About Me

  • I've spent more than 25 years at the intersection of traditional and digital journalism. I've helped to invent ways to read and interact with the news and advertising on computer screens and iPads, and before that, I wrote news stories on typewriters and six-ply paper. I co-founded WashingtonPost.com and hyperlocal pioneers Backfence.com and GrowthSpur; served as editor of Philly.com; taught media entrepreneurship at the University of Maryland; and have done product-development and strategy consulting for all sorts of media and Internet companies and startups. You can read more about me here.

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« The Chronology of Newspaper-Think | Main | Falling Off the Wagon—And Into the Land of Oz »

August 19, 2012



Wonderful piece of history, Mark, and well done, as usual. Many thanks for this.

Mike Peterson

Great piece. My only quibble is with the passage about monetizing it. What I found -- four years later and much farther down the corporate ladder -- was that the discussion quickly polarized between those who wanted to give it all away and those who didn't want to give anything away, a standoff made more intractable by technophobes in high places who made the discussion like an analysis of the kama sutra presided over by the Vatican.

The result, unfortunately, was a lot of dithering while the parade passed by.


Great post, Mark. How fascinating to see a document straddling both past and future.

Michael Hill

Excellent overview of the struggles of newspapers to come to terms with these changes. But it does not address a crucial issue: even if newspapers had done everything "right" -- whoever defines what that is -- there would still be a separation of advertising and editorial. Why pay reporters to attract eyeballs to ads when Craigslist and EBay and every real estate listing agency was proving you could do it for free. Even if newspapers had invested in those services, they would not necessarily used the revenues to support editorial content.


Epic slice of history. Thanks Mark


What a wonderful summary and tribute. And thanks for making Bob Kaiser's memo available.

Michael Rogers

Ah, the memories flood back. Thanks, Mark. One other perspective to add on the "Why didn't they put up paywalls in 1996?" question. Some of us HAD been using paywalls for a number of years...Prodigy, CompuServe, AOL. Those services not only let us monetize, but had sophisticated client software that optimized the viewing experience--pre-caching photos, speeding up downloads, even allowing audio streaming. In our implementation of Newsweek for Prodigy we actually downloaded a set of proprietary Newsweek fonts onto people's machines so the screen content looked even more like the magazine.
By comparison, the early Web experience, at 14.4 to 56 K, was like watching paint dry. So another element of the decision was simply market-based: even if we could have built dependable paywalls at the time, it's highly unlikely customers would have paid for the experience.

Mike Peterson

Michael Hill: There are any number of sites that use content to attract viewers who will then see advertisements. This can be a worldwide group of, say, fencers. It can be a broader category of NFL fans or birdwatchers. In the case of newspapers, it should be people with a particular interest in a place -- either because they live there or because they used to live there, have family there, etc.

The challenge is two-fold: One, independent of the Internet, is that the centralization of the retail industry removes localism -- the local druggist is replaced by Rite-Aid, which can establish brand-awareness in non-local media. That was becoming a problem for newspapers before the Internet became a factor.

The other is that, while a newspaper in New England might sell maple syrup or air-shipped lobsters to that homesick sailor in San Diego, he's not going to buy furniture from the hometown store.

Having said that, losing to the real estate sites and to Craigslist through inaction was a major blunder, perhaps a mortal one. It would be very natural to have the local paper also be the hub for classifieds and for relocation information and for real estate listings. 99% of newspapers blew this opportunity to attract prime viewers through solid content.


Very good article that we as journalism educators should read over and over. Thank you.

Dennis Sullivan

Mark - It has been a long road and we certainly missed some great opportunities to leverage emerging technologies. Mr. Kaiser saw the future and encouraged others to adapt for all the right reasons. Newspapers lost the battle to CraigsList and Real Estate listing sites but that does not mean it can't be won back. A better product could bring customers back. Would anyone have thought MySpace would be so quickly overtaken by Facebook? Thanks for the article.


In 1992 I had been a techie at the Spokesman-Review, a family owned newspaper in Spokane, Washington.

If I had to put my finger on one thing that went wrong it would be that the newspaper already had an existing cash cow that they wanted to protect.

We were not hungry enough. The startups had the advantage that they had no installed base.

We had what we called "Electronic Editions" which had up to 16 lines running at breakneck speeds of up to 1200 bits per second.

You could get tomorrow's classifieds today at 6pm. (Granted, we had to transfer the data from one computer to another via 1/2 inch open-reel magnetic tape.)

We had the top news, sports and features stories.

But we always knew that if this electronic thing failed we would still have our day jobs.

Also, how many people wanted to pay $19.95 per month for "News for Heavyweights." The answer was "not very many."

In the end, we learned the same lessons as the big guys, but for a lot less money.

There was more money to be made managing the old media empires and not making waves.

In 2012 I am unemployed and looking for a job anywhere but at a newspaper.

I salute recovering journalists everywhere.

Mark Potts

Thanks, everyone, for thoughtful comments, as well as for lots of kind words and promotion via Twitter. The response to this post has been phenomenal, and it's very cool to be able to illuminate this little corner of digital journalism history. And, as always, my thanks to Bob Kaiser for his vision and for sharing it with me 20 years ago.


I'm cringing at the thought of reading this full memo. I have found myself in a tough place in my career. I long for the days where I dreamed of writing for a paper. I got 3 years of great experiences out of it, but knew when to get out. I've tried other fields, but I am floundering. Now I long to write again, and I feel like I'm starting over. I've grown up in the Internet age, but not in terms of my writing career. I guess that makes me a "recovering journalist".

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