to be more than just newsprint, and has undertaken this radical upheaval to allow the paper to improve it's digital edition and to bring such exciting new products as an e-edition, an electronic version of the paper that can be read on such devices as iPads and smart phones and e-readers.

But throughout this conversion, one startling fact has been clear to me. The new technology makes our main product — the Watertown Daily Times newspaper — something of an afterthought. Much of the computer program that we are now using to produce the newspaper is designed without any real consideration for newspaper production. I'm certain that many of you, for example, have noticed an unfortunate number of spelling errors in headlines. As you may imagine, this drives us crazier than it does you. In our old system, we could minimize these errors by running spell-check on both individual stories and on the entire page before it was sent to press. Under the new system, it is a multi-step process, no matter how you do it, to spell-check all the elements in an individual story, from headline through the caption. And from a practical standpoint, it is no longer possible to run spell-check on full pages. So we are devising new, more time consuming procedures, to get around this loss of functionality.

And this is only one example of design that fails the needs of newspapers. There are many others. In total, the entire editing process is more difficult than it was with the old system. Making the editing process harder makes producing a good newspaper incrementally more difficult. And frankly, we're struggling to overcome this problem.

The irony is, very few if any newspapers have figured out how to survive without maintaining the old ink-on-paper foundation for their news-gathering operation. No matter how you slice it, all things still flow from the newspaper before they get to the website, even for papers that are “Web-first” publications (meaning their stories mostly go online before they are published in the paper). Until publishers and readers figure out how to pay the costs of news gathering for digital editions, newspapers will be the financial footing for the news.

And newspapers can only survive if they produce a quality product. This requires professional reporting and it requires professional editing and production. When any of those processes are hindered by poor design of the tools the reporters and editors use, quality suffers. And readers get upset, and upset readers might stop buying newspapers, and ... well, you can see where this is heading.

We're doing our best to work our way back to where we were before we introduced the new system. It has been a bumpy, uphill climb. So stick with us as we refine our processes, and grant us a little grace if you notice things you think are not up to Times standards. We'll get there, probably sooner rather than later.

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