Technical restrictions hinder customization
Vin Crosbie makes an interesting point in a Tuesday message on the Online-News discussion list. (Unfortunately Poynter’s Web interface to the list, in a bit of Web stupidity, won’t let me link to his e-mail. It’s dated August 13 and its subject is “RE: [ON] Re: Salon article,” if you want to try to find it.) Vin says, “An analog printing press must produce the same edition for all users at a time (analog broadcast transmitters have this same constraint). The problem with that is everyone doesn’t share the same interests.” He concludes that newspaper and magazine Web sites are reproducing that one-size-fits-all model of publishing on the Internet. Thus, many of them are missing a glaring opportunity to customize their content to specific readers’ interests.
A few weeks ago, I asked why news sites were doing so much broadcasting and so little “narrowcasting”. Vin suggests that inertia may be part of the answer. I think silly technical limitations play a part too.
If the printing press prevents customization offline, static HTML prevents it online. I’ve seen journalistic possibilities curtailed by ridiculous server constraints in all three newsrooms where I’ve done Web work. My college paper doesn’t have access to databases on its Web server, which means it’s never built a content management system. At the daily where I worked last summer, we had to go to the corporate level to add categories to the CMS. I left at the end of my three-month internship and it still hadn’t happened. But at least at both of those places we had access to server-side scripting. At the major metro daily where I am interning now, we cannot write CGI scripts, let alone use databases.
Why is it that people like me can run server scripts and databases on our personal sites for less than $100 a year in hosting fees, but producers at sites with huge budgets and dedicated datacenters are stuck with static HTML and no control over content management systems?
Whether it is due to the blinders of print edition thinking or just incorrect priorities, I am convinced these technical restrictions constrain producers’ imaginations and prevent online journalism from living up to its potential. It’s as if there was some arbitrary restriction requiring print edition newspaper stories to be published sequentially in galleys, sort of like a paper from the 1850s. Yes, the text would be the same, but page design is the defining characteristic of print. Online news sites can go on publishing text in galleys — or they can give up foolish bureaucratic and technical restrictions and let journalists do more with the medium.