On Oct. 1, 1994, 24 years ago, I sat down in the den of our condo in Arlington with my first cup of coffee shortly after 5 a.m. Eastern time, logged on to my Internet Service Provider (PSINet) and found a message saying I now had 5 MB if free web space to do with I please.
This was three years after the end of Desert Storm, two years after Bill Clinton became President and three months and 25 days after I gave up both drinking and working as a political operative.
In its place, I was a communications consultant for a business crisis firm and freelancing as a reporter and photojournalist for newspapers, magazines and wire services.
For reasons I cannot remember, I write a 750-word essay about what I saw as the decline of political reason on Capitol Hill and the White House, called it “The Rant” and posted it on my new website that morning named the site “Capitol Hill Blue.”
For the remaining three months of 1994, I wrote a new column each week and posted a link to it on several web-based political news groups. Soon, the site started getting hits from all over the world.
On January 1, 1995, I took Capitol Hill Blue daily, writing a news analysis piece each morning on the news of the day. Clinton became an early subject and I was able to improve the design through use of a WYSIWYG (What You See Is What You Get) HTML editing software called FrontPage that I bought from Vermeer Technologies (later bought by Microsoft).
Three friends working for Washington-based media pitched in and helped as volunteers, writing stories and columns and coming up with ideas. Two newsgroup operators offered to help set up a discussion site, which we called Reader Rant.
This was before most newspapers had websites. My “competition” in those days came from a web-based news collective called Nando-Net, controlled by the Raleigh News & Observer. One of the early staff members of Nando was Bob Stepno, a friend and retired professor living in Radford and often shows up to play at jam sessions and other gatherings in Floyd.
The Washington Post had not created an Internet site yet but was experimenting with Digital Ink, on online service that was not web-based and The Wall Street Journal had a similar operation.
This was before real high-speed service became widely available. I was an early user of what was then called ISDN (Internet Services Digital Network), which ran up to 128 kilobytes per second and I replaced it with ADSL service in the early 2000s.
Wrote Rajiv Chandrasekaran and Margot Williams in The Washington Post on June 23, 1996:
No matter where he travels on business, Doug Thompson makes sure to update his Web site every day. Using a laptop computer, he has added files from a Manila hotel room, the San Francisco airport and other far-flung locations—all in a quest to keep his on-line newsletter about local and national politics timely.
Thompson, 48, a communications consultant and former journalist who lives in Arlington, runs one of the most popular Washington-focused Web sites, raking up more than 10,000 visitors a day. Every night he writes two or three new stories after spending hours reading wire service reports, talking to well-connected friends and doing his own research. He peppers his Capitol Hill Blue site with color photographs and catchy, animated graphics.
Thompson is one of dozens of area residents who have used their home pages as something more than a new way to write about themselves, by creating useful and entertaining sites that people other than their friends actually take time to look at.
“It’s really designed for anyone who stumbles across and wants to read it,” Thompson said. “I know I’m not CNN. I’m just trying to cover stuff around here the mainstream media isn’t interested in.”
On March 8, 1999, New York Times media reporter Felicity featured Capitol Hill Blue and quoted U.S. News & World Report Stephen G. Smith it a political news site that “has caught on as an early warning sign of stories coming up.”
It became clear last week that journalists in some corners of the mainstream press check in with Capitol Hill Blue. Last Monday, for the first time, The Hotline, the capital’s most widely used daily electronic tip sheet, used material from Capitol Hill Blue and a liberal site called American Politics. Hotline is a summary of all things political, from newspaper coverage of candidates to the most recent polling data.
Craig Crawford, editor of The Hotline, said he decided to include chatter from the two partisan Web sites in his daily roundup in part because some British papers, like The Daily Telegraph, had begun passing on Capitol Hill Blue’s reports.
Capitol Hill Blue began as a one-man operation four years ago. Then Mr. Thompson, 51, added three unpaid contributors, all older than 55 with newspaper backgrounds. Mr. Thompson began his career as a journalist before working as an aide to Republicans like Manuel Lujan, the former Representative from New Mexico. He is now a public relations consultant but said he began the Web site because ”I’m an ex-newspaperman who wanted to get back into the game.”
Those were heady, fun days. Nando-Net is gone. So are many others. The World Wide Web is now overrun by news sites of all sizes and all persuasions.
Capitol Hill Blue continues and is generally recognized as the oldest continuously published political news site on the Internet.
On some days, I don’t know if I own the web site or it owns me. It is a work in the profession I love.
Such operations allow me to continue what legendary Chicago newspaperman Finley Peter Dunne said when he established that it is the “role of a newspaperman to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.”