Columbian celebrates its 20th year online



TIMELINE: Take a trip down memory lane with us and look at a timeline showing some highlights from The Columbian's Web history as well as some key moments in Internet lore.

QUIZ: Take our short quiz to test your knowledge of the past 20 years of Clark County history.

Ken Bilderback, former New Media manager for The Columbian.

TIMELINE: Take a trip down memory lane with us and look at a timeline showing some highlights from The Columbian’s Web history as well as some key moments in Internet lore.

QUIZ: Take our short quiz to test your knowledge of the past 20 years of Clark County history.

Twenty years.

That’s how old turns today, surviving two decades of turmoil as the Internet has completely upended the news industry’s business model.

“I now think of our company as two businesses,” said The Columbian’s publisher, Scott Campbell.

There’s the mature print business that’s the “primary economic force in our company,” Campbell said. Then there’s the growing digital business that “has all the attributes of a business startup.”

In the past two decades, new sources of news and information have sprung up online, while classified ads have shifted to Craigslist, Monster and many other sites catering to specific niches such as autos and real estate.

You can search for just about anything. “Google” has become a verb. Many of us, especially people younger than 30, spend more time each day on social media than they do reading a newspaper — if they read a paper at all.

Even the way we access news online has rapidly changed with the advent of smartphones and tablets.

“We are not too far from Dick Tracy’s watch, but the surprise is the scope of how much of our lives we can now do using the technology,” Campbell said.

The early days

In 1994, Campbell and many others in the newspaper business had no idea the Web would completely transform the industry. At that time, much of the attention was focused on such services as CompuServe, Prodigy and, of course, America Online.

Still, Campbell and The Columbian’s former New Media manager, Ken Bilderback, knew enough to pull the trigger on registering as an Internet domain name. Columbian employees began building a fledgling site heavy on text but light on news.

They had to learn new technology, including how to write programming code. Bilderback hired a high-schooler named Shawn Welter to help get things rolling, but then he and graphic designers Molly Lee and Jeff Warhol took over.

“We all coded, we all wrote content, we all did promotion, graphics, even sales. In short, we all did whatever it took to make the site work,” Bilderback wrote in a recent email interview.

With users relying on slow dial-up connections, the site had to be designed differently, without slow-loading graphics and multimedia.

“I would spend hours shaving off kilobytes of info off of my graphics, slicing larger graphics into pieces so that I could export the lesser important chunks at a lower image quality,” Lee said.

Getting news on the site proved to be a challenge. There was no system for staff to directly write and publish their stories, and retrieving the stories from print was tedious.

Bilderback also remembers meeting resistance to the idea of posting news online before it had appeared in print. For years, the news that ran in print was first archived, then pushed online as the papers hit people’s doorsteps.

Lacking breaking news, Bilderback and his team recruited local columnists to build audience, including the Slob Sisters. Pam Young and Peggy Jones were Vancouver sisters who became wildly popular for their advice on getting organized and keeping a clean, well-run home amid the chaos of kids and life. The two occasionally appeared on television.

“They were very good at promoting the site,” Bilderback said, “so good, in fact, that I had to sit next to the Web server any time they were on TV because it would crash repeatedly because of the traffic they created.

“Keep in mind, however, that the server would crash any time there were more than about eight or nine simultaneous users,” Bilderback added.

The servers eventually became more robust, and more content was added, including an Associated Press wire feed, several contests and features such as “Picture Yourself” in which the public shared their own photos.

The industry shifts

Soon consumers traded slow modems for fast broadband. Internet use grew exponentially. A majority began getting at least some news online. Soon the news industry began to shift its focus to publishing on the Web.

In 2007, under the direction of then-New Media manager Staci Tucker, The Columbian built its first system to publish live news online. Reporters and editors began posting breaking news directly to the Web, though New Media still published the bulk of the content.

In 2008, “We reorganized then to minimize the isolation of a ‘New Media department’ and to infuse the operations of the digital culture across all departments,” Campbell said.

Today both the news and advertising departments have direct responsibility for site content.

Meanwhile the site has been through several systems changes and three redesigns, adding blogs and other content while becoming more visual with bigger photos, graphics and video. Design changes were made to better display content on smartphones and tablets. Rising mobile traffic led to the company’s launching of apps for iPhone and Android devices.

The reader forums once policed by New Media were replaced with story comments, at first using our own system and now with Facebook. The switch to Facebook greatly reduced the incidence of obnoxious or profane comments that often were left anonymously.

More than 500,000 people each month now visit, compared with 15,000 or so a decade ago. The Society of Professional Journalists recently awarded the Best Site Design in a five-state regional contest among newspapers, broadcast media and online news sites.

Yet, like at most papers, digital revenue still pales in comparison to print. That led to a recent implementation of a metered digital subscription patterned after that of The New York Times and hundreds of other papers across the nation. Readers may access 20 articles for free every 30 days before being asked to pay.

It’s still too early to tell whether online subscriptions will provide enough money to fund news-gathering operations like The Columbian’s. Considering the rapid changes in technology, it’s not clear how most of us will even get our news in the next 20 years.

“Many fortunetellers have been wrong over the last 20 years about how this is all going to turn out, but I tend to believe that the future is becoming a little clearer now,” Campbell said.

“We are a multi-platform business. I do not see print as going away in the near future,” he said, but providing digital news for readers is crucial. Developing a way to pay for that digital news is necessary, and creating marketing solutions for local businesses will play an important role in that.

“We have to be ready to provide news where our customers want to consume it,” Campbell said, “and increasingly the answer is ‘everywhere!’ “