The Online Year That Was Not

By: Wayne Robins

We knew that 2002 couldn’t have possibly been worse for the online newspaper business than the year before, and we were right: 2002 was no 1999 — but, then again, 1999 was no palindrome. Some of the highlights of 2002, which many of you will (eventually) recall.

January: Belo invests heavily in :CueDog, a device that not only reads bar codes but also barks.

February: The U.S. Olympic Committee (USOC/NBC) lays down strict rules for online coverage of the Winter Games in Salt Lake City. Online journalists receive credentials, as long as they observe the events from Nebraska. Games collapse in controversy, as lack of snow in Utah means contests limited to the six events in official licensee Eidos Interactive’s Salt Lake 2002 video game.

March: Banner ads disappear entirely from news Web sites. Elimination mourned by dozens.

April: Trying to build interest among younger readers, Tribune Co.’s Web sites begin “leaking” downloads of each day’s newspaper to file-exchange entities such as Gnutella and LimeWire and consider buying a minority interest in Napster.

May: Man taken to Manhattan psychiatric hospital after being detained in Bryant Park screaming, “The New York Times has placed implants in my cerebral cortex, and I can’t stop the Bloomingdale’s ads from scrolling across my eyeballs!” First thought to be mentally impaired, man is released when his story turns out to be true. The Times regrets the error, saying, “Maybe we took the e-commerce initiative a little too far this time.”

June: Not to be outdone by CanWest’s “one-size-fits-all” editorial philosophy, Gannett Co. Inc. decides that its papers, too, will share a single editorial voice. Extending USA Today‘s opinion practice, Gannett papers will simply headline an issue, such as “Military Tribunals,” and then flash thumbs-up or thumbs-down. Web users will get their choice of “thumb” icons licensed from the movie Spy Kids.

July: Matt Drudge once again stirs controversy, claiming on his Web site exclusive knowledge of whereabouts of Vice President Dick Cheney. Mainstream news organizations find the claim so outlandish, they ignore it.

August: Nostalgia for banner ads overwhelms Web journalism, with a new site, DeadBanner.com, a virtual museum of obsolete banner ads, now more popular than Yahoo!

September: AOL Time Warner Inc. buys Knight Ridder, which had just bought Journal Register Co. Newsrooms erupt in celebration, but joy proves premature, as reporters are replaced by “About.com” and “Ask Jeeves” experts, and Web-based newspapers become available only with America Online subscriptions.

October: New York Yankees face Boston Red Sox in the American League Championship Series. The New York Times Co., part-owner of the BoSox, declares neutrality, but begins hawking Sox memorabilia via The New York Times on the Web.

November: IPO for DeadBanner.com raises $230 billion, as share price surges to $275 from $1.25 in a frenzied afternoon.

December: Kurt Andersen launches ClassicInside.com. Offers free :CueDogs to subscribers willing to pay for recycled media gossip they might have forgotten.

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