Online Newspaper

He’ll be almost 40 now; he was 16 in 1994 when he attended St John’s School in Marlborough. Perhaps not the first person to troll someone on social media, but certainly the first to have his trolling documented and analysed. A chatroom, created in a virtual space somewhere between the secondary school in Wiltshire and Grundschule Bookholzberg in Ganderkesee, was an obvious fit with the online newspaper trial. These 16-year-olds, with their boundless enthusiasm and a near extinctive feel for computer technology, were the demographic that would drive the growth of online services during the coming decade. Even so, they hardly got a mention at the meeting, a year earlier, when the idea of building an online local newspaper was first discussed.

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Westminster Press, a division of the Pearson Group, invited us to an in-house seminar on digital media. The 1980s had been a lucrative decade for local newspaper publishers. The recession may have destroyed some of their larger advertisers, but the Thatcher era saw the creation of hundreds of small businesses to take their place. These companies tended to advertise locally and lacked the muscle to drive down the price of display advertising. There was competition; community magazines, for long the only reason reprographic equipment companies still sold stencil machines, had discovered desktop publishing and some were selling advertising space. Local television offered fractions of minutes to larger SMEs for the cost of a newspaper advertisement. However, the coverage of community magazines was limited and patchy and producing a television advertisement was prohibitively expensive. Yet, the future wasn’t bright for insular, analogue local newspapers in a world that was becoming increasingly digital and connected.

Newspapers were already using interactive services; mostly white-labelled chat lines – either prank calls or adult entertainment. No doubt, numerous middle-aged men are blissfully unaware that their first virtual sexual encounter was with a 60-year-old woman moaning just loud enough to drown out the sound of knitting needles. Some publishers decided to forego revenue from chat lines, which they regarded as a part of the sex industry. Most weren’t so principled. One speaker at the seminar suggested turning the letters page of newspapers into online bulletin boards, like those on Compuserve and America On Line (AOL). Amazing in retrospect, that this was merely a throwaway idea as the session on interactive services was brought to a close.

Following the seminar, at which we made a short presentation, Westminster Press asked Digithurst to take one of their local titles online. There were plenty of titles to choose from, covering the length and breadth of Britain. They also put together their own project team to work in our office in Royston …

... (An extract from The Ghost in the Labyrinth by Peter Kruger)

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