The Most Interactive Site in the West

By: Steve Outing

The Fort Worth Star-Telegram is an old hand in the online services game. While most newspapers date their involvement back to the early or mid 1990s, this Texas daily launched a bulletin board system (BBS) in 1982 -- and operated it profitably through the 1980s. Back when it was a pioneer, the S-T believed that interactivity was what drives the online medium. Today, interactivity still is the driving force for the S-T's online ventures.

The newspaper's StarText service is (of course) a Web site today, having abandoned the BBS. Its emphasis on encouraging users to interact with each other and with the staff sets it apart from most other newspaper Web services.

If you're looking for techniques to get your audience more involved with your Web site, look to StarText for ideas. The home base for StarText's interactive features is the InterAct page. From here you'll find a number of interesting things:

* A list of about 200 local-interest newsgroups (discussion forums) created by StarText members. According to manager for interactive content Gerry Barker (who, incidentally, is a 15-year veteran of StarText), these groups have generated more than 60,000 messages in the last year. All the newsgroups together account for about 1,000 messages a week. Barker believes StarText is the most active discussion venue of any local-oriented service.

One of the newsgroups deals with the John F. Kennedy assassination, and has become the central site for JFK researchers to hold online discussions. Barker says that many of the people who are "serious" researchers on this topic have gravitated to the StarText newsgroup, since the general Usenet newsgroup on the assassination contains "too much garbage." StarText's forum has a more serious tone, so JFK watchers from around the world have joined in.

* "Brisbee, Texas." This is an area of the StarText newsgroups where users have created their own imaginary Texas town. Barker describes it as an "adult playground," where users concoct a persona and join this virtual community. People stake a claim in the town: they run the Brisbee newspaper and coffee shop, one set up a grape jelly business, and another patrols the streets at night and tells everyone it's time for lights out. One woman created a treasure hunt that everyone else participated in. Others put on a "Brisbeestock" rock concert and Janis Joplin attended. Residents of Brisbee are a creative bunch.

Members also upload photos and sound files, and contribute artwork to the Brisbee Art Gallery. Brisbee denizens even get together in person, sometimes at a "resident's" house. Since many of them have digital cameras, they upload photos of these "town meetings." "It's an enormous amount of fun," says Barker, and Brisbee has become one of the most frequented interactive features of StarText.

(Star-Telegram writer Art Chapman has written a profile of Brisbee. Check it out to learn more.)

* Reader columnists. These volunteer writers have long been a feature of StarText. When the service started back in the 1980s, StarText staff discovered that a lot of people who fancied themselves as writers were attracted to the online service as an outlet for their creative urges.

* Daily polls of StarText users, asking such questions as "Should the NFL bring back instant replay?" and "Was publishing the McVeigh 'confession' in the newspaper wrong?" There's a different question posted every day, and after submitting your opinion you can look at the results of the current poll a well as previous ones. Results of the poll are printed each day in the newspaper, as is the question of the day. To participate in the poll, newspaper print readers are encouraged to go online and fill out the survey, or use the newspaper's audiotex system. Only online users can submit written comments along with the poll, some of which are published in a Sunday op-ed piece written by Barker.

* Web sites for nearly 200 Fort Worth area non-profit groups, hosted gratis by StarText. These range from tiny community groups to major city museums, and StarText has not put a limit on how much disk space an organization can use. "Storage is cheap," says Barker, and StarText has gotten a tremendous amount of good PR throughout the community because of the practice. When the area played host to the Texas State Fair, StarText hosted the fair site without charge.

* StarText continues to host monthly in-person get-togethers for local users, which might be a bring-your-own-food picnic, a visit to a local museum or gathering at a favorite restaurant. These events are well attended.

* A photo gallery invites users to upload pictures of their vacations, beloved pets, etc. For users who don't have digital cameras or scanners, Barker will scan in photos sent in via postal mail, at no charge.

* Local schools have Web art galleries on StarText's Web site, which has proved to be a very popular feature among kids.

* And some of the Star-Telegram's reporters and editors are starting to get the hang of online interactivity. Dave Lieber, a columnist for the S-T's Northeast edition, has established his own forum on StarText, where he entertains readers' questions online and solicits news tips. Lieber typically takes along his dog, Sadie, on public appearances, so he created a "Sadie's Back Yard" forum. Other dogs send messages to Sadie. He also created what may be the first newsgroup for a fetus -- "Austin's Cradle" -- for his yet unborn son, who will be named Austin.

The StarText service, like many other newspaper Web sites, is not profitable today. When StarText shut down its BBS, it stopped receiving user subscription income. Barker says the service is in a period of building for the long term, but he thinks that the interactive features of the site will help reach the goal of creating a profitable online business by bringing substantial repeat traffic, and allowing the site to better serve advertisers. The site currently gets about 300,000 hits a day. (It does not convert this figure into unique visitors.)

Contact: Gerry Barker,

Pay by the day, pay by the view

As online transactions become more of a reality, Web publishers are beginning to announce plans to charge for individual pieces of content or for short-term subscriptions. Playboy is reported to be teaming with CyberCash to allow Playboy Web site visitors to pay small amounts to view individual pieces of content. It may also allow visitors to purchase a "day pass," rather than have to take out a monthly subscription to see content that Playboy places "behind the curtain." (Some Playboy site content is free to anyone and will remain so.) ESPNet SportsZone also is reported to be gearing up to introduce CyberCash transactions and day passes.

As robust microtransaction schemes hit the market, Web publishers need to start thinking about alternative pricing strategies. Such systems are likely to cause some publishers to reconsider what they give away free. While a Web site visitor might balk at paying a monthly subscription fee to access a desired piece of information on a site, my guess is that many might pay a few cents or pay $1 for a day pass. Expect to see some shifting business models by publishers as 1997 progresses.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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