The curious case of 'interaction' in early online publishing

ZDNet's 20th anniversary: Former senior editor Paula Lovejoy recalls how instant feedback changed the business of publishing.
Written by ZDNET Editors, Contributor on

Working as an editor at ZiffNet, Ziff-Davis Interactive, and ZDNet was probably the most exciting job I’ve ever had.

It started one day in 1990, when David DeJean appeared in my office at PC Week and asked if I would be interested in joining a new venture. After he explained to me what "on-line" meant, I thought it over for about a day and immediately accepted.

I became a senior editor at ZDNet, producing a daily home page highlighting new content on the site, and developing ideas for new editorial content.

My background was well-suited for the job. I had worked at PC Week (now eWeek) since 1984, when it was a startup covering the then-brand-new PC industry. I was accustomed to covering a rapidly evolving new industry and explaining new technologies to a technical audience.

At ZiffNet, our job was to create a curious new experience called "community" and "interaction," and guide people through this unknown territory of "online." Online services were in their infancy then -- when ZiffNet was launched on CompuServe and later Prodigy, the World Wide Web didn't even exist!

It was a terrific group of very smart, very competent people, full of ideas and energy. We often had brainstorming sessions where we came up with new ideas for content. I remember once suggesting that the Yellow Pages would be a good thing to put online, and a fellow employee responding that it was a ridiculous idea.

The working environment was relaxed, occasionally irreverent. I remember product manager Katherine Prouty giving away coveted ZiffNet mugs as a way to connect with users. David Schnaider did a great job of supporting the staff, reining us in when we went too far, and encouraging us to be creative while at the same time watching the bottom line.

One thing we knew at ZiffNet was our customers. They were early adopters of technology, computing professionals as well as enthusiasts, well-educated and affluent. It was exciting to get immediate feedback from readers in the form of hit counts. The audiences were huge. I remember my page -- the ZDNet home page on the Internet -- was getting over a million hits a day.

We knew it was a wave, and our job was to ride it. Sometimes we were ahead of it, sometimes on top of it, and sometimes we were swept along with it. I remember interviewing job candidates and telling them that if they were not flexible and comfortable with change, this was not the place for them.

We were making it up on a daily basis, but many of those early ideas have stuck. The concept of highlighting content and changing highlights on a daily basis -- hopefully to develop a "daily addiction" in readers -- has pretty much remained unchanged since the early days.

In 1992, the working environment around us changed. William Ziff retired and sold Ziff-Davis Publishing Co. Ziff was a brilliant man who treated his employees extremely well -- so well, in fact, that he gave all of us a farewell bonus check when he retired. (In my case, it was big enough to buy a new car.)

I remember him telling us that we employees were the company’s most important asset. It was a far cry from a later owner, [SoftBank executive] Masayoshi Son, who informed us on his one-and-only visit to Cambridge that our job was to make him the No. 1 richest man in Japan. (He was upset about being only No. 3.) Ziff-Davis changed hands several times after that, and was finally disbanded and sold off in separate pieces.

I left the company when ZDNet moved its editorial operation to California in 1997, but I continued working for them as a freelancer until 2007. I’m now editing an oral history book for the city of Cambridge to be printed soon, called "From the Heart of Cambridge: An Oral History."

Paula Lovejoy was a senior editor at ZDNet from 1992 to 2007.

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