Masthead CMC Magazine December 1, 1995 / Page 3


The Vision of an Accomplished Webmaster

An Interview with The New York Times' New Content Development Editor, Elizabeth Osder

by Chris Lapham (

From the University of Missouri and the The Poynter Institute for Media Studies to Newhouse Newspapers New Media and now the New York Times, Elizabeth Osder has made some fast tracks in the new media world. While she doesn't have celebrity status of a Bill Gates (thank god!) or Nicholas Negroponte ... yet ... you've probably seen and admired her work--The Cleveland Plain Dealer's Rockhall site for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, The Yuckiest Site on the Internet--my personal favorite--for the Liberty Science Center and New Jersey Online and N.J. Online Weather with the Old Farmer's Almanac. Now content development editor for The New York Times' Electronic Media Company, Osder is poised to shake up the pinnacle of journalism. She recently discussed her Web vision and insights during email and phone interviews with CMC Magazine's Chris Lapham.

CMC Magazine: What does it take to become a good Web publisher?

Osder: It's easy to build Web sites. Anybody can find a server, throw together some pages, and say they are a Web publisher. But publishing has a quality standard and quality publications are tightly edited collaborations of skilled craftpersons (writers, photographers, illustrators, designers). Building a good Web site is much the same. The best sites have clear editorial direction and come from the collaborative efforts of folks with a variety of skills--artists, writers, programmers, illustrators, and reporters. My skill is as an editor, manager, talent scout and creative director. My sites have been successful because I've had the right mix of talent and the resources to commission them.

CMC Magazine: What has the response been to the Rockhall, Yuckiest, and NJ Weather sites?

Osder: They've all been named Cool Site of the Day. Rockhall reached one million hits its first week and was featured on The New York Times Week in Review. Yucky will be featured in the January'96 issue of Wired and has been written about in Newsweek, USA Today's Web site, and it's now being heralded as something fun, safe, and educational for kids on the Net. After nine months, NJO Weather continues to have about 10,000 hits per day. People keep asking for more cities and the site is going to expand to 700 cites around the world.

CMC Magazine: What lessons did you learn (that you're willing to share :-> ) from working on these sites?

Osder: A depth of well-developed content in concert with applications makes the best site. Bells and whistles are not the key to success. My sites all have multimedia aspects--sound, video, datafeeds--but they are cool without them. I like applications like searches, databases and forums; and I think they're more than gimmicks and should be integral parts of site designs and concepts.

CMC Magazine: Do you follow a standard process to develop different sites or adapt your work plan to each individual project?

Osder: I have a process and see the development of a site in clearly defined stages that sometimes exist simultaneously.

CMC Magazine: What should we aim for in developing exciting and creative sites?

Osder: I have some development rules about taking the readers needs into consideration.

CMC Magazine: In your opinion, what are the most common "errors of omission" Web builders make?

Osder: I believe that being inconsiderate to the user is the worst error. Bad sites make you wait for things that are useless, don't warn you about file size, and have no good rationale for showing you information or directing you to links.

CMC Magazine: How did you get started in Web publishing?

Osder: In 1991, I was doing graduate work in photojournalism at the University of Missouri. A friend showed me the Internet (telnet, gopher, etc.) and it captured my imagination. I was attracted to the idea that it was now possible to use computers to link information and people around the world. I produced an interactive CD-ROM for a photo class, and because of my interest in new media, I won a media management fellowship to the Poynter Institute for Media Studies. During my fellowship, I developed a business plan for an online newspaper for kids. It was well received and the institute hired me to help them define an online strategy and create a BBS on their offerings. Their partner in this endeavor was the Raleigh News and Observer, home of NandoNet.

I first saw Mosaic in Raleigh in February 1994, and knew then that I wanted to work on Web projects. I also wanted to work in newspapers and found a wonderful first home at Newhouse Newspapers New Media. I had great teachers at Newhouse and was lucky enough to find the freedom to learn and explore Web development. My early sites weren't so fabulous--New Jersey Biking, Surf the Shore, and New Jersey Novelties, but I gained experience that, coupled with years of project management experience before graduate school, allowed me to successfully develop and manage NJO Weather, Rockhall, and the Yuckiest.

I'm committed to making the Web a success and want to keep building better sites, improve functionality, applications, and content. That's just what I hope to do at The New York Times, where as Content Development Editor, I'm cultivating partnerships and crafting original content for their Web program. After hours, I've got a few personal Web projects underway and am doing some consulting. There just aren't enough hours in the day so I haven't had time to do much about my own home page. I've got some ideas brewing and may have something up soon. It's sure to include, my demonic laugh, highlights from my little league career (I was the first girl to play little league baseball) and some of my photography. Got any ideas?

CMC Magazine: What do you think are some of the best Web sites, and why?

Osder: I like all the usual suspects and then a few others.

CMC Magazine: And where does your surfing lead?

Osder: I miss time to surf. When I do, I'm a regular explorer of photography and art sites. I also love exploring the personal home pages at universities and talent surfing. I think that college kids are going to blow traditional publishers away this year. What I'm really looking for is one place to visit with my morning coffee--a ritual starting off point...and yes I want a T1 in my home!

CMC Magazine: What do you think it takes to be on the cutting edge of this medium?

Osder: Serious publishers need to have a development team exploring new technology such as Java, Hyper G, cable modems technologies and video/audio. These teams should also be building databases, editors tools, and applications and infrastructure to support future innovation. I guess the keywords for what it's going to take is good research, resources, and a strong vision about where things are going. Goodies like Quicktime VR, Real Audio are primitive and don't make any site. They are just learning opportunities that need to be explored now for the integrated, interactive, and highly functional future of communications.

CMC Magazine: Creating self-sufficient, money-making Web sites is still a challenge. What are your ideas about a workable economic model?

Osder: I think that the Web should be free to the user and advertising supported. We need people on the Net and have to take down as many road blocks as possible. There can be premium services such as archives, but the general Internet should have free content. Secure transactions and the exchange of nano-dollars will also make the Internet a viable marketplace and open up numerous potential revenue streams. I heard projection that as much as 2 billion will be spent on advertising in the year 2000.

What do you see as the future of the Web and online technology?

I think we're moving toward true interactivity and the convergence of the television and the PC. I hope that interactive technology can help build both community and inspire connectedness and conversation. These are high ideals in an age of Ricky Lake and Sally, but computers have captivated me and drawn me away from my "couch potato," TV lifestyle. Before this can happen, though, we first need to learn the "lessons of interactivity" so we can create better programming that not only tells stories well, but is good journalism and is fun and educational, too. [CMC TOC]

Elizabeth Osder is Content Development Editor at The New York Times Electronic Media Company and can be reached at or

Chris Lapham, chief correspondent for CMC Magazine, is a freelance writer and online content consultant who lives in the Capital Region of New York. She recently received a master's degree in Communication and Rhetoric from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, New York.

Copyright © 1995 by Chris Lapham. All Rights Reserved.

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