A Brief History of Digital News

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The new online newspaper The Daily is launched at New York City's Guggenheim Museum.

Rupert Murdoch finally launched his much anticipated (at least in media circles) "iPad newspaper" today, making News Corp. the first company to create a daily news publication exclusively for a tablet. "The Daily" is essentially a streamlined app with some really sweet features: videos of journalists reading you the news; an interactive weather page; graphics that immediately come to life when you tap on them.

The new venture is a definite gamble for Murdoch, who claims to have invested $30 million into the project. And while it's still unclear how financially successful "The Daily" can be at 14 cents a day and 99 cents per week ($39.99 for a year's subscription), the entire project is, in a way, the culmination of a long history of attempts by media companies to crack the code of digital news distribution.

One of the earliest precursors to online news was a project launched by newspaper company Knight-Ridder in 1983. Dubbed Viewtron, it was one of the first systems designed to send electronic news directly to readers, giving customers access to stories before the paper hit their doorstep the next morning. But the costs were substantial, and it required a special keyboard and terminal. Though Viewtron gained a few thousand subscribers, it was too far ahead of the technology available at the time.

By 1988, Internet provider Prodigy was offering news updates straight to subscribers' home computers every time they signed on. But the real revolution came in the early- to mid-1990s with the advent of the World Wide Web. Some of the first pioneers to launch their own sites included CNN, The Chicago Tribune and surprisingly the News & Observer in Raleigh, N.C. Outlets that historically catered to a broad range of topics in print began focusing on more targeted subjects on the Web. "[The News & Observer's] Nando.net got to the party early, particularly for sports news," says Owen Youngman, Knight Professor of Digital Media Strategy at Northwestern University, who pointed out that for the first time sports fans were able to get all their scores that evening rather than having to wait for the morning paper.

As the Web began to grow, news sites with increasingly specific interests began to proliferate. "It was the nichefication of news on the Web," says Youngman. "Instead of going to The Chicago Tribune for all your news, or NBC for all your news, you had access to a wide variety of sources." That trend ran in parallel to another burgeoning field: news aggregation, where sites like The Drudge Report (which became popular in the late '90s when it broke the Monica Lewinsky story) gathered what they considered to be the best stories from numerous sources all in one place.

By the turn of the century, more families subscribed to Internet services than to actual newspapers, one factor in the rapid decline in advertising and circulation dollars that continues today. But as the fortunes of the newspaper industry fell, those of online news services skyrocketed — millions who had Yahoo! as their home page had immediate access to stories every time they logged on, and Google News became the first news portal to organize articles. A few years later, mobile devices like the iPhone not only changed how and where people read the news but how they interacted with it, making it easy for almost anyone to become a journalist by being able to quickly take photos and video.

That sense of instant interaction, which had started decades before with online message boards, grew rapidly alongside the popularity of social media services like Facebook and Twitter. Both have allowed news organizations to get immediate feedback on stories and let readers share news with others instantly. With its launch, News Corp. is betting that the iPad is the next great news platform, and that "The Daily" is more Google News than videotex.