Friday, March 19, 2004
The Mosquito's Web Team: DIETers and a MADAM
A very important Town Meeting is coming up in just four days. Have you decided how you'll vote on Benfield Parcel A? If its complexities have you in a dither and you've recycled the last dozen Mosquitos, you can go to www.carlislemosquito.org, where you're a click away from "Recent Articles Pertaining to Town Meeting" with links to some 20 recent articles that inform the voter.
The online Mosquito is almost three years old. Launched in June 2001, it is an attractive, well-organized, easily navigable site that offers each week's paper plus a six-year archive of past issues searchable by keyword. This unique high-tech resource is the work of the Web Team, a small band of super-skilled volunteers who use sophisticated software to convert the 16- or 20-page Mosquito into a browser-friendly format. Most of the members also work on the hard-copy paper in addition to their web duties.
The web team
Susan Emmons, Verna Gilbert, Mary Hult and Betsy Fell are DIETers — no, they're not on Jenny Craig, but they make up the Data Import-Export Team. Each Wednesday afternoon or Thursday before the traditional Mosquito goes to press, a DIETer exports the contents from PageMaker to HTML, the Web's language, and e-mails the files to Webmaster Rik Pierce. This process takes about two hours. Meanwhile, Marjorie Johnson prepares a file of color photos for the Web, which Webmaster Rik Pierce downloads from her computer onto a tiny Flash card ("in seconds," he says).
Rik's work is varied and calls on his considerable computer skills. He processes the files in Dreamweaver, an HTML editor, and then uses software called MADAM, the brain-child of Paul Hackbarth, to organize the paper. He often reformats tables of schedules and agendas, resizes and optimizes photos and places some miscellaneous graphics when they are needed. Late Thursday Rik posts the electronic paper to the server run by his son Tim Pierce and voilà, the online Mosquito is up.
Why an online paper?
If you can't wait for your Mosquito to land in your mailbox, you can log on early Friday morning and be an early-bird reader. Some people just prefer to do their reading online. Apart from reading the news before your neighbors, what are the advantages of an on-line edition over the traditional "black-and-white-and-read-all-over" version you hold in your hand? Most likely its chief value is the research enabled by the swift and elegant search engine, developed by Tim Pierce, which can scour the paper's archives and serve up the requested story before you can blink. This feature is useful to general readers, as well as residents newly appointed or elected to town boards and committees who can easily catch up on their board's recent history. Mosquito writers and reporters, always under deadline pressure, can research an article from home.
Benefits of an online paper:
• Late-breaking news. News as diverse as election returns and Old Home Day race results can be posted immediately. Recently, the selection of the new Carlisle School superintendent and the sudden death of Vivian Chaput were posted on the Web days before the paper was published.
• Longer articles. Each week the length of the Mosquito, a non-profit paper, is determined by the amount of its advertising, which pays for printing the paper. Features and news stories that either were cut or could not be placed at all can be published in their entirety on-line, where space is not an issue.
• Color photos. On October 26, 2001, the Mosquito printed one black and white photo of the harvest at the Cranberry Bog. On the Web, though, several photos appear in breathtaking color, with the brilliant red cranberries complementing a deep blue sky. In addition to displaying original photos in color, the online Mosquito often includes photos that did not appear in hard-copy because of space constraints. Tom Raftery's cartoons, enhanced by Rik Pierce's colorizing ("I do it just for fun," he admits), are worth a special visit to the site.
• Index of articles. As mentioned earlier, all Mosquito articles relevant to Benfield Parcel A and the Special Town Meeting on March 23 are in one place on the site and are easily accessible. This same feature has been used in past issues to explain complex town matters, such as Proposition 2 1/2 overrides and free cash. "I think the Mosquito web site is a great little example of how to use technology to encourage a more informed and active citizenry," says Tim Pierce.
• Out-of-town readers. The online Mosquito brings Carlisle to your college students and far-flung relatives and friends. If your second-grader's Halloween photo is in the paper, you can simply e-mail it to friends from the Mosquito's web site. Carlislean Sarah Brophy, who is in England with her family for a year, writes: "One of us logs on and the other does an over-the-shoulder read. I do love being able to get to it any time I want from southeast England." Vacationers can keep up with town news from Internet cafes and potential Carlisle home-buyers can get a taste of the town. (The Mosquito is linked from the main Carlisle web site, www.carlisle.org)
A family affair
From the beginning Tim Pierce has hosted the Mosquito on his web server, www.unchi.org, that lives in his home office. The computer is a workstation running FreeBSD Unix, and "all of the software that runs on it is free and open-source software." Tim reports that he hopes to upgrade in the next few weeks to a faster and more powerful machine, a 800MHz Pentium II computer with a 100-gigabyte disk
The Web Team credits Paul Hackbarth's software MADAM ("Magnificent Data Munger") with the ease of posting the online paper each week. Hackbarth, a former software engineer and now primarily a teacher of T'ai Chi, wrote MADAM in Visual Basic. The program extracts the beginning of each news and feature story and automatically creates links to the full article. Each page contains the title of the story to facilitate the search function. "It's extremely useful," says Rik Pierce, "and Paul is a genius. Without MADAM, it would take me at least an extra hour per issue to create the online edition."
In addition to his assignments as a Mosquito photographer, Webmaster Rik Pierce has developed web sites for the Carlisle Conservation Foundation, the Concord Players and the Concord Art Association.
After a long delay, the arrival of high-speed Internet access in Carlisle just a year ago enabled most residents to enjoy fast, reliable online service. The web-based Mosquito was the beneficiary of the town's entry into broadband. While we have anecdotal information about people viewing the web site, statistical reports (available at www.carlislemosquito.org/stats) confirm its increasing popularity. The analysis for the year 2003 shows 244,676 successful requests compared with 160,607 the previous year. In 2003, there were 670 average successful requests per day compared with 440 in 2002. The most requests in 2002 were made in June (21,192 requests), while in 2003 October was the busiest month (24,590). In both years Friday was the most active day. Early in 2004, the numbers are keeping pace with the previous year.
In June the online Mosquito will be three years old. In the beginning, only some of the paper was posted on the Web but today, with technological advances and Web Team skills and energy, the entire paper, minus advertising, is available. Producing the online paper has evolved to a point where, "We've gotten the process so streamlined that some of the time I don't even know there's a new issue up until I look at the web site!" says Tim Pierce.
The Web Team is constantly searching for improvements and is contemplating the inclusion of advertisements on the site. Rik Pierce is the recipient of Webmaster mail — but no one writes to him. If you have suggestions for or complaints about the web site, send Rik some mail. It's especially important to tell the Webmaster if something on the web site doesn't work. For all web mail, please contact Mosquito1@pobox.com.
© 2004 The Carlisle Mosquito