Rush to the Web

Rush to the Web – and away from it

Cunningham, Brent

New media were all so exciting and breathtaking. And then came the crash.

From the vantage point of the new century, Katherine Fulton’s 1993 CJR piece, “Future Tense,” reads like ancient history. In that piece, Fulton, a crusading print editor who went on to become a new-media thinker, explains things like “electronic mail” and the concept of interactivity. Three years later, in another article for cQR, Fulton wrote of the media world’s “initial reluctance to confront the new online medium followed by the panicked rush to embrace all things Internet.”

Indeed, between 1992, when the Newspaper Association of America reported that eleven newspapers in the U.S. and Canada had “an online presence,” and March 2000, when the Nasdaq slide began, the rush to the Web was breathtaking. It began with bold proclamations that old media’s days were numbered, and ended with old media – and its established brands – still standing when the smoke cleared from the dotcom burnout. And while every year in the mid-1990s brought its share of new media moments, 1996 was when this new, new thing began to feel permanent. It was also the point at which many of the same issues the media world is still wrestling with today – how to make money, how to know what to trust began to emerge.

In 1996, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post, and the Los Angeles Times all launched Web sites; The Associated Press created The Wire, its online service; MSNBC came on line, as did Slate. Though Solon had gone live in late ’95, it was ’96 when it entered the national consciousness.

This was also when The Nando Times, the cyber sibling of the The News & Observer in Raleigh, rode the first wave of online campaign coverage, which included the National Journal’s PoliticsUSA site and ElectionLine, a joint effort of ABC News, The Washington Post, and Newsweek. Established journalists – led by Michael Kinsley at State – began bolting old media for new, and younger journalists found a fertile job market in cyberspace, replete with job titles and salaries they had been told not to expect fresh out of J-school. “It’s like television in 1951,” wrote Howard Kurtz, The Washington Post’s media critic. A piece that year in the San Francisco Chronicle remarked that “The boom is going so strong now that we seem caught in an endless, interconnected web of unrelenting change that urges us on to more, even faster change.”

Spurred on by hype, the promise of overnight riches, and the very real threat to newspapers’ classified ad revenue, the Web rush accelerated. In 1997, nearly a quarter of newspapers in a survey by the Newspaper Association of America said they expected their online operations to turn a profit within four years. And by 1998, 80 percent of respondents to a UPI poll said the Internet will eclipse newspapers by 2002 as the primary news source.

In 2000, however, the rush failed to navigate its first major turn. The stock market had peaked that spring; APBnews, everyone’s new media darling, went broke and died that summer; and the beginning of the end of phase one of the Internet revolution was upon us. In 1996, Denise Caruso, then a columnist for The New York Times’s Web site, said, “It’s an industry in its infancy. Everyone knows there’s not a business model yet. People are trying to find their way.” That is as true today as it was then. – B.C

Copyright Columbia University, Graduate School of Journalism Nov/Dec 2001

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