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A Few Pages Saved From NewsWorks

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So what the heck was NewsWorks? You don’t remember it? You and a few million others. My friend, the sports writer Eric Adelson, who worked there for a time, once described the place as “wonderfully ill-advised” because it was a fun place to work, even in the face of catastrophic failure. Basically, NewsWorks was an attempt by the newspaper industry, in the form of a nine-way joint venture called New Century Networks LLC, to try and compete online with the likes of CNN and MSNBC by producing a Web site with national reach that would combine the best stories from some 200 newspaper sites in one convenient place. We didn’t yet know we were in the “content aggregation” business, which today is so common yet often completely automated or done on a user-generated basis.

My job title was associate editor, which was a generous way of describing what I did. These days you’d call me a professional news Googler, but Google didn’t yet exist. And so I prowled the sites of NCN’s paid members to gather together stories on various topics, put them together into a “package,” essentially a list of HTML links with some inspired introductory copy, while taking care to avoid wire service stories, and trying hard not to link too often to The Washington Post, which always had the best stuff on pretty much every topic we covered. (The New York Times was also a member, but by contract, its content was off-limits.)

My primary research tool was the curiously powerful, custom-built search engine, which searched only the content on member sites and so was, in some important ways a precursor to Google News. “Why would anyone want a search engine for news?” people said to me at the time. Well, maybe not in 1998 when the Web was still for most people a dial-up experience, and TV news and newspapers were still thriving and profitable institutions. NewsWorks was in many ways a solution to a problem that didn’t yet exist. And Google News? Today it generates about $100 million in revenue for Google.

Obviously the brief life of NewsWorks, and parent New Century Networks is interesting in light of the death spiral in which the newspaper industry finds itself as we head toward the second decade of the 21st Century. While the site had a small yet devoted following, it never really did find its legs in part because  content partners saw the national site as competition with their own sites, and refused to promote it. Meanwhile management couldn’t herd the member companies toward anything that looked like a sound business model. By the time of the company’s final implosion in March of 1998, the conflagration of the dot-com bubble was only months away.  Sari Kalin of CIO Web Business did an excellent contemporary story, in the November 1998 issue, but it is no longer available on the CIO Web site. (I fished it out of Internet Wayback Machine.)

It covers the debut and the fall of NewsWorks and New Century Networks. Ten years later I can admit to having been a source for the story, but again saying I was a “source” is overstating it a bit. I remember helping Kalin track down other former employees, but I also told her the anecdote about how the laid off employees broke out bottles of champagne that had been given as holiday gifts by management.

My current employer BusinessWeek published this story in its March 23, 1998 issue. Recently Nicholas Carlson of Valleywag included NewsWorks on his list of “Five Ways That Newspapers Botched The Web.” There’s also a Wikipedia article to which I’ll probably contribute a few lines or links.

I had a fun time working there. In addition to Adelson, who was in my class at Columbia, a batch of other classmates worked there for awhile: Michael Scully; Jim Rosenberg; Rachel Coker; Cindy Perman; George Puro; Former Newsweek writer Mark Frankel hired me; later on the main editor was Kevin Ryan, and the editor in chief was briefly, John Papanek before he went off to do bigger things.

While working there I also briefly met the infamous Tim McDarrah who was attached to the NewsWorks sports desk, and whose voice I remember as being inappropriately loud for the office. Another colleague, Carla Lalli went on to appear on NBC’s reality TV show “The Restaurant.” NewsWorks functioned as a sort of catch-all for a batch of people in New York’s journalism community, many of whom were refugees from the death of New York Newsday. In short, it was as good a place as any for a young journalism grad fresh out of Columbia and unfamiliar with the territory the New York media scene and its people.

What I’ve assembled here are items I worked on which appeared on the site. They’re gathered mostly from the files I grabbed on my last day in the office. Each page appears as it did on the last day the NewsWorks site was live. However, many, if not most of the links within the pages have probably died since then. The point of this site is to present an example of some of the content that NewsWorks contained. As far as I know this is the only repository of any of the site’s content. If that’s not the case, and you happen to have some leftover html code, I’d be glad to add it to the archive here. Be kind in your judgments. The Web was still very new in 1997-98 and a lot has changed in the last decade.

One of my jobs was to produce the weekly “Leading Edge” package which ran each Monday. It covered topics in science and technology. I picked the the topic of the week, did the research, select the stories and artwork, wrote the copy, and assembled the package for production.

Latest packages are listed first. [Update, Feb. 2015: The links are all dead. I had to take them down as basic HTML pages were constantly being used to hack my site. I probably won’t go to the trouble to add them back.]

Usenet: The Unsung Side of the Internet
Biological Terrorism: A High-tech threat
Bio-battles: Why Germs Are Getting Smarter
What’s Next In Space?
Speeding up the World Wide Wait
Back To School At A Distance
Fighting Wars With Bombs And Bits
Playing The Domain Name Game
Hacking The Secrets Of Genetics
Saving The Salmon
Has Your PC Had Its Shots?
Tough Choices For A High-Tech Holiday
Preserving Nature’s Wild Side
The Real McCaugheys
Java Jive
The Artificial Human
Time for a spam ban?

These are early versions of the science and technology packages, before we called it Leading Edge.
Ringed With Controversy: The Cassini Mission To Saturn
Keys to the Keyboard
Catching Up With HAL: Talking With The computer

I also handled what became a daily EL Niño update
El Niño: Nature’s Puzzle

Asian Contagion was an ongoing package on the 1997-98 financial crisis in Asia which I worked on.

We also covered the heck out of the Clinton/Lewinsky scandal. I didn’t do much work on this package, but here’s one day’s sample.

Finally, this is a package that was (thankfully) never published. The news team decided, for some reason that we wanted to do a package on the still new social phenomenon of e-mail. Even by 1998, the concept, looking back on it, seemed sort of silly. Or perhaps we were just a bit ahead of our time. In 2007 an entire book, entitled “Send: The Essential Guide to Email for Office and Home” was published to much popular acclaim. Dave Barry Reviewed it For The New York Times, and The Times also published the first chapter online.We never finished this package in time, but what you can see from the rough pre-production site, where we were going with it. We called it Digital Nation.

Written by ahess247

December 7th, 2008 at 12:50 am

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