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Newspaper website anniversary part of my ‘long, strange trip’ through technology

By JIM BROOKS
Nelson County Gazette / WBRT Radio

Friday, June 9, 2017 — A recent editorial in The Kentucky Standard heralded the 20th anniversary of the launch of the newspaper’s website on May 21, 1997.

BLAST FROM A GEEKY PAST. The InfiNet Affiliate Handbook helped dozens of Landmark Communications, Knight-Ridder and Gannett newspapers get published on the Web. Pocket protector not included. Click to enlarge.

It’s an anniversary I have kept track of too over the years; 20 years ago, I was the newspaper employee given the task of creating the site and launching it.

Before I began my first tour of duty at our local newspaper I was worked at the News-Enterprise, the daily newspaper in Elizabethtown. As something of a tech geek, I regularly harassed newspaper managers about the need to embrace this new thing called “the internet” — or follow the lead of other newspapers and publish news through a dial-up electronic bulletin board.

As an apparent result of my frequent pestering, the company elected to send me to Norfolk, Va. in 1995 for training to learn how to build newspaper websites. When I returned I built sites for several publications, including the News-Enterprise, the Kentucky Standard, an LCNI specialty automotive publication, among others.

And as you might expect in the days before any of those first sites went live, newspaper managers cussed, discussed and generally struggled to figure out where online publishing fit in a business model where ink-on-newsprint was the big money maker.

It was the topic of discussion before the E’town paper went live with its website, and again two years later when the Standard’s website was in development.

Newspaper Editor Rebecca Ray and I discussed design elements and the basic look she wanted the site to have. But it was Kentucky Standard Publisher Steve Lowery who identified both the advantages and the potential danger of publishing news online.

Danger? What danger?

What Steve saw — correctly — was the danger inherent in giving away online the same news product you’ve been selling for years three times a week to subscribers and through single-copy sales at  newstands and minit marts.

Training manual title page. Click to enlarge.

Steve envisioned the website as a tool to share the top local news with online readers and encourage them to find out more by reading the full story in the printed newspaper.

Remember, this was in the days before the term “pay wall” had been coined.

Steve also saw the website as an opportunity to think outside the box — and create new revenue in the process. While discussing how to make the website produce revenue (in addition to selling banner ads), Steve saw another possibility — classified ads.

In the days before Craigslist, newspaper classified ads were well used and well read, and a decent profit center for most newspapers.

“Brooks, what would it take to get the classifieds published online the night before the newspaper hits the street?” Lowery asked. I didn’t know but told him I would investigate.

The idea raised a few eyebrows; after all, this would undercut the print edition by giving online readers an advantage of early access to the classifieds. Was this even possible?

It took a little time to research the issue and then cobble together the process I would need to export the classified ads, strip away the unwanted coding, and get them ready for the website.

In the end, the process worked. As a result, the newspaper raised its classified ad rate by $1 per classified ad, making the Kentucky Standard one of the first non-daily Landmark Community Newspapers to produce regular website revenue from the day it was launched.

It is nothing short of amazing how technology has evolved since the launch of the newspaper’s website.

Whenever I need to remind myself of how technology and the internet have evolved, I go to my bookcase and grab the training manual I was given for my 1995 internet training in Norfolk, Va.

The “InfiNet Affiliate Handbook” is a snapshot in the history of internet publishing — a fairly early one at that. My 21-year-old son enjoys paging through it and reminding me of just how primitive things were “back then,” and spotting references to long-defunct search engines.

I can only smile, because I know that — God willing — in another 20 years, he too will look back and take stock in technology’s advances and appreciate as I do the Grateful Dead lyric from “Truckin'”:

“Lately it occurs to me what a long, strange trip it’s been.”

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