25 Years Inside the Internet

Anniversaries always provide a convenient time to reflect, especially so now that we’re all trapped helplessly inside our homes while a fricking virus ravages the world outside.

Sorry. Venting. Won’t happen again. Positive thoughts, everybody. Positive.

While trying to keep from going hair-ripping, batguano crazy recently — I usually do this by researching and writing an article, banging out the occasional blog post, ignoring my 401K, watching The Wire (“It’s all in the game, tho, right?“), trying to remember what a french fry tastes like, working on my Zoom background, or laugh/crying at the president — it occurred to me that I’ve been writing pieces for the internet for 25 years. Or (with emotion now): Twenty-five years. Which is kind of amazing considering that, 26 years ago, few of us had any idea of what the heck the internet was.

A quarter of a century ago — oof! — the internet really was a grand mystery to everybody. We called it “cyberspace” back then. We dialed 1-800 numbers and used acoustic couplers on our home phones to hook up to America Online. Wi-Fi wasn’t yet a thing. Nobody had any idea of what YouTube was because it was still a decade away from its birth. Cat videos didn’t exist. Memes either.

We’ve come a long way since then. A long, rocky, stumbling way. And we have a long way to go to get out of this mess.

(Heck, in this post alone, we have a long way to go …)

The trip for me began at the end of 1995, when I had a choice to make: continue to work for a newspaper with an alarmingly plummeting circulation, doing a job that I wasn’t really all that fond of, or see what else could be had in the employment arena. Mary Jo and I had decided to get married in March of 1996. There was a lot going on.

With the help of a buyout from The Cincinnati Post — without which, I’m sure, I would not have been brave enough — I made a choice. I leapt. I didn’t know exactly where I was going to land, or what I was going to do when I came down. But I figured I was either going to end up at a larger and more stable metro newspaper, maybe a magazine, or I’d take up accounting.

As it turned out, an editor who had snagged a buyout before me had accepted a job in Columbus, Ohio, with a firm called CompuServe (ooooo, the future), building a news service to be distributed via the “World Wide Web.” The “internet.” On the computer.

To me, Burnsie might as well have been working on the moon doing … I had no idea what.

He offered a position, and I decided (much to the boon of the accounting business) that a stop on the internet — in the internet? —  might be interesting, if only as a way station to that larger newspaper or magazine gig.

We’ve all learned a lot about the internet since then, haven’t we? From my short time in Columbus in 1996 — the service that CompuServe was building was a family-oriented website called WOW!, and it lasted less than a year — I went on to two other big-time websites, while the internet has become all-encompassing, now providing billions of Earthlings with most of our information, entertainment, social contact and, unfortunately, idiocy.

Meanwhile, newspapers — some certainly more quickly than others — are trying madly still to discard the physical “paper” part of their names and make a home (and a living) on the internet. In the internet. Online. Whatever.

It’s not gone all that well.

The Painful Death of the Newspaper

On the whole, journalistically speaking, we’re undoubtedly worse off for the move to the internet. Sure, it’s great to log on (as we used to say) and have an endless source of information at our thumping and swiping fingertips. It’s indispensable these days.

But wading through it all, as the internet-savvy among us know too achingly well, is hard. Finding info on something hyper-local, what papers like The Post used to thrive on (say, a race for county commissioner, an obit for your neighbor down the street, an update on street closings, a high school sports score), is needle-in-a-cyberhaystack stuff.

And getting that info, local or not, unvarnished, without favor or slant? It almost can’t be done.

Despite those pitfalls, the internet — this is not breaking news — has thrived and just about finished off huge parts of the local newspaper industry, which is to say it has wrecked a lot of what has held us together as communities. It’s been ugly, and it’s not getting any better.

To be fair, newspapers first started dying for reasons other than the internet. Morning newspapers, for example, began edging out their afternoon counterparts when evening TV news came into vogue. (The Post was an afternoon daily.) As more people turned to TV, evening papers saw their circulations drop.  Advertisers left. By the time the internet fully showed its beastly head, around the late-’90s, the viability of afternoon papers already was waning.

An example: The Post, at one time, was the biggest daily newspaper in the state of Ohio. When I started in Cincinnati in 1989, The Post boasted a circulation well over 100,000. When it closed, 12 years after I left, on the last day of 2007 (not coincidentally, the first day it could have been shuttered because of a long-held Joint Operating Agreement with the morning paper, the Cincinnati Enquirer), its circulation was 27,000.

By then, the internet had taken over, claimed the future, and small, local dailies like The Post were all but done.

I thought of all this, on this internet anniversary, and wondered But what did its closing mean? What did it matter? Turns out more, probably, than you’d think.

A 2009 paper from the National Bureau of Economic Research asked “Do Newspapers Matter? Short-run and Long-Run Evidence from the Closure of The Cincinnati Post.” Here’s what that paper concluded:

[The Post‘s] absence appears to have made local elections less competitive along several dimensions: incumbent advantage, voter turnout, campaign spending, and the number of candidates for office. The effect on voter turnout persisted for several years after the newspaper closed.

And The Post is just one example of what we’ve lost. Also from the above paper (and, again, this is from 2009 … things are worse now):

A century ago, 689 cities in the United States had competing daily newspapers; by
2008, only 15 did, and today that number has fallen to 11. Many monopoly newspapers are also struggling financially. The decline in competition and in the newspaper industry as a whole has prompted concern that the nation is losing a crucial source of information about public affairs. In the words of one observer, “More of American life will occur in shadows. We won’t know what we won’t know.”

The Rise of Internet ‘News’

I’ve touched on this before: Newspapers are still out there, in paper form and otherwise. Good ones. They deserve our support. The papers (you know, sooner or later, we’ll stop calling them that) that have survived are struggling, though, trying to find a way forward in a relatively new medium (the internet, something we now often call “digital”) where the traditional way of making money (advertising) has proven difficult.

To be clear, journalism is not dead, either. More and more people are buying journalism right now, outright, via online subscriptions. But for most newspapers (not all), financially, whether in paper form or digitally, that’s not nearly enough.

Couple that with the onslaught of literally thousands of competing websites that claim to be news, that claim to be journalistically driven (though few actually are), and what we have is the internet in 2020: a place that’s provided me a good living for a quarter-century (yikes!) but one which still makes me wince daily.

I don’t do real news anymore, not even real sports news, which is how I have spent the majority of my time on the internet. Still, I report, write, and dole out information and entertainment stories for online consumption, as does Mary Jo, and we keep an eye, every day, on how news is handled on the internet.

For every New York Times website out there, you have a foxnews.com or cnn.com, two digital outlets (grown out of their cable news organizations) which shouldn’t even be in the same sentence as The Times. You have extremely popular Facebook and Twitter news feeds, which are an abomination and clearly dangerous. Equally as harmful are the hundreds, if not thousands, of aggregation sites that steal other people’s reporting, sometimes passing if off as original. These sites suck up whatever measly ad dollars are out there and make it more difficult for real news organizations to convince people that they need to subscribe to, or at least visit, their sites.

You have good sports sites (ESPN.com) and not good ones (bleacherreport.com). You have valid entertainment sites — many tied to traditional media — and others that are just there to urge you to page through a 75-image photo gallery so they can report those page views to their advertisers and you can be subjected to an auto-play video after every third click.

But comprehensive local news beyond a press release from a government agency or local team, something with good, cogent, balanced analysis? Good luck looking. See you in a hundred years.

Now the coronavirus is smacking down news organizations yet again — both traditional and internet media — making this a doubly scary time for both journalists and those that they serve. It may well be the death of several more local newspapers.

Here’s a striking and depressing statistic: Since 2008, roughly the time The Post went under, about half of all the newspaper journalism jobs in the nation have evaporated, according to that Columbia Journalism Review link above (via the Los Angeles Times).

Into that vacuum: the internet. My working home. A great source now of entertainment and commerce, too. It’s virtually irreplaceable. It’s also too big, too crowded, with too many bad choices to swim through to find the good ones. It’s endlessly misleading and infuriating. It can be helpful, dangerous, and incredibly stupid all at once. It’s a place where harm and harmless are a click apart. But positive thoughts: Here we are.

Twenty-five years inside the internet.

I still can’t quit it. Probably never will.


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