How we all got digital 1

(On March 14, 2006, a luncheon marking the 10th anniversary of the launch of as a full-service news and information site was held at the Arts Club of Chicago. The following essay introduced the souvenir booklet that each attendee received. There is also a photo gallery on this site.)

Fellow digerati:

Ten years ago today, served up 31,001 HTML pages to a worldwide audience that probably wasn’t too worldwide.

Actually, for a while in the wee small hours of that morning, the folks in Room 500 were worried that we would serve up zero pages. Here we had this huge promotion box on Page One of the newspaper announcing our arrival, a story in the Business section too, and at 4 a.m. you could still point your browser at our brand new address and see . . . nothing.

Well, that got fixed. Lots of other things have gotten fixed along the way, too. So how best to summarize the path from thirty-thousand-and-change to two-million-and-change?

“There were stern stands, and bitter runs for glory. Ah, I think there were braver deeds.

“Mistakes were made.” Not by any of you, I must quickly point out.

“GREAT WAR ENDS” . . . no, wait . . .

“I cried because I had no shoes, until I met a man who had no class.” Don’t make me go there in public!

This could go on for pages, but instead we’ll stop at a book that’s nearly 10 years old, and a memo that’s nearly 11.

“The economic model (for the Internet) is still in the earliest stage of development, but one thing is clear: getting an audience will be the sine qua non of success.” – Jack Fuller, News Values, published April 1, 1996

“Five years from now, The Tribune should be the pre-eminent electronic/multimedia source of information in and about Chicago and the Midwest. The Tribune brand should be a worldwide standard, with aggregated newspaper, radio, television, and online content that . . . should produce revenue and profit for the newspaper.” – Electronic Newspaper Project summary document, presented March 29, 1995

As was true of Jack’s book, parts of that document were clearly aspirational. But others were awfully clear-eyed:

“While a daily newspaper carries a certain expectation of currency, its translation into the electronic environment adds a new layer of expected immediacy.”

“Threats . . . include those from niche products; from smaller, nimbler competitors able to react more quickly to changes in the marketplace; and from our own customers, who may find it easier and easier to go around us.”

Enough of quoting myself (and the rest of that project team, whose names you’ll find a few pages back). And yes, Tim Landon and Mike Silver and David Hiller and Scott Smith and a few others were seeing the same things. But those 20 pages, produced from a standing start in just 10 weeks, saw the future clearly enough that less than a year later launched as a news site.

In the meantime, CareerFinder led the way to paid help-wanted advertising on the Internet; Chicago Online proved the profitability of newspaper archives, and of interactivity; and Tribune Co. created a distinguished College of Cardinals – Mike Silver (TMS), Digby Solomon (Hampton Roads), Mitch Golub (South Florida), and Mike Bales (Orlando) were in it, too, or were we actually popes? – to make sure we were hitting on each possible interactive cylinder across Tribune Classic.

Most of you who are here today, however, probably have as little interest in this recitation of prehistory and premonition as you do in finding out whether the CareerBuilder monkeys have prehensile tails.

After all, you were the people who built the billion-page-view, multimillion-dollar Web business of today. Here’s only part of what you did:

  • Cut and pasted news stories into Web templates.
  • Re-keyed job ads and scanned logos.
  • Covered the Democratic National Convention for thousands of real-time readers, or the Evanston City Council for dozens.
  • Set sail for suburban libraries, armed only with T-shirts, to help communities publish online before anyone knew what “community journalism” meant.
  • Used CGI and Perl and assorted programming tricks to create interactivity when we hadn’t yet decided the difference between “Digital Publishing” and “Interactive Media.”
  • Built the best and most comprehensive model for Internet real estate information and listings – best then, best now.
  • Moved from message boards to blogs, with a few stops in between.

Today, many of you are still the people who are building the even bigger business of tomorrow, whether at or on the fourth floor of Tribune Tower. You’re reporting the news of the day in multiple media, while serving customers in print and online in several “efficient and desirable manners.”

So I thank you for taking time out from that endeavor to join me here at the Arts Club . . . because, as that Electronic News presentation also said, “the work that this team has begun needs to continue without pause.”

Owen Youngman

Director of Interactive Media, 1995-1999

About Owen Youngman

Professor Emeritus of Journalism and formerly Knight Chair in Digital Media Strategy, Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University. Formerly senior vice president/strategy and development and director of interactive media, Chicago Tribune.

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