January 22, 2016 Last Updated 10:29 am

The New York Times celebrates 20 years on the worldwide web, as newspaper business prepares for more challenges ahead

The slow moving newspaper business may have been a pioneer online, but digital publishing has continued to change since the NYT launched first on AOL, then on the web in 1996

The New York Times today is celebrating its 20 years on publishing on the web. It has every right to mark this occasion, for no newspaper has been as pioneering as the Times when it comes to web publishing.

It would be unfair, however, to forget that the NYT was also one of the first papers to see the value in publishing via America Online. In June of 1994 the NYT launched @times on the AOL service, which at the time dominated what we would now call being online.

New York Times 1996

NYT 1996 website: Steve Jobs would not return to Apple until the next year

I was lucky enough to be working in San Francisco for McGraw-Hill in 1994, a hand-me-down Mac on my desk. I admit to spending far too many work hours browsing AOL with its many communities and discussion boards. What I remember most vividly, however, was the discussions by publishing people in the City about whether the future was the worldwide web or close communities like AOL. I learned my first real lesson about digital publishing by briefly being on the wrong side of that argument.

I was recruited to run a B2B magazine in 1996, and while my first job was rebuilding its sales staff after three of its members had bolted to the competition, I quickly was able to pivot to advocating for our magazine to launch a website. Whether the future of publishing was the web was not something I was sure of, but I knew that millions of people would be on the Internet soon, very soon.

Unfortunately, magazine publishers were, in 1996-7 hardly in the mood to listen to some guy coming from California talking about the Internet. I did my best, pointing out that a “search” of the Internet produced thousands of results relevant to the industries we were covering. Then it produced millions of results. I even forced managers to view innovative websites that had launched like that from Balthazar Studios which showed that the Internet could move and have sound (the old Macromedia website is still around, see it here).

No matter. The publishing company could not be moved until a few years later when they determined that giving the assignment of launching the company’s first websites would be a good task for one of the members of the ownership family. It was definitely time to leave.

I’m sure there were those at the NYT who both doubted the rationale for launching a website, and those who were enthusiastic about the web’s future. The NYT today, when recalling its first website, mentions that Jim Romenesko was the first person to register on the new nytimes.com website the day it went live. Romenesko would chronicle the failing fortunes of the newspaper industry, as well as its efforts to begin publishing online, by launching an industry blog in 1998 called Obscure Store and Reading Room. He then launched Mediagossip.com the following year before moving to Poynter for a number of years. (He is sort of retired though he occasionally adds posts to his website and still tweets out news.)

New York Times timeline

But the progressive efforts of the NYT online, though, is not the norm in the newspaper industry. Craig’s List, for instance, did not launch online outside of San Francisco until 2000. Even today, there are developers launching classified advertising apps which newspapers have not only lost their ads, but appear to have no real interest in creating new services that might get them back. Instead, they invested in third parties and locked themselves in to contracts with outside firms or alliances.

The magazine business, the industry I joined after getting disgusted with the way I saw newspapers evolving, appears more progressive and more committed to new digital efforts. Meredith and Time Inc., for instance, have been far more eager to invest in new web properties, as well as the technology that produces analytics and new ad platforms.

craig's list - newspapers

Craig’s List today, pretty much unchanged since its launch online in 1996

Why are newspapers so backward when it comes to digital? I’d argue that the industry remains insular. Few publishing professionals I know who have left the industry have returned to it. In fact, as one digital media professional told me recently, his decision to learn about digital was all that was necessary to make him considered unemployable by newspapers he applied to in later years.

When I left the newspaper business to join McGraw-Hill I asked a friend of mine who had worked at Copley Newspapers, and had earlier joined McGraw-Hill, if he felt that one could return to the newspaper business after leading. He said yes then, but later called to say how wrong he really was.

“You can leave, but you can never go back,” he said. “When you exit the newspaper business you learn about all sorts of other ways a publisher can make money – by publishing not only other print products, but new digital ones, as well. In the newspaper business everything revolves around that flag at the top of the print newspaper or website. Try getting approval to launch a new web property, blog, or anything else. It’s like pulling teeth to get anyone to listen.”

There are good reasons to celebrate the NYT’s 20 years of online publishing. But think about what has happened since the paper launched its first website in January 1996. Google registered its domaine name in 1997; in February 2004 Mark Zuckerberg launched “Thefacebook”. Things move fast out there.

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