Friday, July 31, 2009

Introducing StarText: The Little Online Service That Could

Odds are good you have never heard the name "StarText" and have no idea what it is, or was.

That's not surprising. A little like "Star Wars," it all happened a long time ago (in Internet years) in a cyber-galaxy far, far away (as cyber-galaxies go, at least.)

Okay. Maybe not that long ago (27 years) and not so far away (Texas). But let's not quibble about that.

Think of StarText as a mini-version of the Internet, more than a decade before the World Wide Web made the scene. It was known under many names: One of the first online newspapers; a BBS (Bulletin Board Service); the "instant news that doesn't rub off on your hands" and as one StarText customer termed it, "the best bargain since nickel parking in Cleburne." (Cleburne, Texas -- look it up.)

In the days before the Web, there were thousands of Bulletin Board Services and a handful of major online networks, like CompuServe and The Source, rushing to connect people around the world. But I would like to submit for your consideration: StarText stood apart. It was in many ways -- different. In a word ... special.

In the many years that have passed since StarText made its debut -- May 3, 1982 -- technology has moved on and so have the people who conceived, built and used StarText. But as one of those pioneers who opted to "go West" when the Internet wasn't even a twinkle in the eye of a modem, it's that "specialness" that deserves to be told.

It's a story I've been trying to tell for the last 10 years or more. Between the demands of career and family, and lack of interest among publishers, it has languished on my hard drive. But I feel it shouldn't languish any more.

So via this blog I am going to tell the story of how a small but dedicated group of people at the Fort Worth Star-Telegram joined together, defied all odds and managed to create one of the nation's first online success stories.

It's my hope that the thousands who were part of StarText will join and tell their own story here as well. That is the magic of online. We can all connect in a multi-level consersation that flows both ways, one of the "ah ha" moments we discovered early on. It also means you get to be my editors, and every writer needs a good editor or two.

For lifelong journalists, like myself, there's also a bit of irony. Here was a newspaper, its industry much maligned of late for its utter indifference to changing audiences and its failure to adapt, launching an online version of itself many years before there was a Net. Some of us did see it coming. We jettisoned our newsroom careers and put our hearts and souls into making it happen. But obviously it hasn't enough -- so far. The forever echoes of what might have been ...

That's part of the story as well. And another facet to be explored.

Before we begin, I want to start with a Dedication.

This effort is lovingly dedicated to the workers, subscribers and followers of StarText, all the special people who made it special. And on a personal note, to my wonderful soulmate and wife, Pam, who endured more than I'll ever know while her husband followed his dream. This is for all of you.

Thursday, July 30, 2009

The Story of StarText: 1981

(Note: This is one in a continuing series tracing the history of StarText. Read it from the beginning by using the Archive Post links on the right.)

1981 -- Our Government Wasn't Ready

Whether you spell it with the ending “t” or without, videotext was the first rung on the ladder that would eventually lead us to the World Wide Web.

And in 1981, there was great excitement worldwide over its prospects.

European countries were blazing the trail for the rest of us. In England it was Prestel. In France, it was Minitel. Each had impetus as part of government-funded initiatives. Here in the United States, the landscape was different. Our government wasn’t ready to fund an information device in everyone’s home. But private corporations were serving the ever-growing number of personal computers with ASCII-text applications. CompuServe was the leader. The Source was another. It wasn’t pretty but it was pretty amazing.

Maybe a good place to insert a note about "ASCII" -- American Standard Code for Information Exchange, one of the many new words this journalist aded to his vocabulary. Basically a common way to display text characters every computer understands. Those ones and zeros, you know.

The idea of moving information around via telephone lines, modems and computers was gaining acceptance. And this notion of having a private electronic mailbox where you could exchange messages instantly with friends, co-workers or even strangers – that was something this side of mind-boggling.

In the midst of all this activity, as industry giants jockeyed for position, little attention was given to a newly launched online service that emerged from a place in Texas that proudly wore the label, Cowtown. That place was Fort Worth. Also known as Where the West Begins -- the home of world class museums like the Kimbell and the Amon Carter Museum of Western Art, or for the fighter jets produced by Lockheed, not to mention the Stockyards and the world’s biggest honky tonk, Billy Bob’s.

Fort Worth was also home for the newspaper of record, The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, and electronic retailing giant, The Tandy Corp., parent company of Radio Shack. And in 1981, the business interests of those two very different companies would come together to create what would eventually become one of the very few online success stories of the decade.

But that’s getting ahead of the story.

In 1981, I had been working in the Star-Telegram newsroom for just over 10 years. Starting as a copy editor on the afternoon paper (when just about every town in America had an afternoon and morning paper), I had enjoyed an interesting mix of jobs. They included local copy desk chief, rock music writer, op-ed columnist and features production editor.

For someone who aspired to work on a newspaper since the sixth grade, it was my dream career -- editing, writing, working elbow to elbow with the men wearing green eye shades. But my career was about to take a hard right turn, thanks to Tom Steinert-Threlkeld.

Tom, a graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism and the Harvard Business School, wore several hats at the Star-Telegram. One was reporter for the business section, specializing in electronics coverage. Another was Research Director – Electronic Publishing for the Star-Telegram’s parent company, Capital Cities Communications (later to become Capital Cities/ABC when they swallowed up the ABC Television Network). For the latter, he was charged with investigating the full range of emerging technologies and reporting back to corporate.

Phillip J. Meek, who served as president and publisher of the Star-Telegram and later, President/ ABC Publishing Group as well as senior vice president for ABC after the Capital Cities/ABC merger, recalled Steinert-Threlkeld’s hiring in a November, 1997 interview with me:

“In 1979, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram hired its first and only graduate straight from the Harvard Business School. (I) was impressed with a former newspaper reporter who had gone on to get business training. As an added plus, he indicated a strong desire to spend the first year or so as a business writer in the newsroom, which was a most contrarian attitude for an HBS grad of that era.

“As a prolific writer, Tom made an immediate impact on the business pages of the
Star-Telegram, concentrating on technology and the Tandy corporation, which was emerging as an early leader in personal computer development and sales. He traveled constantly to industry meetings and built up a wide range of contacts. After about 18 months, he indicated a desire to move onto the business side at what turned out to be a propitious time.

“The head of publishing for the parent company, Capital Cities Communications, had concluded that its chairman and chief executive officer, Tom Murphy, needed someone to bring him up to speed on the fast -changing technology side. Steinert-Threlkeld was assigned that task on a part-time basis, still operating out of Fort Worth.”

In my 1997 interview with him, Steinert-Threkeld recalled the circumstances that led to his involvement:

“In November or December of 1979,” Tom said, “then-managing editor Henry Holcomb asked me, as electronics writer, to write up a report on the potential impact of electronic publishing on newspapers. This was for some look-ahead-at-the-next-decade project he had been charged with completing, presumably by or for Phil Meek. My report was to be just one piece of this overall package of looks-forward regarding different facets of editorial operations.

“Well, the report came out at about the time that CompuServe was initiating an attempt to produce content for its inchoate online service by recruiting newspapers to be content providers. The Star-Telegram was among those broached. Holcomb and Meek, as I recall it, asked me to take a look at what CompuServe had going.”

Tom “was very unimpressed. At 300 baud, it was very slow. And its menu structure was very cumbersome and uninspired. So I recommended that we not participate and that we do something on our own. Joe Donth (Star-Telegram director of data processing, soon to play a key role himself) became involved at this point, and, in his office one day, we hit on the idea of using predefined keywords to simulate keyword searching, because it would not require much processing power. To this day, I think we were the first to hit on this idea for an online service, now widely used by AOL and others.

“In any case, as Joe and I tried to figure out a way to justify doing our own online service in-house, there was a contact from (Tandy CEO) John Roach, through Meek, to inquire about our interest in doing a videotext service. Videotext was kind of hot back then, with a lot of attention on Knight-Ridder's Viewtron project (Capital Cities and Knight-Ridder entered into a data share agreement in November, 1981) and Times-Mirror Gateway project. Tandy Corp. hoped to move a lot of videotext terminals, really the forerunner of what we now are calling network computers. The videotext servers would provide all the info and services; users would just have these cheap dumb terminals that plugged into their TV sets, for displays.

(You can see what the Tandy Videotex terminal looked like by following this link:)

“Roach also wanted to sell the servers, with videotext services and modems driving sales of Tandy computers. I can't recall the original Tandy machines that were supposed to serve as the servers. But they were early in the TRS-80/Tandy line.” As we would all later discover, “they proved well under-powered for the purpose.

“As for why I championed the idea of doing something, it was clear to me that this was not just some extension of newspapering, but an entirely new medium. There seemed nothing so challenging or with as much long-term promise as figuring out how to make the most effective use of the new method for effectively using text and graphics to communicate: The cathode ray tube.”

It was this notion, that we were about to embark on something that was “not just some extension of newspapering, but an entirely new medium” that sparked my interest. That plus the fact I had just completed a major assignment, titled “The Information Age,” co-authored by Tom and John Paul Newport, a former quarterback for Yale who had recently joined the staff.

Meek recalled that “Tandy pushed the newspaper to join together and start a local videotext service, which Tandy saw as a way to sell home computers, and Tom was assigned responsibility for that effort, working with the MIS director, Joe Donth.”

On paper, the joint venture appeared to be good fit. As the local newspaper, we brought content and credibility. As a leader in consumer technology, Tandy brought its computer and retailing expertise. It was also a time when sales of personal computers were on the increase and Radio Shack was among the early leaders with its line of Tandy TRS-80 Models I, II and III, as well as the Color Computer.

But this local information service would be primarily directed toward a new Tandy product, the “videotex terminal” Steinert-Threlkeld mentioned. Low slung, in a molded dark gray case with a built-in keyboard, the Tandy TRS-80 Videotex Terminal was a “dumb terminal” built solely to access databases. Retailing for $399, it had a built-in 300-baud modem (state-of-the-art at the time, moving text across the screen at a blazing 30 characters a second) and RF modulator, which connected the unit to a television set for its display. There was a small red light on the top that glowed when the unit was online. The first models came with 4K of RAM, expandable to 16K.

While hard to imagine by today’s standards, it had a curious way of downloading information. But more on that shortly.

By November of 1981, a plan had been developed for the deployment of this new joint
Star-Telegram/Tandy venture, which now had a name:“STAR-Text” (later modified to StarText). Why StarText? Early on, Steinert-Threlkeld told us we needed a name for this new service – and finding a name that wasn’t taken might be tough. One day, at the copy machine, it came to me. “The Star-Telegram is a partner and the service will deliver information as text,” I told Tom. “How about StarText?” He liked it. We applied for the trademark and copyright and our new venture had a name.

Among the primary objectives put forward in the plan were:

-- Test consumer acceptance of text and graphical information.
-- Conduct market research of its services and features.
-- Promote the sales of personal computers.
-- Become a profitable enterprise.
-- Brand the Star-Telegram and Tandy as information and technology leaders.

The plan also addressed some key guidelines. Interestingly enough, I think most would agree the guidelines set forth then are every bit as critical now to the success of today’s Internet ventures:

-- It must be low cost (today that translates to "free")
-- It must be easy to use.
-- It must be easy to understand.
-- It must be highly immediate (provide the latest news).
-- It must be tailored to serve specialized information needs.

The service, “to carry the name STARText, will be a 24-hour information service offered to residents of Tarrant County on a subscription basis. It will offer general news, weather and other information to consumers as well as specialized information products to specialized audiences.”

The Star-Telegram wasn’t the only information provider. Another was Merrill Lynch, who would be offering subscribers stock prices, commodity prices and national news related to stock and commodity services. There also would be information from Radio Shack on its products as well as Fort Worth area computer clubs. Another interesting twist: Radio Shack would also obtain airline schedules for DFW International Airport.

As Steinert-Threkeld noted, it was decided, against the conventional wisdom of the day, that subscribers would access information on StarText by using keywords rather than menus. At that time most of the online consumer services of the day required users to “branch” through databases via menu selections. Typically, you were presented a set of options. Depending on your choice, you were given a second set of options, and so forth – a process that was often tedious, time-consuming and laborious (but great for the services that charged by the minute). This specification that the system be engineered for keyword access to categories of information was indeed a new concept.

While new ground was being broken in navigation, the actual retrieval of the information was much more cumbersome. Due to the restrictions in the software, access would be on an “advanced entry”- method, sometimes referred to as “dump and disconnect.” The subscriber would enter their ID, plus up to four requests for information, or keywords, offline. The terminal or computer makes the connection. The requested information is downloaded into the user’s local memory and the connection broken. Subscribers then read the information offline and have to repeat the whole process if they have additional information requests.

Despite the magic and hype of actually reading a newspaper remotely on a screen, with information moving along at a snail-like 300 baud, the experience was fairly painful, even for the die-hard tekkies and early-adopters.

So a provision was made that Tandy would upgrade the software to provide true “online” access within six months of launch. This was viewed as critical if the service were to expand and grow.

Other interesting points spelled out by the plan:

-- At launch, subscribers initially would pay $5 a month for StarText service. After the online upgrade became available, the price would go to $7.50. The Star-Telegram would handle the billing, which would be in three-month ncrements.

-- Promotion and marketing: The Star-Telegram would provide house ads on a fixed schedule; Tandy would do direct mail and in-store demonstrations at all area Radio Shacks.

-- t was suggested that terminals be provided free to several city and state officials to allow politicians to be in touch with local events. You could call it an early forerunner to services like E the People.

-- The Star-Telegram pledged to hire “sufficient personnel to operate the database on a continuously updated basis from 6 a.m. to midnight seven days a week.”

-- The host computer would be a Tandy TRS-80 Model II. The system would come up with 3,000 frames of information, stored on four floppy drives.

-- Future expansion would include interactive features, shopping services and archived news retrieval. As time would prove, all ideas which were right on the money, literally.

-- Service would launch in the early part of 1982.

With a few exceptions, Charles Phillips, senior vice president for Radio Shack, accepted the plan and the wheels were set in motion for residents of Tarrant County to be among the first in the country to have its local newspaper available to them on a personal computer. Cowtown was about to take its first steps into the Information Age.


With Donth overseeing the technical details, Steinert-Threlkeld tackled the news staffing issue. His approach was asking for three volunteers from the Star-Telegram newsroom – editors with a sense of adventure, not afraid to take a few risks, willing to take “the New Media plunge.”

Having just completed the “Information Age” project, I was already primed. But the attraction went beyond that. As a journalist, I was fascinated with the notion of providing readers news as it happens – like television – but with a depth that television couldn’t provide. The combination of immediacy and the unlimited news hole, not to mention the possibility of having a two-way dialogue with our readers, was a powerful inducement. This had the potential to revolutionize journalism and what a great opportunity to be in on the ground floor. It also was the chance to help in some small way to architect a new medium. And how many times does an opportunity like that come along in a career?

Of course, these were all arguments I used when it came time to convince my wife Pam. Her reaction wasn’t nearly as enthusiastic as mine. What pained the most is that I would be giving up writing, which she knew was my first love.

All I could say was, “Trust me – one day this online stuff was going to be big.” Of course I had nothing to back up that claim except a gut feeling. As for writing, it would just be on hold for a little while. So after some more discussion, some soul searching and a few prayers, I told Tom to count me in.

I would be joining two other newsroom veterans, John Durham, who would head up the team, and Jim Smead. John came onboard first to begin the initial planning; Jim and I would join soon afterwards.

Meek remembered those events from a slightly different perspective:

“Partly as a result of the split responsibilities with his corporate role, there was some confusion about oversight of the StarText project,” said Meek, “and Tom tended to act independently of the local management structure. One result was an unauthorized raid of the newsroom, and three editors were hired away at higher salaries to work on StarText.”

Call it unathorized or entreprenurial, I’m fairly certain StarText wouldn’t have enjoyed the success it did if it had been run as a traditional department of the newspaper. So it was probably fitting we started in such a nontraditional way.

The other member of the team was Joe Donth, the no-nonsense, hard-nosed director of the Star-Telegram’s MIS department. Known for his business acumen, Donth had a penchant for problem solving and a reputation as an exceptional programmer. He also had another quality that cast him into a leadership position throughout the history of StarText: Joe was a visionary. While his primary job would always be running the ever-expanding and demanding MIS operation, Joe’s true love was inventing the future. Without Joe’s involvement and guidance, StarText would have never survived to reach adulthood.

Thus began what Joe would later characterize as “the most unauthorized project” in the history of Capital Cities.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

BISON -- It's Not a Buffalo

(Note: This is one in a continuing series tracing the history of StarText. Read it from the beginning by using the Archive Post links on the right)

BISON: Belo Information Systems On-line

While StarText was barely in the planning stages, 30 miles to the east The Dallas Morning News was busy deploying its own online service. In 1981, Belo, the parent company of The Dallas Morning News, launched the service it called BISON – the acronym for Belo Information Systems On-Line Network. If it wasn’t the first, it certainly was among the first local online services launched by a U.S. newspaper.

BISON had its genesis in 1980, when Gean W. Holden was hired early that year as Director of Corporate Research/Technology and head of Belo Informations Systems, a division of the A.H. Belo Company. Holden wasted little time in putting the wheels in motion to create a consumer videotex service. In a memo prepared for the 1980 annual report, Holden detailed the steps that led to BISON’s creation.

In March of 1980, Holden held early discussions with BISON’s partners, Texas Instruments, Sammons Cable and Dow Jones, another pioneer in distributing financial information online. Holden had just returned from the Viewdata Conference in London, where he was energized by what he saw and heard. He called it “the best conference I’ve ever been to because there was so much to be learned.” (The year before, the Britain Post Office launched Prestel, an early online service streamed via telephone lines to dedicated terminals. It had been in development since the mid-70s.)

The partners reconvened in early April at the TI Corporate Engineering Center to hammer out a proposed budget for the launch of the “Park Cities Experiment.” Park Cities, an affluent Dallas suburb, was chosen as the test market for a new Sammons “data retrieval network” that would include access to stories from The Dallas Morning News.

A story published in the Morning News on May 16, 1980, under the headline, “Sammons unveils special cable network,” provided details on what Park Cities residents could expect.

Quoting from the article:

“Sammons Communications Inc. said Thursday it will offer 200 of its Park Cities Cable Television subscribers access to an elaborate data retrieval network, beginning this summer.

“Dow Jones & Co. Inc. of Princeton, N.J., publisher of the Wall Street Journal, and Belo Information Systems, a division of the A.H. Belo Corp. of Dallas, which publishes The Dallas Morning News, also will participate. They will supply subscribers with business and financial information, news and other data via the home computer access system.

“Merrill Lynch & Co. of New York will join the experiment to provide brokerage information.

“Jim Whitson, president of Sammons Communications, announced the agreement in Dallas, along with Gean Holden, director of Research and Technology for Belo Corp., and William L. Dunn, vice president and general manager of Dow Jones.

“The Sammons Park Cities project will be the first anywhere to involve large numbers of cable television subscribers access to information banks in several cities from private home terminals.

“ ‘Our idea is to offer a nearly limitless data retrieval capability with our cable TV system,’ Whitson said. ‘By adding home terminals, a keyboard and a screen, the cable system becomes an electronic newspaper and financial encyclopedia. This is the kind of 2-way cable systems most companies have only thought of in terms of the future.’

“In structuring the Park Cities data retrieval system, Sammons will follow the format of a recently successful Dow Jones project involving individual access by four families and two businesses in the Las Colinas development in Irving (Texas).

“Participants will be linked by cable and satellite through their computer terminals with a central Dow Jones computer at South Brunswick, N.J. and the Belo Information Systems computer in Dallas.”

It continued:

“For Belo Information Systems, the project will be the first experiment with individual, consumer access of data bases. Holden said information available to the system from
The Dallas Morning News will include the current day’s news, stories, sports, weather and restaurant and entertainment guides.

“Belo Information Systems also is expected to begin experimenting with classified advertising, which will be accessible to the home terminal. A typical local problem that could be solved with a classified access system would be house hunting.

“With a computer terminal, the user would feed the system a variety of information, detailing the basic requirements, _location, number of bedrooms and price range, Within seconds a list of homes for sale, fitting the described requirements, would appear on that screen.”

Three decades later, that’s exactly how many of us do it.

By May, the pieces were falling into place. The staff for BISON began to take shape as personnel were interviewed and hired. Offices were established at The Registry, an upscale Dallas office complex on LBJ Freeway. Arrangements were made for the installation of the TI equipment. BISON would be hosted on Tandem Nonstop computers, considered the Cadillac of its time.

At the same time, meetings were held with local automobile dealers to gauge interest in taking their business online. Holden comments, “After two attempts that didn’t work out very well, we took the terminal out to several dealers for on-site demonstrations and that proved to be very positive.” There were also discussions with the phone company about placing the white pages online. The conclusion: “It would not be cheap and would not be easy, but it could be done.”

All the staff (by one estimate 35 in all) were in place by the end of July and getting familiar with the TI hardware and software. In August, communications links between downtown and The Registry offices were in place and work was proceeding on organizing the database for the Park Cities experiment Later that month, BISON got its first unveiling at demonstrations for executives at Sammons and the Belo Board.

September was devoted to debugging and tweaking the software. Two DEC terminals were installed in Morning News newsroom to accommodate data transmissions to The Registry. The scene was set for the impending launch of the Park Cities experiment the following month.

The Park Cities Experiment went live Oct. 19, 1980. But, in a story all too familiar to new media pioneers, its debut wasn’t entirely smooth sailing. “Just before we began the service,” writes Holden, “we installed the new disks, everything crashed and we lost the database.” They were able to install the TI terminals in the homes and “we were able to get the service going despite all the problems.”

That same month, BISON was showcased at online shows in San Francisco (Information Industries Association) and San Diego (LINK Conference), where people were “amazed that we were able to get the system on the air in such a short period of time.”

The Park Cities Experiment concluded on Dec. 19, 1980.

Writing in the first annual report after the company became publicly traded in December, 1981, Joe Dealey, chairman of the board and chief executive officer, noted:

“Through Belo Information Systems Division, the Company is engaged in interactive electronic distribution of information to the home. In 1981 the Company spent almost $1 million in this new venture, an increase of approximately $670,000 over the prior year.”

In June, 1982, one month after the launch of StarText in Fort Worth, Belo suspended BISON. The 1982 annual report had this to say:

“In June, 1982, we suspended the test phase of Belo Informations Systems On-Line Network (BISON), our home information subscription service. This program was introduced in August of 1981 as a research and development effort to determine the technical dimensions, market potential and user acceptance of interactive home videotex. Although the BISON system was a technical success, we concluded that the commercial market for interactive home videotex systems is not sufficiently developed to justify the continuation of significant expenditures. However, we believed we learned a great deal from the BISON project which will serve us well in the future. We will maintain a minimal staff to keep abreast of technical and market developments in this field and provide us flexibility to re-enter this market once the videotex market materializes."

Many years later one former Belo manager characterized BISON this way: "We would have done as well digging a hole, dumping in $3 million and setting it on fire."

Regardless of the outcome, you have to give them credit for jumping in the pool first. The Cue Cat? That's another story.

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The Story of StarText: 1982

(Note: This is one in a continuing series tracing the history of StarText. Read it from the beginning by using the Archive Post links on the right)

1982: No One Said Pioneering Was Easy

The original timeline called for StarText to launch in January, 1982. But as is so often the case, the inevitable delays hammering out details and completing tasks pushed the date back. It was February, 1982 when I joined officially, and at that time we were still several months away from “going live.”

John Durham, with the title "electronic news director," had been busy building the news database to operate within the limitations of the Tandy software. There was an initial set of keywords, which we would be updating on a 6 a.m to midnight schedule. As the junior member of the team, that meant a return to night hours for me, another less than thrilling prospect for a family with a new baby in the house.

The workspace where we would be updating news eight hours at a time wasn’t exactly the lush digs many modern day dot-coms enjoy. They located the three of us in what had been a storage closet on the third floor of the Star-Telegram, adjacent to the Men’s Room on one side and the Photo Lab on the other. The main newsroom was a short walk away. Since it had no windows, it tended to get a little claustrophobic, especially during staff meetings when the three of us were there at the same time.

No one said pioneering was easy.

Still, hopes were high as we begin to see marketing pieces that would soon trumpet StarText’s arrival at every area Radio Shack location. An ad agency was hired to produce the newspaper ads that would announce our birth. A StarText logo was approved and the user guide began to take shape. We even had a tagline: “StarText: The News You Want When You Want It.” Excitement was building.

Not to say there weren't a few concerns as well, especially regarding the technology. While the introduction of editing terminals (which replaced electric typewriters) in the mid-70s added a new layer of complexity for editors, as a rule our concerns would stop there. We didn’t worry if the presses would be running that night. New media didn’t rely on printing presses, packaging centers or fleets of gas-guzzling trucks. Much to the delight of environmentalists, trees were spared (and a new phrase was born to describe the offline product – “dead tree journalism”). At the same time, the host computers and telecommunications networks that replaced that process didn’t have 200 years of tried and true behind it. In fact, most of it was barely out of the lab and totally untested for the role we would ask it to play.

Consider the process we had for updating the StarText database:

Every time we wanted to change out a story or update a keyword, we had to connect to the Tandy host computer, located some five blocks away in the Tandy Towers. While subscribers were limited to 300 baud, we at least had a 1200-baud connection to the host. Even so, updating could take a painfully long time. And if an update aborted – not an uncommon occurrence -- we had to start from scratch.

It was my first realization that for all its promise, New Media was a slave to a myriad of technological forces beyond its control, something many editors would say still holds true today.

As we continued to push toward a launch date, the user guide we would be providing subscribers began to take shape. It ended up being 12 pages, bright red, and tabbed for easy access. (Years later, the idea of a “user guide” to access information online would spawn lots of Happy Hour conversations, usually along the lines of, “How successful would television be if buyers, before they could use it, had to read through dozens of pages of instructions?”)

As user guides go, this one tried to keep everything as simple as possible.

“Welcome to StarText,” it begins, “the next step in news. And congratulations – You’re entering the world of instant home delivery of information you want, when you want it.

“StarText, a cooperative project of the Fort Worth Star-Telegram and Tandy/Radio Shack, is continually updated Fort Worth, Tarrant County, Texas, national and international news. It is business news, sports news, the latest sports scores and the latest weather.

“Besides immediate news, we’ve put together an array of useful information about what’s happening in and around Fort Worth.”

The next section was titled, “How the News Comes to You,” and detailed how each StarText subscriber “would call into a central computer to order your custom electronic newspaper. StarText news and information is stored in sections or ‘packages.’ Each package contains up to eight frames, or computer screens, of information or news.”

What followed was a detailed explanation of keywords and how each keyword corresponded to a particular information category.

The next part focused on “Assembling Your Electronic Newspaper.” This got down to the technical nuts and bolts. We even provided a handy chart so subscribers could have some idea of how it would take us to deliver their “newspaper on demand” (which in hindsight might not have been the best idea).

It was really pretty good at convincing customers on the benefits of waiting and waiting for their newspaper to download (each frame of text took 23 seconds to arrive at 300 baud):

“If you prefer, you can take advantage of the time to go perk your coffee, shower, pay the bills, etc., before coming back to read at your own pace. Once stored in your computer, you can flip back and forth through the news package as fast as your fingers can strike a key. It’s faster than flipping through the pages of a print newspaper.”

Then came the tease for the new and improved delivery, which will “allow you to stay connected to the central computer as long as you want … without regard to your terminal’s memory capacity … “ at an extra charge, of course.

But the real tip-off should have been the “Instructions.” You’ll remember one of the mandates of the initial plan was the service had to be "easy to use." Looking back, one can only assume we were so caught in New Media pioneer euphoria that it didn’t hit us: The success of our new venture depended on how well customers accepted and understood the “step-by-step instructions for using StarText.” If the subscriber was using the Tandy TRS-80 videotex terminal, getting your news online was a simple, 19-step process.

1. Turn on your terminal.
2. Load your Videotex soft-ware (sp) into your terminal, so that your screen displays the word “Videotex,” followed by the version of the software you have loaded. (for instance, 1.1).
3. Type in the two-letter code for the information service you are accessing. It is “ST” for StarText.
4. Enter a comma.
5. Type in your password.
6. Enter a comma.
7. Type in the first package of information you want. For instance, type in NEWS for the news summary. Be careful not to put spaces in keywords, even if the word contains both a name and a number.
8. Enter a comma.
9. Enter the next package of information you want, followed by a comma each time.
10. Repeat until you have entered the final package you want. After that final package, enter two commas, not one. (I guess just to make sure they were paying attention.)
11. At this point, you should see displayed on your screen, a line similar to this: ST, JOHNDOE,NEWS,SPORTS,SCORES,WEEKEND,,
12. Press the “Break” key. Your screen will display the words, “PLACE CALL.”
13. Dial 335-INFO.
14. Listen for a high pitched tone.
15. When you hear it, press the space bar. Wait for a second high-pitched tone. That confirms you are hooked into the central computer.
16. Place your telephone receiver back on its cradle.
17. Wait for a few seconds. The information will feed onto your screen.
18. When the information is done feeding into your terminal’s memory, you will be disconnected. The message ‘OFF-LINE’ will be displayed in the upper left portion of your screen.
19. Now, read your personally assembled, electronic newspaper to your heart’s content. Press the key with the arrow pointing downwards to move to the next frame; the key with the arrow pointing upwards to move back to the previous frame.

If you think those instructions were a little too detailed, remember the stories about the manual directive, “Press any key to continue” which prompted the customer to ask tech support: “But my keyboard doesn’t have an 'any' key.” Yes, Virginia, that was a real question.

Of course, if you happened to have a Tandy Color Computer or a TRS 80 Model I or III, there were additional instructions. The following exception were noted for Color Computer owners:

“If you are using a Telephone Interface II, place the appropriate switches on Full Duplex and Originate. When you make your phone call and hear the high pitched tone, place the phone in the cradle of the interface and press any key except the Clear key.”

Clearly, early telecommuting was not a “plug and play” application. For three editors whose world revolved around headlines and deadlines, we were indeed entering brand new territory.

StarText Launches

On Saturday, May 1, the headline in the Star-Telegram business section served as the birth announcement:

“STAR-Text brings news to the screen” (STAR-Text would soon be changed to StarText)

Written by Warren Volkmann and Jim Fuquay, it told readers, “For those who prefer to pick up the day’s news on their television screen rather than the front porch, the
Star-Telegram, in a joint effort with the Tandy Corp., will introduce an electronic news service called STAR-Text that will be accessible to persons with compatible home computer systems …. The service begins Monday.”

Available 24 hours a day, “STAR-Text will focus on immediate, concise information,” said [Tom] Steinert-Threlkeld (who directed the startup). “The big advantage in electronic news is that you can get the news out fast.” He said STAR-Text subscribers would have news “as soon as it leaves the editor’s desk” and probably hours before it appears printed in a newspaper. It was also noted stories would be “condensed to roughly 16 paragraphs.”

The article also quoted Charles Phillips, vice president of special markets for Tandy, who indicated Tandy was working with four other newspapers, mostly in the Midwest, to develop a similar service. (Two markets that did subsequently launch the Tandy product were in Hutchison, Kansas and Tiffin, Ohio.)

It further noted a subscription to STAR-Text will cost $5 a month and customers “must have access to a home computer terminal that is compatible with STAR-Text. Tandy’s Videotex terminal at $399 is that firm’s cheapest compatible unit. Tandy’s Color Computer and Apple computers fitted with Tandy’s videotex software program can receive the information.”

For customers who didn’t have $399, an installment purchase plan for Videotex terminals was available from Fort Worth National Bank

On Monday, May 3, 1982, StarText went on the air.

Sequestered in our tiny office, John Durham had been in since 5 a.m., updating the morning news report. For the first time ever, Star-Telegram stories and wire service reports were being transmitted as bits of data over telephone lines directly into the homes and offices of readers, as news happened.

Literally nine months or more in the making, we had all the same thrill that new parents feel at the birth of a child. Cowtown officially had its own electronic newspaper.

To keep up with the flow of news in over a dozen major categories, Durham had devised a log sheet with spaces to note the keyword or topic of each story placed on the service. Typically, there were eight local selections, eight national, eight business, etc. It was up to the editor on duty to keep it straight.

This process would raise a number of questions and concerns itself, not the least of which was the fact we were operating outside the normal “checks and balances” on which all newsrooms are predicated. While it’s true we didn’t originate stories and only processed stories that had been through final edit, we had no copy desk looking over our shoulders for misspelled or inaccurate headlines.

It was at once a blessing and a curse. Where else in the newspaper could an editor enjoy the position of judge and jury, making news decisions and publishing his or her version of the news as he saw it? Our editors had that privilege, one normally reserved for only that small percentage of journalists who rise patiently through the ranks, sometimes over the course of 20 or more years, to occupy the managing editor’s office. But there were also risks involved. No one, we would say more than once, wanted to be a test case for the first electronic libel suit.

It helped we were all newsroom veterans. But that wouldn’t always be the case.

Still, those issues could wait. The focus of the moment was making sure our readers had the most current, up to date and complete news report we could give them. Durham had the first shift, which went from 5 a.m. to around 1 p.m.; Jim Smead took the afternoon update and I was on the evening shift, wrapping up around 1 a.m. (depending on the West Coast games).

Tied to what kind of news day it was, the pace could be exhausting. Not only were we continually updating stories, but also stopping throughout the day to transmit them in batches to the Tandy Model II host, which was subject to frequent glitches that required retransmissions. Keep in mind the state of the art for modems in 1982 was the acoustic coupler, a device that featured a cradle for the telephone handset. After getting the high-pitched connection tone, the phone was placed in the cradle for data transmission. Sudden jolts or even someone walking across the room could interrupt the flow.

Along with the news, StarText also featured American Airlines flight schedule information and Star-Telegram classified advertising. According to Phil Meek, Star-Telegram publisher, Steinert-Threlkeld had instructed the classified phone room to “begin selling add-on insertions into StarText for a dollar a liner ad.” It was a decision Meek reversed as soon as he learned of it, “on the basis that the results for advertisers would be so inconsequential it didn’t make sense to divert precious time in a telephone sales operation.” Classifieds would be reintroduced later in what would become one of the most successful services StarText would ever provide.

As we toiled in our makeshift “newsroom,” the other big question was, who was on the other end of the line? In the initial budgeting, plans called for signing up 30 to 60 subscribers a month. Factoring in the launch delay, that would mean ending the year with around 400 subscribers.

This is where we counted on Tandy’s marketing muscle and expertise. While we could expect some in-paper promotional space, most of the advertising would funnel through the area’s Radio Shack locations, where eager salespeople could demo the service in person and hand out brochures. At least, that was the plan.

In practice, the marketing was hit and miss at best. While several Radio Shack locations had good signage and support, others relegated it to a dark corner or worse, had never heard of StarText. In retrospect, given the fact this was a totally new venture for us and them, the expectation on both sides was too high. Add to that the main thrust was to sell the newly introduced Videotex unit, which was nothing more than a $400 “dumb” terminal incapable of doing anything except access remote databases.

So it shouldn’t have come as a surprise that subscribers did not come aboard in droves despite the relatively low subscription fee of $5 a month. Some might say given the complex steps needed to access “the news you want when you want it,” it was surprising we had customers at all.

By August, Tom was ready to force the issue with Tandy over the badly-needed software improvements. On August 17, a meeting was arranged between the stakeholders, the key points of which were summarized in a letter sent to Tandy CEO John Roach (who at 42 had become one of the youngest CEOs in the country that year), Tandy marketing VP Ron Stegall (who later left to found the BizMart and Lil Things stores) and Craig Knouf (a former dentist who was the manager and project leader for Tandy’s videotex hardware/software initiative). In it, Tom laid the cards on the table:

“For a host of reasons, this Tandy-Star-Telegram venture into videotex has not been successful. We have concluded an internal review of our videotex alternatives and have decided to scale back our involvement, unless developments warrant otherwise.

“It is our intent to scale back our expenditures on StarText between now and October 1. At that date, it is our intention to cease operating StarText.”

He went on to say that decision would be reconsidered if 1) Tandy delivered online access and 2) the system was made compatible with other makes of personal computers.

“We are in a chicken-and-egg situation,” he continued. “We need better system capabilities to improve our product and attract more subscribers; and without more subscribers, we cannot sell advertising or create additional revenue to make us interested in funding further improvements in the system.”

The response from Tandy came a week later in a letter sent to Tom by Knouf.

In it, Knouf acknowledged “certain features are still lacking on the StarText Videotex System. If it is the decision to cease operations October 1, 1982, Radio Shack can do nothing but accept this decision.”

Then Knouf went on to outline several suggestions for going forward.

One was less attention to hard news and “more emphasis on specialty areas that address special interest groups. Gary (aka "Gerry") Barker’s suggestion of an increase in Business and Sports coverage is a starting point.” Another suggestion was greater use of color graphics and adding a metro line to increase the marketing area.

If there could be agreement on those, Radio Shack was prepared to underwrite an expanded marketing effort, including a new incentive plan for Radio Shack personnel to sell the service, and attempt to meet the October 1 deadline for “online access” allowing any computer or terminal that supports the Bell 103, 300 baud asynchronous standard to use StarText. Given the critical nature of that requirement, we could expect a weekly update on its status.

Tom’s response again stressed the key remained “developing the online access and compatibility with non-Tandy terminals by October 1.” While we committed to work on a graphics presentation, a metro line “is not in our expense plans at this point.” He concluded:

“We do, however, consider October 1 a firm date. It would be disappointing to us to have to cease operation of StarText; but, at this point, we must be and are prepared to do so.”

And so, after four months of operation, the wheels were close to coming off our new media dream. We could only count 50 active subscribers. In June, our competitor to the east, BISON, was shuttered by Belo, parent of The Dallas Morning News, (subject of an earlier post) after one year of operation and an investment later revealed at close to $3 million. Would we be next?

While the pressure escalated on the Tandy front, Steinert-Threlkeld was working on a plan that would reposition StarText as an independent operating unit, effectively taking the service to the next level.

“I had proposed that CapCities set up a separate operating division devoted to electronic publishing,” recalled Tom, “and use StarText as its base for figuring out how to make this new medium pay off, and that we make a capital expenditure of about $250,000 in 1982 dollars to set up a modest, but graphically enhanced online service.”

One videotex vendor that caught his eye was a company based in Florida called ModComp. “I was recommending ModComp equipment, but could have been convinced to go some other way technically. The keys were to start off small, be able to expand, to employ graphics, and distribute to all existing PCs, not just some kind of dedicated terminal.”

The decision for introducing graphics vs. remaining text-only was a point of disagreement between Tom and Joe. “Joe and I diverged here,” said Steinert-Threlkeld. “I felt that graphics were critical to making this stuff appealing; he felt a text-only service would work, because it would be faster. Technically, he was probably right. Market-wise, I think it's clear high-quality graphics and speed are both requisite.”

It should be noted Joe had some practical experience with creating the early graphics that were compatible with the computers of the time. He spent one weekend assembling the boxy pixels that would spell out “StarText – The Next Step in News” on the computer screen. It became quickly obvious that without a standard, graphics would be next to impossible to implement.

This same issue would bedevil Knight-Ridder's Viewtron mid-80s service in South Florida, which required a dedicated terminal provided by AT&T. The stakes were quite a bit higher for them. Investment figures ranged from $60 to $100 million for all involved.

Now it was September. With the October 1 deadline looming straight ahead, Tom called the three editors in for a meeting. He told us that in order for StarText to grow, we needed a better platform and improved software. He had a plan to do both that was based on a non-Tandy solution. Tom would be taking that plan, and the hopes for our future, to New York for a fateful meeting with Capital Cities CEO Tom Murphy.

As CEO, the much-respected Murphy had guided the growth of Capital Cities from a regional broadcast company to a media giant. Over a career that would eventually span four decades, he helped architect the acquisition of the ABC Television Network in 1986 and later, the merger between Capital Cities/ABC and Disney in 1996, when he retired from the company.

For the three of us, we left that meeting realizing our brief foray into new media was at a crossroads. Suddenly that limb we had collectively crawled out on seemed to be getting very shaky. I left with a gnawing fear that just maybe my wife had been right all along -- maybe I should have stayed in the newsroom.

After several, anxiety-filled days had passed, Tom was back from his meeting with Murphy in New York. Once again, we assembled in his office, eager to get the word we would soon be operating on the fancy, graphically-enhanced ModComp software, thus assuring our long-term future. Tom was very matter of fact, as he was most of the time.

Yes, he and Murphy had met. Yes, they went over Tom’s proposal in detail. Yes, they discussed our needs, the capital request and the overall plan. And what’s was Murphy’s response?

There was a pause, and Steinert-Threlkeld summed it up in three words:

Murphy said, “We don’t experiment.”

Then came shocker number two. “As a result, I’m going to recommend to Phil Meek we shut StarText down,” he told us.

Meek recalled that encounter this way:

“Murphy was becoming disenchanted with his crash course in technology,” Meek said. “In a fateful meeting in New York, the Harvard Business School graduate from the class of ’49 told the more recent grad that Cap Cities had no desire to be on the cutting edge of the frontier. In answer to a question about StarText, Murphy probably said he could care less. Chastened and discouraged, Steinert-Threlkeld returned to Fort Worth and announced that StarText was dead and he would be leaving.”

As I surveyed the faces of my colleagues, I think I saw both disbelief and maybe a little relief. The frantic pace, the unending technical snafus, the demoralizing lack of subscribers, had all taken its toll. There was a sense of, “We gave it our best shot and now it’s time to move on.” For me personally, I was devastated. Yes, we had a lot of challenges, that’s true. But the idea was still sound. There is a market for news on demand, I was sure of it. We just needed the right tools.

By all accounts, it looked like we would soon follow BISON into extinction. In the aftermath of that meeting, Durham and Smead both expressed the desire to return to the newsroom and continue their careers where they started. Even though it now seemed almost certain that limb I was standing on was ready to snap, my mantra to Pam remained, “Trust me.” But I wasn’t totally sure I believed it.

Faced with the prospect of being the new media director for a company that didn’t experiment, Steinert-Threlkeld did indeed submit his resignation. If StarText were going to survive, it needed a “Plan B,” and fast. I turned to the only person left who might make that happen – Joe Donth.

While we came from two different worlds (Joe always affectionately referred to me as an “editorial type”), we were united in one key area: A passionate belief StarText and services like it held the key to the future for the newspaper industry. It was something we couldn’t afford not to do. So we got busy and formulated a plan that would “relaunch” StarText on a downsized budget and at the same time, make the much-needed technical improvements to give it a decent shot at success.

We hastily arranged a meeting with Meek to outline our proposal. To cut costs, I would assume the role of news director and hire two college students to replace Durham and Smead. Donth would take over as technical director and continue to push Tandy for the software improvements. Our goal was take the service from 50 subscribers to 200 by year’s end. Meek agreed, as long as we could get the software upgraded StarText was still alive, even if hanging by a thread.

StarText, Version 1.2

The good news was obviously StarText had a second life. The bad news, Joe and I were facing a huge uphill climb.

While I left the technical and contractual pieces for Donth to sort out with Tandy, the hunt was immediately on for two entry-level editors to replace Durham and Smead. It was the latter part of September and the pool of available college talent (likely the only prospects in our price range) was probably not deep. So, with Durham’s help I poured over what resumes we had in Human Resources. Someone remembered a recent journalism graduate who was already on the payroll. But I wouldn’t find her in the newsroom. Instead, I was told to check the street in front of our building at 400 W. 7th.

Christine Russell had recently graduated with a journalism degree from Texas Tech University. With entry jobs hard to come by on large, metropolitan newspapers, Christine took the only job the Star-Telegram had available: the Pigskin Payday Girl. (Pigskin Payday was a seasonal promotion that led readers pick the winners of college and pro games, with a chance to win cash prizes.)

In an interview, Christine recalled the events that led her down the new media path:

“After graduating from Texas Tech with a journalism degree but little experience, I found myself applying for all types of entry-level jobs. I was sure the big old Star-Telegram wouldn't hire anyone straight from college, but my mother drove me to the office and said go put in an application. Clifford King (the retired sports editor who ran the operation) hired me part-time to work in his seasonal Pigskin Payday office. I wore a referee's jersey and collected football game guesses from people who drove by the Star-Telegram office on Friday afternoons.

“After doing this only once or twice, I met Dee Youngblood who said, ‘Well, if I live in Joshua, I must know Gerry Barker.’”

Dee, the wife of Star-Telegram news editor Bill Youngblood, a close friend and colleague, knew we had recently relocated to Joshua, a small rural community some 25 miles south of Fort Worth. By coincidence, Christine was also a lifelong resident there, where her mother taught school.

“She (Dee) introduced us and Gerry began explaining the new ‘videotext’ project he was working on. After interviewing with he and John Durham, I decided this new videotext project sounded like a ‘real’ journalism job to me. It was the beginning of my eight-year career at the Star-Telegram. I was hired as a copy editor, working the late shift, 4 p.m. to midnight.”

So Christine traded her uniform and whistle to become the first of our two entry-level replacements.

Christine remembered, “It was fun working on a videotext service. I was always having to explain my job and people almost always found it very interesting. In the early days, the news editor's or copy editor’s job was to scroll all the Associated Press wire systems. AP divides their news in a few categories: World news, state, business and sports. We would scroll or read the stories on each wire every 15-30 minutes and make selections to go on our electronic newspaper. We did a minute amount of stylizing the copy and would write a headline, and with the press of a few keys, our story would be online, accessible to our subscribers within a minute.”

Of course, the job was not without its difficulties.

“I found learning the intricacies of working the VDT terminal to be a challenge,” she recalled. “That was my first experience with a ‘computer.’ Our first StarText office was an oversized closet. There were several free nights off due to system crashes when Gerry and Joe would say, this is going to take awhile, you might as well go home. Most people I met within the paper, didn't even know what I was talking about when I said I was working in StarText... “

This was just the beginning of the “culture clash” that would quickly develop in newsrooms all over the country between the new and the old way of doing things. It was in many ways an extension of the technological transformations that had been taking place for well over a decade. Hot type had given way to cold. Electric typewriters had replaced their manual counterparts. (The late Jerry Flemmons, one of the best writers that ever worked for the Star-Telegram, used to joke there were only two people left who used manual typewriters: Himself and the Unabomber.) Video Display Terminals (VDTs) would soon make electric typewriters obsolete. Computerized typesetting equipment had long since sent the giant linotypes to mothballs, along with the unions and tradesmen who operated them.

But videotex (or more generically, online) with its electronic distribution and unique two-way capabilities, was much more than just a technology change. This was an entirely new medium, one that combined elements from both publishing and broadcast. It was quickly compared to the rise of radio and the advent of television, both of which represented landmark advances in how news, ideas and thoughts are communicated. It was easy to imagine a world of unlimited choices, with readers making decisions about what and how much they wanted. The prospect of tapping this new resource to transact business and create a new world market driven by bits and bytes, had corporations salivating worldwide.

On the consumer front, home computers, once the province of overachieving science students and built from kits acquired at Radio Shack, were about to enter mainstream America like a tidal wave. Tandy was the early leader, with its various TRS-80 models. They were quickly joined by upstart Apple with its Apple II-C. Commodore was carving out a spot as the value leader with its VIC-20 and later, the Commodore 64. Hot on its heels was Atari, better known for their video games like Pong and Asteroids. Dallas-based Texas Instruments threw their hat in the ring with their TI 99/4 and its cousin, the 99/4A. There were others: Kaypro, Osborne and the diminutive Timex-Sinclair. They were sprouting like mushrooms. And everyone of them prime candidates to become users and customers of videotex services.

Against this backdrop of economic, sociological and technological change, StarText was struggling to get a toehold. And even though subscribers were hard to come by, the ones who found us generally liked what they saw. Most fit the classic mold of the “early adopter,” those individuals who are first to embrace the new and different. In some circles they were known as “propeller heads” or “nerds.” They liked being the first on the block with the newest toy. But we had a lot of “regular” users as well, as this handwritten note would indicate:

“To Whom This May Concern:

“I am very pleased with the trial password and I do hope that when you receive the application that you will, at that time send me the permanent code. This is the greatest thing that ever happened in our office at the Holy Cross Church. I am the pastor and founder. Thanks -- Rev. Vernon R. Reed.”

Rev. Reed’s letter was a harbinger of things to come. The real “magic” of StarText was never its technology, as good as it was, but its subscribers.

With the October 1 deadline rapidly approaching, it seemed we needed all the magic, and luck, we could muster. That’s when the videotex gods decided to smile on us. Joe gave us the news we wanted to hear: Tandy would deliver the software that would provide online access and make us compatible with non-Tandy computers. We had just jumped the first big hurdle on Meek’s “to do” list.

StarText was still open for business. Now it was time to tell the world, or at least, Fort Worth, Texas, where they could go for instant news.

With a marketing budget that was all but nonexistent (that first year we spent $650 for an ad agency to produce the one and only ad we had for promoting the service), Joe and I felt the best way to spread the word (outside what Tandy was doing) was hit the user group circuit.

In the early 1980s, computer user groups were becoming a social phenomenon. It seemed the thousands of people buying personal computers often found the user guides obtuse or incomplete. There was little in the way of technical support, no 800-numbers to call. Computer store salespeople had limited knowledge of their products. So consumers took matters into their own hands by assembling into clubs and organizations around the various computer types.

The larger clubs were devoted to Apple and IBM, but virtually every computer was represented, from the tiny Timex-Sinclair to the Kaypro. These people were our best prospects: Computer owners looking for applications to justify their expensive investments. And why use a pay-by-the-minute national service, like CompuServe, when you get tap into local information for a flat rate of $5 a month?

Naturally, the first clubs we decided to approach were the Tandy user groups, where owners of TRS-80s and Color Computers met to trade programs and lend advice to novices. Meetings were generally monthly and usually held at the local church or community center. While it wasn’t hard to get invitations to speak (program chairmen welcomed a chance to fill the agenda), we learned early on that when it comes to demonstrating an online service, anything and everything can go wrong.

The first obstacle was always the phone line. Many of the meetings were held in older buildings where the phone jacks weren’t the plastic plug RJ11, but hardwired into a wall box (RJ11 was another word that had slipped into my vocabulary, along with data bits and asynchronous communications). That often meant an impromptu patch that might or might not work (usually not). Sometimes we were able to tap into the public pay phones in the hall and string what seemed to be miles of spaghetti-like cables across hallways and rooms. When we did get lucky with an RJ11 connection, we would be defeated by the phone switch system, which didn’t allow modems to talk, or communications software that couldn’t be reconfigured properly.

Then there were the user group “users,” the people who attended these meetings. They ran the gamut from white collar executives to auto repairmen. While there’s no question this is where we would find our greatest advocates, supporters and devotees, what would start as a talk about StarText often became open season on the newspaper we represented, the Star-Telegram. Along with new applications, we often brought back reports of missing or late papers and discussions that our editorial positions were just this side of Attila the Hun.

Over the course of the next several months, we hit just about every group we could find, including Kiwanis and Rotary. It was work all day, then hit the talk circuit on evenings and weekends. While we never had any formal courses in public speaking, we had lots of on-the-job training. And it was paying off.

Whether it was our “direct marketing” campaign or just the fact any computer could now use StarText, our subscriber numbers started to climb. Fifty soon became 100; 100 grew to 150, and then we approached the magic 200. Another editor was hired to join Christine. And Joe was busy on an idea that would boost our content offerings. It had to do with one of the newspaper’s most lucrative and successful products: Classified ads.

Earlier, Meek had vetoed the idea of up charging for liner ads to appear online, with good reason. But what if, Joe wondered aloud one day, StarText displayed all the new classified ads placed with the newspaper the day before they were printed – at no extra charge? Wouldn’t readers find enormous value in having access to classifieds before the readers of the print edition saw them?

Joe’s idea was brilliant. After being on the air for six months, we were beginning even then to realize readers needed a compelling reason to navigate user guides, technical snafus and endure life at 300 baud. The novelty of videotext would not hold the early adopters forever. Clearly, StarText had to offer some benefit. Ideally, a benefit they couldn’t get anywhere else. Local news fit that model. So did local classified ads, especially if we could give you the jump on 500,000 readers.

The prospect was exciting. But how would the newspaper react? Wouldn’t the classified ad manager take a lot of heat from the newspaper readers once they found out online subscribers would have an unfair advantage? It wouldn’t take many calls complaining about the ads being “cherry picked” before the “Mother Ship” (the name we gave our print parent) would step in and shut it down.

Fortunately, in his roll as director of data processing, Joe had close ties with all the various departments, including classified. With our paltry number of customers, it was hard to imagine online ever becoming a threat or problem. Meek also approved, seeing it as a “means to provide value-added information to attract subscribers, rather than gain a few spurious ad dollars.” So it was decided that all new ads scheduled to run the next day would appear on StarText at 6 p.m. the day before (after the phone room was closed for the day).

It proved to be one of the most popular services we ever offered and was a major factor in the growth and success StarText would enjoy over the next 10 years. Over that time, it also spawned dozens of first person testimonials. Among my favorites were these:

-- Once, during a demonstration for a user group, we called up the classified ads in the computer category. (As a sidebar, the most popular category for online classifieds was “Computers for Sale,” which always generated the most “hits” or requests. Can you guess the second most popular? It was “Guns for Sale.” We always speculated people who owned computers meant to keep them, courtesy of Smith and Wesson.) Among the ads scheduled to run the next day was this one: “Three modems, new in box; $45. Call xxx-xxxx” After seeing it, a man in the audience excused himself. Several minutes later he returned. “You know that ad for the modems,” he announced to the room. “I just called the guy from a pay phone in the hall and bought them.” We signed up several new subscribers that night.

-- A subscriber told us he was in the market for a boat. He had been scanning “Boats for Sale” for weeks before running across just what he wanted. The ad had both an address and phone number. He called the owner but got no answer. Not wanting to take a chance on losing it, he drove to the address listed and saw the boat parked in the yard. He waited patiently for the owner to return. “Is this boat for sale,” he asked the somewhat startled owner. “Yes, it is,” he replied. “But how did you know? The ad doesn’t run until tomorrow.” He came back with, “I saw it on StarText.” They took the boat down to the lake for a test drive and the deal was done that night.

-- Late one afternoon our office manager, who set up new accounts, got a walk-in customer. It was an auto mechanic who looked to have come straight from his garage. He was covered with grease. “I want to sign up for StarText,” he said. After a little questioning about how he heard about us, he said he sold used cars on the side. “Lately it seems like the cars in the paper are gone before I can even make an offer. I found out it was because most of my competition is on StarText. So I went down and bought a computer. I don’t think you can be in the used car business in Fort Worth if you don’t have StarText.”

We heard dozens of similar stories from people who used the service to scout estate sales, antiques, jobs and more. As for the worry about “cherry picked ads,” it never really materialized. There were some complaints to be sure, but never enough to warrant any action to stop providing that service. For our part, we agreed not to promote that service in our advertising campaigns. As it turned out, we didn’t have to. Word of mouth was our best friend.

As 1982 drew to a close, things were indeed looking up for the shaky startup that seemed all but dead only a few months before. Construction had even started on a new office for our news operation, one that would move us out of the closet and into a glass enclosure located right in the middle of the Star-Telegram newsroom. It would not only give us increased visibility, but also more credibility as well. Yes, we would still be considered the “toy department” by most for many years to come, but it signaled a renewed commitment from management that online news was not going away just yet.

But the best news was by December 31, our subscriber count stood at 262. It was the best Christmas present any of us could have wished for. StarText had turned the corner. We could look forward to entering 1983 with renewed hope and excitement. Little could we know that just over the horizon, storm clouds were beginning to gather. The new year would bring more excitement than any of us bargained for, and soon.

Post Script.

The agreement inked between Capital Cities and Knight-Ridder in late 1981 to share market data from the Viewtron home information service in South Florida had some profound effects on how Meek viewed StarText and its development.

In an interview for this book, Meek recalled it.

“The broadcasting head of Knight-Ridder, who oversaw Viewtron” (Albert Gillen, at the time senior vice president of Knight-Ridder and president of the Viewdata Corp. of America, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Knight-Ridder) “had been a Cap Cities executive in its earlier days and used his ‘old school ties’ to get Cap Cities’ commitment. The Fort Worth people were appalled that such a decision was made unilaterally without discussion but were assuaged when the coordinating responsibility with Viewtron was assigned to the Star-Telegram.

“Joe Donth and other Star-Telegram managers began visiting the rapidly burgeoning Viewtron operations in Miami some months before the service was launched. They were appalled at what they saw and returned to Fort Worth and predicted that a disaster was in the making. Their two key concerns were the rapid expense buildup, which included plans to operate with a staff of nearly 200 people – a level of 195 was actually reached – and unrealistic pro formas which assumed far higher subscribers and associated revenue than appeared realistic. A major PR effort garnered national exposure and excitement for the project, while a handful of people in Fort Worth just shook their heads in disbelief.”

Because of that, Meek “decided to continue StarText in a contrarian way.” Meek felt “there was an opportunity to try something in a completely different manner,” so his go-ahead included three important conditions:

-- There will be no press releases.
-- Don’t lose so much money anyone in New York notices.
-- Those associated with the project will never leave the Dallas-Fort Worth area to make a speech.

Meek felt “that a local electronic service should be developed the way newspapers themselves were started decades before – on a shoestring. You needed to crawl, slowly at first, before you even began to think of walking.” It was his belief “too big a financial commitment early would almost certainly doom the project” so his directive was “be very, very careful.”

But candidly, Meek also “wanted to protect himself from himself, so to speak,” so he asked his chief financial officer to seek corporate approval to set up a separate profit center for reporting purposes, so the initial losses would not be included in the financial results of the paper itself.” In this manner, Meek knew “he would be less inclined to snuff StarText out if things got tight and he was looking for profit improvement in the Star-Telegram’s own financials.”

He summed it up:

“Because of the dedication and commitment of a tiny staff of pioneers, aided by Joe Donth’s moonlighting efforts to program the service while maintaining his MIS responsibilities, StarText crawled and then finally stood on its feet. Meanwhile, Viewtron came and went. Its public demise and the knowledge of a $60 million loss, was tragic, and it convinced the newspaper industry that electronic services didn’t make sense and there was almost no further developmental activity for nearly a decade.”

There would be many times when Meek’s “no publicity” edict would cause extreme frustration for those of us anxious to tell a disbelieving world online newspapers could be successful with the right formula. But in hindsight, Meek’s decisions to keep StarText out of the national spotlight was smart, especially when expensive and highly-publicized startups like Viewtron, Gateway and Keycom crashed and burned.

Somewhat prophetically, a speaker at one of the early online confabs in 1982 told a group gathered at a DFW hotel that “by 1990, videotext will be a $30 billion business” – long pause – “but we don’t know if that’s revenue or expenses.”

Monday, July 27, 2009

The Story of StarText: 1983

(Note: This is one in a continuing series tracing the history of StarText. Read it from the beginning by using the Archive Post links on the right)

1983 -- Merry Christmas!

The jubilation we felt at the end of 1982 only grew in the first weeks of 1983. And all the credit went to Santa Claus.

On Christmas morning, 1982, Old St. Nick and his helpers delivered a lot of personal computers to residents all across North Texas. Underneath all that bright wrapping paper and pretty bows were names like Tandy, TI, Apple, Atari and Commodore. And every one of them a great candidate for StarText.

That became our “house ad” theme for January (and many Januarys thereafter): “Have a new computer? You need StarText!”

The result was more than we dared hope – 159 new signups in just one month. By the end of January we had climbed to nearly 400, a 53 percent increase! Along the way we got this letter from a new customer dated January 18, 1983:

“Thank you for helping to make this videotex service available. It is fun and easy to use. The articles are well written and short enough to be interesting. The summaries are exceptional; they are great lead-ins or side-bars (if I am not really curious). … If my assumptions are reasonable, there are currently about 20 percent of the required number of subscribers necessary to break-even. Don’t give up yet.”

He had obviously done some math even I hadn’t gotten around to yet. At the time I was focused more on surviving than breaking even.

Nonetheless, we began to grasp an underlying current that run through these early subscribers to the “online newspaper.” They were loyal. Often, fiercely so. For many, StarText was more than just a service. Just like the promise of what this new medium represented, StarText was their personal service. In the years to come, this feeling of ownership and loyalty would become one of the primary cornerstones of our success.

But while the boom in personal computers gave us plenty of reasons to celebrate, our rapid growth had an unsettling downside: The Tandy host computer was buckling under the strain of so many new users.

Not long after taking the editorial reins, I was curious about just what kind of equipment hosted the service, so our Tandy rep offered to show me. After making the trip down to the Tandy Towers, he ushered me through a highly secured area and into the main computer room. It was amazing.

There were walls and walls of what appeared to be floor-to-ceiling mainframes -- tape drives turning, red diode lights blinking, disk drives whirring. It looked like something I imagined that existed inside the Pentagon.

As we walked down a long aisle, I asked which one was the StarText host. “It’s back here,” he said. This was indeed impressive … very impressive.

When we reached the end of the room, he pointed and said, “That’s where we host StarText.”

At first, I was sure I must have been looking at the wrong thing. I wasn’t.

Parked on a microwave cart was a solitary Tandy Model II, a maze of 16 phone lines pouring out the back. I don’t recall my exact reaction, but my expression must have approximated that of Richard Dreyfuss in Jaws when he informs his colleagues, “We’re going to need a bigger boat.”

Fortunately, this was something Joe Donth had already realized. As the person in charge of the technology, he was acutely aware of the problems, both internal and external. Our new customers weren’t “getting their newspaper delivered” when lines were busy or the host was down. The editors were struggling to keep the database fresh in the face of more frequent crashes. And every new customer we added, while precious for our survival, only exacerbated the issue.

It seemed StarText had traded one crisis for another.

While we continued to press Tandy hard for performance improvements, Joe was quietly taking matters in his own hands. One night, after another “dog and pony” for a local user group, Joe dropped a bombshell: He confided he had already started work on a new program that might replace our dependence on the Tandy system. The news was both a shock and a surprise, and after it sank it, very exciting.

But I had to wonder: Could one person working part time replicate and better a system developed by the team at Tandy?

Soon, more details began to emerge. Joe’s software would take us from the Tandy Model II to a powerful VAX 750 (the Star-Telegram was heavily invested in DEC computers and the VAX was among their newest models at the time). Gone would be our reliance on Tandy; we would take StarText in-house and solve the technical issues holding us back. It seemed too good to be true.

Working nights, weekends and any spare time in-between, Joe cranked out line after line of code, the thousands of instructions which would orchestrate innumerable zeros and ones inside the VAX to operate StarText. As an editor, programming seemed at best a cross between calculus and Greek. But I quickly developed an immense admiration and respect for the people who understood and spoke its language. And among them, Joe was a true maestro.

By mid-February, Joe was far enough along to break the news to Tandy. In an exchange of letters between Donth and Carroll Reeves, Tandy’s director of contract marketing, an agreement was hammered out. Among its main points:

-- StarText would be moved to the Star-Telegram “on or before July 1, 1983.”

-- The Star-Telegram will utilize their own computer equipment and software to provide a successor to the StarText system.

At the same time, Tandy was working on its own “next generation” videotext product. In an interesting twist, they sought our support to test it at the same time we were about to test our own solution. We agreed to continue providing them content with a few caveats. Key among them was the test period would be limited to 90 days duration and only open to 100 total StarText subscribers on a voluntary basis.

The result was StarText customers had their choice of using Joe’s new VAX-based service or trying the service supported by Tandy. In effect, for a period of 90 days there would be two versions of StarText in the market in a likely winner-take-all competition.

Another initiative gaining momentum at that time was a growing demand for metro service. Essentially, a way to make StarText a local call for customers in the Dallas area. This would increase our potential market by a factor of three. We already had a small number of subscribers who willingly paid long distance rates for the privilege. No one doubted opening Dallas represented a potentially target-rich environment. The question was how to pay for it.

Central to that equation was answering, “How many subscribers can one line support?” I quickly learned the subscriber/modem ratio is a key factor in any online business plan. The idea is to accommodate the maximum number of customers with the least number of lines. While that sounds simple, arriving at the number is anything but. By looking at the usage reports of any given day or week, there is an obvious pattern to usage “peaks and valleys.” For us, daytime usage was mostly slow. Our peak usage was between 7 pm and 10 pm, with another peak around midnight. Ideally, you have enough lines so when the peaks come, no one experiences a busy signal. (This is of course the exact reverse for Internet usage. Typically the peak time is 8 am to 5 pm weekdays, when there is massive usage from workers with PCs at their desk.)

The other factor that comes into play is “average time spent online.” If this number gets higher, the chances of a busy signal increase and thus drives the need to add more lines. So while you wanted to have great content and features that prompted people to buy and use the service, you never wanted it to be so compelling they never hung up. (This is one major reason we never featured chat rooms or online games.)

Taken together, the online service provider walks a tightrope between providing the best possible service and trying not to go broke doing it. While the phone lines themselves weren’t a big expense, each line required its own modem. Behind the modems were multiplexers. The multiplexers required computer ports. And before you know it, your newspaper has quietly become a telecommunications company.

To launch metro service, we couldn’t have just one line (it would be busy all the time) and the cost of a metro line was many times the cost of a local line (remember – it’s 1983 and competition for local service is just beginning). Still, we started planning for a metro service that would be part of a post-Tandy rollout.

A New Era Begins

By late March we were ready to turn on the VAX-based version of StarText. Tandy was ready to serve up its new and improved “StarText Classic.” Letters were mailed to existing customers (a little over 500 at the time) advising them they could choose which StarText they wanted to use. Then, on April 1, we “threw the switch” that brought up StarText as an independent service running on in-house equipment at the Star-Telegram.

Expectations were high. The VAX was a real, state-of-the-art computer. We expected data – even at 300 baud -- to speed along an Information Autobaun compared to what subscribers had been experiencing. Partly because of that, we decided to raise the monthly rate from $5 to $7.95. The extra revenue would help underwrite the cost of the VAX, telephone lines and modems.

While testing of the VAX-based service had gone well, nothing compares to placing any new software under full load in “real combat conditions.” As subscribers began lighting up the modems it didn’t take long for the verdict to come in, and it wasn’t at all what we expected: There was a problem – a big problem. As incredible as it sounded, the VAX was performing worse than the Tandy Model II.

As editors fought back the urge to panic, Joe quickly went into troubleshooting mode to isolate the problem. What he discovered was that large sections of his code needed to be rewritten. In the weeks that followed, we manned the phones and urged patience while Joe set about making the changes. In what I sometimes call the “Miracle of ’83,” Joe rewrote the software in a matter of weeks. The new service was everything we promised and more.

In the 90-day period that followed, it became literally, no contest. The vast majority of subscribers migrated to the VAX service. By June, it was over. Tandy pulled the plug on its system and the two companies parted friends.

Looking back, it’s fairly obvious without Tandy’s initial involvement there would have been no StarText. At the same time, it also taught that regardless of how attractive online businesses looked on paper, launching, maintaining and growing such services was far more complex and challenging than most companies imagined. While the technology existed to provide services, the market for those services was limited at best – and would be for some time to come.

Over the years I came to relate this to an item that appeared in the Star-Telegram around that same time. It was called a “filler.” For those who don’t know, “fillers” were those tidbits of mostly useless information used by newspapers in earlier days to fill news columns when stories ran short. This particular filler was about a certain species of mole that had the amazing ability to burrow up to 100 miles in a single night. The headline – which won an award, by the way was this:

“But he seldom wants to”

It struck me this was applicable to technology and technological innovations. Just because we can do it, should we? Is it something customers really want, or just something the marketers, researchers and engineers think they should want? That little industrious mole has became my yardstick for evaluating service “improvements” ever since.

It was now just over one year since StarText was launched. Our first birthday was followed in short order by our “independence day.” It had been a tumultuous 13 months but we had a lot to feel good about. And a lot more work in front of us.

While it felt good to have the entire operation housed at the Star-Telegram and under our control, it also meant new responsibilities, like new billing, marketing and technical support. We could expect some help from the newspaper but it still meant new programs to track revenue and labor to stuff and mail monthly bills. For the latter, Joe’s administrative assistant became our part time accountant. And it wasn’t unusual to see Joe, myself or one of the editors stuffing statements in between other duties.

Because we were a small group, and expense control was crucial, we each wore whatever hat necessary to get the job done. One job we all shared was customer service. Through the magic of email, we quickly developed “one on one” relationships with many of our readers. The result of personally answering a question, complaint or suggestion was amazing. Readers couldn’t believe someone would take the time to actually respond. They were conditioned to large, “faceless” corporations who either sent form letters or just didn’t acknowledge them at all.

While time-consuming and labor intensive, this was important in many ways. For one, it made our customers feel a certain pride and ownership in the product. We didn’t have subscribers as much as stakeholders. For another, it encouraged ideas and feedback. At one point we estimated more than half of every improvement we made came from a subscriber suggestion. There were only five of us. Imagine tapping into the brainpower of 500. Or 5,000. Or someday, like the big dailies, 500,000 and more. What might we accomplish?

Among the new content we offered was a simple column we called “Comments.” Updated several times weekly, it published selected email from subscribers along with our responses. Almost immediately it went to the Top 10 most requested keywords and remained there for most of the next 10 years.

In July of 1983 we took another bold step forward when we officially launched our StarText Metro service. For the first time, Dallas-area customers could dial us up as a local call. At the time, we weren’t sure how The Dallas Morning News might react. Even though they had shuttered their online service, BISON, the year before and showed no signs of re-entering the fray, this was the first time the Star-Telegram, albeit electronically, had entered the Dallas market in a direct way. As it turned out, they ended up running several stories about us. We used to joke that StarText got more coverage in Dallas than we could get in the Star-Telegram.

While as a journalist I understood why they didn’t cover us (it’s best to avoid possible conflict of interest areas by not blowing your own horn), it was a continuing source of frustration that we had to read about progress in other publications.

For the record, Rich Casey, an avid Ham radio enthusiast, was our first Dallas metro line customer. His subscriber ID number – 1081 – was among the lowest on the system, something Rich was always very proud of.

“I was on StarText the morning the metro number and the VAX came on-line in
1982,” said Casey in a 1994 interview. “My original mail code of 91 converted to 1081 sometime in 1984. At the StarText 10th anniversary, I was surprised to find I had the lowest subscriber mail code.”

Why did he choose StarText? “I've always liked the open exchange of ideas, the willingness to experiment with new concepts, and the local feel of the service. On StarText, I feel more like a ‘member’ than a ‘subscriber.’ I have subscribed to CompuServe since 1979 (one evening there were four users on the entire system); I sampled and quickly left Prodigy (I couldn't get past the smell of Sears popcorn), and am now wandering the Internet. Still, StarText feels most like home.”

To be continued ...

Sunday, July 26, 2009

The Story of StarText: 1984

(Note: This is one in a continuing series tracing the history of StarText. Read it from the beginning by using the Archive Post links on the right)

As the calendar rolled to 1984, the outlook seemed anything but Orwellian.

For the first time since I enlisted in this roller coaster project I was breathing a sigh of relief. We had been in business some 18 months and were not only surviving but actually showing steady growth. And the consumer rush to own the latest video game or personal computer continued unabated.

The year started with a bang when Apple debuted its newest pride and joy, the Macintosh, in January. It became an instant hit as supply couldn’t match demand. Not to be outdone, IBM rolled out the PC-AT. Computer user groups, where devotees of a particular product or brand formed clubs and held regular meetings, mushroomed.

At this stage there were still just a handful of local online commercial services around the country and StarText was among the largest. At the local level, the field was dominated by the BBS (short for Bulletin Board Service). Firing up your own BBS required little more than a dedicated phone line (or lines), a host computer and communications software. Fueled by teens and hobbyists, they proliferated and covered every subject imaginable. We couldn’t know it at the time, but these were the early forerunners of chat rooms, online gaming and the Internet newsgroups.

In some corners of the newspaper industry, they also triggered an early warning alarm. Technology was making it possible for anyone to set up an “electronic printing press” in their garage, basement or study and begin “publishing” news or even more ominous, classified ads. Yes, the interface was clunky, the delivery primitive and the audience barely a blip on the radar. But it was undeniable that a new threshold had been crossed. Unfortunately, the majority of newspaper executives saw the emerging online medium not as an opportunity to expand their business or reach a new audience but as a threat to their high-margin franchises. Or perhaps worse, as a passing fad that would never amount to anything.

There were exceptions. Knight-Ridder, one of the nation’s largest newspaper chains, had launched in late 1983 what would become the most high profile, and expensive, online ventures ever attempted by a media company. Dubbed Viewtron, and run as a separate business unit under the name Viewdata Corporation, it was developed primarily in partnership with AT&T. AT&T was anxious to tap new markets and online seemed ripe for the picking. As for Knight-Ridder, if a market was emerging for online news, they wanted to be ready to serve it.

While their motivations were good, their business plan, unfortunately, was not.

Viewdata’s approach to the online market ran counter to StarText’s in several ways. First, and most importantly, the interface was based on graphics, not text. They reasoned a service needed to be colorful, with pictures as well as text, to attract a large audience. While we all wanted our services to be “pretty,” going down that road opened the proverbial can of worms. Since there was no common graphical standard among personal computers, they effectively locked out a market already in place and growing. There was also the issue of speed. Downloading a graphic takes many times longer than text. The fastest personal modems of the time were 1200 baud. You can do the math.

To offer color and graphics, they decided to base the service on NAPLPS (North American Presentation Level Protocol Syntax), a graphics standard jointly developed in 1983 by AT&T and many of the major computer giants. Subscribers would connect by use of a dedicated terminal box from AT&T called a Spectre. Featuring an infrared keyboard and built-in 1200 baud modem, it utilized the television set for its display. The plan was to roll it out to customers along Florida’s “Gold Coast.” After market trials in Coral Gables, the initial focus was on the area from Miami to West Palm Beach (Knight-Ridder’s corporate headquarters was in Miami at that time). By late 1984, it was available all across Florida.

You can find an overview and screen shots here:

One look at the Sceptre gave Joe and I flashbacks to the old Videotex terminals Tandy hoped to sell by the thousands when we first launched StarText. Except instead of the $399 price tag for the Tandy device, the Sceptre started at $900. With few takers at that price (keep in mind this was a dumb terminal, not a computer), it was dropped to $600 and later, folded into the monthly fee of $39.95. On top of that, they were staffing up at a frightening pace. The more we learned about Viewtron, the more red flags went up.

Of course, we were more than just interested observers. Our parent, Capital Cities, had a small stake in Viewdata and an option to launch the service in the cities it served, including Fort Worth and Kansas City. Joe was appointed to attend the Viewtron meetings in Miami to get the latest progress reports. Based on what he saw and heard, Joe saw a business with disaster written all over it.

Nationally and worldwide, Viewtron was only the very public tip of an ever-growing iceberg of activity. Buoyed by red-hot PC sales, CompuServe and The Source were vying for the growing U.S. consumer market. Prestel and Minitel (both run on dedicated terminals or hardware) led the European efforts. Waiting in the wings was another high profile rollout: Trintex, jointly owned and funded by IBM, Sears and CBS. You probably know it better by the name it took later: Prodigy. It seemed virtually every major media and telecommunications company was either trying to drive a stake in the ground or float a trial balloon, mostly by throwing money at ill-conceived ideas. It was the Gold Rush all over again, except this precious metal wasn’t found in the ground but in the “cyberspace” all around us. And lurking in the background, largely unknown to most outside the government and scientific community, a network was gaining its own momentum quietly beneath the surface: A system of interconnected computers we know today as the Internet.

But that’s getting ahead of the story. Against this backdrop and behind the walls Publisher Phil Meek had erected, we continued the drive to add more subscribers. In our view, the two obvious ways to grow the business were 1) add more content and 2) add more functionality. We did both despite a bare-bones budget. The modest success we were enjoying also fueled another vision Joe had for his software: The possibility that some day we might market our system to other newspapers. Planting that seed was probably what Joe had in mind when he asked me to accompany him to the annual DEC (Digital Equipment Corporation) Newspaper Computer Users Group meeting in Eugene, Oregon that January. Our host computer was a DEC VAX 750, and despite our own efforts to keep things quiet, word was spreading. Our peers, both here and aboard, were curious to know more.

While Joe was advancing the technology and improving the software, I was busy trying to elevate the editorial quality on a shoestring budget. To date we had been lucky. Restricted to hiring editors with little or no real-world experience due to budget limitations, we found some good talent, most of it right out of college. Christine Russell, my first hire, had grown to become a solid news editor. In 1983, we added Howard Schloss, newly graduated from Southern Methodist University with a BA in journalism. Even though we could never get his last name pronounced correctly, Howard worked hard and became an immediate contributor.

Unfortunately, Howard's tenure was brief. He soon accepted a job with United Press International. Since that time he has enjoyed great success in the financial arena. Wonder if he credits StarText for launching his career?

From Southern Methodist we turned again to Texas Christian and found Andy Kesling, all 6-foot, 8-inches of him. Soft-spoken and hard-working, Kesling was another solid performer who joined the staff in January and would be with us for several years to come.

The reason we could run StarText with such minimal staffing was our affiliation with the
Star-Telegram. With daily access to stories from their high-profile reporters and writers, already in final edit form, plus the 24-hour wire feeds, we had a content advantage over any competing BBS or national service. Against the CompuServes and Sources, the key word was “local.” No one had the depth and breadth of the local coverage we could provide. In the world of instant news, just as it was with our print brethren, local was our trump card (one thing that hasn’t changed for newspapers).

One of the most important dates in our early history occurred Feb. 23, 1984. On that day we marked a milestone event: 1,000 subscribers. While unremarkable by newspaper standards, it was like standing at the summit of a mountain for our little band of pioneers. Even more remarkable, it was mostly achieved by word of mouth, personal appearances at countless user group and computer club meetings -- plus the free trial password program we came up with. Like selling cars, we had to get customers in the “showroom” for a test drive. The free trial passwords were good for five free sessions on StarText. With no budget for marketing or promotion, we hand-carried them to computer stores, libraries, schools – anywhere where you might find our “target audience.” It become one of our most effective marketing programs.

To honor that occasion, Joe agreed to let us produce the first StarText T-shirt. It featured our logo and the words: “The First 1,000.” To our surprise, we sold hundreds at $5.95 to subscribers who were anxious to proudly display that claim. In fact, we saw them show up regularly for years afterward at events and special occasions, including our 10th anniversary party. It was further testament to the loyalty and ownership that many felt came with their $7.95-a-month subscription.

As the service expanded, so did my role. After the initial reorganization in which Joe and I took the reins, I continued to report through editorial to the executive editor, the late Jack Tinsley. In reality, I was working for Joe on a day-to-day basis. While editorial was supportive of our operation, they had very little direct involvement or really much more than a passing interest (we were still for all practical purposes “the toy department”). So I was both surprised and pleased when Joe offered me the job of general manager, reporting directly to him. That would give me control over everything except programming and IT, an area I happily conceded to Joe. It also meant after 14 years in the newsroom, I was now officially a “new media” guy.

While I would maintain a strong daily presence with the content, that change also meant I got to hire another editor. That person was Christy Jones, another recent graduate of TCU. Christy, who had training in both journalism and education, was ideally suited for StarText. She learned fast, she worked fast and loved tackling new assignments. But best of all, she was a true “people-person,” with a effervescent personality that bubbled sunshine. She and the subscribers connected immediately. Aside from one brief hiatus when she left to be a teacher, Christy would have the longest tenure of any StarText employee.

That May, with the numbers still growing, we marked our second anniversary of service, and brainstormed what to do next. Joe’s home-grown software gave us a measure of stability Tandy’s never did, which in turn unleashed our creative juices on ways to grow and better serve our audience. The unexpected success of the Christmas card contest a few months earlier helped fire our imaginations in a new direction. What else could we do that would invite subscriber participation?

It was becoming clear interactivity was right up there with content as a key building block for our fledgling business. Based on the steady stream of ideas and suggestions that came into our email boxes on a daily basis, we wondered, “Why not make the process a little more formal?” After all, a lot of the improvements and additions we were making were based on feedback from our customers.

The staff huddled and hatched the idea of a “town hall meeting.” It was pretty simple, really. We would find or rent a meeting place, decide a time and invite the subscribers to come together, meet the staff and share ideas. The agenda would be divided between discussing what we had planned and fielding questions from the audience. Naturally there were doubts. Like, would anybody show up? It was one thing to dash off a quick email but quite another to give up an evening, drive to a meeting that may or may not be in the neighborhood and interact with strangers. Only one way to find out.

We set about finding a place and got lucky. One of our subscribers was also pastor at a local church, centrally located in the Mid-Cities area (between Fort Worth and Dallas). He graciously volunteered to be our host. Picking a date came down to a Tuesday or Thursday night (Mondays and Fridays weren’t good and Joe pointed out Wednesdays are a church night for many). With everything set, we put out the word that the first StarText Town Hall Meeting would be a Thursday night in June.

With basic refreshments and name tags at the ready, subscribers started filing in. Some alone, some with friends, others with family members, totaling about 50 in all. Everyone’s name tag noted both their name and their StarText ID number. It turned out the subscribers enjoyed meeting each other as much as the staff. For the first time they could associate a face with an email address. Most of the questions were suggestions for making the service better, with the addition of 1200-baud service pretty much topping the list.

We judged it an unqualified success on all counts. So much so, we decided shortly thereafter to make it a regular part of how we did business. From that month onward, we held quarterly subscriber meetings. While our two-way medium provided many opportunities for subscriber/staff communication, we found nothing worked quite as well as meeting customers face-to-face. It often made me think how much better the newspaper might be if they adopted the same concept.

As the summer of ’84 rolled on, we put our thinking caps on again. This interactive stuff was working pretty well. What else could we do?

The dog days of summer are a notoriously bad time for online activities. Schools are out; people are on vacation; interest in news and computers seems to wane. What could we do to drum up interest and engage our subscribers during the hot Texas summer? That was pretty much the genesis of what became another tradition: The StarText Short Story Contest.

We already knew many of the customers were aspiring writers through the subscriber columns we hosted. We suspected others would join them if given the right motivation. Of course, we couldn’t have a story contest without judges, not to mention prizes for the winners. We found our judges by twisting arms in the newsroom. For prizes, we turned to the computer stores around town who participated in our marketing programs, plus the option of offering free extensions to their StarText service. As we put it together, the staff also decided the contest should have a theme rather than be open-ended. So as part of the rules we specified all stories had to be of the science fiction genre.

Once again, we didn’t know what to expect. We hoped to get at least three entries (since we wanted to award first, second and third place prizes.) Again, we weren’t disappointed. We ended up with nearly 20 submissions. And it wasn’t hard to pick the winner. It was penned by our most prodigious subscriber columnist, the seemingly indefatigable Ed Jackson. The story was Rad Fourteen, a gem of a tale about the relationship between a robot, its creator and the ensuing moral dilemma in which both found themselves. It was such a hit with the readers that Jackson went on to pen a whole series of “Rad” stories. For his effort, Jackson won 12 software titles from Videoland and three months service tacked on to his StarText subscription. Second place went to Jim Lombard for “The Blind Lead the Blind” and third place, as well as honorable mention, to the Gus Hertz family for “Shadowdancer” and “Computer Break-in.”

The winning entries were posted online, as well as most of the runners-up. I couldn’t help but marvel at how StarText was evolving from a basic online newspaper to something we never dreamed of when we launched two years previous. Beyond news and classifieds, we had tapped into rich reservoirs of subscriber-contributed content. It was apparent StarText had grown to be much more than a newspaper: We were a true online community.

Believing one good idea deserves another, the editors quickly followed up on the success of the short story contest with yet another interactive feature and played on the fiction theme: A chain novel. If our customers enjoyed writing fiction, why not give them a chance to write a novel together online? That September, we had almost 30 different subscribers volunteer to each write a chapter for a book we playfully titled, Friday the 13th – The Final Chapter, a spoof on the Jason movies so popular at the time. (Years later, there actually was a Jason movie by that name!)

We enlisted a Star-Telegram writer to pen the first chapter and get it started. Subscribers who volunteered each were assigned their own chapter and given 72 hours to complete it. While we didn’t end up with the Great American Novel, it certainly was a “novel” idea and created a lot of buzz among the customers. There was even tension as our aspiring writers killed off or wrote out characters introduced in earlier chapters. It wouldn’t be the last chain novel we would write together.

Between us and our subscribers, there was no shortage of ideas for tapping into the ever-expanding online audience. That doesn’t mean every idea was a good one. One that didn’t work so well was a service we called Share-A-Plane.

It all started when one of our customers, a private pilot, told us how convenient it would be if pilots had an easy way to tell other pilots where they were going. Just like car-pooling, enlisting one or more riders to a given destination could dramatically cut the cost of the trip. And there were thousands of private pilots in the immediate Fort Worth-Dallas area, the majority of whom either had computers or could easily afford one. So if we could create an electronic way for pilots to list trips, and a simple way pilots could contact each other, that should add up to a great business opportunity.

Joe and I both thought it had promise. It would be our first private “closed” application, run separately from StarText, and give us a second source of much-needed revenue. We already had email capability. The rest was little more than an enhanced bulletin board for the use of the pilots. So it wasn’t long before Joe and I were standing inside an aircraft hangar for a monthly meeting of a pilots’ group, extolling the virtues of the “share a plane” concept.

Not long after, “Share-A-Plane” was officially launched, complete with its own application for service and monthly fee (which I think was $12.95). It was just a matter of waiting for the thousands of pilots to join up. And waiting. And waiting some more. Even though it sounded great “on paper,” the market wasn’t apparently ready for a private pilot BBS. We quietly pulled the plug after only a few months of service. But it did teach us some valuable lessons. One, it’s hard to attract attention when you don’t have a marketing budget or plan. Two, with our limited resources, we had to take a much closer look at new ideas to grow the business. And those ideas were surfacing every day, generated in part by the staff and in ever-greater numbers from would-be cyber entrepreneurs.

In hindsight, probably the most interesting thing about ideas like “Share-A-Plane” was how our small staff of six could conceptualize and launch new businesses without the usual process of research reports, focus groups, pro formas and endless meetings. It was empowering to be fast on our feet and open to trying new things. If it failed, we stopped doing it and went on to something else, not exactly an accepted best business practice and light years from how newspapers were run.

Speaking of aviation, StarText became the nation’s first online service to feature flight schedules from Delta Air Lines on October 1. Danny Quillen, marketing director for Delta, said at the time: “Delta is very pleased to be affiliated with StarText as it is a quality product offered to the home computer user. We feel Delta flight schedules will be greatly utilized through StarText.” It wasn’t however the first flight information we featured. American Airlines flight data was part of the Tandy product launch two years earlier.

Up until now, our sights were firmly on the consumer sector, especially given Dow Jones and others like them had a lock on online business users. Still, there were local applications worth exploring. That September, we explored one. Coldwell Banker signed up accounts for all its area offices to use our electronic mail program. It was our first real business customer and the subject of a story printed in the September 10, 1984 edition of Dallas/Fort Worth Business.

Headlined, “StarText takes aim at business community,” reporter Mark Hendricks wrote:

“StarText, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s videotex arm, has signed up Coldwell Banker’s 17 Metroplex real estate offices and will court more business customers with a new version of its information service to be introduced next month. ‘We’re going to become a lot more aggressive,’ said Gerry Barker, manager of StarText.’”

It quoted Rod Martin, Coldwell Banker vice president and regional manager, who said “using the videotex system for electronic mail has proved an economical and effective solution to some of the problems of communicating among the offices that stretch from west of Fort Worth to east Dallas County.” Martin added: “This was a way we could accomplish it without having to get our own computer system and go to a lot of trouble and expense.” One of their primary uses for the service was sending out residential listing updates and coordinating relocation programs.

That success had us thinking what else could offer local businesses (a tempting market since many already had the necessary computers in place). There was the obvious – access to local news and financial data. But beyond that, we started thinking about higher speed service, private databases and better search features. But the most intriguing news nugget in the story was the reference to a “new version of its information service” we would be rolling out in October.

Internally, this was the project Joe called “Version 3.” It had been in the works for some time, over a year in fact. It would incorporate a wide range of improvements and changes, including a number of features on the “wish list” of both subscribers and editors. We quickly learned upgrades and improvements are the lifeblood of new technology products. Maybe the offline newspaper could stay the same for 200 years but ours couldn’t and expect to survive. The First Rule of Online is you can never stop re-inventing your product. Just as computers were getting faster, cheaper and smaller, we were running a marathon to meet the ever-increasing expectations of our customers.

Besides, we were getting a little weary of answering subscriber questions on when they could expect 1200 baud service and other enhancements: “It’ll be fixed in Version 3” was the official response (the staff even had a special T-shirt made just for Joe, emblazoned with “It will be fixed in Version 3” on the front).

True to his word, after months of work, mostly in his “off time,” Joe was ready to unveil Version 3 in November, 1984. We could hardly contain our excitement. In fact, the sheer importance of it prompted yet another innovation in a year of many “firsts.” But unlike the others, this one had nothing to do with online, interactivity or contests. For this one we turned our attention to a tried and true medium called newsprint.

For some time the staff had been vexed by how to keep our customers apprised of the many changes and improvements we were making in StarText. Posting the latest news on our “home page” was great but in truth, we still ran the risk of it going unnoticed, not to mention not everyone logs on to the service every single day. We needed something beyond email and beyond online announcements. By gosh, we needed a good old fashioned newsletter! That led us to creating a monthly publication we cleverly titled, StarText INK.

INK was a tab-sized newspaper, from eight to 12 pages, written and edited by StarText staffers, assembled in the Star-Telegram composing room, printed on newsprint at the Star-Telegram Printing and Distribution Center then mailed bulk rate to all our subscribers, with extras distributed to area computer stores and libraries. Having spent many years working alongside printers designing and making up print pages, I volunteered to be editor. Various staffers would write the stories and most had their own monthly column in their area of expertise. That included Joe, who I convinced to author a page one column called “Joe’s Place.” Besides his obvious technical and business acumen, Joe had a talent for expressing himself and I knew the subscribers would enjoy hearing first hand what Joe had in mind. We also used INK to spotlight subscriber columnists and the interesting people who were our customers. Every issue also included updates to our user guide and keyword list.

Knowing Version 3 would debut in November, we planned for Volume One, Number One to go out that month. What we didn’t fully understand or appreciate at the time was the writing, editing, designing and production was only a start. We were about to learn more about postal rules and regulations, mailing permits, labeling programs, zip code bundling, sacking requirements and dock procedures than any of us ever really wanted to know. Picture this scene:

A group of StarText editors, Joe, myself, Joe’s administrative assistant, all sitting on the floor in Joe’s office affixing labels to INKs in zip code order one at a time. Then rolling the INKs into bundles and placing them in authorized postal bags with the official zip code tags attached. The bags are loaded into my car for the trip to the post office where they are weighed, paperwork is done and we are charged under Bulk Rate Permit 1259. If nothing else, it was a great excuse for a pizza party.

Over the years we were able to streamline the process and even automate, with the help of Star-Telegram packaging, parts of it. But it was worth it. INK was an immediate hit with the subscribers and helped us as much as them to stay current with the latest news on StarText.

The headlines in that first edition said it all:

New features coming Nov. 26!

STARTEXT adding 1200 baud, new E-mail;
Price going to $9.95 a month beginning Dec. 1

While news of the new features had been anxiously awaited, the announcement of a price hike from $7.95 to $9.95 a month was no doubt not as welcomed. We had started business at $5 a month and now, some two and a half years later, the rate had doubled. But no one could question the StarText of December, 1984 bore little resemblance to the StarText of 1982. Subscribers to CompuServe, Dow Jones or others on the “pay by the minute” plan routinely ran up monthly bills of $50 and more. Everyone knew StarText was a “steal” by comparison and the rate hike went through with little grousing. Besides, in our typical “the customer is king” approach, we made everyone a one-time offer: Current subscribers could renew their subscription at the old $7.95 rate for up to one year if they acted by Nov. 30. The result was hundreds of annual renewals.

While clearly the addition of 1200 baud service grabbed the headlines, Version 3 offered a lot more in both features and functionality. Among them were new and improved email, support for true XON/XOFF (a feature especially important to our “tekkies”), separate databases for each stock exchange, easier access to classified ads and a fully customized interface allowing users to select their own function keys to best suit their computer or terminal. Taken together, it placed StarText at the forefront of text-based operating systems, a fact others were beginning to recognize.

In The Computer Phone Book: Guide to Using Online Systems, author Mike Cane had this to say about StarText:

“StarText doesn’t use menus. It’s a totally keyword-driven system. Type the keyword for the information you want and it will appear. . .StarText is the largest local system in the United States. It’s also the biggest bargain to be found in any online system that has a fee.” Cane also had praise for INK: “It’s the best publication I’ve seen an online system produce and contains the flavor that makes StarText a success as an online system.” In the revised edition one year later he was more specific: “StarText INK is full of chatty articles about what’s happening on the system and is a great (and welcome) change from the pompous Newspeak-type publications other pay systems insist on sending to their subscribers.”

It was probably how Cane summed us up that made us all particularly proud:

“Any Local System looking for success would do well to study StarText.”

Donth, in his initial “Joe’s Place,” wrote poignantly of what StarText had meant to him personally. His topic was creation – of the “little c” variety – “the things people do with their mind, hands and heart that result in something new being born into the world.”

He continued: “Creation is what StarText is all about and I stand in awe every time I take the time to think about it. We started with a group of very dedicated people creating first the idea, then the technology and finally the content … When my day gets hectic and the phone won’t stop ringing, I sneak into the computer room and go to the StarText modem rack and just watch it. The feeling is like nothing I can describe because what I see is not a row of red LED lights. I see people communicating with their world.”

Donth noted, very correctly I believe, that StarText isn’t about the technology, the staff or the founders who “brought this thing to life by the sheer will of our belief.” It instead is all about the subscribers whose columns, messages, email and caring are its lifeblood. “That’s the miracle of StarText.”

This was a side of Joe few had seen. It explained his deep passion and personal commitment to what we were doing, something we both shared.

Industry newsletters were likewise beginning to take notice of the online newspaper from Texas that was beginning to share the spotlight with its much bigger and better financed national competitors.

Paul Kagan Associates out of Carmel, California devoted most of its Oct. 26, 1984 edition to StarText and an examination of its business plan. Calling it a “success story,” Kagan went into detail outlining our business strategy (local focus, ease of use, low price) and then estimated operating expenses and revenue. Somewhat surprisingly, it told of a plan to market the Version 3 software to other newspapers at a price of $40,000 (which came as a surprise to me – Joe was obviously setting his sights on new targets). Our horizons seemed to be expanding every day.

Another well known analyst who began to track StarText around this time was Gary Arlen, whose "Information & Interactive Services Report" was something of a Bible for the online industry. We made our way into his “Box Score” section which tracked subscriber growth among all the major services. Arlen became even better known for his yearly giveaways that reminded all of us to not take ourselves so seriously. There was the famous videotex “wooden nickel,”; the pocket protector espousing “Videotex: It Isn’t Just for Nerds;” and my favorite – the computer-shaped eraser with the slogan, “Videotex: You Can’t Rub It Out.” There also were his lapel buttons that mocked the ever-present predictions for online success: “1990 – I Can’t Wait.” A few years later, that button became “2010 – I Can’t Wait.” In retrospect, it’s hard to tell whether all that hype hurt or helped. It did its share of both.

StarText continued to draw international visitors to Cowtown as well. For the second year in a row the Technology Transfer Institute in California, working with Japan’s Technology Transfer Association, sent a delegation of 11 Japanese business leaders to Fort Worth to learn more about what was driving our success. They were particularly intrigued by how our readers were using email. One delegate asked Joe if we would consider launching StarText in Japan. “That wasn’t the first place I had in mind,” he said.

As 1984 drew to a close, the staff used the second issue of INK to reflect on the previous 11 months. In my “From the Manager” column, I itemized a few of the highlights:

-- We started the year with 800 subscribers. Number 1000 came in February and we would end the year just over 1,300, a 67% increase.

-- We now had two VAX host computers; phone lines grew from 20 to 30; the staff grew from six to seven.

-- Version 3 was launched, the culmination of long hours of work by Donth and senior programmer Serge Stein.

Our subscribers, never shy, chimed in with some comments of their own.

“INK is a fantastic addition to an already outstanding product. If I could find a news publication as responsive as StarText I would seek a lifetime subscription.”

“I take and read The Dallas Morning News, the Star-Telegram and have been reading StarText for three months. If I had to give up two of the three I would keep StarText.”

Rich Casey, our first Dallas subscriber and at the time a technical writer for E-Systems in Dallas, had this to say in his StarText column, “Casey’s Place:”

“I believe that the Star-Telegram management made the proper decision to grow gradually, staff only as necessary and above all, listen to the subscriber. …The StarText staff, perhaps consciously, perhaps not, has put the “high touch” principle to work for them. Dozens of subscriber-written columns such as this one bring the technology down to the user level. There is a constant effort to listen and respond to user questions, ideas and concerns.”

It’s probably fitting that it was the subscribers themselves that put an exclamation point on the year when a group led by Julie Barrett and Larry Groebe teamed up to author the very first soap opera attempted on StarText (and maybe anywhere), titled “As the CRT Scrolls.” It would chronicle the romance and intrigue of two high tech companies in a mythical Silicon Valley town. The first installment would hit screens that December.