by Julie Hanson

Belo Interactive Uses VelocIT to Spread the News

Feb 01, 20036 mins

Just a few short years ago, when Dallas Morning News Senior Editor Kim Kirkham wanted to post a story on the paper?s website, the first thing she needed to do was to yell, ?I?m publishing!? to the entire newsroom staff, hoping that no one was filing a story at that same moment. If someone else was simultaneously publishing, the system could crash.

It was obvious to both business and technical leaders at Belo Interactive, the Internet subsidiary of news, cable and television conglomerate Belo, that this was not the most efficient Internet strategy. Thus was born VelocIT, a system that centralizes all content, manages its distribution throughout the 24 Belo Interactive websites, has Web-hosting capabilities and was awarded an honorable mention by the Enterprise Value Awards judges. Before VelocIT, what appeared on one Belo Interactive site sat in its own silo, unable to be distributed to sister sites with ease. With VelocIT, once a piece of content enters the system, whether a story, photo or a new car listing in the classified section, that content can be routed or pulled out of the system by any Belo Interactive employee with just a few clicks?and then posted online.

The resourcefulness of this content management system, which includes legacy software as the system?s main structure, is what got the attention of this year ?s judges. Enterprise Value Awards judge Doug Barker says he was impressed with Belo Interactive?s ability to take a simple foundational piece and build a complex, efficient system, calling VelocIT ?slick and powerful.? The Key Is ContentAt first, Belo Interactive IT leaders stumbled on the way to finding a solution. They knew that in order to succeed they needed to aggregate their content, share it companywide and do that efficiently, but they weren?t sure exactly how. One of their first attempts, a $2.8 million outsourced Web-based classified publishing system, failed after a year and half because it could not handle the volume of content and data. Belo Interactive executives then decided to build their own solution.

The first step in doing so was to inventory their internal systems, which were spread throughout 20 locations and were, in some instances, 20 years old. Ripping out networks nationwide to replace them with shiny new servers was not only financially impractical but something Belo?s employees would likely balk at. Executives knew that in order to develop a system that would work and be cost-effective, they needed to start from the content and work up from there, using their in-house systems as a base.

This is where Chris Feola, Belo Interactive vice president of technology, stepped in. Feola, a former journalist who had switched to IT, focused on content management in building VelocIT. His one major goal: to build a system that was a simple process but had deep and rich data. First Feola conducted a massive inventory of all Belo?s content. This step helped the organization understand what type of content VelocIT would have to catalog, define and then distribute. Content pieces were then categorized by type, and each story was split into byline, headline and body?with equal importance given to each piece of content. The next step was to encapsulate the content with code that would allow it to interact with other content and also accept direction from any VelocIT user?s desktop. For example, a story that ran in the Dallas Morning News on Feb. 1, 2003, is broken down into pieces and labeled as: Headline A, on page B15, top right corner in a package with Story A and Photo A. VelocIT users can later reassemble that package, by picking and choosing which parts they wish to use.

The Roll-Out

VelocIT was first rolled out in December 1999 and cost about $60,000. Within 30 days of its launch, VelocIT was able to provide broad distribution of content and keyword searching on news content. VelocIT is built primarily out of legacy systems, including CText Advision, CCI and SII, and it publishes content from all these systems to the Web. Users access VelocIT using a Java Applet client on any PC running Windows and Internet Explorer. Data is stored and published on a single Oracle 8i repository. It took more than two years for full system rollout?the last site was added in March 2002?with a final bill of approximately $1.5 million. Annual maintenance costs hover around $10,000, but Feola says this is a bargain as they estimate a savings of $80,000 annually because they no longer have system support people at any of the sites or have to pay for hosting or support at any of the sites. Prior to VelocIT, sites had their own internal or external hosting and support.

At peak production, VelocIT can move several thousand stories in a course of an eight-hour shift, whereas before VelocIT, the most efficient way of moving stories was to manually cut and paste. According to Kirkham, only three or four stories from each section of a single day?s Dallas Morning News could run on using the old method. Now she has time to post nearly 80 percent of the paper?s content, updating that content throughout the day. In addition, Kirkham receives automatic e-mails from newspaper editors when breaking news is available to post.

And because Belo Interactive?s staff can spend more time producing content and less time managing and moving that content, sites have improved dramatically. Even the smaller sites now have Health, Entertainment, Travel and Food sections, and Belo Interactive has embarked on a rapidly growing e-mail direct marketing campaign to drum up more business and advertising. Staff members have been able to add user registration features to their sites, allowing the ability to capture customer data?something not possible before VelocIT. ? Beyond the cost savings, we are producing much better websites?especially in our smaller markets?than we would have ever envisioned,? says Belo Interactive Vice President and General Manager Eric Christensen.

The number of staff needed to produce a site has also dropped dramatically because fewer people are needed to manage online content. That means that Christensen can put more of his employees out in the field generating ad revenue. ?If I had 10 people running a website before, seven were moving content around. Now I may have four [moving content] and the remaining six people out generating revenue for the company,? says Christensen. The workflow and content management improvement because of VelocIT has been so successful that revisions of the system continue. And Belo Interactive is so confident of the uniqueness of VelocIT they are currently seeking multiple patents for the technology and on specific applications of it.