Some of the most iconic 9/11 stories lost as support for Adobe Flash ends

An interactive CNN feature on the 9/11 fallout is discontinued after the end of Flash. Journalism is often seen as the first draft in history, but what happens when that draft is written on software that becomes obsolete? (CNN)

ATLANTA – Journalism is often seen as the first draft in history, but what happens when that draft is written on software that becomes obsolete?

Adobe ended support for Flash – its once ubiquitous media player – last year some of the media coverage of the 9/11 attacks and other major events in the early days of online journalism did is more accessible. For example, the Washington Post and ABC News both have interrupted experiences in their coverage of September 11, which can be viewed in the Internet Archive. CNN’s online coverage of September 11 was also affected by the end of The Flash.

It means what was once an interactive explanation of how planes struck the World Trade Center or a visually rich story about where some survivors of the attacks are now, at best, a still image that doesn’t work, or at worst, a gray box informing readers that “Adobe Flash player is no longer supported”.

Dan Pacheco, professor of practice and president of innovation in journalism at the Newhouse School at Syracuse University, experienced the problem firsthand. As an online producer for The Post’s website in the late 1990s and later for America Online, some of the work he helped build is gone.

“This is really the problem with what I call the graveyard of the Internet. Anything that isn’t text or a flat image is fundamentally destined to rot and die when new methods of delivering content have it. replace, “Pacheco told CNN Business. . “I just feel like the internet is rotting at an even faster rate, ironically, because of innovation. It shouldn’t.”

Rise and fall of Flash

Adobe Flash has played a vital role in the development of the Internet by being the first tool that made it easy to create and view animation, games and videos online on almost all browsers and devices. Animated early internet stars like Charlie the Unicorn, Salad Fingers, and the game Club Penguin have all come to life thanks to Flash.

The software has also helped journalism evolve beyond print newspapers, television and radio, ushering in an era of digital news coverage using interactive maps, data visualizations and other new ways of reporting. present information to the public.

“Flash’s ease of use to create interactive visualizations and crawlable content shaped early experiences with web coverage, including serving as a preview of what adding dynamic elements to a story could do.” , Anastasia Salter, associate professor at the University of Central Florida and author of the book “Flash: Building the Interactive Web,” told CNN Business in an email.

But despite the activation of these innovations, Flash was also controversial. In 2010, Apple founder Steve Jobs wrote a scathing letter lamenting Flash’s security concerns and the fact that it was a proprietary system underlying much of the Internet. Jobs’ refusal to support Flash on iOS devices has been widely seen as the start of his decline. A year later, Adobe announced that it would no longer develop Flash on mobile devices.

Over the next several years, the more open HTML5 web standard – which allowed developers to embed content directly on web pages – gained traction and made the Flash extension less useful. Flash was increasingly mocked and despised for its bug, loaded with security holes, battery drain, and requiring a plug-in to use.

In 2017, Adobe announced that it would be phasing out Flash at the end of 2020. Some operating systems and browsers began discontinuing Flash earlier, and the software’s official “end of life” day arrived on December 31, 2020. , when Adobe discontinued support for Flash and encouraged users to uninstall it because it would no longer receive security updates.

Since then, a multitude of Flash content on the web has become inaccessible.

“Web preservers have been sounding the alarm bells on Flash for a long time,” Salter said.

In some corners of the Internet, efforts are made to preserve or restore some of this content. The Internet Archive has made an effort to recreate, save, and display Flash-based animation, games, and other media using an emulation tool called Ruffle. However, this process can be difficult and will not necessarily work to save all content created in Flash.

“Unfortunately, it is much more difficult than we would like [to restore Flash content], especially because ‘Flash’ encompasses generations of work and the complexity of the platform’s code increased with each iteration of Adobe’s scripting language, “Salter said.” I can’t say that I do. saw a news organization make the kind of concerted effort that animation, games, and electronic literature communities must save this story. “

For its part, an Adobe spokesperson said in a statement: “Adobe has stopped supporting Flash Player as of December 31, 2020. Unfortunately, these old web pages can no longer be read due to the blocking of the Flash Player. Flash plug-in in the browser. “

Samsung-owned software called Harman has also partnered with Adobe and can help companies keep Flash content running.

Find solutions

Some editorial staff have taken on the task of reconstructing the Flash content. For its coverage of the 20th anniversary of September 11, USA Today republished a few articles from 2002 that were scheduled with the first anniversary and which included the recreation of some interactive Flash-based activities. While some of these graphics were originally larger interactives, USA Today’s graphics teams remade some to be smaller.

“We played around with the limitation a bit… because it’s a more relaxed and solemn and calm way of looking at the stories,” said Javier Zarracina, graphic director for USA Today. “We’re not doing a facsimile. We’re taking a look at what we published 20 years ago.”

One of the stories published by USA Today in 2002 was an investigation of the World Trade Center elevator system that included a Flash graphic explaining how people got trapped inside on September 11. The USA Today team chose to redo this graphic and republish it earlier this week.

This is really the problem with what I call the Internet boneyard. Anything that isn’t text or a flat image is fundamentally destined to rot and die when new methods of delivering content take its place.

–Dan Pacheco, Chair of Innovation in Journalism at the Newhouse School, Syracuse University

USA Today archived many of its old interactive activities by storing the original files on its servers. Since some of the online interactive elements were converted for the printed newspaper, they also saved the associated static graphics. Zarracina said he was able to open some of the files originally created in Adobe’s FreeHand software in a new authoring software suite called Affinity.

The New York Times brought back 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 Times.

“The Times is concerned with preserving the digital history of the early days of web journalism, and through several site migrations we’ve made sure to preserve the pages as they were originally published on,” Cohen wrote in an email. “(We) hope that in the future our readers will be able to experience all of our Flash animations.”

But not all media organizations are so dedicated to archiving.

“News companies are in business this very minute and tomorrow,” said Pacheco, the professor from Syracuse. “We are not libraries.”

Jason Tuohey, digital editor at the Boston Globe, said in a statement his team planned to “relaunch some of our archival coverage (for the 9/11 anniversary), but in many ways the best. material that we can provide to our readers is journalism that puts the anniversary in context and perspective, rather than just repeating what we have done in the past. “

CNN and ABC News declined to detail any plans to rebuild Flash-based interactives.

A never-ending problem

The limitations of news agency archives do not begin or end with Flash. Pacheco noted how his former employer, The Post, invested significant effort in TikTok. He wondered if they were preserving every video and if that was the case for other social apps as well, including content disappearing from Instagram and Snapchat.

USA Today is not reconstructing all of the old experiences for today’s news consumer. But people within the press organization pay special attention to certain projects. Jim Sergent, senior director of graphics at USA Today, said his colleague Mitchell Thorson oversees the functionality of the interactive map in Pulitzer’s award-winning feature, “The Wall,” on the US-Mexico border and the former campaign. President Donald Trump to build a wall.

“’The Wall’ is a great example of where we did an amazing job and we did, ‘OK, yeah. We want this to be there as long as possible,” said Sergeant.

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