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<nettime> pathfinder kaputt
tilman_baumgaertel on Wed, 28 Apr 1999 20:10:19 +0200 (CEST)


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<nettime> pathfinder kaputt


Hi!

Another one bites the dust: As you might or might not have heard,
Pathfinder (www.pathfinder.com), Time-Warner's website, that was
launched in 1994, will be closed this year. It was one of the first big
media sites on the web, and hosted the editorial content of Time-Warner
"property" such as print magazines Time, Peolpe, Money and Fortune.

The whole site will be dismanteled, the URL will disappear, parts of the
site will be reappear under the ulrs of the different magazines
(time.com, people.com etc.). A lot of the HTML-Pages, which are
excellent examples of early web design anno mid-of-the90ies will be gone
very soon, that is, in the next six months. There is no indication that
Time-Warner has any intention of archiving them somehow.

What follows is an interview I did with Steve Baldwin on this subject.
Steve used to work at the "NetlyNews" at Pathfinder from 1995 - 1997.
Today he runs the Ezine "Ghostsites" that is dedicated to the study of
disintegrating websites and bit rot:

http://www.disobey.com/ghostsites/

He also created a "Pathfinder museum" on the net that contains ancient
navigation buttons and historical web icons: 

http://www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Station/4122/

If there were more people like Steve, we wouldn't have to be so conerned
about the gradual loss of digital culture...

An edited, german translation of this interview is at:

http://www.spiegel.de/netzwelt/netzkultur/nf/0,1518,19871,00.html

Gruesse,
Tilman

----------------SCHNAPP!!-------------------

?: Time Warner will close pathfinder. Was this predictable, or is 
it's coming as a surprise?

Steve Baldwin:
Predicting when Pathfinder would close has been a popular guessing 
game among many of its former employees for many months. I distinctly 
recall a long e-mail exchange with a few ex-Pathfinder people last 
October in which we predicted that the site would close, or 
disappear, by Christmas of 1998. 

Even back as far as 1997, an imminent sense of disaster loomed over 
the place  it was too big, too expensive, too slow-moving, and the 
division that housed it (Time Inc. New Media) was hated, despised, 
and resented by many other organizations within the company at large. 
Last year, when Pathfinder started to disable those few parts of it 
which were unique  such as the Netly News, it was apparent, at least 
to me, that it was losing momentum.  So it wasn't a surprise, really. 
I suppose I'm surprised that it lasted as long as it did.

?: What does it tell us about the nature of the internet publishing 
business that a major publishing house has to close a whole website 
of this size? 

Baldwin:
I think it tells us that organizations and publishing systems in the 
Internet Age need to be flexible, fast-moving, autonomous, and 
perhaps even temporary. A centralized Internet-centric organization 
like Pathfinder was, in my judgment, a very necessary thing back in 
1994. At that time, most magazines at Time Inc. knew very little 
about the Net, and it was important for there to be an "enabling" 
group to help them get on line, understand how Web publishing worked, 
and teach them about new technologies, page production standards, and 
other things.

If Pathfinder had been conceived merely as a temporary organization 
that would fold its doors when the job was completed (i.e. each 
magazine was able to develop its own independent Web division, and do 
its own thing), it would have worked. But Pathfinder became a vast 
bureaucracy on its own, with an Editor-in-Chief, a huge edit and art 
staff, its own business staff, its own servers, tech staff, etc. 
Naturally, it then thought it "knew best" about how to do things, and 
in many instances, it exerted a near-dictatorial authority over how 
things got done that alienated many in the larger company. This was a 
response to the fact that every arrogant, egotistical magazine editor 
at Time Inc. thought of Pathfinder as a lowly service bureau that 
they could "push around".

Pathfinder also became what Don Logan famously called "a black hole" 
 a major cost center. With a huge staff, it never covered its costs 
in advertising. While this arrangement might have served the rest of 
Time Inc (because each magazine didn't have to fund its own 
independent staff of Web producers), it made Pathfinder a fat target 
when it started messing up, and it started messing up royally.

Under the gun to "show a profit", terrible terrible decisions were 
made by Pathfinder's editors. The decision to go to a paid strategy 
was a complete fiasco. "Personal Edition"  the paid product, was a 
mess, and it never got more than a few subscribers. Millions were 
spent on this project, and months were wasted on its development. 
Many opportunities were overlooked, lost, or mismanaged. It was 
horrible to work there  high staff turnover, uncertainty, and fear 
dominated the place.

I guess if I were to sum it up, I'd say that if you're a big company 
doing Internet publishing, keep your Internet groups small, 
efficient, and autonomous. Give up notions of "centralized control", 
and a "unified editorial plan". Encourage anarchy  you're going to 
wind up with it anyway!  And for God's sake, put them somewhere safe 
- 1,000 miles away from their main office, where they don't have to 
be harassed by ignorant, egotistical magazine editors that want to 
boss you around!

?: Time Warner seems to be inclined to take the whole site down. What 
do you think should happen to sites like this? Should they be 
preserved and if yes, how? 

Baldwin:
I'm glad you asked that question. Last November, I started my own 
PPPP (Personal Pathfinder Preservation Project) it's called the 
Pathfinder Museum, and you can see it at 
http://www.geocities.com/SiliconValley/Station/4122/index.html

Here, I've uploaded many ancient screen shots, and other pieces of 
Pathfinder digital trivia for the world to see.

Why do it on my own? I don't trust corporations to preserve their own 
digital material  why should they remind the world of their abject 
failures? Some sites, notably Hotwired.com, have actually created 
archive areas that provide wonderful "time capsules" of the way they 
used to be. But I don't believe that Time-Warner would actually do 
this  they so badly mismanaged their present and future  why should 
they behave any differently when it comes to managing their past?

?: The "taking apart" of a website of this size seems to pose a 
major problem. What do you think will happen if they reassemble it 
under anumber of different URL's?

Baldwin: I think they can probably get it done in a few weeks. Only 2%
of 
their users even see the grand Home Page, so few will miss it. The 
local domains (time.com, people.com, etc.) are more or less 
independent now, so "disaggregating" them will mean removing common 
menu bars, and other items. Of course, there are a LOT of pages in 
these old sites  so many older pages might simply be deleted, rather 
than being reformatted. It's sad  a lot of great, early, First-
Generation Web relics will probably be obliterated as a result.

?: Time Warner wants to form a couple of different "hubs" on topics 
such as finance. How do you feel about this business model?

Baldwin:
I suppose this might be a good idea. I've read that they've been 
having trouble building a "finance" hub with CNN Financial News, 
because CNN doesn't want to make itself subject to the whims of Time 
Inc. New Media (Pathfinder has forever besmirched its reputation), or 
even the whims of editors at Fortune and Money.

The sad truth of the matter is that Time Inc. doesn't have enough 
content on its own to build a convincing "News" hub from its own 
content.  This is true of "Sports" as well (Sports Illustrated) 
They'll do better by pairing Fortune and Money, but in the end, 
they'll probably have to license a lot of sources, which every other 
"News" portal does. 

So I don't think hubs will be "the magic bullet" for them.  Their 
content is just too mediocre to compete with newer outfits, that 
fully leverage the publishing strengths of the Net, and don't rely so 
much on "repurposing" material from print.

?: I understand that you used to work for Pathfinder when they 
started? Any personal remarks on the closing of the site?

Baldwin:
I was hired about six months after they launched, in the first great 
wave of hirings. I remember the happy, exciting feeling of being 
"among the best and the brightest" who were going to take on the 
Internet, and it was bracing. But over the next two years, I saw so 
much pain, frustration, and sheer stupidity that by the end, I was 
ready to drop.

I know at least one former Pathfinder employee who was overjoyed when 
he heard the news that Pathfinder was soon to become history  he 
felt that the site really deserved to die!  But I'm genuinely 
depressed that the site will soon go away. So much of my life is 
locked deep within its cryptic directory structure  so much work  
all for nothing!. But I'm now working on a book called NetSlaves (see 
http://www.disobey.com/netslaves) which chronicles the rough life 
which many New Media workers find when they become Web Pioneers, and 
I'm writing the chapter on Pathfinder, so I'll be able to exorcise 
many of my demons there!

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