“The Little Browser That Could” and the New Media Revolution
It was a decade ago this week, February 23, 1994, that I first downloaded the Mosaic browser and was introduced to the World Wide Web. For many of us involved in early online and interactive publishing experiments, Mosaic, or as I liked to refer to it in a time of less potent bandwidth, "The Little Browser That Could," changed our world, but it also changed my life.
I'd heard rumblings about Mosaic from tech-savvy friends, who were far more nimble with futuristic visions than this fledgling new media editor. As a graduate student, I was lucky enough to have early access to the Internet and the many new technologies that would soon be so ably adopted by our industry. It was at Indiana University in 1991 that I bought my first computer and 2,400-baud modem. I studied new communications technologies with Professor Chris Ogan, whose innovative and forward-looking seminar provided a solid theoretical framework for my initial explorations of new media technology and journalism.
I was already questioning and trying to find ways to experiment when I landed at the University of Missouri to study photojournalism. To Mizzou's credit, entrepreneurial students were encouraged to explore new technologies and invent ways to integrate them into their more traditional "old media" studies.
At Missouri in 1992, I strapped on a 200 megabyte, 55 lb. computer backpack and shot my first digital images on a $30,000 Kodak DCS-100. For my capstone photojournalism seminar, my collaborators and I developed the first "interactive" CD-ROM on the judging of the annual pictures of the year contest. The audio narrative and slides shows are today mirrored in countless multimedia presentations that tell the story behind the story, as photographers narrate the scenes behind their images.
It was at The Poynter Institute where I finally put down my camera and began to focus exclusively on the possibilities of online delivery of multimedia news. In fall 1993, I developed a business plan and prototype for an online newspaper for kids as a final project for a two-month media leadership fellowship for graduate students. "The Electronic Times" was based on Missouri's bold electronic publishing experiment, the Digital Missourian, and hoped to exploit the interactivity of online news to address the difficult question of capturing younger readers.An early 1993 journal entry: "I saw Mosaic and it was way cool."
The project caught the attention of Poynter's former library director, Nora Paul, who asked if I would like to work on a similar project for Poynter. With Nora's encouragement, I switched the focus of my master's thesis from the history of one media technology — photography — to the origins of another — online journalism.
That spring, I developed a prototype online service called ViewPoynt that is an ancestor of Poynter's popular website. ViewPoynt's sixteen colors and two fonts were like cave painting by today's multimedia standards.
In the course of chiseling out this early service, I downloaded Mosaic and for the very first time viewed a website. The site, published on a Norwegian server, had information and images from the opening ceremonies of the Lillehammer Winter Olympic Games. I was wowed, and noted in my journal February 23, 1994, "I saw Mosaic and it was way cool ... we were able to download music, full motion video, and color pictures with point and click commands."
The Internet created an easy and cost-effective opportunity for newspapers to launch consumer online services, first with stand-alone bulletin boards, like Poynter's ViewPoynt, and later with consumer online services, like those offered by CompuServe, America Online, and Prodigy.
From modest beginnings, these often primitive services were fueled by the tinkering of a few -- often marginalized -- newsroom misfits and marketing entrepreneurs. From 1990 to 1993 there were at least 30 stand-alone newspaper consumer online services in the United States. By 1995, following the introduction of the Mosaic browser, the number jumped to nearly 900.
By 1998, with newspapers leading the way, web publishing reached critical mass, becoming a global phenomenon that included almost 5,000 online newspapers. Today, that number has climbed above 10,000, and as we know, most newspapers have websites, some free, some registration, and others pay-for-service. Websites are now an integral part of every publication's strategy.
Online has taken hold as a new medium that is uniquely linked to, but also separate and independent from, its old media parents: print and broadcast. It is attractive to audiences for its unique new narrative possibilities and for its business propositions. It remains the frontier of journalism where the relationship between news consumers and producers is forever changed.
As technology evolves and new medias and audience dynamics continue to emerge, journalism will only need to become more nimble and better able to find its place in an increasingly crowded and media rich world.
I was captivated by the journalistic possibilities I found online the first time I "telnet-ed" onto the Internet, but I was hooked a decade ago this week when I downloaded Mosaic and took a slow but inspired tour of the Lillehammer Winter Olympic Games. The rest was and is history.