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.
"Don Graham got it from the very beginning," said Fulton, now the vice president of audience development for The Bakersfield Californian "He understood how powerful a medium it could be and made a huge commitment." And Kaiser recalls a conversation with Post board member Warren Buffett in which Buffett told Kaiser to stop worrying about the financial side: "There is no case in history of somebody assembling a huge audience and then failing to make money from it," Kaiser recalls Buffett saying.
The washingtonpost.com editorial staff now numbers 65 and Washingtonpost.Newsweek Interactive (WPNI) -- which also manages Slate and the Web sites of Newsweek and Budget Travel -- employs approximately 240. The decision to keep the Web operation separate from the newspaper has, at times, led to tension between the two newsrooms and advertising departments. Complicating the venture over the years has been fear of the unknown, a belief that the free Web site was "cannibalizing" the newspaper, frustration over the large amounts of money spent to build up the site and adapting to revolutionary changes in how readers consume media.
"There was a huge amount of skepticism downtown," at the beginning, said Mark Potts, a senior executive at Digital Ink, who also built the original electronic newspaper prototype for The Post. "There was active resentment by the sales part of the company; in the newsroom, there were a handful of people who got it."
Today, washingtonpost.com Executive Editor Jim Brady spends much of his time shuttling between the newspaper and the Web site. Meanwhile, many of the site's section editors have developed strong relationships with their counterparts at the newspaper. Interaction between members of the advertising and marketing staffs has also grown over time. And while other major media organizations have made big splashes about merging their online and print operations, Graham has publicly stated that the two operations will remain separate for the time being.
In a recent all-company meeting, Caroline Little, WPNI's chief executive officer and publisher, spoke of recent online innovations. "We set out, very purposefully, about two years ago, to leverage the medium of the Internet, to create more possibilities of conversation and to drive people to come and stay on the site: With blogs, comments on blogs, Technorati [links], comments on articles, a broader and deeper opinion section," she said.
Senior Post editors and Graham, meanwhile, have stated their commitment to developing and sustaining a multi-platform newsroom -- one capable of producing news and information for distribution across a number of platforms. One example: The Post partnered with Bonneville to launch Washington Post Radio in late March, a move that has given local residents another way to get news from The Post.
"We're building a 24-hour multiplatform newsroom," Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie, Jr. told the newspaper staff recently. "And we're creating a multimedia news staff."
Downie and other editors hope the newspaper can be used as a launching pad to get readers to listen to Washington Post Radio or experience the multimedia journalism featured on washingtonpost.com. This increased focus on multi-platform journalism is also evident in the discussion of new features. One example is a section tentatively called The Daily Source. Tentatively scheduled to launch in the fall, the Source is being pitched as the newspaper's first truly interactive section, one where readers won't really get the full impact of its content unless they go to washingtonpost.com.
"It's a section that truly embraces the promise of multi-platform journalism; to help time-starved people make informed decisions and to create a real conversation with readers with news that is relevant to their daily lives," said Jill Dutt, assistant managing editor for Financial.
The site hasn't always had 10 years of experience to fall back on, however. In washingtonpost.com's early days, Web professionals were forced to learn on the fly. The Web site's first election night, in 1996, turned into a disaster when technical problems prevented editors from updating the site for long periods of time.
"We had an Internet bottleneck and the servers couldn't handle the traffic," said Mark Stencel, who went on to run the site's political coverage through the 2000 election. "We learned a major lesson -- neither your server nor your vendor should be so far away that you can't kick them."
With the lessons of election night learned, major news events soon proved to be the major engines of audience growth for the site, and also major factors in growing the site's business.
"There was a great growth in audience around big news events," Kaiser said. "Every time page views went up, they plateaued at the new levels."
To many, the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal was the major story most crucial in growing the site's reputation and traffic. For Peter Baker, who covered the Clinton White House for The Post, the Web provided a unique opportunity to publish updates on the story outside of the daily newspaper cycle. Baker recalls staying up late on the nights prior to the House vote on impeachment and the Senate vote to acquit, in both cases so he could prepare his story for quick publication on the Web.
"It involved a whole new way of thinking," Baker said. "There were a lot of trade-offs involved and we were thinking, 'Do we really want to do this?'"
Thanks to the efforts of Baker and others, including former washingtonpost.com executive editor Douglas B. Feaver and former Post managing editor Steve Coll, filing for the Web site slowly but steadily became a part of the newspaper's culture.
By the time the 2000 election rolled around, the web staffers had gained enough respect to share a work space with editors and reporters from the newspaper. Graham describes the 2000 election as a "coming of age" for the Web site.
It was also during that time period that washingtonpost.com's multimedia section began to evolve. Tom Kennedy, the site's managing editor for multimedia, was hired away from National Geographic in early 1998 and slowly began to develop the visual narrative and presentation techniques that have become one of the washingtonpost.com's hallmarks.
Kennedy's multimedia team played a major role in coverage of the terror attacks on Sept. 11, 2001 by providing video from the Pentagon and stitching together photos of the destruction in New York.
Feaver describes 9/11 as the "day the Internet became a vital part of the way Americans consume news. I compare it to the impact JFK's assassination had on the importance of television news."
The events of 2000 and 2001 also helped executives within the Post Company recognize the significant national and international reach of the Web site. Washingtonpost.com, they realized, wasn't a completely separate product; it could also help market the larger Washington Post brand. Audience spikes around big news events sent a strong message: Readers yearned for the authority of The Washington Post's reporting.
Today, the Web site is updated around-the-clock with Post reporting from its continuous newsdesk. The "CND" -- as it is commonly referred to -- has a staff of three editors and five reporters, and provides content to the Web site. At any given hour, CND reporters can be found writing their own stories or taking notes from Post reporters in the field.
Meanwhile, the upward curve continues in traffic as well. In 2005, the Web site had more than 2.4 billion page views and internal numbers showed a solid increase in the first quarter of 2006.
A common challenge for the site in its 10-year history has been to simultaneously serve its local and national/international audiences. With bloggers, Craigslist and hyperlocal sites as potential challengers, the site focuses much of its energy on "owning" the local audience. Yet, a large percentage of site users come from outside the Washington metropolitan area. In an effort to serve these two constituencies, washingtonpost.com launched a dual home page strategy in July 2005. Users who enter local zip codes as part of their registration receive a local home page, while those who enter any other zip code get a page more weighted to national and international news.
Despite these changes, new challenges appear on the horizon on a daily basis. But Spoon, who left The Post in 2000 and is now managing partner at Polaris Ventures in Boston, remains upbeat. "Post.com is the plane that flies The Washington Post into the future." he said. "We have the transportation to continue into a highly varied media future."
Says Tim Ruder, WPNI's vice president of marketing: "We're still evolving. There are times when it feels like we're still in the early innings of this game."
Graham agrees: "We're just trying to figure out how best to bring the news to the people. We're still in the early days here."