The Cult of Online Infopreneurs
by: David Spalding
Let More Content
The concept was simple, the motivation innocent.
Among the success stories that I'd heard from volunteers for last year's Marin County Fair Multimedia Funhouse were those of an overwhelming demand for content on the Fair's World Wide Web (WWW) site. In addition to the phenomenal popularity of the home page-making booth, there was a continuing demand for other information to be placed on the Fair's Web site (the first of its kind), even long after the Fair had closed.
When I volunteered this year to participate with the Internet booths run by students and adults from San Marin High School (Novato, California) and The Novato Onramp (a community computer center founded by Diane Ascher), I suggested that a group be formed to address the "content issue." How about, say, a newspaper? A journal of the day-to-day events and attractions of the Fair? Would that be an attractive venture to contribute to the overall Fair?
It was an innocent enough suggestion. And several young people jumped at the idea. "Cool," they said. "This is going to be neat," they said. As the mentor, and "publisher," I knew it could also be a colossal mess. Success would be a result of teamwork and dedication.
The students who signed up to do the paper were all experienced HTML coders. Most, if not all, had contributed to the 1996 Marin County Fair's Web site; all of them had designed Web sites for themselves. Writing for the World Wide Web was nothing new, but their talents could be applied on a much grander scale.
What would make the difference between a faulty, inconsistent Web site and one that would stand as a quality publication would be the capacity of the individual students to collaborate and function as a cohesive team, willing to make personal sacrifices and adhere to standards that they established by consensus. Their abilities as members of a crew would determine their success -- and this was the factor that I was interested in promoting. Beyond being a recreational venture, beyond contributing to the County Fair,... I felt that this could also be a learning experience for the news crew, visitors to the Funhouse, and also to myself.
A Daring Venture
Our challenge was, in fact, two-fold: to collaborate together on a larger Web site, one which would be revised several times a day,... and do it on location, at the Fair site ("live, before a studio audience"). Add to this all the conventional problems that come with publishing any kind of periodical, such as deadlines, missed interviews, equipment failure, personal frustration, fatigue, uncooperative circumstances,... and you have all the ingredients for an uncertain affair.
These young people jumped at the opportunity to show what they could do together. Hesitation and doubt never even registered. The Oinker Online was born.
I was prepared to perform in the role of editor and webmaster for the newspaper, but first offered this position to the staff ... and Nick Kapranos immediately asked for the job. I've known Nick for many months, and have often been impressed with his technical acuity, his maturity and willingness to take on positions of responsibility. It didn't surprise me that he'd step to the plate and take on the leadership role.
It's been a big job. As group leader, Nick stepped his friends through the process of daily story conferences, scheduling assignments and duties, timesharing on the paper's four computer systems (provided by the Novato Unified School District, and an educational grant). Then, as editor, he reviewed articles for inclusion in each of three editions per day (published within about three hours), at times making the hard decision on whether to delay the paper for a late article, or publish without it. Then, once again, Nick switched hats to serve as the paper's webmaster, checking the code of each article, and managing the uploads of a dozen or more files for each new issue.
It's been a tough job, and he's experienced his share of crises, including
All the Oinkers (I dubbed them "newsies") have gone above and beyond the ordinary to bring in the paper. Alex Seal took on the unenviable chore of moving files from the paper's main folder into an archive system, while still reporting on the Fair and writing articles. When Alex had to be elsewhere, Lauren Elkin filled in, continuing the thankless task of sorting out the mess that was being created as over a dozen staffmembers and guest writers poured material into the paper's file structure.
At the last minute, the copyright holder of a "flying pig" image that was appropriated for the main page's banner denied the young people a limited license to use it; Micah Jacob cooked up a brand new logo, featuring the half-cow, half pig "Moink Beast" originally created for "Cows and Sows Day" by Nick and Lauren. Micah completed the new logo in record time, racing the deadline for the first edition. Micah also cooked up several other images for the paper that have contributed to a polished appearance throughout.
Lauren Elkin and the other writers have taken some really memorable photos with the paper's brace of digital cameras, the Kodak DC50 and Apple QuickTake -- both sophisticated pieces of equipment. Oren Leaffer's interviews and "Man In the Crowd" pieces have been direct and refreshingly unaffected. Oren and the other writers have even provided perspectives on events and Fair participants that were otherwise unavailable or overlooked; Oren took fairgoers and World Wide Web readers onto the fireworks barges to observe the specialists set up the pyrotechnics, and behind-the-scenes for an exclusive conversation with the owner of the Fair's spectacular carnival.
Alex Sun, lastly, was a fount of energy. I considered him the "glue" of the team; when discouragement seemed to lurk nearby, his selflessness and enthusiasm kept the Oinker fire going. He tackled just about every chore and position on the paper with equal aplomb.
This group's zeal and enjoyment of the project was infectious. By the end of the Fair, several other student volunteers had gravitated to the paper, eager to participate, and some of the adult volunteers couldn't resist writing an article or taking a picture.
The overall result is marvelous. That some sort of Web site would be completed was guaranteed, but these young people have worked together over long hours and difficult circumstances to author a Web site that I think any publisher would be proud of. They have assumed the mantle of what some call an infopreneur: a visionary, inventive content developer who uses new media technology to deliver information of value to readers and audiences in a way that transcends limitations of cost and logistics. (It's a long description, I know; it's easier to say "infopreneur.")
The infopreneur isn't concerned with the stumbling blocks that prevent publication; rather, s/he uses the new forms of telecommunications and digital technology to reach out to new readers and audiences.
Despite their age or modest credentials, the newsies never faltered in taking the paper seriously. After the the first day, editor Nick Kapranos mentioned to me that we were approaching the project "just like a real newspaper." "No, Nick," I replied, "not 'just like a real newspaper.' This is a real newspaper." He took that to heart, and throughout the Fair, he managed his team with true professionalism.
A Virtual Newspaper ...
During the five days of the Fair, over 75,000 visitors were expected to have passed through the main gate, in addition to approximately 3,000 staff members, vendors and volunteers. On July 4, approximately 30,000 people came to the Marin Center.
This is the size of a small city ... and it was upon this phenomenon that I grounded the idea of a newspaper. For five days, The Marin Center has been home to a virtual community for residents of Marin and our neighboring counties, and it only seemed appropriate to launch a virtual newspaper to record some of their stories. (As Washington Post publisher Philip L. Graham is quoted as saying, "News is the first rough draft of history.") The Oinker writers spent these five days talking with fairgoers, vendors and performers, interpreting what they've seen and heard, and then sharing their perceptions and feelings in the Oinker.
In recent speaking engagements, I've told audiences that any popular Web site combines information and an attractive graphic design into useful knowledge, but content alone won't drive a Web site. Personality keeps readers coming back to a Web page over and over. I like to say that the best Web sites aren't "content-rich," but "personality-rich." I think the Oinker Online springs from the computer screen with all the candor and spontaneity that these young people exhibit personally. Reading their articles has been like visiting the Fair with them.
Oinker Online has been fun. From Micah Jacob and Alex Sun's "The Big Deal: Where's the bathrooms?" page to Lauren Elkin's "UFO Lands At the Fair," these young people have covered the most topical and fresh subjects to them, not what they felt would be expected of them. The process of enjoying the Fair, and recording their experience on the Web (and Fair-based Spike Interactive kiosks) for all to see, has been exhilarating ... and that feeling has been captured in the articles.
And, of course, I've enjoyed simply coming home each night after the Fair, and reading the paper. After all,... this is what the newspaper business is all about: providing entertaining and relevant information in a package that can be browsed at one's leisure. The Oinker has already received mail from expatriate Marinites from around the world who've "visited" the fair through the pages of the newspaper. Paul J. Ferrise wrote to us from Italy, "... I really enjoyed browsing the pages. You guys did an excellent job. It's showed incredible imagination and creativity."
As I'd hoped, the Oinker Online also illustrated some fundamental lessons.
Most notable to me was the newspaper's unassuming demonstration of the work ethics that have made the multimedia industry grow so fast. Each of the vendor booths at the Multimedia Funhouse represent a company that's succeeded in an industry riddled with new paradigms and conventional pitfalls. The staff members of the Oinker have been navigating precisely these kinds of obstacles in real time, while contending with almost constant interruptions and distractions. The lessons that we've learned together include:
In every content-oriented endeavor that I've participated in (including short films,
writing for a local newspaper, producing and hosting a successful public radio program,
and hosting online content areas), I've learned these lessons over and over.
Launching a Web site while hosting a booth at a hectic county fair wouldn't be
my idea of "a fun time" ... certainly not in a two-week production window, while
holding down a formal day job. But Oinker Online has succeeded with a
winning style. It has reminded me that it can be done, and it can be fun,
It's been my pleasure to oversee this project, with the generous support of Diane Ascher (The Novato Onramp), Jim Farley (Marin Center Manager), Sharon Taylor and Paul Rilla (both of the Novato Unified School District), and several parents, teachers and volunteers. David Wright and Meg Morris of Spike Interactive, Inc., who contributed interactive kiosks in the Funhouse and throughout the fairgrounds, showed uncommon patience in waiting for the latest edition of the paper to update the kiosks. Numerous other Marin Center staff, security officers and fast food workers also provided invaluable support to the Oinker. Finally, the parents of the Oinker staff deserve some applause for their trust and patience while their children were deep in the maw of the publishing business. There were late nights, distracted conversations, and missed meals,... but that's the newspaper business for you.
Above all, I'd like to give my personal thanks to all the young
people who participated in Oinker Online. The staff of
the Oinker continued to energize and inspire me during the
two weeks of pre-production and
production. Their dedication and imagination have been
peerless ... and their resilience in the face of crises and
difficulty have been an example to me. This project became very important
to me personally, the center of my life even, and I'm a better person for
Sunday night,... the sun's going down ... the Fair is winding up. The
final edition of the Oinker Online has come together, and the
staff is about to enjoy a very well-deserved rest from the world of high
intensity publishing. My hat's off to them, and I encourage anyone reading
these pages to share your feedback by mailing the Marin Fair address. The Oinker
staff is already compiling a list of techniques they want to employ in next year's
07 July 1996; significant revisions 14 July 1996;
insignificant revisions 24 October 1996