We've Only Just Begun: Now a Firmly Entrenched Part of the Media Landscape, Online Journalism Is Poised to Confront the Next Generation of Challenges

By Palser, Barb | American Journalism Review, November 2002 | Go to article overview

We've Only Just Begun: Now a Firmly Entrenched Part of the Media Landscape, Online Journalism Is Poised to Confront the Next Generation of Challenges


Palser, Barb, American Journalism Review


All is calm on the new frontier. Compared with the past decade of pioneering, the once wild Web today seems settled--almost suburban.

In 10 years online news has evolved from a chancy venture, approached tentatively by major media, to a full-throttle charge, profits be damned, to an obligatory extension of service the public has come to expect--and trust. The trail-blazing years have passed; the development of this new medium is just beginning.

Ten years is not an exact measure; some online veterans include in this history the preceding decade of dabbling before the Internet was anywhere close to a mass medium.

In the 1980s a handful of papers and broadcasters started dial-up bulletin board systems on the Internet, usually the pet projects of engineers, newsroom technophiles and marketing departments. Most were partnerships with budding dial-up platforms such as America Online, Prodigy and CompuServe. Standard fare on these plain-text services included classifieds, business and entertainment listings, and a few news headlines.

In 1991 Tribune Co. invested in America Online and in 1992 launched Chicago Online on AOL, first with a sampling of Chicago Tribune stories and other newspaper content.

"Chicago Online was launched as a marketing department project, with content being contributed on an ad hoc basis from all over the newsroom," says founding Editor Owen Youngman, now vice president of development for the Chicago Tribune. The next year Chicago Online hired a staff of editors and began publishing the entire newspaper online.

The Tribune wasn't the first newsroom to toddle onto the Internet, but the scale and editorial commitment of Chicago Online make it a suitable starting point for the story of Web journalism.

By 1993 the Internet was percolating. With the release of the first Web browser, Mosaic, that year and Netscape 1.0 in 1994, people began to see and navigate the Web the way we do today.

The San Jose Mercury News launched Mercury Center through AOL in May 1993 and the New York Times followed with its AOL page in June 1994. The Washington Post debuted on a now-defunct service called Interchange in 1995.

Not all news organizations took the proprietary path. Some, such as the Boston Globe and Raleigh's News & Observer, launched sites on the open Internet so that their pages would be accessible to everyone. Within a few years the rest of the industry followed suit, though some newsrooms continued to sustain separate AOL partnerships.

The Newspaper Association of America reported there were a mere 12 North American dailies online in April 1993. That number increased to 20 by April 1994 and 60 in '95. Although newspaper ventures attracted more attention in the early years, TV sites were present at the front lines of breaking news and original reporting, locally and nationally. Launched in 1995 and 1996, CNN.com and MSNBC.com quickly secured a clear lead as the nation's favorite online news sources.

The next five years were exuberant, experimental and expansive. By 1996 most national news organizations had separate online business units with independent newsrooms, adequate if not generous budgets and three- to five-year profit horizons. They hired online journalists who had radical (and, to some, dangerous) ideas about breaking news on the Web.

During that period the outlaws of online news--well-connected renegades like Matt Drudge and Internet-only outfits like Salon--rankled the media establishment by publishing a few juicy scoops and exercising their own judgment about what news is fit to print.

Local papers and broadcasters moved to the Web en masse, either as stand-alone operations or members of online networks. By 2000 there was scarcely a newsroom in the country that didn't have a Web presence. The NAA counted 1,200 dailies online that year. …

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