Chicago Tribune Digerati, by Jeff MacNelly

25 years of the Internet Tribune


For this blog five years ago — on the occasion of the 20th anniversary of chicago.tribune.com — I added 10 years’ perspective to some of the things I had written in 2006, when I hosted a 10th anniversary luncheon at the Arts Club of Chicago. This year, with March 14 approaching again, I figured I would need further commemoration at the quarter-century mark. (Given the pandemic, the party we might have had just didn’t seem prudent.)

When I re-examine that five-year-old post, though, it isn’t at all clear to me that I have a lot more to say about the launch. Mostly I can see that March 14, 1996, was just one in a series of important interactive dates, going back to August 14, 1991.

That’s when Tribune Co. invested in Steve Case’s Quantum Computer Services, which would soon become America Online. In May, 1992. the companies jointly launched Chicago Online at the McCormick Place Consumer Electronics Show, bringing in a little ad revenue, a little subscriber revenue, and untold intelligence about the likes and dislikes of our users — not at all the same as those of our readers.

Today, in fact, I want to focus on some important early events that followed March 14.

June, 1996: Debut of Chicago Tribune Homes, the first real estate Web site to feature not just listings of new homes, resale homes, and homes for sale by owner, but also comprehensive community, schools and census data across the metro region, plus years of real estate transactions. That kind of data is the standard now, but it was different enough then to cause unhappy real estate CEOs to just plain yell at us in meetings, including a memorable one in Tribune Tower’s Campbell Hall.

August 26-29, 1996: Live coverage of the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. In the print edition, we promoted that “The Internet Chicago Tribune includes OmniView bubble photograph technology . Panoramic images from the convention floor can be viewed 360 degrees up and down and left and right. Also featured are archives in RealAudio format of speeches by Jesse Jackson and Hillary Rodham Clinton.” News organizations had a smaller online presence at the convention than did progressive protest groups, but CNN and the Internet Tribune were pretty much everywhere.

September 16, 1996: Debut of Digital City Arlington Heights, the first of what would grow to 17 “virtual communities” online — hyperlocal news sites, long before “hyperlocal” was an overhyped concept. We spent $1 million just to build message-board software for citizens to use, because there was nothing off-the-shelf that worked. I promoted the virtuals to those citizens by making presentations in local libraries (for which my most important piece of equipment was a 200-foot-long phone cord that someone in the Tribune electrical shop made for me. Libraries didn’t necessarily have phone jacks in their auditoriums!).

January 27, 1997: Debut of Chicago Tribune Autos, featuring not only “a comprehensive new-car database that includes dealer-invoice pricing information” and “Market value and average retail prices for used cars back to 1985,” but also an interactive dream car builder, Jim Mateja car reviews back to 1985 . . . and, of course a cheerful nod to Mateja’s favorite accessory at the time: the not-yet-universal cupholder. 

(Oh, and this time it was the auto dealers who yelled at us in meetings, including a memorable one at McCormick Place during the 1997 Chicago Auto Show.) Chicago Tribune Autos stayed in the digital passing lane until June of 1998, when cars.com was launched on its own road to Super Bowl commercials.

  • May, 1997: Debut of Metromix.com, which within a couple of years became the leading entertainment site in Chicago — and achieved its strategic goal of delaying the entry of Microsoft’s Sidewalk city guide into the market. To build it, we paid high school students and friendly grownups $5 an address to visit every restaurant in Chicago with a clipboard and gather facts for our pre-Yelp database: Was it noisy? How many seats? How hard was parking? Always on the leading edge, Metromix even got placement on U.S. Cellular mobile phones in 2004, three years before the iPhone changed everything.
 
  • July, 1999: chicago.tribune.com “drops the dot” and becomes chicagotribune.com, bringing an end to a battle with a squatter who had snapped it up back in the Wild West days of URL wars. We never should have gone the subdomain route, actually.

Not too long after the momentous dot-dropping, I left my post as director of interactive media and went “back to the newspaper,” where for nearly 10 years as a vice president and senior VP I continued to take part in the Tribune’s long-standing tradition of technology innovation (one that dates back to Col. McCormick, but perhaps has slowed somewhat in the news industry’s current state of perpetual contraction).

But those are stories for other days and other times, I think. For today, it’s enough to say “happy 25th birthday” to the Tribune Web site — and thanks again to the pioneers who made it happen.

Chicago.tribune.com lanch staff, 1996

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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