How the originators of the internet imagined digital journalism

Feb 22, 2015Original Thinking

Walter Isaacson’s “The Innovators” is a fascinating read about the origins of the Digital Age. Because Isaacson worked at Time Inc. in the mid-’90s and played a key role in the movement online, it also holds some incredible insight into what was happening in those early days of the Internet.

Here’s one excerpt about how publishers settled on an advertiser-driven business model:

“Initially we had made deals with the dial-up online services, such as AOL, CompuServe, and Prodigy. We supplied our content, marketed their services to our subscribers, and moderated chat rooms and bulletin boards that built up communities of members. For that we were able to command between one and two million dollars in annual royalties.

When the open Internet became an alternative to these proprietary online services, it seemed to offer an opportunity take control of our own destiny and subscribers. … Initially we planned to charge a small fee or subscription, but Madison Avenue ad buyers were so enthralled by the new medium that they flocked to our building offering to buy the banner ads we had developed for our sites. Thus we and other journalism enterprises decided that it was best to make our content free and garner as many eyeballs as we could for our eager advertisers. It turned out not to be a sustainable business model.”

He also goes on to describe the thought process that went into employing the same old journalism model to the Web. It too was kind of an accident. It’s a fascinating look at how many of the things we take for granted on the web today were the result of decisions, not inevitabilities, and we can decide to change them today.

Washington Post website image, from 1996

Screenshot of the Washington Post website from 1996, from the Wayback Machine.