Dispatch: Autopilot for Web Publishing

DesertNet's Software Suite Helps Editors Regain Control of the Web.

In 1995, Wil Gerken began developing Internet publishing software for Tucson Weekly’s website. Four years and 20 clients later, Gerken is Chief Technical Officer of Tucson Weekly’s spin-off software company, DesertNet. And the software — aptly named Dispatch — has emerged as the most widely used web-publishing tool in the alternative newspaper business.

Now owned by DesertNet, Dispatch Automated Publishing Solutions is a client/server application that helps print publications automate the process of online publishing. Migrating the content from each weekly print edition to an online database, Dispatch enhances each web page by embedding hypertext links to related content from previous issues. The richer environment may ultimately translate into increased page views and ad dollars for papers that use the product.

DesertNet CEO Andy Sutcliffe says that Dispatch grew out of a need for a faster, more efficient way to transfer QuarkXPress files to HTML. “Quark was never designed with web publishing in mind. It is a burdensome process to convert Quark content to HTML and then publish to the web. Dispatch has been fine-tuned to understand Quark style sheet information, so it converts the text and automatically populates the headline, sub-head, byline and other styled information into the Dispatch database fields,” says Sutcliffe.

Instead of lots of time-consuming cutting-and-pasting, papers that use Dispatch simply upload text and graphics to a server that automatically converts Quark files into a database-enabled web publication. “Before Dispatch,” says Sutcliffe, “one of our clients spent nine hours a week to manually code the content on the web. With Dispatch, it only takes them 30 minutes.”

Austin Chronicle Online/Production Manager Karen Rheudasil confirms Sutcliffe’s claim. Before becoming a DesertNet client, the Chronicle published its entire paper online by hand-coding every page. “Thursdays were grueling, often requiring a total of 24 hours of production time,” Rheudasil says. “[With Dispatch] it’s now one person spending four to six hours on the site, rather than six people spending four to six hours on the site.”

Nevertheless, Rheudasil says that her paper, which has been using Dispatch for only six weeks, is not yet “maximizing its benefits. In the future, once we are more knowledgeable and comfortable with it, we’re going to save many more hours.”

Baltimore City Paper Systems Manager Rob Kolosky says that his paper only published “a small part of what’s in the printed product” before it turned to DesertNet. Although he admits Dispatch hasn’t decreased City Paper’s production time, he says it has allowed the paper to publish much more content on its website.

Sutcliffe says that Dispatch can also be used as an automated reader survey. Since Dispatch marries the page view logs with the database information, editors and publishers can determine which pages, articles, topics, writers, illustrators, etc. are receiving the most hits.

According to Dispatch clients, the learning curve is not prohibitive. Most of the tough work comes in the early stages of development, when the paper creates design templates and selects fixed editorial categories. Once the templates and categories have been assigned, the process should be transparent, with no coding or HTML knowledge necessary. “The editor can just go onto the site and change the content, and it’s updated in real time,” says Sutcliffe. “And anytime new content comes into the site that matches previously determined categories, each of those categories are updated.”

Sutcliffe says that Dispatch also helps papers provide a more valuable experience for its website visitors, which generates additional page views. “Most sites contain a series of static pages. Though it’s possible to get to an article from an external search engine, once you get there, there’s no relationship to the totality of the website. Dispatch enables you to present the totality of your content — both current and previously published — in a meaningful, browseable environment.”

For example, Sutcliffe says, on a non Dispatch-enabled website, an individual who reads a review of Eyes Wide Shut would be forced to conduct a search to find other reviews of Stanley Kubrick films. With Dispatch, those reviews would be presented as hypertext links on the same page. In addition, the page would contain links to movie reviews and other editorial material related to other films starring Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman.

Sutcliffe says this enhanced presentation provides a stickier environment that keeps users on the website longer, generating additional page views. For example, he says that Tucson Weekly increased its page views five-fold since it began using Dispatch, with most of that increase attributable to enhanced use of archived material.

“One great strength of the alternatives versus the dailies is the depth of their meaningful content. While the dailies’ content might be a mile wide, it’s only an inch deep. Alternatives’ content might only be an inch wide, but it’s a mile deep! That depth is the previously published content. Dispatch enables you to leverage that content,” says Sutcliffe.

New Times Inc. web developer Kyle Burnett says that using Dispatch “definitely helps drive some traffic into archives. Once we import into Dispatch three years of Phoenix New Times ‘ pre-Dispatch online content, we will be in great shape. But if we can get 10 years of off-line archived content into Dispatch, we will be in fantastic shape. And that is a tremendous advantage of Dispatch. So if Dispatch doesn’t take less time than traditional paper-to-web publication, it definitely gives you more power.”

Burnett doesn’t think New Times can immediately capitalize on the additional traffic generated by its use of Dispatch, but he is optimistic about the future. “I don’t think that Dispatch is necessarily going to help or hurt us [to increase advertising revenue] right now, but it will help in the future when we link listings and advertisements with key word searchability.”

Others are skeptical. Salt Lake City Weekly Web and System Administrator Eric Jacobsen says, “The ‘hundred million-dollar question’ for content-driven sites — both those run by alternative newsweeklies and web-centric sites like Salon, Slate, and Word — remains the same as it has since 1996: Where’s the money? If the folks at Dispatch figure it out, their success could grow beyond the alternative newsweekly market.”