Revisionist online journalism history and the 'original sin' myth

A column by Aurora Sentinel editor Dave Perry is making the rounds on Facebook, I think primarily because the weekly paper is arguing that Denver is better off with a strong daily newspaper than without one, and that's something journalists like to hear. I happen to agree, but I gagged when I got to the part of the article that describes the impact of the Internet:

Most of you really don’t have a clue what’s happened.

Newspapers primarily hung themselves by giving away their content online 20 years ago, giving people a reason to go out and buy a 14K baud modem. We are now unable to put the genie back in the bottle. So just where do you think all those free online stories come from? Elves? The fruits of real journalists’ labors are freely given and stolen away by you and our pseudo-colleagues. Edu-tainment and s-newz sites, like HuffPo, Yahoo, Buzzfeed, Google and millions of others survive on blood and tears spilled by real journalists at real newsrooms costing real dollars, just like at the Post.

I've written about this "original sin" notion before. The most charitable thing I can say about it is: This is bullshit. 

I was there. Here's what really happened.

Before the World Wide Web, there were dozens of newspapers online, and with maybe one or two exceptions they attempted to charge for access to content. Dave Carlson's Online Timeline should be required reading for anyone who wants to opine about this topic.

When I entered the picture in 1994 (on April Fool's day) to develop the Minneapolis Star Tribune's online service, I was totally aware of this history and freely acknowledged it to anyone who referred to us as "pioneers."

What we built that year, and launched in 1995, was a subscription-based, paid-content private-network service -- like those of the Los Angeles Times, Providence Journal, Atlanta Journal-Constitution, Milwaukee Journal, Washington Post and others that were conceived back when the Internet was a research and education network not open to commercial exploitation.

While we and our technology partner (Ziff-Davis magazines and AT&T) were trying to work the bugs out of the system, the Web happened.

It happened not just because of Tim Berners-Lee (HTTP) and Marc Andreessen (Mosaic), but importantly because the anti-commercial "acceptable use policy" of the National Science Foundation's NSFnet went away -- along with NSFnet itself. NSFnet had been at the center of the Internet. In its place, in 1995, a new network architecture opened the Internet to broad commercial exploitation.

And there began the equivalent of a land rush.

But it wasn't newspapers leading that land rush. It was everybody else. 

Newspaper companies actually intended to implement the old paid-content model on the new Internet, and went so far as to form a consortium called New Century Network.

NCN drew up a complicated plan in which a subscription to one newspaper's website would allow a customer to read content from another's website, with a portion of the subscription fee shipped off to the content producer. That plan never got past the paperwork stage. NCN did deliver some advertising and content networks in its brief lifespan before bickering among its ownership killed whatever goose might have been in the making.

It wouldn't have made a lick of difference. The World Wide Web wasn't about newspapers. It was about everything, and in the big picture of everything, journalism -- online or not -- is a tiny little sliver.

While newspapers were moving at the speed of newspapers, everybody else was creating the Internet. The Web was cheap and easy and simple. It was teenagers and college students writing code, and thousands, then millions, of individuals creating content.

In 1999, during a year in which I had stepped outside the newspaper fold, I gave a speech in London in which I referred to "a new kind of people's journalism." I wasn't talking about private citizens covering news stories; I was talking about the kind of personal conversation that you see today on Facebook, which has risen above even Web search to become the new "front page." 

The Internet was a mammal appearing at the end of the age of dinosaurs. People with big ideas were creating big things, people with little ideas were creating little things, and people with no ideas were complaining about the Internet.