Express-News spams itself over Spurs

By: MARK FITZGERALD

Express-News spams itself over Spurs
E-mail debate over team boosterism clogs system


A suggestion that employees decorate their work areas to support the Spurs pro basketball team touched off such a furious and crowded e-mail debate at the San Antonio Express-News that the technology director was forced to pull the plug on the system to prevent a crash.
In a frenzied 45-minute period June 10, the newspaper computer system suffocated from self-inflicted spamming as the original suggestion ? e-mailed to all 1,100 Express-News employees ? prompted a barrage of responses pro and con, nearly all of them sent by the “reply to all” function and requesting a “receipt” acknowledging the e-mail had been opened.
As the newspaper’s e-mail system slowed to a crawl, some irritated employees in effect poured gasoline on the network fire by sending off e-mails complaining the debate was a waste of time ? while others cheered on one side or the other with reply-to-all slogans such as “You go, sister!”
The paper’s help desk was inundated with calls. At the Express-News, one router handles not only internal e-mail ? but also the paper’s electronic data interchange (EDI) that takes orders from advertisers. An undetermined number of insert orders got buried in Spurs e-mail debate, which took place in the late-afternoon prime time for advertisers.
Also lost in the tangle of e-mail that afternoon: Warnings from system managers about the so-called Zip.exec “worm” computer virus that was destroying files at businesses across the nation.
“You had everybody replying to everybody, and everybody getting a receipt to notify everybody. It caused the e-mail router to really slow down,” says Nina Brooks, the paper’s director of technology and pre-press. Brooks was away from her computer at the time ? but learned of the problem when “all my pagers went off.
“I made the decision that I was going to take [the e-mail system] down because if we didn’t ? it was going to crash,” Brooks says. “The e-mail didn’t crash, but we had come to an absolute standstill.”
The problem affected neither the newspaper’s Web site, www.express-news.com, nor the Internet service it offers commercially, ENConnect, Brooks says.
For Brooks, the near-crash is not so much about technology as philosophy. “I guess it comes down to: What is e-mail for?” she says. “I look at e-mail as a critical production tool for management. Some people here disagree and see this as a way to discuss issues. We have a bulletin board for that.
“If somebody got a megaphone and climbed on a desk in the middle of the newsroom and shouted, ‘You go, sister,” [he or she] would be taken out of the paper for disrupting. ? If I use the [newspaper’s] Xerox machine to make 1,500 copies to send something out, that is wrong. What’s the difference in this case?”
The e-mail gridlock started out as a difference of philosophy of another sort. San Antonio was gripped with basketball fever as the Spurs advanced to the NBA finals against the New York Knicks.
The paper devised an intracompany workplace decoration contest called “Go Spurs Go.” The contest, similar to those run during the Halloween or Christmas seasons, was part of the paper’s United Way campaign, Brooks says.
Human resources manager Gus Gonzalez urged employees to participate in an e-mail that went out to all employees at the paper’s three buildings. He drew a sharp negative response from business reporter Bonnie Pfister, who argued that the paper should not be a booster for the Spurs. It was her “reply to all” response that set off the e-mail near-crash. Pfister did not return a phone message for comment.
In his column the Sunday after all the excitement, Express-News editor Robert Rivard describes what happened next: “Most disagreed with Pfister, and they did so vehemently. She was abusing the e-mail system. She was wrong: Journalists are spoilsports with their incomprehensible code of ethics.
“There also were a fair number of ‘Leave me alone; I’ve got work to do’ messages. One writer congratulated Gonzalez on single-handedly ferreting out all the employees with nothing else to do.
“For all practical purposes, work came to a halt. It was an all-out electronic food fight.” Rivard himself contributed to the e-mail debate, noting the conflicts inherent in covering a big story while also engaging in some promotions with the Spurs. All in all, he says, the experience was reassuring. “A company where employees are not afraid to express themselves is probably a healthy place to work,” he writes.
?(Editor & Publisher Web Site:http:www.mediainfo.com) [Caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher June 26, 1999) [Caption and photo]

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