Not long after HotWired launched on the web in 1994, Josh Quittner wrote an article entitled “Way New Journalism” for the publication. He was enthusiastic about the birth of a new medium.
I’m talking about a sea change in journalism itself, in the way we do the work of reporting and presenting information. The change that’s coming will be more significant than anything we’ve seen since the birth of New Journalism; it may be even more revolutionary than that. It has to be: Look at all the new tools we’re getting.
The title and the quote was a nod to the last major revolution in journalism, what writer Tom Wolfe would often refer to as “New Journalism” in the 1960s and 1970s. Wolfe believed that journalism was shifting in the second half of the 20th century. Writers like Hunter S. Thompson, Truman Capote, and Joan Didion incorporated the methods and techniques of fiction into nonfiction storytelling to derive more personal narrative stories.
Quittner believed that the web was bringing us a change no less bold. “Way New Journalism” would use the tools of the web — intertextual links, concise narratives, interactive media — to find a new voice. Quittner believed that the voice that writers used on the web would become more authentic and direct. “Voice becomes more intimate and immediate online. You expect your reporter (or your newspaper/magazine) to be an intelligent agent, a voice you recognize and trust.”
Revolutions, as it were, do not happen overnight, and they don’t happen predictably. Quittner would not be the last to forecast, as he describes it, the sea-change in publishing that followed the birth of the web. Some of his predictions never fully come to fruition. But he was correct about voice. The writers of the web would come to define the voice of publishing in a truly fundamental way.
In 1993, Wired included an article in their Fall issue by fiction writer William Gibson called “Disneyland with a Death Penalty.” The now well-known article is ruthlessly critical of Singapore, what Gibson describes as a conformist government structure designed to paper over the systemic issues of the city-state that undermine its culture. It was a strong denunciation of Singaporean policy, and coincidentally, it was not well-received by its government. Wired, which had only just recently published its fourth issue, was suddenly banned from Singapore, a move that to some appeared to incriminate rather than refute the central thesis of Gibson’s column.
This would not be Wired‘s last venture into the controversial. Its creators, Louis Rosetto and Jane Metcalfe, spent years trying to sell their countercultural take on the digital revolution — the “Rolling Stone” of the Internet age. When its first issue was released, The New York Times called it “inscrutable and nearly hostile to its readers.” Wired, and Rosetto in particular, cultivated a reputation for edgy content, radical design, and contentious drama.
In any case, the Singapore ban was little more than a temporary inconvenience for two driven citizens who lived there. They began manually converting each issue of Wired into HTML, making them available for download on a website. The first Wired website, therefore, has a unique distinction of being an unofficial, amateur project led by two people from a different country uploading copyrighted content they didn’t own to a site that lacked any of the panache, glitz, or unconventional charm that had made Wired famous. That would drive most publications mad. Not Wired. For them, it was motivation.
Wired had one eye on the web already, well aware of its influence and potential. Within a few months, they had an official website up and running, with uploaded back issues of the magazine. But even that was just a placeholder. Around the corner, they had something much more ambitious in mind.
The job of figuring out what to do with the web fell to Andrew Anker. Anker was used to occupying two worlds at once. His background was in engineering, and he spent a bit of time writing software before spending years as a banker on Wall Street. When he became the CTO of Wired, he acted to balance out Rosetto and bring a more measured strategy to the magazine. Rosetto would often lean on his experience in the finance world as much as his training in technology.
Anker assembled a small team and began drawing up plans for a Wired website. One thing was clear: a carbon copy digital version of the magazine tossed up on the web wasn’t going to work. Wired had captured a perfect moment in time, launched just before the crescendo of the digital revolution. Its voice was distinct and earned; the kind of voice that might get you banned from a country or two. Finding a new voice for the web, and writing the rules of web publishing in the process, would once again place Anker on the knife’s edge of two worlds. In the one corner, community. And in the other, control.
Pulling influence from its magazine roots, the team decided that the Wired website would be organized into content “channels,” each focusing on a different aspect of digital culture. The homepage would be a launching pad into each of these channels. Some, such as Kino (film and movies) or Signal (tech news) would be carefully organized editorial channels, with columns that reflected a Wired tone and were sourced from the magazine’s writers. Other channels, like Piazza, were scenes of chaos, including chat rooms and message boards hosted on the site, filled with comments from ordinary people on the web.
The channels would be set against a bold aesthetic that cut against the noise of the plain and simple homepages and academic sites that were little more than a bit of black text on a white background. All of this would be packaged under a new brand, one derived from Wired but very much its own thing. In October of 1994, HotWired officially launched.
Even against a backdrop of commercial web pioneers like GNN, HotWired stood out. They published dynamic stories about the tech world that you couldn’t find anywhere else, both from outside the web and within it. It soon made them among the most popular destinations on the web.
The HotWired team — holed up in a corner of the Wired office — frenetically jumped from one challenge to another, “inventing a new medium,” as Rosetto would later declare. Some of what they faced were technical challenges, building web servers that could scale to thousands of views a day or designing user interfaces read exclusively on a screen. Others were more strategic. HotWired was among the first to build a dedicated email list, for instance. They had a lot of conversations about what to say and how often to say it.
By virtue of being among the first major publications online, HotWired paved more than a few cow paths. They are often cited as the first website to feature banner ads. Anker’s business plan included advertising revenue from the very beginning. Each ad that went up on their site was accompanied by a landing page built specifically for the advertiser by the HotWired team. In launching web commercialization, they also launched some of the first ever corporate websites. “On the same day, the first magazine, the first automobile site, the first travel site, the first commercial consumer telephone company sites all went up online, as well as the first advertising model,” HotWired marketer Jonathan Nelson would later say.
Most days, however, they would find themselves debating more philosophical questions. Rosetto had an aphorism he liked to toss around, “Wired covers the digital revolution. HotWired is the digital revolution.” And in the public eye, HotWired liked to position themselves as the heart of a pulsing new medium. But internally, there was a much larger conflict taking place.
Some of the first HotWired recruits were from inside of the storm of the so-called revolution taking place on the Internet. Among them was Howard Rheingold, who had created a massive networked community known as the WELL, along with his intern Justin Hall who, as a previous chapter discussed, was already making a name for himself for a certain brand of personal homepage. They were joined by the likes of Jonathan Steur, finishing up his academic work on Internet communities for his Ph.D at Stanford, and Brian Behelendorf who would later be one of the creators of the Apache server. This was a very specific team, with a very specific plan.
“The biggest draw for me,” Behlendorf recalls, “was the idea of community, the idea of being able to pull people together to the content, and provide context through their contributions. And to make people feel like they were empowered to actually be in control.” The group believed deeply that the voice of the web would be one of contribution. That the users of the web would come together, and converse and collaborate, and create publishing themselves. To that end, they developed features that would be forward thinking even a decade later: user generated art galleries and multi-threaded chatrooms. They dreamed big.
Rosetto preferred a more cultivated approach. His background was as a publisher and he had spent years refining the Wired style. He found user participation would muddy the waters and detract from the site’s vision. He believed that the role of writers and editors on the web was to provide a strong point of view. The web, after all, lacked clear purpose and utility. It needed a steady voice to guide it. People, in Rosetto’s view, came to the web for entertainment and fun. Web visitors did not want to contribute; they wanted to read.
One early conflict perfectly illustrates the tension between the two camps. Rosetto wanted the site to add registration, so that users would need to create a profile to read the content. This would give HotWired further control over their user experience, and open up the possibility of content personalization tailored to each reader’s preferences. Rheingold and his team were adamantly against the idea. The web was open by design and registration as a requirement flew in the face of that. The idea was scrapped, though not necessarily on ideological grounds. Registration meant less eyeballs and less eyeballs meant less revenue from advertising.
The ongoing tension yielded something new in the form of compromise. Anker, at the helm, made the final decision. HotWired would ultimately function as a magazine — Anker understood better than most that the language of editorial direction was one advertisers understood — but it would allow community driven elements.
Rheingold and several others left the project soon after it launched, but not before leaving an impression on the site. The unique blend of Wired’s point of view and a community-driven ethos would give way to a new style on the website. The Wired tone was adopted to a more conversational style. Readers were invited in to be part of discussions on the site through comments and emails. Humor became an important tool to cut through a staid medium. And a new voice on the web was born.
The web would soon see experiments from two sides. From above, from the largest media conglomerates, and from below, writers working out of basements and garages and one-bedroom apartments. But it would all branch off from HotWired.
A few months before HotWired launched, Rosetto was at the National Magazine Awards. Wired had garnered a lot of attention, and was the recipient of the award for General Excellence at the event. While he was there, he struck up a conversation with Walter Isaacson, then New Media Editor for Time magazine. Isaacson was already an accomplished author and biographer — his 900 page tome Kissinger was a critical and commercial success — and journalist. At Time, he cultivated a reputation for exceptional journalism and business acumen, a rare combination in the media world.
Isaacson had become something of a legend at Time, a towering personality with an accomplished record and the ear of the highest levels of the magazine. He had been placed on the fast track to the top of the ranks and given enough freedom to try his hand at something having to do with cyberspace. Inside of the organization, Isaacson and marketing executive Bruce Judson had formed the Online Steering Committee, a collection of editors, marketers, and outside consultants tasked with making a few well-placed bets on the future of publishing.
The committee had a Gopher site and something do with Telnet in the works, not to mention a partnership with AOL that had begun to go sour. At the award ceremony, Isaacson was eager to talk to Rosetto a bit about how far Time Warner had managed to go. He was likely one of the few people in the room who might understand the scope of the work, and the promise of the Internet for the media world.
During their conversation, Isaacson asked what part of the Internet had Rosetto, who had already begun work on HotWired, excited him most. His response was simple: the web.
Isaacson shifted focus at Time Warner. He wanted to talk to people who knew the web, few in number as they were. He brought in some people from the outside. But inside of Time Warner there was really only one person trying his hand at the web. His name was Chan Suh, and he had managed to create a website for the hip-hop and R&B magazine Vibe, hiding out in plain sight.
Suh was not the rising star that Isaacson was. Just a few years out of college and very early in his career, he was flying under the radar. Suh had a knack for prescient predictions, and saw early on how publishing could fit with the web. He would impact the web’s trajectory in a number of ways, but he became known for the way in which he brought others up alongside him. His future business partner Kyle Shannon was a theater actor when Suh pulled him in to create one of the first digital agencies, Agency.com. He brought Omar Wasow — the future creator of social network Black Planet — into the Vibe web operation.
At Vibe, Suh had a bit of a shell game going. Shannon would later recall how it all worked. Suh would talk to the magazine’s advertisers, and say “‘For an extra ten grand I’ll give you an advertisement deal on the website,’ and they’re like, ‘That’s great, but we don’t have a website to put there,’ and he said, ‘Well, we could build it for you.’ So he built a couple of websites that became content for Vibe Online.” Through clever sleight of hand, Suh learned how to build websites on his advertisers’ dimes, and used each success to leverage his next deal.
By the time Isaacson found Suh, he was already out the door with a business plan and financial backers. Before he left, he agreed to consult while Isaacson gathered together a team and figured out how he was going to bring Time to the web.
Suh’s work had answered two open questions. Number one, it had proven that advertising worked as a business model on the web, at least until they could start charging online subscribers for content. Number two, web readers were ready for content written by established publications.
The web, at the time, was all promise and potential, and Time Warner could have had any kind of website. Yet, inside the organization, total dominance — control of the web’s audience — became the articulated goal. Rather than focus on developing each publication individually, the steering committee decided to roll up all of Time Warner’s properties into a single destination on the web. In October of 1994, Pathfinder launched, a site with each major magazine split up and spit out into separate feeds.
At launch, Pathfinderpieced together a vibrant collection. Organized into discrete channels were articles from Sports Illustrated, People, Fortune, Time, and others. They were streamed together in a package that, though not as striking as HotWired or GNN, was at the very least clear and attractive. In their first week, they had 200,00 visitors. There were only a few million people using the web at this point. It wouldn’t be long before they were the most popular site on the web.
As Pathfinder’s success hung in the air, it appeared as if their bet had paid off. The grown-ups had finally arrived to button up the rowdy web and make it palatable to a mainstream audience. Within a year, they’d have 14 million visitors to their site every week. Content was refreshed, and was often up to date with publications, and they were experimenting with new formats. Lucrative advertising deals marked, though not quite profitability, at the very least steady revenue. Their moment of glory would not last long.
There were problems even in the beginning, of course. Negotiating publication schedules among editors and publishers at nationally syndicated magazines proved difficult. There were some executives who had a not unfounded fear that their digital play would cannibalize their print business. Content on the web for free which required a subscription in print did not feel responsible or sustainable. And many believed — rightfully so — that the web was little more than a passing fad. As a result, content wasn’t always available and the website was treated as an afterthought, a chore to be checked off the list once the real work had been complete.
In the end, however, their failure would boil down to doing too much while doing too little at the same time. Attempting to assert control over an untested medium — and the web was still wary of outsiders — led to a strategy of consolidation. But Pathfinder was not a brand that anybody knew. Sports Illustrated was. People was. Time was. On their own, each of these sites may have had some success adapting to the web. When they were combined, all of these vibrant publications were made faceless and faded into obscurity.
Pathfinder was never able to find a dedicated audience. Isaacson left the project to become editor at Time, and his vacancy was never fully filled. Pathfinder was left to die on the vine. It continued publishing regularly, but other, more niche publications began to fill the space. During that time, Time Warner was spending a rumored fifteen million dollars a year on the venture. They had always planned to eventually charge subscribers for access. But as Wired learned, web users did not want that. Public sentiment turned. A successful gamble started to look like an overplayed hand.
“It began being used by the industry as an example of how not to do it. People pointed to Pathfinder and said it hadn’t taken off,” research analyst Melissa Bane noted when the site closed its doors in April of 1999, “It’s kind of been an albatross around Time Warner’s neck.” Pathfinder properties got split up among a few different websites and unceremoniously shut down, buried under the rubble of history as little more than rounding error on Time Warner’s balance sheet for a few years.
Throughout Pathfinder’s lifespan it had one original outlet, a place that published regular, exclusively online content. It was called Netly News, founded by Noah Robischon and Josh Quittner — the same Josh Quittner who wrote the “Way New Journalism” article for HotWired when it launched. Netly News dealt in short, concise pieces and commentary rather than editorially driven magazine content. They were a webzine, hidden behind a corporate veneer. And the second half of the decade would come to be defined by webzines.
Reading back through the data of web use in the mid-90’s reveals a simple conclusion. People didn’t use it all that much. Even early adopters. The average web user at the time surfed for less than 30 minutes a day. And when they were online, most stuck to a handful of central portals, like AOL or Yahoo!. You’d log on, check your email, read a few headlines, and log off.
There was, however, a second group of statistical outliers. They spent hours on the web every day, pouring over their favorite sites, collecting links into buckets of lists to share with friends. They cruised on the long tail of the web, venturing far deeper than what could be found on the front-page of Yahoo!. They read content on websites all day — tiny text on low-res screens — until their eyes hurt. These were a special group of individuals. These were the webzine readers.
Carl Steadman was a Rheingold disciple. He had joined HotWired in 1994 to try and put a stop to user registration on the site. He was instrumental in convincing Anker and Rosetto to do so via data he harvested from their server logs. Steadman was young, barely in his mid-20’s, but already spoke as if he were a weathered old-timer of the web, a seasoned expert in decoding its language and promise. Steadman approached his work with resolute deliberateness, his eye on the prize as it were.
At HotWired, Steadman had found a philosophical ally in the charismatic and outgoing Joey Anuff, who Steadman had hired as his production assistant. Anuff was often the center of attention — he had a way of commanding the room — but he was often following Steadman’s more silent lead. They would sometimes clash on details, but they were in agreement about one thing. “Ultimately the one thing [Carl and I] have in common is a love for the Web,” Anuff would later say.
If you worked at HotWired, you got free access to their servers to run your personal site — a perk attached to long days and heated discussions cramped in the corner of the Wired offices. Together, Anuff and Steadman hatched an idea. Under the cloak of night, once everyone had gone home, they began working on a new website, hosted on the HotWired servers. A website that cast off the aesthetic excess and rosy view of technology from their day jobs and focused on engaging and humorous critique of the status quo in a simple format. Each day, the site would publish one new article (under pseudyonyms to conceal author identities). And to make sure no one thought they were taking themselves too seriously, they called their website Suck.
Suck would soon be part of a new movement of webzines, as they were often called at the time. Within a decade, we’d be calling them blogs. Webzines published frequently, daily or several times a day from a collection of (mostly) young writers. They offered their takes on the daily news in politics, and pop culture, almost always with a tech slant. Rarely reporting or breaking stories themselves, webzines cast themselves as critics of the mainstream. The writing was personal, bordering on conversational, filled to the brim with wit and fresh perspective.
Generation X — the latchkey generation — entered the job market in the early ’90’s amidst a recession. Would be writers gravitated to elite institutions in big cities, set against a backdrop of over a decade of conservative politics and in the wake of the Gulf War. They concentrated their studies on liberal arts degrees in rhetoric and semiotics and comparative literature. That made for an exceptional grasp of postmodern and literary theory, but little in the way of job prospects.
The journalism jobs of their dreams had suddenly vanished; the traditional journalism job for a major publication that was enough to support a modest lifestyle, replaced by freelance work that paid scraps. With little to lose and a strong point of view, a group of writers taught themselves some HTML, recruited their friends, and launched a website. “I was part of something new and subversive and interesting,” writer Rebecca Schuman would later write, “a democratization of the widely-published word in a world that had heretofore limited its purview to a small and insular group of rich New Yorkers.”
By the mid-90’s, there were dozens of webzines to chose from, backed by powerful personalities at their helm, often in pairs like Steadman and Anuff. Cyber-punk digital artist Jamie Levy launched Word with Marissa Bowe as her editor, a bookish BBS aficionado with early web bona fides. Yale educated Stephanie Syman paired up with semiotics major Steven Johnson to launch a slightly more heady take on the zine format called Feed. Salacious webzine Nerve was run by Rufus Griscom and Genevieve Field, a romantic couple unafraid to peel back the curtain of their love life. Suh joined with Shannon to launch UrbanDesires. The Swanson sisters launched ChickClick, and became instant legends to their band of followers. And the list goes on and on.
Each site was defined by their enigmatic creators, with a unique riff on the webzine concept. They were, however, powered by a similar voice and tone. Driven by their college experience, they published entries that bordered on show-off intellectualism, laced with navel gazing and cultural reference. Writer Heather Havrilesky, who began her career at Suck, described reading its content as “like finding an eye rolling teenager with a Lit Theory degree at an IPO party and smoking clove cigarettes with him until you vomited all over your shoes.” It was not at all unusual to find a reference to Walter Benjamin or Jean Baudrillard dropped into a critique of the latest Cameron Crowe flick.
Webzine creators turned to the tools of the web with what Harvilesky would also call a “coy, ironic kind of style” and Schuman has called “weaponized sarcasm.” They turned to short, digestible formats for posts, tailored to a screen rather than the page. They were not tied to regular publishing schedules, wanting instead to create a site readers could come back to day after day with new posts. And Word magazine, in particular, experimented with unique page layouts and, at one point, an extremely popular chatbot named Fred.
The content often redefined how web technologies were used. Hyperlinks, for instance, could be used to undercut or emphasize a point, linking for instance, to the homepage of a cigarette company in a quote about deceptive advertising practices. Or, in a more playful manner, when Suck would always link to themselves whenever they used the word “sell-out.” Steven Johnson, co-founder of Feed, would spend an entire chapter in his book about user interfaces outlining the ways in which the hyperlink was used almost as punctuation, a new grammatical tool for online writers. “What made the link interesting was not the information on the other end — there was no ‘other end’ — but rather the way the link insulated itself into the sentence.”
With their new style and unique edge, webzine writers positioned themselves as sideline critics of what they considered to be corporate interests and inauthentic influence from large media companies like Time Warner. Yet, the most enthusiastic web surfers were as young and jaded as the webzine writers. In rallying readers against the forces of the mainstream, webzines became among the most popular destinations on the web for a loyal audience with nowhere else to go. As they tore down the culture of old, webzines became part of the new culture they mocked.
In the generation that followed — and each generation in Internet time lasted only a few years — the tone and style of webzines would be packaged, commoditized, and broadcast out to a wider audience. Analysts and consultants would be paid untold amounts to teach slow to move companies how to emulate the webzines.
The sites themselves would turn to advertising as they tried to keep up with demand and keep their writers paid. Writers that would go off to the start their own now-called blogs or become editors of larger media websites. The webzine creators would trade in their punk rock creds for a monkey suit and an IPO. Some would get their 15 minutes. Few sites would last, and many of the names would be forgotten. But their moment in the spotlight was enough to shine a light on a new voice and define a style that has now become as familiar as a well-wielded hyperlink.
Many of the greatest newspaper and magazine properties are defined by a legacy passed down within a family for generations. The Meyer-Graham family navigated The Washington Post from the time Eugene Meyer took over in 1933 until it was sold to Jeff Bezos in 2013. Advance Publications, the owners of Condé Nast and a string of local newspapers, has been privately controlled by the Newhouse family since the 1920s. Even the relative newcomer, News Corp, has the Murdochs at its head.
In 1896, Adolph Ochs bought and resurrected The New York Times and began one of the most enduring media dynasties in modern history. Since then, members of the Ochs-Sulzberger family have served as the newspaper’s publisher. In 1992, Arthur Ochs Sulzberger, Jr took over as the publisher from his father who had, in turn, taken over from his father. Sulzberger, Jr., despite his name, had paid his dues. He had worked as a correspondent in the Washington Bureau before making his way through various departments of the newspaper. He put his finger on the pulse of the company and took years to learn how the machine kept moving. And yet, decades of experience backed by a hundred year dynasty wasn’t enough to prepare him for what crossed his desk upon his succession. Almost as soon as he took over, the web had arrived.
In the early 1990’s, several newspapers began experimenting with the web. One of the first examples came from an unlikely source. M.I.T. student-run newspaper The Tech launched their site in 1993, the earliest example we have on record of an online newspaper. The San Jose Mercury Times, covering the Silicon Valley region and known for their technological foresight, set up their website at the end of 1994, around the time Pathfinder and HotWired launched.
Pockets of local newspapers trying trying their hands at the web were soon joined by larger regional outlets attempting the same. By the end of 1995, dozens of newspapers had a website, including the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. Readers went from being excited to see a web address at the bottom of their favorite newspaper, to expecting it.
1995 was also the year that The New York Times brought in someone from the outside, former Ogilvy staffer Martin Nisenholtz, to lead the new digital wing of the newspaper. Nisenholtz was older than his webzine creator peers, already an Internet industry veteran. He had cut his teeth in computing as early as the late 70’s, and had a hand in an early prototype for Prodigy. Unlike some of his predecessors, Nisenholtz did not need to experiment with the web. He was not unsure about its future. “He saw and predicted things that were going to happen on the media scene before any of us even knew about them,” one of his colleagues would later say about him. He knew exactly what the web could do for The New York Times.
Nisenholtz also boasted a particular skillset that made him well-suited for his task. On several occasions, he had come into a traditional media organization to transition them into tech. He was used to skeptical reproaches and hard sells. “Many of our colleagues way back then thought that digital was getting in the way of the mission,” Sulzberger would later recall. The New York Times had a strong editorial legacy a century in the making. By contrast, the commercial web was two years old; a blip on someone else’s radar.
Years of experience had led Nisenholtz to adopt a different approach. He embedded himself in The New York Times newsroom. He learned the language of news, and spoke with journalists and editors and executives to try and understand how an enduring newspaper operation fits into a new medium. Slowly, he got to work.
In 1990, Frank Daniels III was named executive editor of the Raleigh area newspaper News & Observer, which his great-grandfather had bought and salvaged in the 1890’s. Daniels was an unlikely tech luminary, the printed word a part of his bloodline, but he could see the way the winds were shifting. It made him very excited. Within a few years of taking over, he had wired up his newsroom to the Internet to give his reporters next generation tools and network research feeds, and launched an ISP to the greater Raleigh area for would-be computer geeks to buy Internet access (and browse N&O content of course) called NandO.net (News and Observer).
As the web began its climb into the commercial world, the paper launched the Nando Times, a website that syndicated news and sports from newswires converted into HTML, alongside articles from the N&O. It is the earliest example we have on the web of a news aggregator, a nationally recognized source for news launched from the newsroom of a local paper and bundled directly alongside an ISP. Each day they would stream stories from around the country to the site, updating regularly throughout the day. They would not be the only organization to dream of content and access merged into a distinctly singular package; your digital home on the web.
Money being a driving factor for many of the strategic angles, The Wall Street Journal was among the first to turn to a paywall. The Interactive Edition of the Journal has been for paid subscribers since it launched. It had the effect of standing out in a crowded field and worked well for the subscribers of that publication. It was largely a success, and the new media team at the WSJ was not shy about boasting. But their unique subscriber base was willing to pay for financially driven news content. Plenty would try their hand at a paywall, and few would succeed. The steady drum of advertising would need to work for most online publications, as it had been in the print era.
Back at The New York Times, Nisenholtz quickly recognized a split. “That was the big fork in the road,” he would later say. “Not whether, in my view, you charged for content. The big fork in the road was publishing the content of The Times versus doing something else.”
In this case, “doing something else” meant adopting the aggregator model, much like News & Observer had done, or erecting a paywall like The Wall Street Journal. There was even room in the market for a strong editorial voice to establish a foothold in the online portal race. There is an alternate universe in which the New York Times went head to head with Yahoo! and AOL. Nisenholtz and The Times, however, went a different way. They would use the same voice on the web that they had been speaking to their readers with for over a hundred years. When The New York Times website launched in January of 1996, it mirrored the day’s print edition almost exactly, rendered in HTML instead of with ink.
Just after launch, the website held a contest to pick a new slogan for the website. Ochs had done the same thing with his readers when he took over the paper in 1896, and the web team was using it to drum up a bit of press. The winner: “All the News That’s Fit to Print.” The very same slogan the paper’s readers had originally selected. For Nisenholtz, it was confirmation that what the readers wanted from The New York Times website was exactly the same thing they wanted when they opened the paper each day. Strong editorial direction, reliable reporting, and all the news.
In the future, the Times would not be competing simply with other newspapers. “The News” would be big business on the web, and The New York Times would be competing for attention from newswire services like Reuters, cable TV channels like CNN and tech-influenced media like CNet and MSNBC. The landscape would be covered with careful choices or soaring ambition. The success of the website of The New York Times is in demonstrating that the web is not always a place of reinvention. It is, on occasion, just one more place to speak.
The mid to late 90’s swept up Silicon Valley fervor and dropped it in the middle of Wall Street. A surge of investment in tech companies would drive the media and publishing industry to the web as they struggled capture a market they didn’t fully understand. In a bid for competition, many of the largest tech companies would do the opposite and try their hand at publishing.
In 1995, Apple, and later Adobe, funded an online magazine from San Francisco Examiner alumni David Talbot called Salon. The following year, Microsoft hired New Republic writer Michael Kinsley for a similar venture called Slate. Despite their difference in tone and direction, the sites would often be pitted against one another specifically because of their origins. Both sites began as the media venture of some of the biggest players in tech, started by print industry professionals to live solely online.
These were webzine-inspired magazines with print traditions in their DNA. When Slate first launched, Kinsley pushed for each structured issue on the website to have page numbers despite how meaningless that was on the screen. Of course, both the concept of “issues” and the attached page numbers were gone within weeks, but it served as a reminder that Kinsley believed the legacy of print deserved its place on the web.
The second iteration of webzines, backed by investment from tech giants or venture capital, would shift the timbre of the web’s voice. They would present as a little more grown up. Less webzine, more online magazine. Something a little more “serious,” as it were.
This would have the effect of pulling together the old world of print and the new world of the web. The posts were still written from Generation X outsiders, the sites still hosted essays and hit pieces rather than straight investigative reporting. And the web provided plenty of snark to go around. But it would be underscored with fully developed subject matter and a print sensibility.
On Salon, that blend became evident immediately. Their first article was a roundtable discussion about race relations and the trial of O.J. Simpson. It had the counter-cultural take, critical lens, and conversational tone of webzines. But it brought in the voice of experts tackling one of the most important issues of the day. Something more serious.
The second half of the 1990’s would come to define publishing on the web. Most would be forced to reimagine themselves in the wake of the dot-com crash. But the voice and tone of the web would give way to something new at the turn of the century. An independent web, run by writers and editors and creators that got their start when the web did.
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