I worked with several people to create The Washington Post's first online service.
Working at a start-up company is quite a challenge and requires a person to play many roles. My job spanned such a broad range of tasks that I cannot describe it in full, so I will summarize the major projects I completed in the 16 months I spent at Digital Ink, working on the AT&T Interchange platform (which we began using when it was in an early stage of development known as pre-beta).
These were my major projects:
Other projects and responsibilities included:
I have also outlined Digital Ink's staff organization in its earliest days, when I joined the company.
The first task given me by the director of the online service was to create an outline for the structure of the entire service. I began by studying our newspaper and making copious notes on its structure. I interviewed the editors of many of the paper's weekly sections, such as Health, Home, and Food, to learn what they would like to see in an online version of their sections (these meetings also served to initiate friendly relations between the newsroom and the wholly separate online subsidiary). In the meantime, the full staff of Digital Ink (then about 10 people) met once or twice to brainstorm about what features an online newspaper might offer, and I incorporated ideas from those meetings.
After several weeks' work, I submitted my outline, which was then used as the foundation of the structure we eventually created. (A number of changes were made as it passed through various hands.)
Moving the text of each day's newspaper out of the newsroom editing system and onto a host computer that displays it online requires the cooperation of a number of people and computer systems.
I spent much of my first three or four months at Digital Ink in meetings with data processing managers in The Post's systems department, on conference calls with members of the technical staff at Interchange, and in meetings with the director and deputy director of The Post's news research department, which processes the newspaper for daily in-house digital archiving. I worked on getting not only the editorial content but also the classified ads, which required a separate extraction procedure. I documented all meetings with memos, got all the parties talking to one another, and eventually was able to turn this project over to a newly hired systems analyst, who completed the job soon afterward.
As part of this project, I developed a subject code system later used throughout the Washington Post newsroom. The codes determine where each article shows up automatically on the online service -- e.g. in the online business section, or in international news -- based on the subject matter of the article.
Setting up the technical process behind providing back issues of The Washington Post online required an effort similar to the one for extracting, formatting, and transmitting the content of each day's newspaper (see above), but the existing digital archives were stored on a different type of computer system, so separate issues had to be addressed. This project continued after the daily feed was in place.
As part of this project, I specified and thoroughly tested a new online search tool that allows Digital Ink users to use a menu of terms, such as headline, keywords, person's name, organization, page number, section, date, and author, to find any article they want from the archives.
I also wrote, formatted, and created a hyperlinked structure for complete online documentation telling users how to use the archives and all the search options available. I followed all online discussions related to the archives section and responded to all questions therein. I also regularly constructed sample searches to demonstrate the capabilities of the search engine to our users (these searches could be saved and run again and again, and could be modified by users; one of them, for example, demonstrated the most efficient way to find a particular person's obituary).
I worked in many different capacities on many different sections of the online service, advising other content developers and online producers on content organization, aspects of user interface design, data structure, and search options. I spent a significant amount of time on the classified ads (that project was eventually taken over by another content developer); on the local events calendar, for which I built a prototype in HyperCard before we began design work; on the Books and Travel sections; and on Attractions, our section for visual arts, museums, and tourist sights. Apart from the archives section, I devoted the most time to the two (separate) sections called Restaurants and Food.
Creating this section required four main task sets:
With the help of the director of graphic design, I developed a screen format for restaurant reviews. I then wrote a style document, illustrated with screen shots, and turned over the manual formatting to an online producer. That document also contained instructions for coding the reviews in accordance with the search options, and the producer did the coding. I developed and tested the search tool myself.
Many people besides me worked on the advertising project, but I worked closely with the primary account rep so that the ads would complement but not too closely resemble the Post reviews.
Finally, I contacted Richman and handled the preliminary negotiations for the project we hoped she would participate in. Not all the details were ironed out in July, so before I left the company, I turned the project over to a producer and brought him up to speed on all its aspects.
Less complex than but similar to the Restaurants project, developing the Food section was mostly a matter of two task sets:
I finished the format work, again with the aid of the director of graphic design. One of the service's existing search tools proved adequate for the recipe collection, so I adapted it. I wrote an illustrated style document for the section, including instructions for hyperlinking related recipes and articles and for coding the recipe keywords. I then turned the entire section over to an online producer, who did most of the development of the structure of the recipe collection.
Responding to users' requests, I developed and built a stand-alone section where The Post appears online in a structure that mirrors the print product (A Section, Editorial Page, Style, etc.) in outline form; this proved very popular.
Working with a Digital Ink systems analyst and technical staff from Interchange, I specified the structure of the service's implementation of AP Online (the Associated Press's wire service package for online services) and tested the feature extensively through several stages, making reports to Interchange so that the feature could be modified to meet our needs. I was responsible for determining when it was ready to be unveiled to users.
I handled most internal training in an informal capacity, wrote an illustrated guide for new hires, and also wrote an illustrated guide to creating online package-sets of information (both guides are still in use).
I had the primary ongoing responsibility for reporting editorial and production problems on our service and seeking action from the platform provider.
I had the primary ongoing responsibility for reporting problems arising from this department's processing of our daily news feeds and seeing that all such problems were resolved.
When I came over from the newsroom (April 1994), the full staff of Digital Ink was:
I was the first content developer hired. The second was hired in July 1994, a third in early 1995, and two more in May or June 1995. A number of content packagers (later called online producers) were hired starting in April or May 1994.