Tribune Interactive turns to Java

When news came out last week that the death certificate of the late Beatles great George Harrison contained misinformation about where he died to prevent that location from becoming a tourist attraction, editor Ben Estes knew the story would get a lot of attention.

Though his staff could have certainly covered the story, Estes decided to post a story written by sister news site, which is located deep in the entertainment business and has the resources to write a fuller story.

The decision would have been far more difficult, however, prior to parent company Tribune Interactive’s recent acquisition of Times Mirror and its subsequent integration of the companies’ various publishing systems, Estes says.

Prior to the integration, Estes says didn’t have access to the site. His reporters would have either had to write the story themselves or he would have grabbed the story off the Associated Press newswire, posting it on the news site – a process that is time-consuming. Instead, the integration enables, and other sister sites to share and post stories, photos and related links in a matter of minutes.

Java is the Key

Tribune Interactive Inc., a subsidiary of Tribune Company, operates 30 news and information sites in such cities as Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Washington, Boston and Philadelphia. The company claims that its Web sites attract approximately 5 million unique visitors per month.

Tribune bought Times Mirror in June 2000, combining newspaper, television and Internet businesses and becoming the eighth largest media organization in the U.S. When the deal was done, Tribune Interactive grew from four Web sites to 11 – all with disparate design and publishing systems such as Atex and Harris Systems and written in different development languages, including Tickl and Perl.

“It was difficult to get critical work done,” says Mike Plonski, vice-president and chief technology officer of Tribune Interactive. For example, only two of the 11 sites had any kind of automation running, and placing advertisements was a tedious job. Tribune’s technical team had to manually manipulate templates to get ads placed on a certain page for each site.

Tribune Interactive needed a better way. After looking at some alternatives, the company decided to build its own system in-house. That decision was made primarily because there was nothing off-the-shelf that fit its needs and the development team was determined not to limit the system’s functionality, Estes says.

The main criteria for the umbrella publishing system, which would handle all 11 online sites, was that it be Java 2 Platform Enterprise Edition-based. J2EE is Sun Microsystems Inc.’s enterprise-level Java-based programming environment. Besides the fact that the development team was already skilled in Java, using J2EE would enable staffers to access the site via a browser, allowing for far more efficient changes and updates, as well as ensuring the system could run on multiple platforms.

By the end of last year, Tribune Interactive had built its proprietary Java-based publishing system, called Oxygen. The system runs on BEA Systems Inc.’s WebLogic application server, uses an Oracle Corp. 8i database repository and connects to all 11 publishing sites via the Internet. Editors and Web developers use password-based security to easily access the system’s single content repository of stories, photos and other information for all 11 sites.

The company starting to move its news sites to Oxygen last December beginning with the Orlando Sentinel; the conversion to Oxygen took 11 weeks for each site and Tribune Interactive finished the project Nov. 13. In one six-week period during the summer, it concurrently launched the L.A. Times, Newsday and the Chicago Tribune – its biggest news sites – onto Oxygen.

A Breath of Fresh Air

Both editors and the online development team noticed immediate results from Oxygen.

“It’s very peppy and it rarely lets us down,” Estes says. Prior to Oxygen, content sharing wasn’t possible between news sites and production systems were slow and clunky, he says. Now, however, editors can access a centralized repository for stories, find the slug they need, plug it into a site’s front page and push a button to post the story.

Estes also says Oxygen has alleviated late hours for some editorial workers by automating story feeds and placing them on the appropriate Web page for a site’s morning posting.

Tribune Interactive’s development team, which totals 26, all can now automate its 11 news sites with wire feeds and national and regional breaking news from the AP, moving stories online within five minutes, Plonski says. Developers now can write code once, say for placing an advertisement on a certain page, and that change will be made throughout the entire news network.

Oxygen has centralized advertising for Tribune Interactive’s 11 news sites, so advertising agents know what ads are running when and where, as well as what space is available nationally. Prior to implementing Oxygen, advertising agents had to call each site individually to find out availability.

By implementing Oxygen, Tribune Interactive boasts it has saved an estimated US$6 million in cash flow expenses so far. The company invested somewhere in the “low six-figure range” to build the publishing system.

Tribune Interactive doesn’t plan on stopping the Oxygen conversion to its news sites; last month it started to convert its 23 broadcast sites to Oxygen and it plans to have that project complete by February or March.