Monday, July 20, 2009

StarText, 1986: Prologue

It's 1986, and StarText is about to enter its fourth year.

The anxieties that came with our rocky and tenuous beginnings had by this time given way to a sense of normalcy and accomplishment.

I'm sure most of the Star-Telegram newsroom still looked at us at the "toy department," experimenting like mad scientists with loading content on computers. But we were used to that.

We had long since given up the converted closet space on the third floor to eventually take up residence in the Star-Telegram Annex. The Annex was at one point a Savings and Loan that butted up to the S-T's four-story building at the corner of Seventh and Taylor in downtown Fort Worth. The S-T bought it and joined the two buildings together.

As I recall, it wasn't a perfect fit. Seems like the fourth floor of the S-T led into the third floor of the Ssavings and Loan. Nonetheless, it was quite an upgrade from the closet.

As a matter of fact, our reception area was at one time the office of the S and L president. Mike Holland, a StarText editor, quipped that sitting at the president's old desk always brought on "an overwhelming urge to evict a widow."

Another unique feature of that office was a wall made from what we surmised to be imported South American bark. We hung a lighted StarText sign on it. Our offices were even equipped with a private shower. Like I said, for us it was moving to the New Media Taj Mahal.

On top of that, we started 1986 on an auspicious note: We crossed the 2,000-mark on subscriptions. Offically, we hit 2,000 on Jan. 8, 1986 and subscriber No. 2,000 was Frank L. Stewart, StarText ID 145546. Mr. Stewart was rewarded with three free months of StarText.

That meant on an annualized basis, StarText was now generating close to a quarter million dollars from subscriber revenue. While we might pick up an ad here and there, online advertising, particularly at the local level, was still a ways off. So we had to keep growing the subscriber base if we were going to pay the bills and keep expanding the business.

Nationally, powerful players in the media, communications and banking sectors continued to pour in tons of cash in the quest for the online Holy Grail. While it wasn't generating much revenue, it did spawn odd alliances, like AT&T and Knight-Ridder, who partnered on ViewTron, or Sears teaming with CBS and IBM to launch Prodigy.

While those players grabbed all the headlines, Star-Telegram Publisher Phil Meek was preparing to lift the "cone of silence" he had (in retrospect, wisely) imposed on StarText back when we were just getting started.

You may recall Meek's original three requirements to keep StarText going our first year: 1) There will be no press releases; 2) Don’t lose so much money anyone in New York notices and 3) Those associated with the project will never leave the Dallas-Fort Worth area to make a speech.

Some three-and-a-half years after we launched, Meek lifted the first edict and authorized our first-ever press release. It marked a momentous occasions and one I am sure Phil was just as proud of as we were. The headline said it all:

"StarText Achieves Profitability"

In a world where some of the biggest companies were bleeding red ink trying to strike it rich online, StarText became the first local service of its kind in the nation to make a profit.

Yes, our profit might look like a rounding error compared to the cash generated by the print Mothership. But for those of us who had invested so much in the dream and promise of what StarText represented, it was a sweet moment to be savored.

To be continued ...