Launching a Major Newspaper Web Site in 1996 Offered Hints of the Trouble to Come
The pundits and so-called media experts now wringing their hands over the fate of newspapers are late to the game.
I came to mainstream daily newspapers early in 1996, before most papers had web sites, and witnessed the culture clash that would ultimately hasten the industry's undoing.
It was spring of '96 and I was recruited from a job as a financial reporter at Reuters in New York to join the Baltimore Sun as the second hire in its fledgling online department. My title: "content manager." None of us knew what that meant, which fit the mood of the time. Truth was, no one in the industry knew what we were doing.
My Reuters colleagues were aghast when I resigned to take a job in Baltimore launching a web site. Leaving the lucrative world of New York financial journalism seemed a risky career move, but it was clear to me even then that online media represented the future of journalism. And so I traded in my suits and ties (casual Friday back then meant khakis, a navy blazer and tie), broke my lease on a mice-infested, fifth-floor walk-up and arrived at the Sun to figure out what newspaper readers wanted from a newspaper web site.
From day one, it was clear that overcoming the company's inherent print bias and generational differences between my team and the newsroom would be daunting. At my very first meeting, a senior print executive mentioned something about a sunspot.
"Sunspot? What's that," I asked.
"That's the name of the new web site," the executive responded, clearly irritated that the 25-year-old new kid would dare to interrupt. "What's wrong, you don't like it?"
"Do you know what a sunspot is?" I replied. "It's a blemish on the surface of the sun that disrupts communication on Earth. Why not just call it baltimoresun.com?"
My objections weren't persuasive and the site was christened SunSpot.net (we couldn't even get .com!). It took many years, but the Sun eventually jettisoned the cutesy name and went with my intuitive suggestion, but typing in sunspot.net will still direct you to the Sun's site today.
Few in the company, then owned by Times Mirror and later acquired by Tribune Company, understood the differences between print and online; many said our web site should merely house select stories from the print edition with a teaser to go buy the paper for more information. Others saw the web as the domain of young people who don't read the print product anyway, thus we included chat rooms, games, even a web-based soap opera in our site plan.
Old-timers in the newsroom, some of whom had been in the same union-protected job for 40 years, were nonplussed by the web buzz. They didn't understand the medium and derisively dismissed those of us working to create the company's site. When we completed a working demo of the site, the web staff hosted a training session for the paper's top editors.
Each editor took a seat at a computer; I told them to explore the site and raise their hands with any questions. Immediately, one senior editor's arm shot into the air.
"Mine doesn't work," he said, waving the mouse around above his head. First lesson: the mouse goes on the desk.
One of my more memorable run-ins with the defensive, entrenched print news staff came on the night of Princess Diana's death in August 1997. It was late at night on a weekend when word came of the Paris car crash. I headed to the office to help assemble our web coverage -- breaking news updates, links to foreign news reports, photo galleries, bio, archived coverage of Diana's visit to Maryland, etc. A senior editor stopped me in the newsroom and demanded to know what I was doing there. When I told him, he responded, "Your job is to follow print." I told him he had a lot to learn and continued working.
I struggled to win the respect and attention of the paper's editors, repeatedly reminding them that I held a journalism degree and had both reporting and editing experience. None of that mattered to them: I was either the enemy to be destroyed or a dilettante to be ignored. Part of my job entailed attending the daily newsroom budget meetings during which editors select the front-page stories for the next day.
In the hundreds of newsroom budget meetings I attended in nearly five years, I never spoke a word and my presence was never acknowledged. And some of the editors were downright nasty. When I began assembling a list of reporters' e-mail addresses to post online, one bearded, bedraggled editor charged into my office and cussed me out, accusing me of violating his staff's privacy.
Still others would avoid me during the workday, then send angry, profane e-mails at night. I deduced that they were drunk when sending these messages. Alcohol was not an insignificant force at the Sun. I discovered that many older, senior editorial staff members frequented a dive bar located beneath a nearby bridge for lunch and couldn't resist crashing the party. It was there -- over draft Natty Bohs and rail vodka -- that I finally endeared myself to some of the editors. They didn't respect my work ethic, dedication or journalism experience, but they appreciated that I could hold my liquor.
I got to know a few of them and discovered they weren't the hopeless Luddites I'd assumed. They regaled me with tales of the good ole days -- unlimited travel and expense accounts, stints in the Paris bureau, living for extended periods at the George V. I realized that the golden era of newspapers was already long over and I'd never get to experience the giddy excesses of publishing's heyday. (I would, however, later get to enjoy the giddy excesses of the dot com boom, but that's another story.)
It slowly emerged that the problem wasn't the editors, but the senior corporate executives who refused to fund the online operation at a level where we could really thrive and innovate. The web staff worked for below industry average salaries at a company widely known to pay generous wages to its unionized print staff.
And the union licked its greedy chops at the prospect of absorbing us. One union leader even called me at home to brag of his salary and the fact that he could afford to own a home, while I still rented. The Baltimore-Washington Newspaper Guild hauled us before the labor board to pursue its cause of forcing our staff to unionize and pay dues. Assuming I would prove a hostile witness, they waited to call me to testify until I had left town for vacation, forcing me to cut short a trip and return to Baltimore. When I warned our corporate lawyer that I would arrive at the hearing directly from the beach in flip-flops and a T-shirt, he replied, "That's OK, the hearing officer is blind." Imagine trying to explain to a 60-something blind guy in 1997 what a web site is and what a "content manager" does all day.
The web department's first offices at the cavernous Sun building were located in an unused hallway behind the cafeteria. We sat in a row, our desks lining the hall, facing a wall of windows that heated up to intolerable temperatures by late afternoon. The air reeked of whatever burned pizza or Friday fish fry the kitchen staff was cooking.
It was a shoestring operation and the limited budget meant that attracting employees with online experience would be impossible. Our department became something of a dumping ground for underperformers from print. When you wanted to get rid of someone, you offered them a phony promotion to the web unit. And we got our share of characters who were thoroughly unqualified for jobs in the rapidly evolving new world of online media.
One senior manager hired from print took a seat beside my desk and quietly typed a lengthy memo on his first day. When finished, he turned to me and whispered, "How do you type a capital letter?"
Mystified, I walked over and peered over his shoulder. Turns out he'd always had a secretary in print-land and had never typed his own memos. And so his first memo as a web staffer lacked any capital letters or punctuation.
"Shift," I whispered back to him.
We suffered from a lack of resources, the disdain of the editorial staff and the indifference of everyone else. The print sales reps were rolling in easy commissions and viewed the web product as small change. For some of them in those days, "work" entailed entertaining clients who'd signed year-long mega-contracts that kept coming year after year. There was no incentive to sell the web or learn a new medium. Our web ad rates were so low that a commission on them would barely register to a print rep accustomed to easy six-figure money. As a result, web ads were practically given away as a "value-add." No one seemed bothered that we were teaching our advertisers that web ads had no value, a fact that continues to hamper online ad sales a decade later.
We resented the print staff's salaries and bonuses and craved the clout and respect they commanded internally. Rather than fight the culture war, most of us just toiled away in the hallway. The site evolved from a cartoonish hodgepodge of news and games to a much more sophisticated destination. We added video and much original content and reporting. There were live interview chats with everyone from John Waters to city mayoral candidates.
Our motley crew of underpaid web staffers included an executive assistant who learned HTML so she could pitch in; a junior producer who previously worked at a pet store; and the aforementioned print refugee who kept no sales records, opting instead to memorize the site's few advertising commitments. Everyone learned on the job.
As the years went by and it became increasingly clear to corporate executives that the web wasn't a fad, we were slowly given more resources to hire staff, which enabled us to provide close to 24/7 site updates. But it was already too late.
In the mid-90s era of monopolistic control of local markets, and profit margins that would make Warren Buffett blush, Times Mirror and other newspaper behemoths should have funneled some of that cash into research and development. Instead, we were tasked with forming endless "partnerships" with third-party Internet startups, many of which were more interested in eating our lunch than collaborating on product development.
If the industry had embraced the change that was already at their doorstep, a newspaper company might have invented Google, Craigslist, Facebook or Twitter. Instead, we handed over our content to companies like CitySearch, Monster and others that promised quick, cheap, "co-branded solutions."
The devastation seen in the newspaper industry today can be traced to multiple causes. Corporate executives, who were only interested in presenting the rosiest numbers to Wall Street, failed to invest in online R&D. Powerful newspaper unions stifled creativity and collaboration between online and print departments. Sales executives took a selfish, short-term approach to business, worrying only about their next paycheck and bonus, rather than planning for a day when classifieds would disappear. Editors devoted more energy to fighting internal turf wars with web departments than to retooling their daily deadline culture for an era of constant news updates. Meanwhile, the web culture evolved into an "everything is free" mentality, fueled by vats of venture capital money that led to giveaways of everything from Internet access to grocery deliveries.
The big question, of course, is can newspapers be saved? Unfortunately, newspapers today get a bad rap. Yes, they were slow to adapt, but today many newspaper sites are updated around the clock. They have embraced video, podcasts, blogs, Twitter feeds, social networking, reader-submitted content, hyper-local features and more. So they are now doing all the things they've been criticized for neglecting. Most blogs are nothing more than commentary about -- and links to --newspaper, TV or magazine reports. So the notion that blogs represent the future of journalism is off base and frightening.
What's really undermining newspapers today is the online freebie culture. Advertisers won't pay print rates for web ads, even though a web ad is infinitely more valuable given the ability to target users and track response. And readers won't pay for content, after 12 years of endless free stuff. We've arrived at the day of reckoning; quality journalism and free are not compatible. All those journalists responsible for serving as a watchdog on everyone from the president and Congress to the local school board to corporate leaders to sports heroes have to be compensated for their work.
If readers and advertisers won't pay for that work, then who will? Private foundations? Wealthy donors? The government? None of those constitute appealing solutions.
Newspapers will have to become ruthless about charging for content and willing to sacrifice unique user numbers in an effort to re-train consumers that what they read online has value. Advertisers will have to embrace the immediacy and transactional nature of the web and pony up more for online advertising. That won't be enough to sustain newspapers at heyday staffing levels; there won't be any reporters bunking at the George V. But there may just be enough revenue there to fund a streamlined reporting staff, albeit with fewer high-priced editors to safeguard their work. Significantly reducing (or even one day eliminating) expensive printing bills and distribution costs and mitigating the need for expansive office space will enable news operations to function at a much lower cost.
By the time I left the Sun in early 2000, the web department's offices were moved to newly renovated space that was integrated with the print side. We'd finally won the respect and legitimacy we sought during the '90s. Ironically, Times Mirror created a centralized online department, headed by some of the very people who had paid scant attention to the web for so long. No one from the web department was tapped for this new operation -- it was staffed by print executives. There were flashy PowerPoint presentations about the future of newspaper web sites and expensive consultants brought in to advise the new corporate saviors. I suppressed a burst of laughter when one of the senior corporate execs in charge -- dressed down now in hip jeans and black sweater to reflect the trendy web -- tiptoed into my office with an urgent question. "What does CPM mean," he asked. When I told him it stands for Cost Per Thousand, he seemed perplexed and asked if I was sure it wasn't Cost Per Million. I assured him it was from the Latin "Mille."
It was a typically corporate approach: form a committee, hire outside consultants and package it all in shiny paper and bows. Nine years later, there's no money for consultants. Tribune is in bankruptcy, its various newsrooms decimated by layoffs and buyouts. During my tenure at the Sun, the newsroom alone boasted more than 400 staffers. Today, that number stands at just 140 after 61 were unceremoniously let go in April. A once proud, Pulitzer Prize-winning, 172-year-old news operation is gutted, its remaining staff demoralized and nervous about what's to come.
What's especially frustrating is that many of us saw this coming. And not just the web kids. The only other department at the Sun to see the folly of giving everything away for free online was the circulation department. But they weren't supposed to be big thinkers; circulation's job was to deliver the paper, not to worry about an unlikely paperless future. That future has now arrived. I hope for the sake of so many talented journalists -- and for the future of our democracy -- that newspapers reassert themselves, start charging readers and advertisers for their irreplaceable product and embrace technology and the inevitability of change.