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The Original Dot Com Inauguration

The state of digital journalism (not to mention the nation) has changed so much


Twenty years ago today was the Inauguration Day for President Bill Clinton’s second term and the first time The Washington Post covered a Presidential Inauguration in real time for the online audience. As a producer/editor on the “dot com” team (what were called by Post print journalists back then), I got to be a part of that historical moment.

My editor, Retha, and I were tasked with the very special assignment of reporting from the Inaugural Balls. I pulled a dusty bridesmaid’s dress from my closet for a rare second wearing and brought plenty of quarters along to the Washington Convention Center. After all, it was 1997. We didn’t have cell phones and we didn’t have wi-fi. So in order to make it look as though we were publishing live updates blog-style, but many years before blogs were invented, we had to use pay phones to call a copy editor in the newsroom to type in our reports.

Although our pieces were pretty snarky, the gig was unforgettably glamorous for a young journalist. I still remember how Retha tried to talk Evander Holyfield’s limo driver into dropping us off at the end of the night, a fact that didn’t make the package of stories, probably because we’d run out of quarters.

In today’s age of the ubiquitous selfie, it seems impossible that we have no photos from the night. Though considering late ’90s fashion norms and my quasi-Rachel-from-Friends haircut, maybe that’s for the best.

Looking at the old pages our team put together for Inauguration 1997 reminded me just how text-heavy our work was. Although people (not me at the time) owned digital cameras, we still had to upload the images directly to a computer before using them. But the lack of visuals on the site had far more to do with the fact that the majority of our audience used dial-up to reach our content at the time. Photos took forever to download in the AOL and Netscape age of web browsing.

So Much Change

So much changed between that Presidential Inauguration night and the next one. Not to mention between then and the next 20 years.

Looking back always makes me look within and think about what I've learned over the years.

The Post embraced live, continuous news and Washingtonpost.com became, I believe, the best news site in the world for digital coverage of the 2000 Presidential election, which ended in a tie between George W. Bush and Al Gore and triggered a complicated recount in Florida. Ultimately, of course, the election went to Bush through a controversial and split U.S. Supreme Court decision; digital journalists covered the election updates constantly and thoroughly. The country needed digital journalists to step up during that time and especially, many months later after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. (I was long gone by that time, though — back in the Midwest, watching the dot-com bubble burst while going to grad school.)

Print and digital reporters were finally working together to tell stories in 2000. In 1997, by contrast, the print edition of the Post sent its own reporters to cover the Inauguration and Inaugural Balls and ran the stories in the next morning’s edition. Although laughable now, The Post — like many newspapers then — still worried about scooping itself by posting a story online before it ran in print in those years.

Since that time, cell phones and digital cameras have become de rigueur reporting tools for journalists. The idea that a reporter would not live-tweet from a breaking news scene because he or she wanted to save the story for print is fairly unthinkable. Audiences now demand constantly updated, multimedia storytelling that they can comment on and share immediately. This ball night, I fully expect to see photos and video of Melania and Ivanka’s gowns on social media the second the women step out of their limos.

Two Decades of Wisdom and Innovation

I won’t be flying to D.C. to cover anything Inaugural for Next Avenue and Twin Cities PBS, but I do look forward to seeing what The Post has in store for this year’s coverage. I’ll also inevitably reminisce about that ’97 Inauguration — maybe tagging Retha and other former colleagues in a Facebook post to remind them how long ago it was and how so much has changed. That goes for both the people we were 20 years and four presidents ago as much as the work we did in those early days of digital journalism.

As bland and basic as those early pages look to me now, I’d love to recapture some of the fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants, DIY spirit we had back in those early dot com news days. We really went for it and were free to do so in part because traditional print journalism wasn’t quite sure what to make of its online counterparts (around that time, a friend on the print side of the Post told me that since the web was a fad, I should consider returning to traditional media). We could cover the Inauguration however we liked. Our audience was fairly small then, but they were enthusiastic early tech adopters who were excited to have access (then free) to The Post in an interactive new medium.

Looking back always makes me look within and think about what I’ve learned over the years. I’m a digital journalist again. I’m grateful for the technology upgrades and multimedia thinking our field has gained since then, but can’t help thinking that those of us who’ve been working in digital journalism for the past two decades need to lean not only on technical learnings but also on the wisdom we’ve gained from our work online. We now know more about what our audiences expect and enjoy reading than ever before. We have more access to digital documents and data. We are able to explain history as it quickly unfolds. We can use photos and video but also animation and virtual reality to really tell the story.

We’ve now reached another critical historical moment in time as it relates to serving our digital audience (which is now most of the news audience). Although the technological advancement in storytelling is wonderful, I have a feeling that we’ll need that hard-earned wisdom more than ever.

By Shayla Stern
Shayla leads the editorial team and content strategy as the Director of Editorial and Content for Next Avenue at Twin Cities PBS. She has spent a career in digital media journalism and digital strategy at organizations including washingtonpost.comEdmunds.comCars.com and Fast Horse, and worked as a consultant for several years. She also was a media professor at the University of Minnesota and DePaul University and  has a Ph.D. in Mass Communication. She can be reached at [email protected].@shayla_stern

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