Early to the game but late to learn how to play

Writing for Slate, Jack Schafer describes "How Newspapers Tried to Invent the Web But Failed." You new kids should read it carefully. Then get off my lawn.

Schafer, who reveals he was offered a job at the Washington Post's first online service but "turned the job down because I had no idea what job was being offered to me," concludes that "From the beginning, newspapers sought to invent the Web in their own image by repurposing the copy, values, and temperament found in their ink-and-paper editions."

That's close, but not quite right. Many of us in the 1993-1995 era loudly declared (mostly to ourselves) that we absolutely, positively were not going to do that. And then we did it anyway, because it was who we were. Human mothers don't give birth to alien babies except on the Sci-Fi channel. It took newcomers to create the real Web. So "sought to" isn't the right language, but ultimately it didn't matter.

I was at the Star Tribune back then, and we built our pre-Web service on the Interchange platform along with the Washington Post, the Ziff-Davis magazines (which had started the project), and a couple of assorted others including the Gartner Group. Interchange was a stunning piece of work. It had precise layout control through a combination of SGML, templates and stylesheets. It had awesome forums, the best I've ever used. You could use it offline and sync periodically with the service. It was a Macintosh-like experience, all thoroughly and brilliantly planned and then locked down. (It also crashed regularly. We named one of our office goldfish General Protection Failure.)

We tried to open it up. We worked with several community organizations -- charities, nonprofits, churches -- and gave them tools and training to run their own areas on our platform. But they didn't create the future, either. The future gets created by individuals full of fire and passion, not institutions.

Then came the technology shift. I remember a quote from Scott Kurnit, who at the time was Prodigy's VP/marketing: "OK open systems beat great closed systems every time." And he was right more quickly than anybody had expected, because we all bailed from Interchange just months after launching it. While we were building Star Tribune Online, we went from one or two to about a hundred local mom-and-pop Internet service providers. We tried to convert STO into an ISP, running Netscape on top of the Interchange client, but it was too late.

The Web had arrived, pathetic and weak but open and extensible.

Many of us who were there at the time knew that human interaction, not newspaper reading, would be the most powerful motivator of online usage. Certainly I knew it; I had run a dialup bulletin board for years as a hobby. But as hundreds of newspapers rushed to "go online," few even bothered to ask basic questions about content strategy. It was, many declared as of they were saying something wise, "just another edition."

But it's not.


To be fair, I think that it didn't matter who it was, the people that got to the web first were not going to be the ones that got it right. The only way that the web could evolve into something that took the most functional advantage of its capabilities would be for people to come in, try something, and then make a mistake which either they or newcomers who observed them could subsequently correct. I'm no apologist for newspapers by any means, but I do think that the reason that even those of you who "loudly declared" that you would not behave a certain way ended up doing it is that it was the only point of reference to be found at the time. It's true that it doesn't make sense to try and do things online the way they were done on paper, but I think it's understandable to use that as a starting point, since the only alternative would have been to try and come up with something from scratch. Better to start with a bad model and try to improve it, than to start with nothing, to paraphrase Richard Gabriel.

An example in academia where a great closed system is being destroyed by an open system is in course management systems. Blackboard is the gold standard closed system. Moodle is the open community. Blackboard was brought to teachers in the late 90s and was virtually given away with the idea they would build around teachers needs and feedback and then start to charge. But ultimately, it is a business model. I think where Moodle gets a hand up is in three areas: 1. Cost (your time) 2. Pedagogy 3. User base The educational purpose and background in the development of Moodle is a labor of love and idealism, much like the One Laptop Per Child initiative. Moodle's focus is in building educational communities. Blackboard ultimately has a bottom line to look after. The OLPC is going against the tech titan Intel to get their product into schools, but their focus is not to make money, but to tackle ignorance and isolation in the third world. Who will win out in the end between the open OLPC and the closed Intel product? At least see the open product in action - http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/nicholas_negroponte_takes_olpc_to_colombia.html

Some good points here about the old days. A lot of it has to do with the innovator's dilemma, because institutions don't invent much -- some might be smart enough at times to buy the right ideas and refine them for the market -- while the inventors often aren't around long enough to see the full benefits of their inventions. Asking why newspapers didn't invent X is something of a puzzle. Why didn't newspapers invent Google? Why didn't Yahoo invent Google? Why hasn't Microsoft invented Google, after trying so hard? Even Google didn't sit down and invent the Google we know today. Most newsrooms had to spend large amounts of energy to change cultures just to dip a toe in the water. When the payoff wasn't immediate, or wasn't a 30 percent margin, enough with that. Newspapers were both too small, as in too local to search globally, and too big, as in too bureaucratic to be two guys in a garage. The ups and downs of Apple over the years show that even a company that seems to be gifted at this kind of thing doesn't always get it right. Does anyone remember Apple's version of American OnLine, called eWorld? Meanwhile, the local newspaper (most of them) has outlived CompuServe, Prodigy, Netscape and AOL (for all practical purposes). Successful innovations take a rare combination of passion, engineering, follow-through and market savvy. And timing. GM invented OnStar. Ford invented Wingcast. For all the good it's done either of them.

The following is a spontaneous statement of appreciation. Steve, I really enjoy your blog. You write thoughtfully, persuasively and well. Yours is one of the very few feeds I eagerly and painlessly dive into every time you post. Okay, don't let it get to your head. But thanks.