Making IT headlines

Bob Palermini got his first taste of Unix some 25 years ago when he became involved in production at a small newspaper that used the system to set type. Although he started out as an editor, Palermini was hooked on IT after that initial experience and taught himself the skills to make the transition to the technology side of the business. “Early on it was trial and error and books,” he says.

Today, Palermini is grappling with IT solutions for the Los Angeles Times, where decision-making is a complex process. For example, Palermini estimates that the newspaper’s storage needs range between 20TB and 25TB, making storage an immediate concern.

“We’re a case study for why storage consolidation makes sense,” Palermini says, pointing out that the newspaper relies primarily on single attached storage. Palermini is looking at SAN solutions from EMC, Hitachi, and IBM as cures for storage headaches. But the review is complicated.

Because the Times is part of a larger company, Palermini needs to be aware of what sister businesses are doing as well. “One of our roles is to talk pretty regularly to our counterparts in the [parent company’s] other properties and make decisions where it makes sense to be standardised,” he says. In other words, Palermini can’t make decisions in a vacuum. Because the Times is located in an earthquake zone, disaster recovery is also a big consideration in developing any long-term storage strategy. At the moment, the newspaper is “constantly replicating back and forth” with backup facilities at an offsite facility, Palermini says, although this replication is not occurring in any consolidated fashion.

Similar complexities reverberate through the newspaper’s online strategy. One of the challenges of working in an older industry is that it doesn’t necessarily embrace change. “We don’t try to be at the bleeding edge,” Palermini says. The emphasis is on reliability. “The newspaper was established in 1881, and we’ve never missed a day.”

But today’s consumers look to the Times to be as modern as any other business. Having provided content online since 1995, the company is now working on a project to improve customers’ ability to communicate with the newspaper and to provide more functionality in order “to be able to anticipate their needs and design our product mix so that it suits their future needs”, Palermini says. Yet another priority is to help the sales and telemarketing staff to become as efficient as possible.

“On the consumer side, we don’t really have a CRM solution in place. We have a customer service system that is all home grown and runs from the mainframe,” Palermini says, adding that a new database marketing system that is in the works should improve this.

Lee Greenhouse, president of the Chicago-based consulting firm Greenhouse Associates, which focuses on online information services and electronic publishing, says many newspapers are facing similar dilemmas as they try to compete in the online marketplace. “One of the key challenges for newspapers is that, while they are becoming increasingly dependent on technology at every step of the publishing process, they are still publishing companies at their root and are in a constant game of catch-up on the technology front,” he says. “Classified advertising is another critical area for newspapers. In all categories — employment, real estate, and cars — newspapers face stiff competition from Internet services with superior technology and reach.”

In addition to moving toward a more modern mix of technology, one of Palermini’s biggest challenges has been to change the culture in his nearly 200-person technology department. “In the past, it has been a support organisation,” he says. “What we’d really like to do is lessen the amount of effort and time we do doing support, ... optimising it, ... but bringing up the amount of time we spend innovating and adding value to the business through technology.”

The department is now doing a much better job managing its project portfolio, as well as understanding which technologies are important to the business and which technologies aren’t being used. Palermini is also trying to train his staff in recent technological innovations, while enhancing internal management skills.

So, did Palermini’s early exposure to Unix all those years ago ever come in handy? “Certainly,” he says. “Our main production systems are all Unix-based; so absolutely, it has helped a lot.”

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