CJR has been accused of crankiness for our early critique of Rupert Murdoch’s new iPad newspaper, The Daily. The Poynter Institute’s Damon Kiesow characterized our commentary as a dismissal of the new medium, similar to early complaints about the colorful, non-traditional USA Today in the 1980s. But while we felt unsatisfied by the actual content of The Daily—it felt thin, stale and outdated in proportion to the publication’s impressive staff hires—the fact remains that, with The Daily, News Corp. has set the bar for all future tablet publications. Whether that bar has been set high enough is the subject of several other posts. Even if only for the large amount of money and publicity surrounding this project, it is an important step in establishing iPad users’ expectations for what a news app should look like.
But it’s only a first step. If the trajectory of the Web has taught us anything, it’s that technology will change so quickly that we have no idea what tablet publishing will look like (and sound like, and feel like) in a year, or five, or ten. Fifteen years is not a long time in the history of man, but it’s light years in the history of publishing and reading. When Salon and Slate launched in 1995 and 1996, respectively, the Internet was so wide open and undefined that the right language didn’t even exist to talk about it yet. (Note: I spoke with some of the people involved in the first days of Slate and Salon and asked them to reminisce about the state of publishing at that time. The Daily was not a focus of those conversations, and so all conclusions and connections drawn are my own.)
When Salon launched its first issue in November 1995, there was no real model to look at and say “this is what a news website should be.” Co-founder Laura Miller says she remembers online entities Feed and Word, neither of which exist anymore. For the Salon writers and editors, the only model, obviously, was print. Miller remembers bringing a yellow legal pad and pen to that first editorial meeting and trying to block out a design for the website. “I still have all those weird little sketches with boxes and arrows from when we were trying to figure out what we were doing,” she says.
Here’s a screen shot of the inaugural issue, which you can still read, here:
The first issue was simple, by design: readers new to Salon were often new to the web, as well. It made sense to re-create the look of a print magazine so readers wouldn’t be disoriented. Early issues included a “How to Use Salon” tutorial page, which introduced readers to the navigation bar, up and down arrows, and audio/visual features:
Certain web-friendly features took hold in time, the early zygotes of what are now established online conventions. Salon’s “Table Talk” section, for instance, was a community-building effort that linked from articles to discussion forums, before there were comment sections.
Salon’s publishing schedule, too, initially reflected a print one; a whole new issue would appear every week, complete with cover art. That rigidity, of course, did not last. As Scott Rosenberg, another Salon co-founder, writes in an e-mail: “The single biggest mental shift we had to make—and it became obvious almost instantaneously—was to move from the ‘issue’ model of print to the ‘wheneverly’ periodicity of the Web. It took us forever—at least five years—to achieve what we called, in those days, ‘continuous publishing.’”
“Every single thing that is taken for granted about web publication, we had to learn as we went along,” says Miller.
Michael Kinsley, now an opinion columnist for Politico, launched the first issue of Slate in 1996, and he laughs when he remembers how new and strange everything felt at the time. “I thought—and this shows either how early it was, or how out of it I was—I thought the idea would be that we would put together a magazine, approximately the size of The New Republic, and once a week, people would go there and print it out,” he says. “I may have gotten as far as thinking that we would send them an e-mail with a link in it, to print it out, but you know, it took a few weeks on the job for me to see that that was not the point.”
While the well-established conventions of print publication didn’t really apply, new conventions for the web had not yet been established, either. Everything was up for debate, even the page orientation. Would a reader, being used to reading left to right, object to moving a page up and down? Where do the page numbers go? The pull quotes? How long should a page be before you had to click?