Saturday, October 23, 2010

The Story of StarText: An Online Newspaper Pioneer


The year was 1982 – – The San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana threw a touchdown pass to Dwight Clark in the NFC Championship to defeat the much hated Dallas Cowboys, that will forever be known as THE CATCH; Head Line News (HLN), part of the Cable News Network (CNN) began broadcasting; The Washington Star, the Nation Capital's newspaper of record, ceased publication after 130 years; the nighttime television drama Dallas, ruled the airwaves, Michael Jackson’s Thriller takes over the radio and MTV; ABBA quietly rides off into the sunset (guys rejoice, girls buy more ABBA paraphernalia); Andy Kaufman and professional wrestler Jerry Lawler had a stage fracas on Late Night with David Letterman; Mary Hart's legs join the Entertainment Tonight team (a role she still holds today);Ronald Reagan ruled the White House; and the Cold War was still, well cold.

I was in elementary school and my favorite cartoon was Fat Albert and the Cosby kids. I also had dreams of being a member of the A-Team or playing professional football for the Washington Redskins – – or both (I was quite the multi-tasker at that age).

Meanwhile, the folks over at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram were also dreaming big. Only their dreams would come to fruition.

In the fall of 1981, three editors of Star-Telegram, put their heads together and ventured out to tap into an unknown media source that we now take for granted. In the same year, rival The Dallas Morning News' also jumped into the uncharted waters of online new service. Their adventure would failed within a year due to lack of business. Meanwhile, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram team (who I have dubbed the Godfathers of online newspaper media), which consisted of Tom Steinert-Threlkeld (the director of news technology for Capital Cites), Joe Donth (the Star-Telegram's director of data processing), and Gerry Barker (StarText Interact Manager), set the goal to successful launch and consistently maintain an online (I use the term online loosely in this context due to a lack of better terminology) news presence.

Using content from the paper, StarText launched on May 3, 1982, with the help of the Tandy Corp. which provided the software and computers.

"It became solely operated by the Star-Telegram the next year. Over the course of the next 15 years StarText was the first local online service in the nation to achieve profitability (officially noted in 1986), as well one of the first to recognize the value of keyword vs. menu navigation," said Barker, in a recent e-mail interview with this writer, "Subscribers paid $9.95 a month to use it.

"StarText was remarkable in many ways, beginning with the fact it survived beyond its first six months, propelled along by a stubborn belief that online held the key to newspapers’ future," Barker added. "For much of its time, it was run by a dedicated staff of six or less, an entrepreneurial company within a company (Capital Cities-ABC). Decisions were made on intuition and instinct; we were truly going where no newspaper had gone before. It was deeply exhilarating and challenging all at the same time."

Customers purchasing StarText were able to receive updated Star-Telegram content, state nation and world news, sports, business, and entertainment news reports from 5 A.M. to midnight, the catch was that had to have a Tandy Model I, Model III, or the new Tandy Vidtex terminal, something they developed exclusively for their videotex product, according to information Barker provided.

"Unlike today, the first version of StarText wasn't truly an "online" system," Barker wrote on a website dedicated to the history of StarText. "You called the host computer (at 300 baud), entered up to four requests, the host computer delivered the information, then hung up. If you wanted more, you had to call back."

StarText had with some considered a successful run, even with the creation of the World Wide Web, which introduced numerous online newspaper sites (most of which were not charging a subscription price). But eventually, the StarText service became a victim of the growing Internet, ending production on March 3, 1997. Of course the paper relaunched a new online service, but most should consider the Star-Telegram's StarText program to be a pioneer of online new service.

"StarText peaked at close to 5,000 customers, attaining more subscribers than well-funded national efforts like Viewtron, which reportedly spent between $50 and $100 million trying to find an online audience. Still, the revenue we generated was hardly more than a rounding error by newspaper standards," Barker said in an email interview, "Then along came the World Wide Web and changed everything. StarText made the leap, but found itself one site among many. We still had cache with our core group of loyal “StarTexans,” but the local sense of community that fueled our growth didn’t translate to the Web in the same way.

"At the end of the day, you can make the case StarText was simply ahead of its time. Still, I think we got one thing right: Online turned out to be a pretty big deal for newspapers, don’t you think?"

When asked about the pros and cons of subscription fees, Barker appears to be straddling the fence, which is not an insult. I, myself seem to hold that same position.

"The “pro” is you create badly-needed revenue. The “con” is lose readership to your free competition. This without a doubt will be a hot topic for business school case studies," Barker explained. "As many industry pundits have said, “Genie is out of the bottle and we can’t put him back.” While we don’t know the eventual outcome, I think you can make a case that over time, high quality content, delivered in the form consumers want it, when they want it, will find its niche and reflect its true value -- the same way free newspapers live alongside paid ones, and have for a long time.

"Well, StarText charged from day one, back in 1982, so it wasn’t for lack of trying," Barker added. "But as the Internet took hold , we all fell in line with the notion content on the Web is expected to be free, supported by ads (and those better not be too invasive, by the way).

"Once you start down that road, there is almost no turning back. But keep in mind the World Wide Web as a commercial enterprise is less than 20 years old. Newspapers still have time to figure out their electronic businesses, which now include a new audience comprised of millions of tablet devices that were scarcely a blip on the radar not even a year ago. In our fast-changing media landscape, the next million dollar idea could be right around the corner."

When asked about today's ideal online newspaper service, Barker said, "the newspaper site that gets the most credit for cutting edge is probably Lawrence, Kansas." He adds that new platform wise, such as video, mobile, and multimedia, the New York Times appears to be also on the cutting edge, "both in content and advertising."

About Gerry Barker: 

A journalist who took the plunge into New Media circa 1981. Former rock music writer. Founding member of StarText, one of the first and most successful local online newspaper ventures.

Graduate of UT-Arlington. Ran web sites for Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Dallas Morning News, Belo Interactive, Columbus Dispatch, Florida Publishing Group (TBO.com) and most recently, The Palm Beach Post in West Palm Beach, Fl.  

More information about Gerry Barker and StarText is available at:


The Interview Text: 
1. Please give me a summary of the StarText project, detailing with what went right and what went wrong and how it may compare to Internet newspapers now?
Barker:  
StarText was an online information service provided by The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, one of the first of its kind in the country.  It launched on May 3, 1982, as a joint venture between the Star-Telegram and the Tandy Corp., whose interest was marketing the software and selling computers.  It became solely operated by the S-T the next year. Over the course of the next 15 years StarText was the first local online service in the nation to achieve profitability (officially noted in 1986), as well one of the first to recognize the value of keyword vs. menu navigation. Subscribers paid $9.95 a month to use it.
StarText  was remarkable in many ways, beginning with the fact it survived beyond its first six months, propelled along by a stubborn belief that online held the key to newspapers’ future. For much of its time, it was run by a dedicated staff of six or less, an entrepreneurial company within a company (Capital Cities-ABC). Decisions were made on intuition and instinct; we were truly going where no newspaper had gone before. It was deeply exhilarating and challenging all at the same time.
StarText peaked at close to 5,000 customers, attaining more subscribers than well-funded national efforts like Viewtron, which reportedly spent between $50 and $100 million trying to find an online audience. Still, the revenue we generated was hardly more than a rounding error by newspaper standards. Then along came the World Wide Web and changed everything. StarText made the leap, but found itself one site among many. We still had cache with our core group of loyal “StarTexans,” but the local sense of community that fueled our growth didn’t translate to the Web in the same way.
 At the end of the day, you can make the case StarText was simply ahead of its time. Still, I think we got one thing right: Online turned out to be a pretty big deal for newspapers, don’t you think?
2. You have an impressive lists of places you have run Websites for. Which was the biggest challenge and which operation made you say "Wow, these people really have something special?"
Barker: 
Each had its own special challenges and rewards. In terms of which one was the biggest challenge, I would say the Columbus Dispatch. The challenge was turning an operation around quickly and then moving it forward across multiple platforms, both print and broadcast. We ended up over-delivering on all fronts in a relatively short time, which was very satisfying. Which one had the biggest “wow” factor? Belo, and the spinoff of Belo Interactive, was an exciting time to be running their flagship property, The Dallas Morning News. And my current employer, Cox, is doing some “wow” things as well.

3. What are your thoughts on how the online media game has evolved since 1982?
Barker: 
If you have ever had the experience of being online at 300 baud, you know where we are today is “light years” from there. Seriously, the underlying technology has leapfrogged ahead at a geometric pace. Now we are doing things on hand-held mobile devices we couldn’t conceive of when StarText made its debut. Who would have thought you would have 500 million people in a “social network?” Tablet computers were talked about in the Eighties at Knight-Ridder; now they are predicting 45 million iPads sold worldwide next year. Timing is everything.

4. Which newspaper websites do you consider to be cutting edge?
Barker: 
In terms of pure experimentation, the newspaper site that gets the most credit for cutting edge is probably Lawrence, Kansas.  For doing the most with the new platforms, many would point to the New York Times. In general, there’s probably more good work going on around our industry than ever before – video. mobile, multi-media – both in content and advertising.

5. In your opinion, what are the pros and cons of charging readers for online news?
Barker: 
That’s easy. The “pro” is you create badly-needed revenue. The “con” is lose readership to your free competition. This without a doubt will be a hot topic for business school case studies. As many industry pundits have said, “Genie is out of the bottle and we can’t put him back.” While we don’t know the eventual outcome, I think you can make a case that over time, high quality content, delivered in the form consumers want it, when they want it, will find its niche and reflect its true value -- the same way free newspapers live alongside paid ones, and have for a long time.
6. Did newspapers wait too long to try to charge?
Barker: 
Well, StarText charged from day one, back in 1982, so it wasn’t for lack of trying. J But as the Internet took hold , we all fell in line with the notion content on the Web is expected to be free, supported by ads (and those better not be too invasive, by the way). Once you start down that road, there is almost no turning back. But keep in mind the World Wide Web as a commercial enterprise is less than 20 years old. Newspapers still have time to figure out their electronic businesses, which now include a new audience comprised of millions of tablet devices that were scarcely a blip on the radar not even a year ago. In our fast-changing media landscape, the next million dollar idea could be right around the corner.
7. How do you see the future of online media shaping out?
Barker: 
You have to love the “crystal ball” question because predicting the future is such an even playing field. One given you can feel safe about is technology will continue its relentless pace. Three-D becomes 4-D becomes the holodeck and who knows what after that.
Social will continue to be a dominant force, but then it always has been. Communicating is a basic human need, and online allows us to do that better than anything we’ve ever had. The ancestor of Facebook and MySpace was GeoCities, and the ancestor of GeoCities was the Usenet. Will the future belong to Facebook, or will it give way to another upstart now being hatched in a college dorm room somewhere? Or will people disgusted with having their privacy violated abandon the social networks and choose to interact “off the grid.” With its size and scale, seismic change is not uncommon, as we have witnessed.
Personalization and location-based services will usher in “Minority Report” much sooner than anyone thought , which makes privacy protection even more critical. Even people in love with the technology won’t use what they don’t trust. That’s where media can play a pivotal role and extend their businesses into a limitless future: By earning the trust we promise in our mission statements and creeds. When misinformation and rumors can fly at the speed of light, and every person has a bully pulpit to shout their message, media has the opportunity, and the responsibility, to be safe harbor for the Truth. That has always been the cornerstone of our business, something not likely to change as long as we are in business.

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