Early web problems were comical


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This is the first in a four-part series about the newspaper industry’s early attempts to capitalize on new media technology.

Vaporware. It’s a term used to describe a situation in which a developer announces a service, product or function before it exists.

Vaporware is an important term because it describes the result of my first encounter with a team of people from a web company. It pretty much sums up the awkward and disjointed experience the established news industry had in its initial attempts to take advantage of the World Wide Web and the Internet. In those days, of course, nobody knew the difference between the two.

First introduction to the Internet

One day in the early 1990s, one of my reporters suggested a story about a small group of people reciting Shakespearian plays online with other people from around the world. He said they would type in a line in San Diego and someone in Malaysia would type in the next line, and someone in Berlin would type in a line from their character, and everyone could read the lines on their computers.

I waited to hear more, but there was no more. Then I laughed out loud. “You’ve got to be kidding!” I blurted.

Surprised by my rudeness, the reporter responded, “No. It’s really cool. People can communicate with each other from around the world almost instantaneously.”

“Its it like a teletype?”

“No.”

“Is it like ham radio? It sounds like ham radio without the talking.”

“No.”

“Why don’t they just use a telephone? We have telephones, you know. They could make a conference call.”

“No, this is better.”

“Well, it sounds ridiculous.”

Then I was told that these people were connecting with one another on their computers using their telephone lines. “What? Why don’t they just pick up their damn telephones and talk?”

The conversation ended and the frustrated reporter silently accepted a different assignment. Months later, he had the nerve to pitch the same story again, and I accepted since it was a slow news day. Not long after, I began to read stories about the Internet and the World Wide Web. I didn’t make the connection that the Internet was the same thing my reporter was trying to describe to me until years after.

The conventional media began to run stories about this new medium. Word started to spread that the web would become a serious threat to newspapers, maybe even a threat to TV. Radio wouldn’t have much of a chance. We figured cable would be a goner.

I read an article in Editor & Publisher about a newspaper conference in which Bill Gates addressed a roomful of newspaper executives, assuring them that Microsoft's grand plans for the web were no threat to their industry. One newspaper president was quoted as saying, “He’s disingenuous.com.”

Finally, the press began looking for ways to take advantage of the web. Many began to consider advantages of the web, seeing it as a way to explore multidimensional publishing and utilizing unlimited space. It had possibilities.

First encounters

My newspaper publisher authorized me to start researching the web and I was finally granted approval to meet with a web company to discuss construction of our first site. The initial meeting was awkward. One member of the web company’s staff was outgoing and polite. She was the marketing person. The rest were shy and quiet. They did not speak the language of business; their terminology was odd, to say the least. I found this to be true during my meetings with web companies throughout the next decade.

The web company’s offices had a shelf filled with boxes of web cams that caught my eye. They promised to mount a web cam on a building above one of our city’s most trendy and busy intersections. It would stream all the action live onto our site. They would build an interactive map of our city. They would add more video. They would make the site fast, with all kinds of fun gadgets. My imagination ran wild and I was excited.

Weeks passed, then months. We didn’t hear back from the web company. We were waiting to see a demonstration of our first site. Finally, they sent us a map of the site, but no demonstration. Nearly a year had passed before we were invited to the company’s office again. They gave us a demonstration. The home page featured an animated U.S. Postal Service mailbox with a pair of eyes peeking out, moving side to side. Click on the mailbox and you could send us an e-mail. Where was the interactive map? Where was the web cam portion of the site? How were we supposed to post our stories?

The answer: “We can do those things, but we’ll have to write the code first.”

Vaporware!

We finally received our site — with no content. We had to hand-deliver a diskette with our articles, and they uploaded our stories. Those initial stories stayed on that site for months; we couldn’t add new stories ourselves, and the web company staff members claimed they were not available to help. I guess it didn’t occur to the web company that a newspaper provides news stories all the time. That’s the news part of a newspaper.

At least we had a website, although it was very embarrassing. There were still some established newspapers in our city — and beyond — that did not develop a website until a few years later.

That first web company provided us with an e-mail tied into our site, so that was a real plus. Mine was the only computer in our entire office that was able to access that e-mail. Everyone in our company all shared that single e-mail address for years.

We switched to a new web company with a little bit better service, but I had to drive across town to their office to deliver a diskette every time we wanted to place new stories on the site, and there were no archives on the site; no search engine either. I remember talking to other established businesses that experienced similar problems with their web companies, so we were not alone.

The web gains traction

Finally, the third web company we used began teaching us how to operate a content management system to update our site by ourselves, and it wasn’t long before everyone wanted to be the “webmaster.” That was the term being thrown around in those days, and it conveyed not only a position of power, but also a promise of job security for the future. All companies would be hiring webmasters, right? A webmaster was like being an editor, without the skill, experience, journalism knowledge or ethics.

Our newspaper ran stories about the fact that San Diego was among the first cities to begin laying fiber optics to provide better cable service, and also to prepare for the upcoming online explosion. It was exciting, but most of us had no idea what it really meant. Downtown San Diego began promoting itself as “Broadband Alley” in an attempt to attract more high tech companies.

Talk about super dot-com sites began to buzz, and a few local journalists were being hired to help build local city sites. Soon, every single one of those super-sites sent their San Diego webmaster to demonstrate their site for us. They wanted to partner with us. Those dot-coms could build super cool sites and city directories, but they couldn’t fill them up or provide current stories. They were not really in the news business.

These companies each came to us to show what they could do, and presented their moneymaking revenue sharing models to us. There was Microsoft’s Sidewalk, AOL’s Digital City, SanDiegoInsider, Citysearch and Time Warner’s Roadrunner site. One of San Diego’s former sheriffs even met with us to pitch a site he was representing. Since the connection at our office was so slow in those days, only one of these demonstrations went off without a glitch.

Meanwhile, about 20 blocks to the south of our office, a small staff of geniuses was light years ahead, creating a beautiful, slick, four-color pop culture magazine about the techie lifestyle called Axcess magazine. One of their young freelance writers worked in our newspaper offices as a part-timer. He was not the sharpest tool in the shed but, to our surprise, Microsoft hired him away, and also picked up one of our freelancers.

I managed to get a phone interview with Citysearch, and an in-person chat with a recruiter from Microsoft's Sidewalk. Neither interview went anywhere. My Microsoft interview was held at a classy resort hotel, so I dressed up. My interviewer met me on the resort grounds attired in tennis shoes, T-shirt and jeans. That scene pretty much epitomizes the gap between established news organizations and the new digital culture that was exploding all over the world. Conventional news organizations were ill-prepared and some never caught up. Many have become extinct, but so have most of those super online city directory sites that courted us for our local content.

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