Tuesday, July 28, 2009
(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.
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.
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.”
Posted by G Bark at 9:25 AM