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June 1, 2006updated 22 Nov 2022 7:32pm

How online journalism got its UK start

Much more than its American counterpart, UK online journalism has its roots in the technology scene, in part because in the early days technology journalists and their readers were almost the only ones who had online access. The few mainstream exceptions (such as the late John Diamond) had to take up technology journalism to pay for their online habit.

British online journalism goes back to the 1980s, when the first personal computers and modems were coming into general use. The early online world featured both paid information and conferencing services such as CompuServe, CIX, Delphi and AOL, and free bulletin board services, typically run on a computer in somebody’s back bedroom. Both types carried news. The free services, such as today’s blogs and web forums, carried articles written by members for fun. Paid journalism was the province of the information services, since these had revenue streams. CompuServe began a news service called OnLine Today as early as 1987, hiring freelance journalist Steve Gold to write for it.

Gold’s first online journalism, however, was even earlier than that: 1983, for Micronet, a service started up by BT in partnership with East Midland Allied Press to help attract users to British Telecom’s online service, Prestel. Within six months the user base had swelled to 10,000, and many stalwarts of today’s scene were writing for it: Gold, Robert Schifreen (now a security expert and book author), and Rupert Goodwins (ZDNet UK). At its peak in 1985, Micronet had 60,000 users.

Micronet closed its modems in 1989 and some of its user base migrated to an area on CompuServe UK. Gold accepted an invitation to become a partner in and contribute British news stories to Newsbytes, a wire service carried on another early online service, The Source (later acquired by and subsumed into CompuServe). Within a year the service had become so popular that The Source had begun charging for it. Newsbytes was eventually sold to The Washington Post.

I began working in British journalism in 1990. At that time, there were dozens of computer magazines and hundreds of technology hacks, most of whom hung out on CIX (where I researched the above), and CompuServe dominated information services.

Then two things changed everything: Windows 3.0 turned the world graphical (helping both AOL and the web), and in 1993 the US government began allowing commercial traffic on the internet.

Dan O’Brien, who wrote technology gossip (‘Micrognome’) for Micronet when he was only 15, likes to call this period the “crypto-Mosaic era”. The watershed was 1994.

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O’Brien, who went on to Wired UK and Virgin Net, was hired for The Guardian’s New Media group when he gave the correct answer to “What is MPEG?” The New Media group, he says, was “only a distant ancestor” of today’s site; it briefly produced a weekly webzine, Shift Control. The purpose, in any case, was to map out the future. In 2004, The Guardian reviewed the group’s 1994 10-year projection: much of it was startlingly accurate.

O’Brien’s key project, however, was the electronic ‘zine that he and Future staffer Dave Green began in 1997: Need to Know (Now), or NTK, intended to be “kind of like Suck” (a sarcastic US daily web column, later sold to Wired).

“The idea was to show that you could do a small, subversive, low-budget journalism project and get attention,” explains O’Brien, who is now activism co-ordinator for the San Francisco-based Electronic Frontier Foundation and a columnist for The Irish Times.

1994 was also the year that foreign reporter Ben Rooney convinced The Daily Telegraph to launch an online edition. “I was reading all these things about the internet in wire copy coming out of America,” he recalls, “and thought it sounded interesting.”

The Electronic Telegraph began with no budget.

“We had a Sun Sparc server we blagged from Sun, a 64k (count ’em) line blagged from Demon Internet, and some Macs blagged from the Telegraph art department. Mark-up was done on the old Atex system and through a Heath Robinson method ended up on a Mac. To publish, we stuck it on a tape, walked up a flight of stairs and transferred the contents over by hand.”

Rooney predicted it would be profitable within six months. “I was wrong. By about a squillion years.”

Richard Burton, the current editor of what is now, says the site became profitable in 2003 and is increasingly lucrative. “It’s certainly taking more and more advertising share for us as a company, and the trend is only going to continue.”

The site, which features video, blogs and podcasts, also makes money from subscription-only areas such as fantasy football leagues and co-branding deals with corporate partners.

By 1999, when I was a judge for the first British Online Journalism Awards, today’s major sites were all operational. My own first paid writing specifically for the web was in August 1995, when I was commissioned to do a column for d.Comm, a webzine published by The Economist. I wasn’t the first: in early 1995 Paul Ockenden did a few columns for a website published by Allied Domecq, which he believes to be the first time a non-media, noninternet company commissioned online editorial.

Many of the biggest sites are still technology oriented. Ten-year-old ZDNet UK, which now belongs to CNET Networks, began as Ziff Davis’s supplement to its print magazines. AOL, which launched in the UK in February 1996, also played a role. Mary Branscombe, an early ‘producer’ for AOL, says many of AOL UK’s early staff came from the BBC. Many of the computer magazine publishers opened content areas on AOL, and German publisher Bertelsmann entered into a joint venture.

“They all went through the same process,” says Branscombe. “It was always an outsider going, ‘We have to do this internet thing now’ and building up a separate division and running almost in competition to the print magazines. Hardly anybody managed to do it as a way of supporting the print magazines. It was always different and separate.”

These channels ended after a few years when AOL’s US management changed the service’s revenue structure from hourly access fees to a monthly subscription augmented by advertising.

Branscombe points out an important factor in the development of British online journalism: “There was no venture capital to spin these things up in the UK. It was always people who already had a publishing empire and had money to lose.”

The exception is The Register, which began when two long-serving technology hacks, Mike Magee, who specialised in writing about computer chips, and John Lettice, who mostly covered software, decided to do an email newsletter.

Says Magee, “We realised the chip industry was worth about $200bn a year then, and we were down the pub one day and said, ‘Why don’t we do a newsletter because we can and this is a big, big market, and nobody else seems to be doing much about it.'”

The early years were painful: working in their “spare” time over a dial-up connection, though the subscriber list grew quickly after posting on Usenet and CIX. Even after moving to the Web, however, the newsletter didn’t make any money, and Lettice was thinking of quitting when, in early 1997, Drew Cullen, an editor at VNU, joined them and found investment from Linus Birtles. For a time The Register made money selling news feeds to other sites that thought news was the way to attract traffic. But the bottom dropped out around the time The Register hired additional staff. They decided to try for advertising.

They had a lot of competition from heavily venture capital-funded US subsidiaries of American publications: (now part of CNET Networks), the Industry Standard, Business 2.0, TheStreet. What UK investment there was went into financial and sports sites such as Internet Investor and 365.

“The initial thing was to have content – and then it didn’t make money,” says Cullen. “We spent well over £1m before we became profitable in 2003.

We had two investors, both of whom are still in there. It took ages to find out how to make money against the backdrop of a difficult climate. And it was harder for us because we were the new kids on the block.”

Lettice adds: “We were shuffling around waiting for the world to accept that there is sense in advertising on web publications.” In addition, in about 2001 The Register’s founders split, with Magee going off to do a rival publication, The Inquirer (recently sold to VNU).

Of course, American online journalism also has roots in the technology scene, but it also has widely read, influential online general-interest publications such as Slate and Salon, which have no true counterparts here.

“We’re much more trivial,” explains Cullen.

“We’ve got Popbitch and Holy Moly. The Guardian is the closest, and it’s a hybrid, and also the BBC.”

But, he adds, “It doesn’t do the sort of thought leadership and longer essays that a Salon would do. But there is that sort of American magazine culture that’s not really the same here.”

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