“Oh my god, you are so old.”
That was the reaction from my younger ABC News colleague when I told him I was writing a piece about my time as editor-in-chief of The Hoya and the birth of the newspaper’s website.
He couldn’t believe that when I was in college, the internet was just an infant, that we had to start our newspaper’s website from scratch and that it took almost as long to publish online as it did to get the paper printed.
To me, 1999 doesn’t feel that long ago, but in digital time, it’s been an eternity. The Hoya now breaks news online 24/7, and readers are pulled in through social media feeds. Twenty-one years ago, we were the pioneers, desperately trying to drum up interest in a site people could maybe only access in the library or the computer lab.
I graduated in 2000 and never had a high-speed internet connection in my dorm, apartment or off-campus house. I got a cell phone when I was editor-in-chief, just in case of a Hoya emergency, and my friends made fun of me. Nobody else had phones, so I really had nobody to call.
At The Hoya in the late 1990s, staffers who were web producers had technical skills the rest of us had never heard of — design, coding, photo editing. I’m still not sure where they learned their skills, but they earned them respect.
In the early days of the website, we were not yet digitally transmitting the print edition to the printer. We designed each section through a computer program but still had to print actual paper out to assemble on boards and hand over to a courier, who would take them to the printer.
That meant the web team spent an immense amount of time essentially reinventing the wheel in taking what was designed for print and converting it to the web.
Gregg Blais (COL ’01), who was a critical leader in the early days of TheHoya.com, reminds me that it was a clunky, time-consuming process to get the entire edition to upload to the internet.
“The most painful part was that FrontPage required you to publish the whole entire site each time you wanted to publish a change to the public site,” Blais said. Imagine a typo that needs to be fixed — you have to republish the entire newspaper for one misplaced comma!
As the website grew, it took more time to publish the paper online, sometimes taking hours to finish. Usually, that meant the print staff would wrap up and head off to sleep or to catch a late-night drink while the web team worked until the sun came up.
However, a major change occurred when Blais developed a new system that would generate article pages and main section pages after editors pasted completed stories into a web form. Less work for the web team, faster upload time.
At the same time as this digital adventure, the photo team was also shifting to digital — no more developing photos in a dark room or trips to a MotoPhoto on Wisconsin Avenue. That change meant web editors no longer had to scan in hard copies of photos.
While the web team got the production process down, another big challenge for The Hoya in the late 1990s was driving traffic to the website.
Remember, 1999 was before cell phones and mobile access to the internet. When Hoyas read The Hoya, they held it in their hands and flipped the pages.
One innovative idea the team came up with was a new, online-only section known as The GUice Box. We sent our Hoya photographers out on campus and in the neighborhood to capture student life in a candid way. No posed photos, no directions. Just a flavor of the every day and night life of Joe and Jane Hoya.
We ran in-house ads in the print paper encouraging students to see if they were spotted for The GUice Box. Nothing like an attempt to appeal to the healthy egos of college students. The GUice Box had a short run, but it probably helped our traffic.
During my time at The Hoya, the web site was the side show. Now it is the main event.
I regularly check TheHoya.com for the latest campus news, and I follow all of its social sites. It’s exciting to see The Hoya taking the same online approach as professional news organizations with a web-first mentality — breaking news before waiting for the ink to dry.
Karen Travers (COL ’00) is a former editor-in-chief of The Hoya.