(Trends Wide Business) — Journalism is often thought of as the first draft of history, but what happens when that draft is written on software that has become obsolete?
The fact that Adobe stopped supporting Flash – its once ubiquitous media player – last year meant that some of the news coverage of the September 11 attacks and other major events in early journalism online are no longer accessible.
For example, The Washington Post and ABC News have a broken interface within their 9/11 coverage, visible on The Internet Archive. Trends Wide’s online coverage of September 11 also suffered from the end of Flash.
This means that what was once an interactive explanation of how planes crashed into the World Trade Center or a visually rich history of where some survivors of the attacks were located is now a still image at best. that does not work or, in the worst case, a gray box informing readers that “Adobe Flash player is no longer supported”.
Dan Pacheco, an internship professor and president of journalistic innovation at Syracuse University’s Newhouse School, has experienced the problem firsthand. As an online producer for The Washington Post’s website in the late 1990s and later America Online, some of the jobs he helped build have disappeared.
“It’s really about the problem of what I call the internet graveyard. Anything that isn’t a piece of text or a flat image is basically destined to rot and die when new content delivery methods replace it,” Pacheco said. to Trends Wide Business.
“I feel like the internet is rotting at an even faster rate, ironically, due to innovation. It shouldn’t.”
The rise and fall of the Flash
Adobe Flash played a pivotal role in the development of the Internet by being the first tool that made it easy to create and view animations, games, and online videos on almost any browser and device. Animated stars from the early days of the Internet like Charlie the Unicorn, Salad Fingers and the game Club Penguin were brought to life thanks to Flash.
The software also helped journalism evolve beyond print newspapers, television, and radio, ushering in an era of digital news coverage that used interactive maps, data visualizations, and other novel ways of presenting information to the public.
“The ease of use of Flash to create interactive visualizations and browsable content shaped the first experiments with web coverage and, in particular, served as a preview of what adding dynamic elements to a story could offer,” he explains. to Trends Wide Business Anastasia Salter, associate professor at the University of Central Florida and author of the book “Flash: Building the Interactive Web.”
But despite allowing those innovations, Flash was also controversial. In 2010, Apple founder Steve Jobs wrote a scathing letter complaining about the security problems of Flash and the fact that it was a proprietary system underlying much of the Internet. Jobs’ refusal to support Flash on iOS devices was seen as the beginning of his decline. A year later, Adobe said it would stop developing Flash for mobile devices.
In the following years, the more open HTML5 web standard, which allowed developers to embed content directly into web pages, gained popularity and made the Flash extension less useful. Flash was increasingly mocked and scorned for being fraught with bugs, security vulnerabilities, battery drain, and the need for a plug-in for your use.
In 2017, Adobe announced that it would retire Flash at the end of 2020. Some operating systems and browsers began discontinuing Flash prematurely, and the official “end of life” day for the software arrived on December 31, 2020, when Adobe ended support for Flash and encouraged users to uninstall it because it would no longer receive security updates.
Since then, a large amount of Flash-based content around the web has become inaccessible.
“Conservationists on the web have long been warning about Flash,” says Salter.
In some corners of the Internet, an attempt is made to preserve or restore some of this content. The Internet Archive has made an effort to recreate, save, and display Flash-based animations, games, and other media using an emulator tool called Ruffle. However, that process can be difficult and will not necessarily work to save all the content generated in Flash.
“Unfortunately, it is much more difficult than we would like [restaurar el contenido de Flash], especially since ‘Flash’ spans generations of work and the complexity of the platform code grew with each version of the Adobe programming language, ”said Salter. “I can’t say that I’ve seen any news organization make the kind of concerted effort that the animation, gaming and electronic literature communities are making to save this story.”
For its part, an Adobe spokesperson said in a statement: “Adobe stopped supporting Flash Player as of December 31, 2020. Unfortunately, these older web pages can no longer be played due to the Flash plugin being locked from loading in the browser. Like all Americans, we saw the horrific events of 9/11 and understand the important role Flash played in helping the media represent and tell the stories of that tragic day. “
A Samsung-owned software called Harman has also partnered with Adobe and can help companies maintain Flash-based content.
Some newsrooms have been in charge of rebuilding the content in Flash. For its coverage of the 20th anniversary of September 11, USA Today republished some articles from 2002 that coincided with the first anniversary and included the recreation of some Flash-based interactives. While some of these graphics were originally larger interactive, the USA Today design teams remade some to be smaller.
“We have played with limitation a bit … because this is a more relaxed and more solemn and calm way of looking at stories,” said Javier Zarracina, graphic director of USA Today. “We are not making a duplicate. We are taking a curated look at what we published 20 years ago.”
One of the stories USA Today published in 2002 was an investigation into the World Trade Center elevator system that included a Flash graphic explaining how people got trapped in them on September 11, 2001. The USA Today team decided to remake that chart and republished it earlier this week.
USA Today archived many of its old interactives by storing the original files on its servers. As some of the online interactives were converted for the print newspaper, they also kept the static graphics. Zarracina said he was able to open some of the files originally made in Adobe’s FreeHand software in a newer creative software suite called Affinity.
The New York Times newspaper recovered some of its old Flash-based interactives using Ruffle, an Adobe Flash Player emulator that is part of an open source project, said Jordan Cohen, executive director of communications for The New York Times.
“[The New York ]Times is concerned with preserving the digital history of the early days of web journalism, and through various site migrations we have made sure to preserve the pages as they were originally posted on archive.nytimes.com, “Cohen wrote in a email. “We hope that in the future our readers will be able to experience all our interactive in Flash.”
But not all media organizations are so dedicated to archiving.
“The news companies are in business this minute and tomorrow,” said Pacheco, the Syracuse professor. “We are not libraries.”
Jason Tuohey, editor-in-chief of digital at The Boston Globe, said in a statement that his team planned to “revive some of our archival coverage. [para el aniversario del 11 de septiembre]But in many ways, the best material we can offer our readers is journalism that puts the anniversary in context and perspective, rather than simply repeating what we published in the past. “
Kat Downs Mulder, managing editor of digital at The Washington Post, said in a statement that her news organization has “made a concerted effort to make the majority of our text, image, graphic and map-based articles accessible” on its files online, but added that not all projects are rebuilt.
Trends Wide and ABC News declined to give details on any plans to rebuild the Flash-based interactives.
A never ending problem
The limitations of news organizations archives do not begin or end with Flash. Pacheco noted how his former employer, The Washington Post, has invested significant effort in TikTok. He wondered if they were preserving each video and if that was also the case for other social applications, including the disappearance of content on Instagram and Snapchat.
USA Today does not reconstruct every experience of yesteryear for today’s news consumer. But some people within the news organization are paying special attention to certain projects. Jim Sergent, senior graphics manager at USA Today, said his colleague Mitchell Thorson keeps his eyes on the interactive map functionality within the Pulitzer-winning feature, “The Wall,” over the US-Mexico border and the campaign. of former President Donald Trump to build a wall.
“‘The Wall’ is a great example where we did an incredible job and we realized that, ‘Okay, yeah.’ We want this to be there for as long as possible, ‘” Sergent said.