MEDIA JOIN DIGITAL HANDS TO GET STARR TEXT OUT AP uses AdSEND, Internet to help papers handle a walloping load of salacious copy.
The Starr Report was named after Kenneth Starr, the former judge and independent counsel whose investigation of President Clinton's dealings in an Arkansas land development called Whitewater led to the revelation that Clinton and White House intern Monica Lewinsky had had a sexual affair. The report was turned over to the House of Representatives along with more than 3000 pages of supporting documents in early September. After consideration, the House announced Sept. 10 that the Starr Report would be released to the public the next day.
The report was not large as books go -- 445 pages, a mere 113,570 words -- but as newspaper copy, it was huge, so delivering it to members of the news cooperative was a daunting task. The report also was salacious beyond the experience of virtually every newspaper editor who had to handle it, but publish it they did, despite the cost (it ran more than 17 broadsheet pages in the New York Times) and the possible negative reaction from readers.
Presstime magazine, a publication of the Newspaper Association of America, reported that its poll of editors found that 36 newspapers printed the report in its entirety. The national total likely was higher -- the poll, conducted by fax, brought responses from 226 of 735 newspapers contacted. About 75 percent reported they ran all or part of the Starr Report.
In Milwaukee, Martin Kaiser, the editor of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, ran a front-page note in the Sept. 12 edition, which carried excerpts but not the entire report. "I put a name behind it," he says of the decision to carry material which his note said "is not suitable for younger readers and may be offensive to many adults." Kaiser posted a similar message on the paper's web site, JSOnline (http://www.jsonline.com/), along with his phone number. He got more than 200 responses.
The Journal Sentinel and hundreds of other papers relied on their lifeline to news -- the Associated Press -- to get them copy quickly. For the AP, the task of digesting and delivering the report may have been unprecedented. The afternoon the report was released, as weekend deadlines loomed for papers everywhere, a team of 18 AP staffers retreated to a training room at AP offices in Washington (a space they quickly dubbed the Starr chamber) to read and assess the report.
The AP's normal system for delivering news copy, Datastream, wasn't fast enough to distribute the report in its entirety, and some papers either needed or wanted condensed versions. So the team assembled three stories, at 33,000, 16,000 and 6000 words, which were moved over Datastream. But papers wanted the full text of the report for publication, and the AP obliged, using not the circuits dedicated to moving news, but its facilities for delivering page-ready ads to newspapers across the country, AP AdSEND.
PAPERS USED INTERNET TO FEED PRINT It also turned to the bottomless-pit capacity of the Internet, calling upon multimedia companies such as Cox Interactive Media, the Tribune Co., the Wall Street Journal Interactive Edition and Knight Ridder New Media to help disseminate the report over the World-Wide Web, thus reducing the load on the AP's own web site, The WIRE (which is accessed only through AP members' sites).
Of the three delivery tools, AdSEND is by far the fastest way to get data from one place to another. Under normal AdSEND circumstances, advertisers give the AP their production-ready ads stored in a universally-accessible file called the Portable Document Format (PDF -- also known as Adobe Acrobat). Through AdSEND, PDF-based ads flow from the AP's uplink in Cranbury, N.J., to a satellite for distribution to all newspapers taking ads via AdSEND. A receiving newspaper can open a PDF and have all the pieces needed to put that ad into its pages.
Unlike ads, the Starr Report was all words -- it had no illustrations or fancy type, making the use of PDF files counterproductive. "There's no convenient way to take text out of a PDF," notes Jim Gerberich, director of operations for business development in Cranbury and one of the key players in getting the report out.
The report arrived at the AP as a series of WordPerfect files, Gerberich says, which the AP converted into ASCII text, the bare-bones format for moving copy from one computer to another (and the format for text on Datastream). "It was the most flexible for newspapers to deal with," Gerberich says. It also meant the entire Starr Report was smaller than a megabyte of data, yielding a file that moved over AP AdSEND "in seconds," he says. (Transmission over Datastream would have taken about 11 minutes, had the circuit moved only the Starr Report all at once. Had such a document been around during Watergate, when AP relied on teletype machines to deliver copy at a scant 66 words per minute, the transmission would have taken more than a day.)
Ideally, Gerberich says, the AP would have created a series of PDF pages ready for publication, much as the news co-op's graphics desk does routinely. But that was not possible, because "we didn't know how newspapers wanted to play this." By delivering ASCII text, each subscriber could use its own fonts, point sizes and design elements in printing the report -- as well as being free to edit the report just like any other AP copy.
SPARE HORSEPOWER While the AP was preparing to deliver copy over AdSEND, it enlisted the help of members with access to a special web site from which the report could be downloaded. One newspaper taking advantage of this mechanism was the Star Tribune of Minneapolis, where "our web server had plenty of spare horsepower," says Steve Yelvington, editor of startribune.com (http://www.startribune.com/).
"We used the tools we 'Netheads are familiar with," Yelvington says, downloading compressed files of the report from AP's web site, uncompressing them and putting them on the paper's web server. "After we did that, I sent a note out to a couple of Internet mailing lists telling other news sites how they could grab the copy from our server and pass it along."
In Atlanta, Cox Interactive Media also pitched in to relieve the AP of some of the load, says Ron McCoy, chief technology officer of CIM, which is a unit of the broadcasting, Internet and publishing Cox company. While editors could open up copies of the report in web browsers, CIM got a copy of the full report from the AP.
After putting the report on its private web server, McCoy's team notified all Cox properties to go to that server to get their copies of the report; newspapers and broadcasters dipped in. "From the interactive side of a giant media company," he says, "it was nice to be able to participate at a reasonably even level. Through all this technology, we were able to help our traditional media partners enhance their media."
In Indianapolis, the Star and News decided at 12:30 p.m. Sept. 11 that they would publish the full text, says Managing Editor Ted Daniels, providing their readers with an "unfiltered look at this historic document." The next morning's Star was more than doubled in size, from 42 pages to 96, and advertising was asked to supply standby ads to help complete pages on deadline.
The papers pulled copies of the report from the Web and from AdSEND. The morning Star published the AdSEND version -- after paragraph marks were inserted manually, it took a circuitous and slow route from the AdSEND receiver to an interface made by Edgil Associates Inc. of Chelmsford, Mass., into the papers' editorial system, a freshly installed pagination solution made by CCI Europe of Denmark and Kennesaw, Ga.
Once into the editorial system, the report was broken into 18 parts, each treated as a full-page article for pagination and output purposes. With only five months' experience with CCI Europe, the Star relied on its "superusers" to format and prepare the pages. The drop-dead time was 7 p.m., Daniels says; about 6:30 p.m., prospects were dim.
At 6:57 p.m., Alex Waddell, the news editor and one of the superusers (someone leading others into using the new system), told Daniels, "We can do it."
'TOTAL BUILDING EFFORT' The edition -- proofread by nearly a dozen editors and pushed through CCI at the rate of 34 pages in 31/2 hours -- was 40 minutes late, Daniels says, "because of general coverage of the Starr Report" which included five pages of news. The next morning, the Star sold out. Its sibling, the afternoon News -- one of a dwindling number of Saturday afternoon papers -- sold nearly 8000 more copies than usual.
Calling it a "total-building effort" and a situation in which "CCI really showed its muscle," he says: "It was one of those few times where there was truly electricity in the newsroom and throughout the whole building."
Other newspapers didn't match the Star, the New York Times and others in getting the Starr Report into their Saturday editions. They waited until Sunday. At the San Jose Mercury News, the reason was simple, says Assistant Managing Editor Jonathan Krim. "We felt we needed to have some modicum of design on those pages. We did some things that we hoped enhanced the readability of the thing," such as using slightly larger type than usual and adding pictures to acres of gray type.
The Starr Report challenged the AP's delivery systems, gave editors everywhere a Maalox moment in more ways than one, and brought the nation together in a way it did not particularly enjoy.
For McCoy, the lesson was clear: "The Starr Report was perfect for the Internet."
From Minneapolis, Yelvington notes: "It's interesting that the newspaper received many complaints about the salacious nature of the Starr Report despite the careful editing of what it printed, while we on the web site received no complaints -- not one -- about our distribution of the complete, unaltered report."
On Sept. 21, when the videotape of President Clinton's grand jury testimony was released, editors took a different view about running huge volumes of copy. In Milwaukee, Kaiser says, "We did not do anything extra" in the Journal Sentinel, but JSOnline did carry the transcript of Clinton's testimony.
Kaiser decided to limit coverage because readers were calling at brisk pace -- he got a dozen messages while he was at lunch Sept. 22. That day, and the days just before, "most of them were blaming the messenger -- that we're sick of this."
-- Pete Wetmore
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|Date:||Sep 28, 1998|
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