NewsRoom on the move

The pioneering online news agency NewsRoom is on the move - towards a new developer, a new platform and a new status as a full member of the Parliamentary press gallery. Founder and editor Peter Fowler talks about why he has set his sights on Linux and WAP in this week's IDGNet Friday Fry-Up.

In the three and a half years since he launched his online news agency, NewsRoom, Peter Fowler has seen both public and private sector communications move into the Internet era - and, indeed, has helped facilitate that move.

He was also half of one of the most bitter feuds in local media history, after some of his founding partners broke away to found the rival site Scoop - taking the original NewsRoom database software with them.

Fowler went to Glazier Systems to build and host a new site after the split. But this week, Newsroom moved again. It is now hosted by Catalyst IT, the Wellington firm which has developed a number of features, including online polls and a live election night graph, for NewsRoom, over the past year.

The move to Catalyst is to be followed later this year by a change of platforms - from Microsoft to Linux.

NewsRoom's recent changes have been rounded off by its acceptance as a full member of the Parliamentary Press Gallery - the first online news agency in New Zealand, and possibly the world, to achieve such recognition.

Fowler talks to IDGNet's Russell Brown about where the site is heading.

I take it your decision to move to a Linux platform is related to the fact that you're now being hosted by Catalyst IT?

Yes - they are Linux developers and good ones at that. The major advantage I can see with using Linux is it does not carry the large licensing fees that Microsoft products do, yet can do everything that Microsoft can do. NewsRoom has a massive development programme and a strategic alliance such as NewsRoom has with Actrix and Catalyst means we can keep building while keeping development costs on the planet.

Were there any particular issues with the Microsoft platform or with Glazier?

Glazier were good hosts and helped NewsRoom enormously. However, NewsRoom's relationship was with Rod Drury of Glazier, which was swallowed by Advantage. Advantage was also very helpful, but is a big company. The decision to move was based on the best way to get NewsRoom's technical development programme moving again. Catalyst are an enthusiastic company and can see the benefits of being NewsRoom's developers.

What do you hope to be able to do on the new Linux platform?

The biggest functionality change in moving NewsRoom to Catalyst as yet - after four days - is the archive search, which works extremely well now, and which is using the swish++ web indexing system. All of the functionality used by NewsRoom on the MS platform is available using alternative free software packages under Linux.

We have developed a new Intranet product called Intranews in Linux which is a fully customisable Intranet plug in. Having NewsRoom in Linux will allow greater compatibility, and easy development. We have plans for audio and video streaming from Parliament and using Linux software is considerably cheaper while doing the same job.

Catalyst have also developed some pretty amazing applications which can be applied to content, which are in Linux. The same goes for other developments in the wings, but at this stage they are confidential. We are conducting an online survey which is bringing in very valuable information for planning the introduction of services.

Catalyst has already built you a WAP news page. Do you see WAP and mobile services as a big opportunity for NewsRoom?

I have a company, 100% owned by me, which specialises in WAP content services, called Moonbase Media Limited. It is already under contract with a major international player in the area to provide services, and has been heavily involved in WAP development since October last year. It is keeping a low profile in this area at the moment, but will emerge as a dominant player in the NZ WAP content market.

Unlike some of our WAP content competitors we are less inclined to talk about things as opposed to actually doing it. Catalyst have already WAP enabled the NewsRoom site - the first news site in New Zealand, I believe. So yes, it's a major opportunity which Moonbase Media is now extremely well positioned for.

It seems to me that WAP's a technology waiting for some decent applications.

Yes. We also need the bloody phones to be released! That is starting to happen. But by 2004 our research indicates there will be big demand for WAP content and many people will have mobile terminals. Moonbase has blueprints for many WAP products, some already built and functional, based on my new media experiments with NewsRoom, but I'm keeping them quiet for now so as nobody steals them! It's not just what you offer, but how you offer the information which is important. My estimation is WAP is where the Internet was five years ago, but growth will be considerably faster.

How long have you been trying for gallery membership?

NewsRoom has been an associate member since 1997 of course - that's not so hard to get as there's no office. But we've had an application in about a year for full membership. The Press Gallery Executive is not renowned for moving quickly, although to their credit, the new president Audrey Young and exec member Jane Young moved very quickly. We are the only New Zealand Internet agency with official accreditation of any type to the NZ Parliament.

What do you think tipped the balance and got you full gallery membership?

We have an excellent reputation in Parliament, and have been around for three and a half years. Importantly we write a considerable amount of political stories for the four major web sites we provide news to, plus intranets and our subscriber base, so we were able to demonstrate a commitment to credible political reporting over a sustained period of time.

You're the first Internet-only agency to get gallery status in New Zealand - what do you know about equivalents overseas?

It is not an easy task getting offices anywhere let alone little New Zealand. I did have a look around and cannot find any Internet news agencies who have done so, so I suspect it is another world first for NewsRoom!

You may be interested to know NewsRoom has reached an agreement with Channel 7 television here in Wellington as well for our content to be streamed into their news shows at the bottom of the screen - a bit like Dow Jones TV - in the near future. Not to mention all the other things. This business doesn't seem to slow down - it just gets faster and faster!

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