May 3, 2017 marks the 35th anniversary of something I was very proud to be part of: StarText.
What's StarText? Quite simply, the newspaper on a computer.
While the Internet has made online newspapers commonplace, it was pretty rare to find one 35 years ago. In fact, StarText was among the first, and for a span of over 15 years, one of the most successful local services in the country.
In this case, local means Fort Worth-Dallas. StarText was launched by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, initially in partnership with the Tandy Corp. At that time, Tandy saw "videotext" (or "videotex," if you will) as a service that could help them sell more personal computers, which were just coming into the marketplace.
The Star-Telegram saw it as an opportunity to "test the waters" on an emerging technology without going too far out on that "cutting edge" limb. Cutting edge or bleeding edge, it was all so new we were literally making it up as we went.
I was one of three newsroom veterans who volunteered to staff this new venture, excited to boldly go where no (or few) newspapers had gone before. We worked in shifts, 6 am to midnight. Our job was update the news. Subscribers -- there weren't many at the outset -- with computers and a modem could log in and view the stories on their TV sets or monitors. What a difference from today, when just about every person on the planet has the power of a PC on a phone in their back pocket.
While primitive by today's standards (no pretty pictures -- only text), and so s-l-o-w, the idea we could provide "the news you want when you want it," was both revolutionary and magical. Despite the technical limitations, the era of "instant news" had arrived, and we were among the pioneers who would pave the way for the Internet settlers who would come later.
But at that time, the consumer Internet was a full decade away. During the years before the World Wide Web, StarText had thousands of subscribers. It added an online encyclopedia, which helped make it a mainstay in school districts across the Metroplex. It partnered with InterFirst to create one of the first home banking services in the country. Because of the success it enjoyed, industry leaders from as far away as Japan and Norway made the trip to Cowtown to learn first-hand about our "secret sauce."
The secret to our success was simple: It was people. Calling themselves "StarTexans," a core group of our subscribers became our extended family. They wrote columns, hosted get-togethers and interacted with each other and the staff before Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg was born, literally. It touched people on a personal level -- so much so, almost 20 years after StarText ended, a group of dedicated subscribers still keep its spirit alive.
The founding force behind StarText was Tom Steinert-Threlkeld. A Harvard MBA, Tom was both a business reporter at the Star-Telegram and Director of New Technologies for its parent company, Capital Cities. He championed the idea of a joint venture with Tandy and was instrumental in its launch. Tragically, Tom died as a result of a bicycle accident in 2013.
For Tom and all the other pioneers at the Star-Telegram who rolled the dice on StarText, including then-Publisher Phil Meek and MIS Director Joe Donth, I salute your vision and perseverance. Besides earning a place in the online history books, StarText achieved something special. And showed a skeptical industry online really was the wave of the future.
If you are interested in learning more, you can visit the Story of StarText, a work in progress.