By: Karim Mostafa
STRIKERS DID NEWS SITE ON A SHOESTRING
How unionrecord.com Came To Be
Only two hours after Seattle’s newspaper guild voted to strike at 2 a.m. on Nov.
21, unionrecord.com was live.
During the next 49 days, the strikers’ Web site published 1,900 original stories
and averaged 50,000 page views a day, according to Chuck Taylor, managing
editor of unionrecord.com and an aerospace reporter at The Seattle Times.
Not bad for an online news site that’s genesis only went back six days prior to the
union vote. How did the striking employees get the site up and running so
The planning for unionrecord.com began six days before the strike, with a
meeting of the local guild president; Chuck Taylor; Mike Blain, a freelance
technology consultant who works on union sites in Seattle; and several
photographers. The union insisted that there be a print edition, but the primary
focus was the Web.
“We wanted a lean, functional site that was quick to index, archive, and search,”
said Blain, also a co-founder of WashTech, a local union for programmers. The
site needed to be easy to use for volunteer strikers who weren’t HTML-proficient.
So Blain grabbed the domain name, got an IP address, and started building a
custom-made database driven publishing system.
Blain ended up creating a simple form where strikers could input information into
categories such as headline, byline, and text. “Yeah, I built it from scratch,” said
Blain. “I used PHP (PHP Hypertext Preprocessor), a server side scripting
language, and mySQL (a version of miniSQL), an open-source database program
on Linux. We didn’t have to buy any software at all to build the site.”
The strike operations did buy four iMacs, four G4 cubes, and software with
$25,000 from the union strike fund. The print edition of the Union
Record, which brought in $50,000 in advertising, received $10,000 weekly
from the International Guild. But not much of that made it over to the Web
operations since a single print run cost as much as $6,000.
“We cobbled a network together,” said Brian Allen, a local IT consultant who
volunteered his time. “We scrambled to get extra gear. I brought in my G4 and
extra routers.” Many people worked from home using their own computers.
A discussion list was set up for the Web team to communicate, said Blain. “They
used it day and night to communicate with each other since they had no source-
version control,” he said. Since people were working from home, it was difficult
to make sure there weren’t any write-overs.
Blain kept costs to a minimum by using FutureQuest in Florida as the server. FutureQuest has provided space for unions and non-profits before.
“Traffic was so high that the Web-hosting service called, saying the site needed
its own dedicated server,” said Blain. The site stayed on FutureQuest after traffic
later leveled off to 50,000 pageviews daily.
Taylor said that early on, all of the best writers and reporters were writing for the
Web site. “Everyone who was paying attention around [Seattle] knew that,” he
said. “It highlighted the fact that the managers and scabs were writing the stories
for the newspapers.”
Readers, according to Taylor, responded well, sending in e-mails that said the
writers seemed to find more of a voice online, somehow unchained by their parent
Unionrecord.com ceased publishing new stories on Jan. 9, a day before the
Union Record’s final print edition on Jan. 10. Chuck Taylor wrote in the
that edition, “We intend to maintain our Web site at www.unionrecord.com as an
archive for an indefinite period of time.”
Karim Mostafa (firstname.lastname@example.org) is associate editor for E&P Online.
Copyright 2001, Editor & Publisher.