Editor’s note: The author of this story was a Juneau Empire reporter when juneauempire.com made its debut in 1996, and an editor and webmaster involved with its content during the subsequent early years. This look at the newspaper’s online history is based on his recollections and interviews with other employees who helped provide content from the website’s first days. The originally published story has been updated with observations from additional sources.
This story would be free to read if published when the Juneau Empire’s website debuted in 1996, but it would probably take at least three minutes to load.
There’s no chance you’d be reading it on your phone since people were still using their (landline) phones to connect to the internet at a speed roughly 7,000 times slower than 4G. The pictures also probably wouldn’t be nearly as pretty, since on a two-year-old consumer computer they’d be limited to 256 colors — and the 2,500-pixel-wide picture above would be nearly four times the width of a typical computer screen at the time.
The picture was different in a lot of ways when juneauempire.com first went live, most notably that local residents didn’t need the ’net for news since the print issue was reaching an industry-envied 80% of households at the time. For that reason, then-published Jonathan Winters decided at the start the Empire should be among the relatively few papers — the others being publications such as the Wall Street Journal — limiting content to paid subscribers.
“That’s a monster circulation,” said Suzanne Downing, the Empire’s managing editor at the time, who said she agreed with the pay model. “Giving it away for free you’re going to lose your print circulation.”
Not that users were greeted with an abundance of content during those first free days. The website on Dec. 26, 1996, which included a prominent reminder free access was ending in six days, featured six stories on the homepage, one of which was a non-local headline about the Yugoslav Wars. The lone picture was a thumbnail-size image of a full moon over the Chilkat Mountains. The layout was ragged with text boxes leaking into and beyond border areas.
On the plus side, for readers now used to pop-up and virus blockers in their browsers, there were only two minuscule ads in a column on the left side of the page that also prominently featured a “Dilbert” image link to the now-banished cartoon strip that was in its heyday at the time.
The switch to a paid model occurred on Jan. 1, 1997, although it wouldn’t be seamless during the early years as technical snafus were worked out and different companies were hired to host content. A snapshot of juneauempire.com from Feb. 27, 1997, for instance, is essentially a template for the flagship paper of Morris Communications, the company that owned the Empire at the time.
For that reason, people visiting the old versions of the website at The Wayback Machine — the only known public archive of the site since its debut, and only for limited snapshot” dates — will notice pictures are often missing, and links to many stories and other content don’t work.
“It used to be in the early years you could Google anything and you could find anything we had in our photo files,” said Michael Penn, who started as a staff photographer the year before the Empire’s website debuted. “In fact, it was the best way to find our photos.”
Some of the missing content might not be all that missed since modern-day readers will discover a lot of the headlines are the same (“Differences remain between governor’s and legislators’ budget proposals”). But landmark events such as 9/11 (when Juneau Empire intern Genevieve Gagne-Hawes provided same-day coverage while visiting New York City) and the first year Juneau saw more than a million cruise ship passengers in 2007 now exist only as headlines in the state library’s digital archive, and in microfilm and yellowing hard copies in libraries.
The Empire’s current website provides content dating back to 2015 with some gaps and consistency greatly improving after 2018 — the same year current owners Sound Publishing acquired the paper. Searchable e-editions of the print edition date back to 2013.
Changes to the concept and content of Empire’s website “were basically small refinements” during its first few years, said Downing, who departed as managing editor in 2000. But while most of the work on the site was done by three employees — a designer and two web specialists whose skills included coding in HTML and other languages, since corporate-level tools were years away from maturity — she said decisions about the site’s content and attracting readers developed into a considerable portion of her workweek.
Among the many experiments toward the end of her era was launching the more commercial-oriented juneaualaska.com, described as “the ultimate interactive visitor guide and online community resource.” That description, however, was part of a nearly empty juneauempire.com splash screen whose only other clickable content was a single text line reading “the comprehensive news source for Alaska’s capital city,” which took you to the “real” homepage of the era at juneauempire.com/frontpage.htm.
For many other newsroom employees there wasn’t as big an impact, aside from adjusting to a new Macintosh-based network that became the foundation for both the print and online issues (and suffered from plenty of early glitches). Print issues during those first years were still in the literal “paste-up” stage where stories and photos were printed on paper that then went through a waxer so they would stick to the larger stiff-paper paper sheets that represented each page of the newspaper.
For reporters that simply meant they might publish an initial website story with further updates before the print deadline, a practice that has continued to this day. For the two photographers, including Penn, there wasn’t a huge change in their also archaic process, which involved taking film shot to the now-shuttered Front Street Photo to be developed (in a rush under a special contract) and then bringing the negatives back to scan them into a newsroom computer.
As for getting photos on the website, “that was all somebody else,” Penn said.
The two photographers shooting with digital cameras in 2002, with the Empire paying $5,000 apiece for cameras that had two to three megapixels of resolution, and were less than optimal for shooting in dim lighting, sports and other challenging situations. But it was still cheaper than the $15,000 the newspaper was spending annually on film.
It took until 2009 when Penn bought a Nikon model of his own that he said the quality surpassed what he had shot on film. But during those early years there were still developments that indicated the online news website’s potential.
“One year I went to a workshop and learned a new program called Soundslides, and learned to put together audio slideshows,” he said. “That was kind of a hit. We were one of the first newspapers in the Morris chain to do that.”
Videos, on the other hand, weren’t as big of a hit early, aside from short clips of a major news event or an Alaskan novelty such as bear running across/through something.
By 2004 the Empire’s website had taken a major step forward in design and amount of content on its homepage. It’s also an era when most of the links to articles and photos in the Wayback Machine archives start to be functional now, so nostalgia fans can read about Carlos Boozer deciding to continue his NBA career in Cleveland and a letter to the editor declaring “I have noticed recently that the liberal propaganda machine has been hard at work at the Empire.”
The homepage gets a bit quirky again in the archives with another redesign that appears in 2008, since the top imagery was a video player powered by the now-obsolete Adobe Flash. Scrolling down the page for Sept. 3 reveals a lot of stories about former Gov. Sarah Palin’s selection as John McCain’s vice-presidential nominee (which don’t function in the Wayback Machine), along with a glitch that resulted in double posting of some stories (which do).
Joel Irwin, one of the Empire’s three website employees when Palin’s nomination was announced on Aug. 29, 2008 — right after Barrack Obama gave his acceptance speech as the Democratic presidential nominee — described the early morning hours that followed as some of the most chaotic in the site’s history.
“The day Palin got announced as the VP candidate I was the only person on the clock in the entire building as I was on shift to upload the paper in the mornings,” he wrote in an e-mail. “The site got hit so hard with traffic that it was crashing, so I had to call corporate to give us more sever bandwidth. I also had to create a stripped-down version of the website that was purely static and reduce any unnecessary items to reduce server calls. It was by far the most trafficked day — we had page views in the millions where we only used to get them in the tens of thousands.”
The now obsolete video player was implemented because Morris executives were strong advocates of such content — and it resulted in nationally prominent exposure, Irwin stated.
“That was around the time the big avalanche took out the power lines from Snettisham and put all of Juneau on diesels generators for months,” he wrote. “It was such a big deal that CNN chartered a float plane for us to go out and capture video of it all.”
Two years later the homepage rebounded with a colorful, multi-image homepage that is perhaps the best looking and functioning of the sites in the Wayback Machine’s archives. Irwin said he and Hayden Hoke, the director of the web department at the time, did the redesign on their own.
“We did it without permission from Morris, but at the time they found out about it it was too late and they liked it, so they adopted the layout for some of their other properties,” Irwin wrote. “We were always one of the smaller papers in the Morris lineup, but we always had at least double the per-capita traffic of the other papers.”
Of equal blessing to those seeking the old sites, the digital archive began storing copies of the pages far more frequently — often multiple times a day — starting in 2011 until the current site went online in 2015.
But while the website’s content, appearance and readership have generally risen during its 27-year history, the print edition has seen a slow corresponding decline. The newspaper reduced the number of issues per week from six to five in recent years, then reduced it further to two as of this week that are printed in Washington state — with the last locally printed edition rolling off the press last Friday night.
Downing, who has run the online-only conservative news site Must Read Alaska for the past seven years, said print newspapers have long been facing a bleak future as readers increasingly flock to a widening range of options that can be run by one or a few people. She said one of the problems with a traditional print newsroom is “it’s expensive to have staff.”
“The Anchorage Daily News is getting pretty thin,” she said. However, “there’s the newspaper-of-record concept that’s still in existence.”
But while that concept might keep print newspapers from extinction, their prospects of a healthy existence are dubious due to the loss of elements many locals traditionally sought out in community papers such as local sports, legal notices, classifieds and obituaries, Downing said.
In Juneau much of the community “conversation” is now occurring at social media sites such as Facebook’s Juneau Community Collective, she said. Encouraging that kind of reader engagement has also helped her online publication, where comments about largely political topics of the day tend to be plentiful.
“We’re having a giant, wild conversation,” she said. “Just because having that long term involves writers in those sections who are part of a community-type newspaper.”
An emphasis on reengaging readers at such a level is the goal of the shift to an “digital-first” model, said Ben Hohenstatt, the Empire’s current managing editor.
“Being an effective, successful news organization means actually reaching people, and increasingly that means thinking digitally — disseminating timely, reliable news in a way that makes the most of our digital tools,” he said.
Hohenstatt acknowledged “legacy media has in some ways struggled to adapt to a new landscape,” but many long-established traditional news sources including the Empire already have large online footprints — “maybe larger than folks realize.”
“In any given week we expect an online readership that’s about the size of the population of our hometown,” he said. “There’s about 24,000 people who like us on Facebook, 12,100 who follow us on Twitter and 7,500 who follow us on Instagram.
“While no one can know exactly what the future looks like, those numbers paint a picture of one that includes both the Juneau Empire and a healthy readership regardless of platform.”