SEPTEMBER 3, 2009 1:29PM

The man in charge of online news, 1981

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We talked yesterday about the YouTube-classic 1981 TV news report about a primitive experiment with making newspapers available online, which at the time meant through the CompuServe service.

One of many amusing, ironic moments in the piece is when the guy in charge of the experiment at the San Francisco Examiner, one of the participating newspapers, says, "We're not in it to make money. We're probably not going to lose a lot but we aren't going to make much either."

Well, when it came to online news generally, David Cole, then the Examiner's systems editor, was half right. Partly, though not entirely, because of the influence of the Internet, the Hearst-owned Examiner continued a long decline over the next two decades and ceased to exist in 2000. A different newspaper now publishes under the Examiner name.

I caught up with Cole by phone Wednesday. Now 55 -- though in the interview he mentions having a "56-year-old guy's memory" -- Cole lives in Pacifica, just south of San Francisco, where he publishes the newspaper business newsletter NewsInc. and does consulting work.

Our thinking of newspapers is that they were so slow on the uptake with the Internet, and here they were 15 years earlier working on it. Can you tell me how it came about?

This was really driven first by the Columbus Dispatch, which was in the hometown of CompuServe. The Dispatch had gotten involved with CompuServe posting a daily newspaper, you know, ASCII, 24 columns across, all caps. [Laughs.] If we had done it in Morse code I guess it would have been more basic but it was about as basic a way to broadcast news as you possibly could.

Anyway, they had gotten involved in the late 1970s, and they then promoted the Associated Press to come, because they realized that if they just posted their local content, that wasn't a whole newspaper. So the Associated Press took a look at the idea and realized that they wanted to deal with it more as an experiment, and they wanted to involve a representative group of newspapers in the experiment.

And so they kind of cherry-picked 12 newspapers, and among those 12 newspapers that they picked were the usual suspects, as we say. The Washington Post, the New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, but also in that group was the San Francisco Chronicle. Now, at this juncture in the relationship between the Hearst Corporation and Chronicle Publishing [which had a joint operating agreement], things were at best chilly between the two partners, and the Examiner executives were always willing to go to the mat with Chronicle executives about things that they thought extended more rights to Chronicle Publishing than to Examiner publishing.

So this traveled up the Hearst Corporation, and somebody in New York went to AP and said, you know, "Twelve, 13. Does it make a difference?" And the answer was no, I guess it doesn't make a difference. So the Examiner was involved. Well, now all of a sudden the Examiner had to do this, and the only person in the building on the Examiner side who knew anything about computers was me.

What was your job the day before this came up?

[Laughs.] I was systems editor. That job in those days was theoretically the interface between the newspaper agency and the newsroom, in terms of the publishing system.

I left the Examiner in '96. The Internet was starting to get on its feet. The Web, I mean. I would say that in general in the newsroom, the attitude towards the Web was hostility.

Oh, yes. Very much so.

And I wonder what the attitude was toward what you were doing in 1981, or were you just off in a corner and hardly anyone knew about it?

There were just essentially two of us over in a corner, but everyone at the paper knew what we were doing. Which is to say yes, there was a lot of hostility.


You know, the comment in the video clip of spending two hours to download the paper, at a cost of $24. Who in their right mind would want to do this? And our answer was, "Well, we don't know. But this is an experiment." And of course from the perspective of the city editor, I was taking basically two reporters. From the perspective of the copydesk chief, I was taking two copy editors. From the perspective of the sports editor, there are two more slots that they could have had, but no, I had them, to do this crazy thing.

There wasn't really a lot of support even in top management at the Examiner for the project because this essentially had become a mano a mano bargaining chip with the Chronicle. For the Examiner itself, it had less to do with the actual experiment and more to do with the relationship with the people at the Chronicle.

How long did it last and what happened to it?

The experiment, quote unquote, ended up lasting 18 months. It was originally only supposed to last nine, and it got a lease on life at the nine-month mark. Then a couple of papers continued to participate, and the Associated Press continued to participate with CompuServe, but most of the 13 participants just stopped.

Part of it was that this was an experiment, it had a fixed time frame, we weren't expecting to make money, we weren't expecting to do anything except learn how to produce the news in an alternate delivery.

Were customers paying for this? They were paying CompuServe, right? But were they paying the Chronicle or the Examiner?

CompuServe was paying us. If memory serves, and I have nothing to fall back upon except my 56-year-old guy's memory, but if memory serves, it was $5 an hour, and we got something like $1.

It was an experiment. What did you learn from it?

OK, so I have to go to these editorial meetings and I have to go to these marketing meetings, and every time we go to a meeting and every time we get a piece of information from CompuServe, you know, which are the top papers in the program? Just guess.

The New York Times and the Washington Post.

And the Columbus Dispatch. Those are the top three papers because everyone at CompuServe was participating in the Columbus Dispatch, and pretty much regardless of where you lived, you were interested in looking at the New York Times and the Washington Post. So there I am looking there and the Examiner is number, like, nine out of 13. The Chronicle is No. 4 or 5 or 6 or 7, out of 13. We're all getting drubbed by the New York Times and the Washington Post.

So the guy that management had given me to be my able aide in this project, a fellow by the name of Floyd Fessler, may he rest in peace, I trained him how to do this, so he'd do it, and then he found that our account with CompuServe allowed him to do anything on CompuServe. So he started kind of hanging out in various what we would today call chat-rooms, or IM'ing, or something like that.

He starts hanging out and he finds there's this cadre of people who basically camp on CompuServe 10, 12 hours a day. And there are maybe 250 of them, 300. So one day we're sitting there talking. He's regaling me with stories. People had bizarre handles. Floyd was 6-foot-3, had red curly hair and he had a big red beard. And this being the early 1980s, we had just recently had the movie "Star Wars." So Floyd used the handle on CompuServe, Wookie. So he would sit there after he spent time in the forums and he would regale me with stories about what these people were doing online.

And one day kind of the proverbial light bulb went off over my head, and I said, "So, why don't you take an hour a week and write a gossip column about what's going on in the forums?" So he starts doing this, and I go to the next marketing meeting, and the Examiner comes in No. 3.

The New York Times, the Washington Post, the Columbus Dispatch, the AP people, they're all on top of me. "What did you do to drive up traffic?

I went, "OK, we took a look at: Who's the community? The No. 1 thing I learned in journalism school is write about your community. So we started writing about our community."

"Oh, but you're cheating."


"You're creating CompuServe-only content about CompuServe. That's cheating."

I went, "Yeah, but I'm No. 3!"

So what I learned was just the reinforcement of the stuff I'd learned in journalism school. Local, local, local. Write about things that people are interested in. And then it really doesn't matter whether you're producing a newspaper or a magazine or putting print out or putting digital squiggles on a computer screen. It's all journalism, and it all works just the same, pretty much.

I'm not suggesting that at the time I could say, "Oh, in 15 years we're going to have this thing called the Internet and everybody will be connected to it." Far from it. But if I brought anything to the party, I brought the notion that, let's take a look at this. Maybe it isn't going to make any money today, but maybe it'll make money tomorrow, or 20 years from now.

Photo credits
Examiner logo:

Trs80: Wikipedia

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