In 1997, The Dallas Morning News made online history

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It was called “the scoop of the year”. In 1997, The Dallas Morning News reported that Timothy McVeigh had confessed to the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. It came as a shock to readers, reporters, and the legal community preparing for McVeigh’s trial.

There was something else to this story: it was posted online — hours before it appeared in print. At a time when websites were considered secondary, The news was one of the first major metropolitan newspapers to move its reporting to the digital frontier.

The news dives into the moment online history was made.

By connecting

The Internet was a very different place when The news spear dallasnews.com September 17, 1996.

To connect, you needed a computer with a dial-up connection. An ad in The news boasted a $1,600 desktop computer that came with the Windows 95 operating system, a 2.5 GB hard drive, and a 28.8 kbps fax/modem.

People connected to online services like Prodigy. AOL chat rooms were popular. Netscape Navigator was the web browser of choice for many. Google had not yet been founded — the main search engines were Yahoo, Excite and Altavista. The New York Times launched its website only a few months earlier, in January 1996.

The first version of the Dallas Cowboys website was launched around the same time as dallasnews.com. The Cowboys website drew 1 million viewers in its first week. The news reported that fans could go online to “take a tour of the Texas Stadium screen,” but they still had to call in to order merchandise.

“It was an exciting time,” recalls Keith Campbell, editor of The news at the time. “People were just beginning to understand what the internet could do – what the possibilities were.”

It took almost a week to dallasnews.com to be mentioned in the print. The weekly “Life Online” column noted on September 23, 1996 that it was now available to read online.

Official launch

An advertisement for dallasnews.com. Published in The Dallas Morning News on November 3, 1996.(The Dallas Morning News)

The news officially unveiled its website on November 3, 1996. In the two months between the soft launch and the November announcement, dallasnews.com reached between 2,500 and 3,000 people a day.

Although it may seem strange today, The news relied on the newspaper to explain how the website works.

Readers could access dallasnews.com free. Many “but not all” of the stories found in the journal would be available online, and more would be added over time. Articles available online would be visible for “at least four days” in case readers missed the daily.

The website would contain regularly updated weather data and users would also have access to “special search functions” to browse the classifieds. The news was not the first major metropolitan newspaper to have an online presence, but then-president and CEO Jeremy L. Halbreich said “there has been demand” in the D-FW region and beyond for The news‘ reports.

Latest news online

The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City killed 168 people and...
The bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City killed 168 people and injured more than 600 others. This file photo from April 19, 1995 shows rescue workers standing in front of the building.(David Longstreath | The Associated Press)

On Friday, February 28, 1997, The news published a breaking story detailing a shocking confession allegedly made by Timothy McVeigh, then a suspect in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168 people and injured more than 600 others.

This is considered the first time that a major metropolitan newspaper has published a national article on its website before it appeared in print.

The story goes that McVeigh told his defense team how he alone drove a truck full of explosives that destroyed the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City, and that he intentionally engineered the bombing. bomb to leave a “body count”. The newsThe story comes from confidential reports from the defense team. It appeared in print the next day.

The future of news

This type of publishing was brand new in 1997 and it quickly spread across the news landscape.

“It was, in our opinion, extremely important,” said Ralph Langer, then executive vice president and editor of The news. “We have finished the story [Friday] afternoon and we felt we had to post, so we posted.

Editor Stuart Wilk agreed at the time: “We thought the story was so important that we should publish it as soon as it was ready.”

The front page of the Dallas Morning News from March 1, 1997. The story of Timothy McVeigh...
The front page of the Dallas Morning News from March 1, 1997. The story of Timothy McVeigh’s alleged confession appeared in the press the day after it was published online.(The Dallas Morning News)

“In the press room, the reaction was ‘Wow! It’s kind of an incredible development. We post something on the website first! said Campbell.

“It was so surprising to see a story on a website before it was in print,” Wilk recalls.

Online readers of CNN, MSNBC, the Washington Post and AOL have been designated dallasnews.com to access the story. The viewers of CBS Evening News they were told to do the same.

The publication of a news report online was so novel that the act itself became a story for television, radio and other newspapers. The temperature argued that by putting the story online first, The news was, indeed, “scoop[ing] its own printed edition. Langer disagreed: “People who say that don’t understand. … The website is us, just like the printed paper is us.

Between 3:30 p.m. and 10 p.m. on February 28, 40,000 users visited dallasnews.com.

Later that week, WIRED The magazine applauded the decision to publish the story online first – “the Morning News has shown that newspapers can use their websites to present new information, rather than just old information.”

Controversial

Stephen Jones, defense attorney for Timothy McVeigh, speaks to the media on February 28, 1997,...
Stephen Jones, defense attorney for Timothy McVeigh, speaks to the media February 28, 1997 about McVeigh’s story published on the Dallas Morning News website. Jones called the story a “hoax” and accused the newspaper of rushing the story onto the Internet lest McVeigh’s defense go to court to try to stop publication.(Joe Mahoney | The Associated Press)

“Hell broke loose” after the story was published, Wilk recalled. Jury notices had just been distributed to potential candidates, and a Georgetown University law professor suggested that the release of McVeigh’s confession could raise questions about whether he could get a fair trial.

McVeigh’s lead attorney, Stephen Jones, called a press conference that day and called the reporting “irresponsible” and “irrational”. He suggested that The news had stolen documents, illegally hacked into defense computers or falsified documents. The charges were unfounded.

Jones later argued that the media coverage was “very damaging”, but the judge refused to dismiss the case, change the venue or delay the trial.

In the end, the prosecutors, the judge and the defense team agreed that The newsThe story would not impact the trial. McVeigh was convicted in June 1997 and executed in 2001.

“of national importance”

For Langer, publishing the controversial story was not a decision taken lightly.

In April 1997, he tells in Penne magazine that discussions about whether to publish took place over several days as the story developed, involving editors and the News’ senior First Amendment attorney. The morning after the article was first published, Langer said, “Obviously we wouldn’t publish a story if we weren’t convinced of the quality of the information we have.”

Langer wrote in Penne this The news had an obligation to publish the story because it was “of national importance”.

Wilk agreed: “Knowing what we knew, we had an obligation to publish it before our readers.”

The news always publishes factual and highly researched reports that matter. Twenty-five years after making online history, the newsroom publishes dozens of stories online a day, usually before they appear in print.

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