ElectionLine’s Servers Ready for Hard Hits

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By: Steve Outing

If a final last-minute technical problem has been worked out, you should be able to visit the brand new ElectionLine site today. ElectionLine is the U.S. political World Wide Web site created by Capital Cities/ABC and The Washington Post Co., drawing on the combined political news-gathering resources of The Washington Post, ABC-TV and Newsweek magazine.

ElectionLine represents a new kind of journalism blending original material gathered by an online staff and repurposed news from 3 major media sources, according to managing editor Evans Witt, who is heading up the content side of the venture. You may recognize Witt’s name; he spent the last 22 years at The Associated Press and was its director of elections and assistant bureau chief in Washington, D.C.

The site is free to users and is supported by advertisers — and Witt says the intention is to keep it that way long term. He predicts that the site will generate massive usage on key election days, and that advertisers will be attracted by ElectionLine’s traffic.

If the site succeeds in becoming the premier place online for U.S. election news, its servers are likely to get hit hard on election nights. For that reason, ElectionLine has constructed a robust site that’s ready for the worst. The site was created at Digital Equipment Corp.’s Palo Alto, California, facility and uses multiple DEC Alpha 2100 64-bit servers. The DEC facility, which also hosts DEC’s powerful Alta Vista search service, has an Internet connection with even greater capacity that a T-3 line (which is what the New York Times’ Web site uses for its servers hosted at an IBM facility).

“Election night is an incredible night,” says Witt. “The demands (that will be put upon the ElectionLine server) are beyond what you can believe.” The site is built to handle the worst load the public can throw at it, and Witt says the company can add servers quickly if they’ve underestimated what it takes to cope. He says the goal is to support huge traffic loads without showing any degradation in performance for the visitor.

Witt is assembling a staff of what will be about 20 people by the end of March — about a dozen of those political journalists, with the rest being graphic artists, programmers and other support personnel. Some of the positions have been filled by taking people from ABC, the Post and Newsweek, as well as bringing in outsiders. (ElectionLine is a joint venture of Capital Cities and the Post Co. and operates as a separate entity. The staff is currently camped out in the same offices as The Washington Post’s Digital Ink, but they will move to their own quarters soon.)

With a small staff, ElectionLine will not be sending correspondents around the country to follow candidates. Rather, Witt says, they will do much of their reporting over the phone, and combine independent reporting with material from ABC, the Post or Newsweek. As an example of what you might expect in the way of original reporting, Witt recited a “dry run” conducted last week when Pat Buchanan won the Alaska caucuses. ElectionLine staff took in a remote audio feed of Buchanan’s press conference and posted it to the site along with other coverage of the event. “You can do an enormous amount of reporting over the phone,” he says.

If Bob Dole makes a statement on abortion, Witt says, then ElectionLine will link the transcript of his words to previous articles about Dole’s position on abortion and even to old audio or video clips of Dole abortion statements. If a politician has changed his position, Web readers will have the evidence.

When the site formerly opens to the public, one of the first available-only-online pieces of journalism on the site will be a report on negative campaign ads. Witt says the staff has created story-board presentations of some of the ads, so readers will be able to experience the ads first-hand and not just read about them. In this case, videos of the ads are not being used because they are too large to expect the average user to download and view online.

The service has lined up several columnists who will write only for the Web site. Hal Bruno, political editor of ABC News, will write a regular column; and Dwight Morris, an expert on campaign financing, also will write regularly.

The bulk of the site will be the political news content of ElectionLine’s partner companies. Daily stories and photos from the Washington Post’s political wire will be available, plus weekly updates from the Newsweek political reporting staff, and audio and video from ABC News’ political coverage. This will be combined with analysis of many races, candidate profiles, and access to a searchable archive of the Washington Post political wire. ElectionLine also will carry political stories that run on the AP Online wire service.

An important component of any online political service has got to be providing a forum for public discourse. ElectionLine will host moderated live chat sessions with political experts and candidates, as well as moderated and unmoderated discussion forums. ElectionLine staff will monitor and lead some of the discussions, bringing in frequent celebrity guests.

Witt acknowledged that some of the political debate online — a medium where flame wars are a way of life — could get messy, particularly on emotional issues like abortion or gun control. Says Witt: “Can you have a reasonable discussion of gun control in the online environment? We certainly hope so.”

Future of the Web according to Saffo

This is excerpted from Edupage, which excerpted it from Upside magazine. Apologies if you’ve already seen it, but this comment by futurist Paul Saffo is worth noting:

“The Web as we know it today is dead. It’s dead in two ways: because it’s going to mutate into something else very quickly and be unrecognizable within 12 months, and secondly, it’s dead because all it’s got on it is dead information. … Sure, there are links, but the links just lead to more dead information. It’s a big information mausoleum. But with things like Java, you get animation. The information is alive. … Today, if you think about it, it’s really quite bizarre. You dial into a Web page. There may be a thousand other people at that page. But the only way that you even know anyone else is there is that the server is slow. The next big change is going to be finding ways to put qualities that we associate with MUDs today into Web pages so that you can interact with people.”

Movin’ On

Michael Carmean, formerly of NandO, is now director of converging technologies at the Akron Beacon Journal.

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This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at steve@planetarynews.com

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