In the digital media world, Jim Brady needs no introduction. Currently the founder and CEO of Billy Penn — a mobile news platform in Philadelphia — his career in online journalism has spanned two decades serving in roles such as Executive Editor of The Washington Post dot com, Editor-in-Chief of Digital First Media, and President of the Online News Association. In his early-web days, Brady was sports editor on the team that launched the washingtonpost.com; the site celebrated its 20th anniversary late last month.
SND asked Brady to reflect on what it was like to launch a news website in the early days of the dot com boom, and what excites him about the internet 20 years later.
— Jim Brady (@jimbrady) June 20, 2016
Let’s set the scene a little bit … it’s 1996, you’re sports editor of The Washington Post dot com, only a handful of newspapers are online, less than 20 percent of U.S. households have internet access … what do you remember of that time? Was the idea of taking The Washington Post online met by the newsroom with a sense of opportunity or obligation?
More than anything, I remember the absolute rush of getting to build something from scratch. How often do journalists get to completely define a new medium? It happened with radio, then TV, but there hadn’t really been a new method for journalists to communicate with consumers for some time, so it was thrilling to be there. That said, I can’t say our colleagues on the print side of the business were paying much attention. They weren’t necessarily opposed to it; they couldn’t be bothered to think about it enough to be opposed to it. It was such a minor deal to them at that point. What mattered to us was that Don Graham was behind it, and he was behind it with everything he had.
Prior to your stint as sports editor of the dot com, you were a sports writer and researcher. Tell me about your evolution from writer to web guy. What excited you about the internet 20 years ago, and what has kept you excited about it since then?
I fell in love with digital in the early 1990s. I was — and still am — a die-hard Mets and Jets fan living in Washington, and, back then, the distance made it very hard to keep up with those teams. But a friend of mine had a Compuserve account, and he showed me you could check baseball scores on there. It wasn’t the pitch-by-pitch level of detail we have now, but it was a way for me to keep up with my teams that didn’t force me to wait for the local news at 11pm or to call Sports Phone to get updates. And it sort of hit me then that any medium in which the consumer gets to seek out what they want when they want it will likely win. I knew it would for me, so I knew I wanted to move in a digital direction. At one time in the early 1990s, I had Compuserve, Prodigy, AOL and eWorld accounts. All cost real money, and I wasn’t making much at the time. But I was just fascinated by online. And it’s been exciting ever since because it never stops changing or being fascinating to me. Because I’ve been in digital journalism for more than 21 years now, people frequently ask, “How did you see this coming?” My response is usually, “How did you not?
How long did it take to take the idea of washingtonpost.com from concept to launch? What, if any, direct role did you have in the strategy/launch process?
We launched first on a dial-up proprietary system called AT&T Interchange, I think in the fall of 1995. But we launched at the tail end of the dial-up proprietary system phase of digital, and got caught a little off-guard when the web took off so quickly. But once we decided to move from Interchange to the web, I think we did it in like 4-5 months or something like that. It was fast, and we had to move everything from one system to another. But it was so much fun. And as for whether I had a direct role in the launch, the short answer is that ANYONE who worked at what was then called Digital Ink had a direct role in the launch. We weren’t big enough for anyone not to. My specific role was the build and launch the sports section, but we all helped out in many other ways.
We’re talking about a time when there was no Google, no Facebook, no Chartbeat, so getting the news online and getting eyeballs on it looked a lot different than what it does today. Tell me a little about what publishing to the web looked like for The Post, and how the team was structured to accommodate that.
Well, our publishing system was pretty Stone Age, though efficient. We dragged files we wanted to publish into a special folder on our desktops that somehow published the pages; I still don’t quite understand how. But there was no real CMS. We used Homesite to do coding, and the producers all coded by hand, so updating the site was really easy. But because we were all new to HTML, it was also incredibly easy to break the site. As for how the team was constructed, our structure mirrored the one at the newspaper. We had section heads, a few producers, but no specialists. Video was virtually impossible on the web then, and there was no social media or SEO to worry about. So everyone was publishing directly to the site. We got traffic because The Washington Post is The Washington Post, and were thus a destination site. None of the digital competition that’s so prevalent now was there then. So traffic was easier to get, and just about all of it came in through the home page.
At one point The Washington Post digital team was in a different building than the old newsroom on 15th Street NW. Was that the case when the website first launched? What was the rationale behind that? What challenges did that present?
At the time we launched on Interchange, we were in a building that was right next to — and essentially, connected to — The Post building. But by the time we launched washingtonpost.com, we were in Arlington, Va., at our own offices. At that time, being across the river presented no challenges for us, and was 100 percent positive. No one at the paper cared about what we were building, and we would have felt that much more acutely if we were among them. We had our own little innovation lab over in Virginia, and were not much impacted by the paper’s disinterest. It was a very good thing, and I would argue it was a good thing for about a decade. By the time I came back to the company as executive editor of washingtonpost.com in 2004, it was more of a problem, because it was hard to build collaborative relationships with people when you were 15-20 minutes away. And, by then, most at the paper understood digital was going to be a major part of The Post’s future.
Describe the relationship between those who worked on the print product versus those who worked on the website. Was there that sense of us vs. them that we’re still fighting today?
No, it was a sense of “us vs. who”? We really were not something the print newsroom spent much time thinking about. When we launched, no reporters were filing for the web, none were carrying cameras or feeding Twitter accounts. Their world had not changed, and I’ve always felt the real “us vs. them” battles began when they had to change how they operated on a daily basis. That woke them up, some in very positive ways and others, well, not so much. And that battle is still not over, and probably never will be in legacy newsrooms.
What do you remember of the day the site went live?
Being exhausted. We’d all been there all night and were cleaning up bugs and building up to the big moment. I remember how exciting it was to see it go live, but like with many launches, the immediate next reaction was, “Oh, shit, I’ve got to feed this thing now!” I don’t honestly remember much beyond that because I think we were just wiped out.
How did The Post’s audience receive the website? And, without some of the tools we have now, what mechanisms were in place to gauge feedback?
Oh, we basically had no way to capture feedback outside of some message boards. So it was far from scientific. At that time, everyone looked at digital as being so new that there wasn’t the pressure that exists today to grow traffic and ad revenue. It was purely experimental, so while some feedback was good, I don’t think we needed much, because we were changing the site and trying new things every day, so whatever feature any feedback was about, we were probably already addressing it.
You tweeted a joke about how load time has been a problem that many news organizations have been trying to solve for 20 years. What are some of the other challenges you remember from those early days we’re still facing today? I’d imagine the list is longer than you would’ve hoped.
Load time was tough because connection speeds were so, so bad. I think we had one photo on the Washingtonpost.com launch page. We had to be very, very careful. But, in a way, it kept us from overloading the pages the way many news sites do today, and I think that minimalist lesson still holds water. The load times of many newspaper, magazine and TV sites today is just unconscionable. The other major issue, which I mentioned earlier, was any one of us could break the site by pushing bad code live. There was just very little defense against sloppy coding. And we also didn’t have much sense of traffic surges and how to handle them until we had a few, though we did really well on major traffic surges for many years after some initial challenges.
What lessons from those early days do you still find relevant today?
That trying new things is still essential. The march of technology hasn’t stopped, but the changing nature of newsroom structures has, I think, squelched some of the risk-taking in legacy newsrooms. And when you look at the revenue trends at most of those organizations, now would seem to be an important time to start trying something new, since the old model is clearly undergoing an existential crisis. It was totally the Wild West, and the people who used washingtonpost.com back then seemed to enjoy being on that ride with us. That sense of reckless fun seems to be gone in many newsrooms now.
One of my pet peeves has always been this belief that, if we’d just charged for content back in the mid-1990s, legacy media would be in a different place today. Many of the people making that argument were not working for digital operations and living a digital life in 1995. Having been there then, I cannot state how off-base I think that argument is. We didn’t even have the ability to collect money from readers when we launched washingtonpost.com; that came some time later. Beyond that, no one wanted to put personal information on the web until the early 2000s, so how exactly were we going to collect credit card number or bank account numbers in that environment? And, maybe most importantly, no one who knows how competitive newspapers were with each other at that time can possibly believe that: 1) everyone would have decided independently to charge; and 2) even if that happened, that some organization would not have tried a free model to hoard audience and eventually forced most others to do the same. The idea that the local monopoly model was ever going to make the move from print to digital is pure fantasy, in my view. The local print monopolies were held in place by the printing press. Once that wasn’t the only way to publish, the monopoly was going to end.