Correction to This Article
Digital Ink was created in 1993. An earlier version of this story misstated the date.
TEN INTERNET YEARS

Web Site Starts From a Memo, Gains Millions of Readers

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By Steve Fox
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Monday, June 19, 2006; 12:00 AM

As Bob Kaiser settled into his first-class seat for the flight home to Washington from Tokyo, he took out his pen and pad and began to muse about the future -- and frogs.

"The Post is not in a pot of water, and we're smarter than the average frog," wrote The Washington Post's then-managing editor. "But we do find ourselves swimming in an electronic sea where we could eventually be devoured -- or ignored as an unnecessary anachronism. Our goal, obviously, is to avoid getting boiled as the electronic revolution continues."

It was August 1992. There were no wireless laptops, no BlackBerries, no blogs, no rush to flip on cell phones as soon as your plane hit the runway. Yet, in his hand-written memo, sparked after attending an Apple-organized conference in Hakone, Japan, Kaiser took a peek into a crystal ball of technology and proposed that the company "design the world's first electronic newspaper."

"We could organize the entire paper electronically with a series of 'front pages' and other devices that would guide readers the way our traditional cues do -- headlines, captions, story placement, etc.," he recommended. "And we could explore the feasibility of incorporating ads in the electronic paper."

Kaiser's analysis, still known today inside the company as the "Kaiser memo," framed the subsequent decision to launch an electronic version of the newspaper for subscribers, which in turn became washingtonpost.com, launched 10 years ago this week on the World Wide Web.

Donald E. Graham, Chairman and CEO of The Washington Post Company, recently recalled the early years of the Web operation as a time of experimentation and innovation. "We knew we needed to get in early and experiment with news distribution," he said.

The experiment began in 1993 with the creation of Digital Ink, a Post Company subsidiary which aimed to provide a new, jazzy product separate and distinct from the printed Washington Post. Subscribers could electronically access newspaper content and other original material over AT&T's Interchange platform. The subscriber-only strategy, however, fell victim to the rise of browser-based applications like Netscape and was discarded in 1996.

Alan Spoon, then-president of the Washington Post Company, recalls being in a cab with Graham in downtown Chicago in late 1995 when they decided it was time to leave the closed, subscriber service. "Alan realized that [the Web] was it," Kaiser said.

By the time washingtonpost.com launched on June 17, 1996, the online operation had relocated from its confined space at The Post's office at 15th and L streets into some relatively swanky digs in Arlington, Va. The entire operation, except for the sales team, was located on the same floor. Midnight jogs around the newsroom kept the troops fresh and interns often made dinners from free snacks and coffee -- provided to ensure that sugar and caffeine levels stayed high over long shifts spent pushing new features onto the site.

For many, the enterprise was driven by a sense of excitement at being at the forefront of a new medium with boundless possibilities.

"The people who were initially attracted to work for Digital Ink didn't [all] come from the newspaper," said Mary Lou Fulton, washingtonpost.com's managing editor at the time. "They were attracted to the idea of working in a new medium for reasons that were pure."

The separation of the two operations -- both physically and in the accounting ledgers -- has remained constant. The Post Company invested -- and lost -- millions of dollars in developing washingtonpost.com during the 1990s. Two years ago, the site turned its first profit and the upswing continues today as more and more advertisers find themselves turning to the Internet.


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© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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