late summer of 1997, James Rigger, a representative of Hewlett Packard,
approached me to ask if I would be interested in starting a website.
HP, which was primarily known for its business computers and printers,
was about to launch an initiative appealing to photographers and artists.
I immediately said I was interested. The next thing I knew, I was
contacted by another representative, who asked me to send him 4,000
of my best pictures and they would put them on the World Wide Web.
When I pointed out that I would be hard-pressed to give him 40 of
my best pictures, he was dismayed. But, I had something else in mind
- to create an online publication that would serve other photojournalists.
Without realizing what they were getting into, HP asked me to spend
the first weekend in September of that year at the Massachusetts Institute
of Technology, working with a team of talented Web designers and my
colleague David Snider. By Sunday night, The Digital Journalist was
It looked very much like the present site. Our first photographic
feature came from a project that Brian Storm and I had created for
MSNBC the previous fall. It was a gallery of my photographs drawn
from the 30 years I had covered the U.S. presidency.
Each picture was accompanied by text that I had written, and many
of them had audio links to my commentary, and sound bites from the
An old friend, Bill Pierce, who had also been a contract photographer
with Time magazine, had written a column for Popular Photography magazine
called "Nuts and Bolts." Pierce became our first columnist.
At the time, I knew nothing about Web publishing. But I guessed that
a few things would be very important - if we were going to survive.
First and foremost, we would have to offer rich content, not just
once or twice but every time we published. Second, the e-zine would
have to rigorously maintain a regular schedule, if it were to grow
an audience. I decided that we would publish monthly, and with only
one exception we have maintained that schedule for the
past four and a half years.
We targeted a very specific audience: photojournalists. I had already
become a firm believer that the future of the profession would inevitably
lead to convergence, and so we included television photojournalists
in our audience. I also figured that the nature of the stories we
would be telling with photographs would eventually attract a much
wider general audience. Even though at the time, broadband was largely
limited to military and educational institutions.
Eventually streaming video would become a regular part of the site.
For that reason, from the first issue,
every feature included commentary by the photographers, all shot on
digital video. For the first two years, the video was largely converted
to audio clips, but as more and more viewers began to enjoy high-speed
access, video became the medium we used.
A website is like a grain of sand on the digital beach, unless you
can identify its existence to anchor it, it will be swept away. To
start this anchoring process, we offered editorials - our opinions
on the sweeping changes hitting photojournalism - to online lists
such as The National Press Photographers Assn. We also contributed
to other photo websites - most notably Pedro Meyer's Zone Zero.
Unlike print, where exclusivity is critical, on the Web the name of
the game is to get your name and product into as many places as possible.
We also began to find ways to cooperate with other established media,
such as the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, in developing projects.
As our mailing list grew, viewers began asking for notification of
coming features, so we offered a monthly newsletter distributed to
our readers and other lists.
Two years ago, we hired a tracking service to keep count of the number
of unique visitors to the site. By the end of the decade, The Digital
Journalist was recording approximately 30,000 visitors per month.
Compared to major sites such as CNN, MSNBC, or porn venues, these
were small numbers. But they represented a viable demographic base,
because most of our readers bought cameras, still and video, or used
other photo products. This was sufficient for us to start going after
Canon, which had given me terrific support as a working photojournalist
over the years, was first to step up to the plate. Not only were they
our first sponsor, but we were their first experience with online
advertising. Over the next two years, Leica and Nikon also came onboard.
At this point - lest you think we were rolling in money - my bank
account along with a lot of maxed-out credit cards was still the main
source of our revenue.
For the first two years, our talented Webmaster, David Snider, designed
every issue without pay. After talking to other publishers of photo
sites, I found we were all sharing the same experience.
During the past year, some notable prizes have rewarded all of our
staff's efforts - we have an excellent team of professionals and it
shows. Our ambitious multimedia package on "20 Years: AIDS &
Photography" won top honors at the "Online Journalism Awards"
sponsored by Columbia University. By maintaining quality of
content we were being noticed in significant ways.
the start, since our site was all about photojournalism, we determined
to remain flexible - to put together a story in record time. When
war broke out in Bosnia, David and Peter Turnley immediately submitted
major stories which we in turn were able to run online within a few
weeks of the events.
When the tragic shootings took place at a school in Littleton, Colorado,
Fritz Nordengren flew to the scene, from Minneapolis, to produce a
remarkable package of photographs and audio documenting the photographers
of The Rocky Mountain News.
Immediately after the terrorist attacks on September 11, we began
to plan our next issue. We moved our headquarters to the offices of
American Photo magazine in New York. With the help of Susan Markisz
and Peter Howe began to collect photographs, and interview the photographers
who took them. Over the next couple of weeks more than two dozen photographers
poured out their hearts and stories to us.
For two years prior to our October issue, we had amassed more than
500,000 unique visitors to our site. This is considered a big audience
for a "niche publication." Once, however, we published the
first of our two September 11 packages, the numbers soared. Within
two weeks, we had gained another 500,000. By the end of October, we
were at 2,000,000, and in another three weeks we were past 3,000,000.
As of March 1 this year, our count has reached 4,400,000 unique visitors.
Most importantly, these readers keep coming back, month after month.
It is clear that people around the world count increasingly on the
Web as a major source of information and entertainment. This will
only grow as technology and the pipes that carry it improve. The big
question in every Web publisher's mind is "when will it pay?"
Even at major publishing sites, associated with newspapers and broadcast
entities, the Web contingent tends to be under appreciated and under
valued. Salaries for personnel are generally far lower than their
print and broadcast counterparts. There are reasons for this. Part
of it, I believe, is jealousy and turf protection by the parent companies.
Also, because the people who work on the Web tend to be self-starters
and entrepreneurial. The corporations associate these people's
willingness to work hard with an ambivalence about their financial
The major factor, though, is the inability to effectively sell advertising
for the Web. The dot com bust last year confused advertisers. It left
them questioning - again - the validity of online advertising.
It didn't help a bit that some major portal sites raised rates to
the point where sponsors rebelled.
For smaller sites, like The Digital Journalist, a major obstacle is
that rates, based on a realistic assessment of traffic and market
penetration, are just too low to interest advertising agencies that
make buys for clients. Especially when compared with rates for ads
in print and broadcast.
Also, the impression among viewers that World Wide Web content should
be "free" is a major impediment for all sites that want
to offer quality to their audience. This will ultimately have to change.
Both advertising and viewer support need to understand the new realities.
The principal reality is that long term, the Web is more deserving
of support than traditional print and broadcast. Newspapers, magazines,
and broadcast are losing millions of readers and viewers. At the same
time, publishers are greedily driving up profit margins at the expense
of goodwill. This is a suicidal path for the industry.
Advertisers are becoming increasingly aware that what their dollars
used to buy in the old markets, are no longer delivering the same
returns. It is inevitable that in the near future, advertisers will
start to reassess these markets.
My view is that the tide will soon turn in favor of websites like
The Digital Journalist, Zone Zero, and Journal E. At
some point, major corporations including AOL/Time Warner will begin
to realize that they are no longer primarily in the publishing business
One way of using their size to produce revenue may be to begin developing
aggregation of niche sites, and using their sales ability to represent
these sites with advertisers, who would then be able to use their
collective muscle to offer deep market penetration.
So, it is a matter of holding on until that tide comes in.
Halstead, the Editor and Publisher of The Digital Journalist is a
former Time magazine senior White House photographer.