The Washington Post conceived Digital Ink, its proprietary online news service, in the belief that the Post’s huge market penetration and the area’s abundance of modemed computers would yield beaucoup subscribers. But after two years and millions of dollars, the Post was able to generate an electronic circulation roughly equal to that of a small community newspaper.
No more than 10,000 people came and went in the Post’s digital village, despite countless promos and a year of invitational tickles at the end of news stories. So the Post is cutting its losses and starting over. Digital Ink is leaving its home on ATT Interchange and heading out to the open spaces of the World Wide Web, ending the Post’s dream of a hermetic informational tollway. Like many big news enterprises, the Post is finding that no-paper publishing is a tricky, expensive business.
The Post stepped up to the electronic publishing plate in 1994 with some solid, if irrelevant, newspapering notions: Circulation revenues are critical, having a big fence around your brand name is mandatory, and people will do anything to access the Washington Post online. The Post ignored the anarchy of the Web and bought a pay-as-you-go mousetrap from ATT.
“Back in the ancient days of 1994, the big trend was to go with the online services. The Web wasn’t seen as much of a factor,” says Gary Arlen, president of Arlen Communications, a Bethesda company that researches interactive technologies. At the time, newspapers were rushing to link with existing proprietary services like America Online and Prodigy, so the Post’s decision to join forces with Interchange, initially developed by publisher Ziff-Davis, made sense.
It flopped huge. The Post signed with Interchange because it offered beautiful tools for building an electronic newspaper and a way to charge people for looking at it. What Interchange lacked was usability. When Digital Ink finally came on line last summer, subscribers had to crawl across the electronic equivalent of miles of broken glass to get anywhere. Logging on could take more than five minutes, and moving from screen to screen could take minutes, not seconds—all of which added dollars to annoyed subscribers’ bills. Digital Ink was painful, slow, and as anybody who used it will tell you, bloody unreliable.
Steve Yelvington runs the Minneapolis Star Tribune Online, the only other major daily available on the Interchange. He praises the Post’s electronic incarnation as the best in the business, but admits content providers were a little happier with Interchange than the users. “The original design was brilliant, but the execution has always been a big issue. There have been many complaints that the technology wasn’t fast enough.”
So the Post’s digitized model will pack its bags and move to its own home on the Web, where 90 percent of America’s newspapers have chosen to make their electronic stand.
For the moment, Interchange is still running Digital Ink and other services, but its days as a proprietary content provider are numbered. ATT announced last month it would release a “second version” of Interchange that people can use on the Web. That was a precious bit of spinning, given that ATT will take a $50-million hit after buying the service from Ziff-Davis barely a year ago.
Two days after the announcement of Interchange’s proprietary demise, the Post dumped Don Brazeal, editor and publisher of Digital Ink. Post President Alan Spoon said Brazeal would take a well-deserved sabbatical and praised his “command of the key marketing levers in this fast-changing new medium.” Spoon’s puffery is tough to reconcile with the cold fact that the Post and Brazeal got their asses kicked by an unfortunate choice of platform: The move to the Web constitutes a complete reboot, and much of the time and money spent on the proprietary version of Digital Ink has been for naught.
Nonetheless, Fred Singer, the new vice president for Digital Ink, says the change in platform is “not unexpected.” “We are technology agnostic. We don’t really care what platform it’s on. In fact, we are just excited not to be dealing with the technology issue that came with the proprietary online service.”
Singer seems genuinely juiced about bringing Digital Ink to the Web, but he isn’t interested in getting pinned down about when it might happen. (The Post’s initial launch of Digital Ink was delayed a year, after Ziff-Davis sold Interchange to ATT.)
“We are currently planning on a new service available on the Web, but we are not making announcements about dates. There is a lot of hype out there in terms of announcements and we don’t want to feed into that,” Singer says.
So, the Post’s higher-ups have finally decided to quit hyping Digital Ink until they figure out what they are up to. At least they learned something from the millions they spent.
Mary Hadar’s Soft Spot? Mary Hadar, who guided the Post’s Style section for 12 years, stepped down last summer and took off to find herself—and some stories—in a cross-country trek. She reports success on both counts. Now Hadar’s back as assistant managing editor for features, a job that entails putting stories on Page One that “reflect a greater diversity. I control one space on the front page, and it is my job to see that we have stories that don’t have institutional origins.”
So if you’re looking to blame someone for this week’s squishy Page One takes on a long-lost father and a women’s basketball league that doesn’t keep score, point the finger at Hadar. Beginning about two weeks ago, she began shopping from the budgets of other editors for front-page stories. Hadar dismisses the notion that bringing feel-goods to the front will soften up one of the last remaining news-driven front pages in the business. “The Post has always run ‘readers’ on the front page, but they have been of uneven quality. My job is to be one voice at the meeting, advocating for more consistent quality and making sure good stories get on the front page.”
If They Don’t Get It, Neither Do You: Last Friday, the Washington Times ran a front-page, above-the-fold story revealing that the District’s chief financial officer had FedExed punishment notices to city employees who blocked streets with city vehicles during an anti–control board protest. As with most of the breaking news surrounding the disciplining of the protesting workers, the Post missed the story. It was another scoop for Jeanne Dewey, who has served as the lone ranger in the Times District bureau. But don’t look for more Dewey trumps on the Post. She quit this week, reportedly burnt out by the grind and the Times’ general cluelessness.
Holy Shalit: Ruth Shalit, girl wonder of the smart magazine set, may have finally run out of lives. In the latest installment of That Darn Ruth, one of the New Republic’s line editors was scrubbing up Shalit’s Lamar Alexander profile for the magazine’s Feb. 26 issue when she came across an echo of a piece by Post eminence David Broder. Cursory investigation revealed that Shalit, a self-admitted Nexaholic, was off the wagon and freely co-opting the work of others, something she has done three, four, or five times—but who’s counting?
Certainly not TNR Editor Andrew Sullivan. He was gracious but coy when he was asked whether Shalit would be writing for the magazine again. “Ruth Shalit is an associate editor of the New Republic.”
Any problems with the originality of Ruth’s Lamar bit? “We did not publish anybody else’s work and we do not discuss our internal editing processes, but I would be happy to discuss what appeared in the New Republic, which was a prescient, sparkling news story which was totally on the nail.”
Sullivan was reportedly a bit less circumspect with Shalit, but despite threats that she would be canned on the spot if she got caught lifting copy again, Shalit will apparently remain on the masthead.
Sullivan needs to keep her close because the magazine is being sued for libel by D.C. businessman Roy Littlejohn: Shalit stated in a story that Littlejohn served time on corruption charges when in fact he did not. To fire her in plain sight—which would have been the compassionate thing to do three or four major screw-ups ago—would send a clear message to Littlejohn and others that the magazine knows Shalit can’t keep her facts—or her authorship—straight. CP