When I found out this week marked the 40-year anniversary of the Internet, I couldn’t help but recall my first introduction to the World Wide Web in the mid-1990’s
It was while I was working at The Plain Dealer in Cleveland, when one of the systems editors, Pat Gessler, bounced into the newsroom library to inform the staff of a Cleveland Indians homepage, which was loaded with all kinds of statistical and biographical information.
What I remember most about that night was that I was getting all this information for free, without having to pay an online dial-up fee as I did with services like DataTimes and Dow Jones.
For an information junkie, this didn’t seem possible that I could read any type of information from sports to entertainment to international news for free.
I was expecting someone to wake me up from my dream.
It wasn’t long after that night that the search engine Alta Vista became my next best friend; where I would spend hours and hours searching for information on any subject under the sun. Most of these Web pages didn’t have the slickest designs; the Web sites were difficult to read with loud colors, uneven columns and unsightly blue hyperlinks scattered across a Web page. But it was free.
Before long another systems editor, Tom Gaumer, informed me The New York Times could be accessed on the Web for free. This just didn’t seem possible that news could be retrieved from one of the leading U.S. newspapers, information that as news researchers we used to have to pay a handsome fee through the LexisNexis database.
For many of us, this was more than a new world, it was a revolution. Little did I know then, that the revolution would make me obsolete a little over 10 years later.
I was laid-off as a news researcher in July, 2008 from a Florida newspaper; a few months later, the entire news library was disbanded, a rapidly growing trend with most major newspapers.
I still haven’t landed on my feet.
So as we reflect on the evolution of the Internet, for myself, at least, I can say it was the best of times; it was the worst of times.
It’s hard to imagine that in 1995 less than five percent of the U.S. population, according to the Pew Research Center, went to the Web for news. By 2002, 35 percent were abandoning print editions and opting to get their news online. In 1992, 71 percent surveyed read a daily newspaper; by 2008, Pew reported 46 percent, less than half of all Americans, were reading a daily newspaper.
For most, the Internet explosion caught us off guard; but others saw it coming, like Tennessee Senator Al Gore, who in a Washington Post op-ed piece, published on July 15, 1990, wrote of a network which had the potential of reaching into homes and "providing anyone with a personal computer access to a whole universe of electronic information".
On June 21, 1992, novelist Robert Coover wrote in The New York Times Book Review ``The End of Books’’ of the coming of a time when most books, not too far off into the future, would be digitized and read on a computer screen
Today, with about 6,800 newspapers on the Web worldwide, it’s hard to imagine a time without a newspaper having an Internet edition. But in 1995, less than 15 years ago, only 150 newspapers worldwide had Internet editions. USAToday went live on April 17, 1995; The New York Times on January 19, 1996, the Chicago Tribune on March 14, 1996, the Wall Street Journal on April 29, 1996. and The Washington Post on June 17, 1996.
By 1997, 820 U.S. dailies were online.
But before the big boppers hit the Web, there were some early pioneers that beat them to the punch.
Beginning on May 10, 1993, The Mercury News partnered with America Online. Back then it was called the Mercury Center; and subscribers were charged $9.95 for five hours of time online, which included articles from the daily print edition and periodic updates during the afternoon.
Executive Editor of the Mercury News at the time, Bob Ingle, informed readers: "We believe Mercury Center will significantly enhance our ability to provide readers with the depth and breadth of information and communication they're looking for,"
By Jan. 20, 1995, in addition to Mercury Center on AOL, the Mercury News launched a free-standing site on the open Web.
In 1993, only 20 newspapers maintained online services, two years later it jumped to 500, and more than doubled by 1996.
Well before Web sites premiered, other newspapers with dial-up modem or bulletin board systems (BBC) took advantage of the new technology.
The Dallas Morning News launched BISON (Belo Information Systems Online) in 1981; but it was short-lived. It closed in 1982.
On May 3, 1982, The Fort Worth Star Telegram premiered with a text-only service called StarText with the slogan: ``The news you want when you want it." The cost to subscribe was $5 a month for unlimited use. When most dial-ups, like CompuServe, and The Source, were charging customers by the minute, the concept of a flat rate was thought to be revolutionary at the time.
Subscribers to StarText were able to access about 50 stories on a variety of categories (sports, nation, and world news), while updates were provided from 5 am to midnight.
By 1986, StartText reached 2,000 subscribers and announced it was the first newspaper connected service to achieve profitability.
Prior to launching its official website in 1996, in 1992, The Chicago Tribune premiered with ``Chicago Online" on AOL, and in 1993, ``Chicago Tribune Online" was unveiled on AOL.
What does the future hold for newspapers during this Internet revolution?
According to the Pew Research Center, while online newspapers have recorded a modest gain since 2006, such a gain has been offset by the loss of print readers from 34 percent in 2006 to 25 percent in 2008; while 44 percent of consumers who go online for news daily, say they rely on customized web pages like Google and Yahoo that incorporate news items.
So as more and more print editions of metro dailies take a beating, with declining readership, lost advertising revenue, bankruptcy filings and stocks tumbling, I’m just glad I’m not the only one who was caught off-guard with where the newspaper industry was headed in the early days of the Internet.
I remember attending a staff meeting with the executive editor of The Plain Dealer just before I left the paper in 1998. I finally worked up the courage to raise my hand in front of a roomful of people to ask why the PD wasn’t making more of a presence on the Web.
The editor gave me disgruntled look (as if to say: who the hell are you and why are you in my life?) and then cited an unnamed study, which showed online users mainly used the Internet from 9-to-5 for a variety of information, nothing that would impact newspaper readership.
As I was escorted to the guillotine by a security guard in July, 2008, I only wish that Plain Dealer editor had been right.