Remembering Peter Kaplan

We were very sad to learn of Peter Kaplan’s death last Friday. Peter meant a lot to us at Alley, and to me in particular. As a programmer, I certainly can’t claim to know Peter as an editor or a mentor, like so many influential journalists can, but he had a huge impact on our company. Frankly, without Peter and his followers, we would probably not be building news websites.

Alley owes its start to the Kaplan-era Observer. I started there as the Software Development Manager in October 2007 and hired Matt in March 2008. It was my first job in New York, and The Observer informed my entire perception of the city and the media industry. My early understanding of the way that the business and editorial relate to each other in a news enterprise stems from my experiences with Jared, Bob, Peter, and Tom. It might sound funny to those with inside knowledge, but this model has served me very well.

Peter loomed large over The Observer, and his team rallied around him. Most of all, he made the whole venture seem very important. His respect for his team of journalists made us respect them too—at that time, journalism’s stock was low and going much lower. It took us a long time to understand that journalism was under siege. In retrospect, Peter and his editors must have thought we were idiots. But we worked hard, and we genuinely wanted his team to like the website and to like using it.

In February 2009, we relaunched with a new design and upgraded it from Drupal 5 to Drupal 6. This was the capstone project for our web team—we didn’t know it at the time, but most of us would leave by the summer, and every single one of us would leave The Observer within the year.

The design for this site was very visual and very bold. Peter gave the project its name, Neptune, when he exclaimed in a design review, “We’re not going to the moon! We’re going to Mars! We’re going to Neptune!” In that same meeting, he gave us a catchphrase when he said, “It’s good to get an eyeful” in reaction to the bold photographic features on the homepage. We can only hope he meant what we thought he meant when he said that.

The launch of that site didn’t go so well. We were up all night on the day that the launch was scheduled and ultimately pushed launch until the next night. During the worst of it, our boss, Brian, quipped, “You know things aren’t going well when the programmers switch from beer back to coffee.” By the time we had given up and rolled back, it was 3am. Most people went home, but I stayed up and optimized the query that was giving us trouble, then fell asleep across three rolling desk chairs in the programmers’ office.

Peter was at the office early the next morning and came back to where the web team sat to ask why the website didn’t look any different than it did the day before. Reportedly, he opened my office door and saw me sleeping. My boss told me when I woke up at about 11 that Peter had seen me and was impressed.

I knew, as a programmer, I would never be in Peter’s orbit—but his reaction to my situation cemented him as one of my personal heroes, and it certainly helped me launch that site later in the day.

Peter must have done something like this, on far deeper levels, for so many young journalists. Journalists need more faith than programmers do, since their trade has contracted so significantly. The internet offers new forms of news media every year, many of which involve no journalists at all, so budding reporters badly need someone to tell them to keep the faith. Programmers get all the positive feedback we can take, and it’s too easy for us to dismiss the news as yet another commodity ripe for disruption by software. Many a startup has died on that vine.

It’s easy to peg Peter Kaplan to his affinity for print media. But if he ignored the web, it was only because the web drives towards devaluation, commodity, and reflex. We at Alley believe in the value of journalism—real reporting by trained journalists talking to real sources and will fight for it. Only now, and only because of his many talented acolytes, is this actually working, and we are very lucky to be a part of it.

We owe Peter for our understanding of the responsibilities programmers have to journalists. We’ve built our business on this concept, and it’s gone great so far. We’re really lucky to get to work on The Observer to this day, and to work on Capital New York, which counts so many Kaplan faithful among its staff.

We will miss him terribly, and wish all the best to his family and friends.