The first newspaper published online is not what you think. It began with the smallest of steps, when a group of students chose to experiment with the web.
If I asked you to guess, what do you think the first newspaper with a website was? I bet you’re thinking something like The New York Times or the Washington Post, right? Or maybe you’ve been following this newsletter for a while, so you happen know that The Wall Street Journal had a pretty early web presence. What if I told you that it’s none of the above? In fact, it’s a newspaper I’d estimate that you would never get around to guessing. According to all records we have, the very first newspaper with a website was the student-run newspaper at MIT, The Tech.
Like much of the press that moved online during the early days of the web, The Tech’s origin stretches quite a bit further than the information age. Its first issue was published on November 16, 1881 when a handful students at MIT decided that what the campus needed was a new and fresh voice, a newspaper run by students and financed independently. Since then, the newspaper has been publishing new issues every week for the last 138 years, making it MIT’s longest running newspaper by a fairly large margin. It’s never taken a dime from MIT, funded instead through independent advertising.
The tone of it’s first issues was a bit off the cuff, meant to buck the stodgy administration of their parent university. Over the years, however, it’s become a bit more buttoned up while still maintaining some of the edginess of its origin. Linguist Noam Chomsky, Arthur D. Little, and a former president of MIT number among its former writers and editors. It has also been a paper of some acclaim, winning awards, expanding its circulation and, on occasion, breaking a story before the mainstream press.
Given that the paper is run by students from MIT, staying ahead of the curve with technological developments has never been much of an issue (it’s name is no coincidence it would seem). In one of the paper’s earliest forays into the telecommunication world in 1963, one of its writers was the first to use the word “hacker” in its conventional sense, to describe a machine tinkerer with nefarious or subversive intent. When computers hit the mainstream, the word stuck.
By the time the Internet went wide, The Tech had its fair share of hackers. Much of the Internet and early web were built by these on-campus tinkerers who pushed the technology forward for no other reason than because they could. In the early 1990’s, some of the the staff at The Tech partnered with Apple Computer to begin digitizing their entire backlog of issues in PDF format. As they imported the old issues, they used OCR technology to scan the text and extract it into a large, searchable database. Then, with a few hacky scripts, they wired up the database to a Wide Area Information Server (WAIS), a knowledge sharing application being developed by MIT alum Brewster Kahle. The project’s purpose was to make it as easy as possible for reporters and researchers to dig through the archives of one of the longest running campus newspapers in America.
In 1993, the programmers at The Tech discovered the World Wide Web. They found its format appealing and easier to distribute. They got curious. So they wrote a script that converted their print layouts, which were being laid out on the computer with Quarkxpress, to HTML and chucked them up on a web server. They went as far back as they could converting these Quarkxpress digital files. When they got to the issues before they had transitioned to laying things out on a computer, they started manually adding issues to the website. And each time a new issue came out, it got a new page on the site.
There had been some experiments by newspapers with digital content before. It seems like every day in the late ’80’s and early 90’s, major publications were signing on for big money syndication deals with closed networks like CompuServe and AOL. The distribution, though based in bytes rather than in print, still felt familiar on these networks. It was a tight loop of paid access to content by subscribers. The web was something completely different, decentralized as a matter of course, and therefore difficult to rein in. In other words, publishers didn’t trust the web.
Besides some major outliers like SFGate, which was among the earliest publications to post their content online, most of the experiments by newspapers on the early web were an attempt to wrest back some control. The Wall Street Journal and the San Jose Mercury News, both of which launched their websites in 1996, did so behind a paywall. It would be years before blogs and digital-first publications like Salon and Slate would force media to increasingly move their content to the web.
Of course, even when newspapers did start making websites, they wouldn’t look anything like the-tech.mit.edu. The Tech chose a layout that was mostly beholden to the times. It was 1993 so there weren’t many design possibilities beyond a logo. Still, they managed to add a few stylized headings with images and organized their content neatly on separate webpages all hyperlinked together. Links to the most recent issues published to the site, as well as a search engine built specifically for querying the newspaper’s archives. At the very bottom of the page, though, there were a couple of links that didn’t quite fit.
One link, labeled “About This Server” took you to a charming little page with an actual image of the server as it existed on a desk at MIT, the story behind that very server, and a list of all of the technical “gory details” [sic]. But this wasn’t even the strangest link on The Tech’s homepage. Underneath, there was a link to the digitized works of William Shakespeare, rendered entirely in HTML format. Also, there was a weather forecast website, and a digital museum dedicated entirely to the New York Subway.
That tie that binds for these seemingly random hyperlinks was the archive of The Tech themselves. Each one was a side project of one of the student “hackers,” different adventures in their experimentations for the web. They didn’t know what else to do with these webpage explorations, so they tossed them up on the only server they had access to.
And in blending a bit of fun and whim in with an ambitious and prototypal project, the staff at The Tech in the early 90’s were able to recapture the spirit and intent of their founders. Like the very first writers and editors of the newspaper, they didn’t mind being a bit offbeat and experimenting with the format of the newspaper with their HTMLifaction of each issue and their casual hyperlink drop-ins. But at the same time, they understood that their project had a purpose, to serve the needs of a larger research and journalistic community and provide for them access to over a hundred years of history in a single place. Not too bad for a student newspaper.