November 22, 2006
American Thinker's Big WeekendBy Thomas Lifson
Over the extended holiday weekend, big change is coming to American Thinker. I want to share with readers why this is happening, and describe some of the new features that will be appearing. Conservatives tend to have a bias against change, so we would not undertake this metamorphosis without good reasons. You, our readers, deserve to have them explained.
Visible and invisible aspects
The most visible change will be a redesign of our home page. But that is only part of a package that includes a new set of servers and an entirely new publishing platform that will enable us to take better advantage of the possibilities of the internet, and position us for future growth.
Although our original software and home page design were a miracle of economical internet publishing, they were not created with the capacity to handle the traffic we now enjoy, nor were they endowed with key technical features that are necessary for our growth and survival.
We began as a daily publication almost three years ago, on January 4, 2004. Through the efforts of our writers, editors, and our tireless technical support staff, we have managed to overcome many obstacles and seen our readership grow to tens of thousands of individual visits a day, and hundreds of thousands of unique visitors each month. But serving this readership has not been easy. Behind the scenes, there have been numerous technical crises, ranging from complete shutdowns of the site to typographical glitches that cannot be corrected. There are articles which have never seen publication because of hidden glitches in our code that could not be overcome. We have not been able to present pictures or other graphical data, either, nor have readers been able to email articles to friends or search our blog archives. These are only a few of the serious problems.
Metaphorically, the whole package of software, servers, and home page has been held together with chewing gum and baling wire. It has served us very well, but it was time to build our future on a more solid technical foundation. We needed to start from the ground up, with an entirely new publishing platform built on rock-solid software with the potential for growth. We were faced with a blank sheet of paper, when it came to asking ourselves, “What do we want American Thinker to look like?”
The old look
Many readers (and writers and editors, too) have come to love our original design. I came up with the idea of evoking a 19th century newspaper front page because the papers of that era were unashamedly proud of their political orientation. I wanted the site to have a clean and elegant look, and I wanted to feature our trademark logo, Uncle Sam sitting in contemplation, as in Rodin’s The Thinker. Sean Cheetham’s brilliant oil painting rendering of that theme was (and will remain) our visual signature.
But the old look had problems. The three daily original articles we publish were presented with too little information. No author’s name, no blurb about the subject matter. And worst of all, when the next day’s articles appeared, the previous day’s work disappeared from the home page. The number of letters we have received asking “what happened to that article I saw yesterday?” astounded me, and alerted me to the fact that not all readers visit us daily.
So one goal of the redesign was to present a week’s worth of articles on the home page, with the author’s name and some indication of subject matter for each day’s new articles. Inevitably, that meant a lot more data on the home page. From that decision came a realization that the faux-newspaper look would not work well for us anymore.
As this thought experiment proceeded, I was struck by the fact that we have been chronicling in some detail the fall of the newspaper industry before the competitive threat of internet publications (including AT). So why would we want to be constrained by a format based on dead tree publishing? If the internet is, indeed, the future of publishing, why not embrace it, and go for a design that is characteristic of the internet?
Other than inertia, I could not think of a single reason.
Enter Real Clear Politics
Starting about two years ago, we began noticing that Real Clear Politics, a website we greatly admire, was doing us the honor of posting a number of our political commentaries right next to those of Charles Krauthammer, Mark Steyn, and other writers we respect deeply. From this sprang first email exchanges and telephone conversations with RCP’s co-founder and editor John McIntyre, and then meetings and serious discussions about the future of political journalism.
John and I became fast friends, and other members of our two websites have also been meeting and coming to build mutual friendships. Gradually, we came to think that we could build some sort of meaningful cooperation, a strategic alliance or partnership, that would enable us to grow and improve. Throughout this period, John and his colleagues were planning and then executing their own redesign and growth.
When we formally decided to go forward, both of us agreed that we should stay organizationally and editorially absolutely separate. As a consultant, I have seen too many mergers of organizations go bad, and too many good people get discouraged by the changes needed to integrate separate companies.
So what we have done is form a technical and advertising alliance. RCP’s very capable technical staff has helped us through the process of redesigning our software, home page, and servers. RCP’s business end is taking over the managing of advertising appearing on our site. But other than that, nothing else is changing. We continue to be fully independent sites, editorially and organizationally. We work together because we like and respect each other and because advertising and technical management make sense to combine.
A word about advertising
For our first two years, we had no advertising whatsoever. Donations from readers, for which we are deeply grateful, helped us pay the costs of servers and technical support, but did not come close to defraying the costs, much less provide any income at all for anyone who has worked in any editorial capacity.
Last January, we started accepting advertising. But there have been various problems, including a practical inability to screen ads for content. At times, objectionable ads were posted, and we were forced to take action to get them off our site. Once, there was a suspicion that a virus may have been carried by an ad. So we terminated all ads, other than virus-free ads that had been prepaid and were hosted on our server, and allowed minimal amounts of selected other advertising to appear, screened by RCP.
But these advertising revenues, combined with continuing reader donations, have still not generated enough income to hire even an intern, much less provide any kind of a living for yours truly, who works 7 very full days a week, 365 days a year, keeping AT going. I have been able to keep the wolf from the door by working part time as a consultant and otherwise scrambling, financially. But without some sort of reliable cash flow, which only advertising could provide, I would not be able to carry American Thinker forward, and there would be no possibility of the site continuing when my useful work days end, as they do for all of us.
We plan to remain a volunteer organization. American Thinker was founded on the premise that journalistic non-professionals with a lot to say have needed a forum to present serious information and analysis to the world. That belief has been fully vindicated by our wonderful contributors. I hope that they will continue to stay with us and favor us with their wisdom on the same volunteer basis.
So we are going to see if the combination of slightly more advertising space per page and better management of advertising itself can provide enough resources to make American Thinker viable and survivable, able to support itself without relying on donations and one unpaid full time++ employee. Even volunteer organizations, when they get to a certain size, need one or a few paid employees to keep going. The advertising is intended to allow us survive and grow. We remain committed to ideas and discourse. The advertising is only a means to an end.
Time will tell if the new strategy will work.
The change process
Our new servers will activate later today, while the old servers (with the old home page and software) will continue to function over the weekend. It will take between 24 and 48 hours for all the various intermediate servers around the world to capture the new server feed replacing the old one on our URL. That is a process called “propagation.” So for some time, you will probably see the old design come up when you click on our URL.
Please do come back periodically over the weekend to see when the new home page reaches a server near you. Try hitting “refresh” and see if you get the new home page. If Saturday comes and you still don’t see us in our new form, try emptying your cache memory.
As the weekend progresses, we will be posting some new material, and debugging any possible problems which develop. Please bear with us through any glitches that might appear. We are using this period of reduced traffic and a reduced schedule of new posts to learn the ropes of the new design. I hope that it will be more of an adventure than an ordeal. But here, too, time will tell.
So, the next phase of our existence is beginning as our nation gives thanks for our incredible blessings. For my part, I offer grateful thanks to all who have worked so hard to keep American Thinker alive, and who have contributed articles, blogs, tips, information, and money. John McIntyre and the RCP team’s support, ideas, encouragement, help, and understanding have meant and continue to mean a lot to us. I am thrilled to be working with them.
And I am especially grateful to our readers who have given us their time and attention, and who have commended our work to their friends. We do it all for you.
Bear with us if any glitches appear, and please be patient with us as we learn how to use graphics and how to take better advantage of the publication possibilities opened up by our new technical arrangements. I am not going to spill the beans on any of the surprises which lie ahead, but I hope that you will find us more interesting, visually. Stay tuned.
I fully expect many people will not approve (at first) of the new home page design. The old design, after all, is like an old friend, and it will be missed. Heck, at first I had my deep reservations, too.
But as I got used to new design, I realized that it opened many more possibilities, and honored the hard work of authors by keeping their thoughts visible to readers longer, and making our archives more easily searched.
So enjoy the holiday, check us out, and let the season’s spirit of thanks and new beginnings extend to the new beginning of American Thinker.
Thomas Lifson is the editor and publisher of American Thinker.