Oldest Newspaper BBS Makes Transition to the Web

By: Steve Outing

Launched in 1982, the Fort Worth Star-Telegram’s StarText BBS is the oldest operating newspaper online service. It remains a basic dial-up BBS with a primarily text-based interface — a vanishing breed among newspaper interactive services. But by this fall, this Texas BBS will have made the transition to a World Wide Web service. (The paper has a prelimary page on the Web now.)

“We have been limited for 13 years by technology, but we are changing that and the limitations are less,” says Paul Harral, news director for StarText, in announcing the move away from a stand-alone BBS and to the Web.

The impending change should come as no surprise. The newspaper industry is moving en masse to the Web; about three-quarters of the more than 330 newspaper online services worldwide are Web-based. Fewer than 40 are BBS systems, with most of those in the U.S.

Harral attributed the sea change at StarText to the general industry movement toward the Internet. But another major factor was an erosion of its customer base due to competition from graphically rich national online services like America Online and Prodigy. StarText today has about 3,500 paying subscribers, compared to more than 4,000 in late 1994. (Current rates are $9.95 per month for unlimited hours, or $14.95 for the “Business Edition.”)

“We’re holding the older, established subscribers,” Harral says, but new subscribers are not sticking around — presumably heading for the greener pastures of the Web or major online services. StarText managers decided that the Web offered more promise than adding graphics capability to the BBS infrastructure.

The essence of StarText will remain

StarText is a different animal from many newspaper online services. Interactivity is at its core, and StarText is an intensely local online experience — unlike newspaper services like the San Jose Mercury News’ Mercury Center or Raleigh News & Observer’s NandO, which attract visitors from around the U.S. and world.

In addition to the many discussion forums on StarText, subscribers are encouraged to submit their own content. Participation of “reader columnists” is an important part of the StarText philosophy. If a subscriber wants to write a regular online column, he/she only has to get the idea approved by StarText. Volunteer columnists’ copy is checked by the staff for obvious problems of libel or obscenity before being posted online, but otherwise editing is kept to a minimum.

Building for future, but keeping old-timers happy

The challenge now facing StarText’s managers is to make the transition to the Web while maintaining what is best about the system. “What we hope will emerge is a greater version of StarText — with an extensive news component — but with heavy subscriber participation and input,” says Harral.

The greatest challenge will be to keep the core group of long-time ST subscribers happy. While final details of the Web transition have not been decided yet, the likely outcome will be that the new (Web) and old (BBS) systems will run parallel for a while, with the anticipation that the Web site will take ultimate precedence.

StarText still has many subscribers who have been on the service since the beginning; some of them were integral (volunteer) partners in designing the StarText that you see today. There also is a sizable group of existing subscribers who do not have the capability to access the World Wide Web, in many cases because they are using archaic computers. The new system will allow them to continue using StarText, but without the graphics capability of the Web service. “If we don’t treat those people right, we lose our soul,” Harral says.

Pricing of the revamped StarText has not been set, but likely will be a tiered system where you can buy just access to StarText content (as subscribers do today), or purchase Internet access services plus the online newspaper.

Paul Harral can be reached at harral@onramp.net. Dial-up numbers for the StarText BBS are 817-878-9800 and 214-638-4150.

Steve

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If you have a newsworthy item about the newspaper new media business, please send me a note at outings@netcom.com.

This column is written by Steve Outing and underwritten by Editor & Publisher magazine. Tips, letters and feedback can be sent to Steve at outings@netcom.com

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