On-Call Front Ends

Article excerpt

For all its downsizing, the newsroom has yet to see its principal reporting and editing functions outsourced. The technology on which it relies, however, may be ripe for removal, as a cloud of another sort forms over the industry.

Depending on systems deployment, the trickle of outsourced or consolidated copyediting and pagination may swell. In the meantime, newspapers can relieve staffers' workstations of client software and perhaps even remove the servers that support their systems.

Newsrooms for decades have written and edited on computers, and for about half that time most also paginated content electronically. Their systems evolved from terminals accessing minicomputers to client software on desktop computers connected to servers. Along the way came the World Wide Web, thin clients, Java, extensible markup language (XML) and extensible stylesheet language transformations (XSLT, for creating a new structure for output in another format, including dynamic Web pages) -- all while telecommunications-delivery options and available bandwidth grew.

The notion of "cloud" or "utility" computing soon followed. Cloud com- puting basically amounts to IT services -- computer processing, software applications, data storage -- supplied over the Internet, making hardware and software products available as services and thereby minimizing customers' need for technical expertise and maintenance.

Yesterday's ASP ...Bandwidth and secure communication were important to managed-hosting arrangements, whereby publishers could remotely access vendor-operated systems. Several vendors today offer software as a service (SaaS) -- essentially the same thing as the first Application Service Provider (ASP) programs. In these scenarios, little or no software is installed at a newspaper, which not only speeds system conversions and upgrades, but also does away with most of a paper's troubleshooting and maintenance.

In 2000, two of the biggest names in newspaper systems offered ASP programs. After acquiring longtime supplier Systems Integrators Inc., net-linx Publishing Solutions (now part of Miles 33) adopted the model, saying ASP allowed smaller publishers to avoid a capital purchase and exploit best-available technology without support staff.

At about the same time, Atex (also under former owners) went the same route, leasing access to systems it would host over virtual private networks (VPNs) for initial and monthly fees. The idea, an Atex executive said at the time, was to allow customers to focus on content rather than coping with ever-more- complex systems.

It seems a natural outcome, years after vendors ceased selling dedicated systems running proprietary software on their own industry-specific hardware, along with lucrative service contracts. It also enables vendors to enforce software-licensing agreements when newspapers change hands, while at least one SaaS provider's service agreement will not "unreasonably" withhold permission to transfer a license to a new owner.

And when it comes to changing vendors, says Digital Technology International Marketing Vice President Steve Nilan, "switching costs are very, very low in a SaaS environment." DTI charges set-up and periodic service fees for what will ordinarily be three-year contracts.

While newspapers considered similar arrangements for other departments, ASP never gained traction in newsrooms. Having a publishing system seemed no less important than owning a press.

ASP technology was good enough, "but businesses weren't willing to trust their most-sensitive data to the 'cloud,'" says Nilan, who besides involvement in venture capital for tech start-ups, was a System Integrators executive. Soon, however, VPNs no longer were the only route to broader bandwidth, and remote-access security standards emerged.

But Urban Joner, business development vice president at Sweden's Roxen Internet Software, sees the ASP/SaaS revival as a consequence of global financial difficulties, newspapers' in particular. …