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How RHF led to ClariNet

rec.humor.funny began, like just about everything else on the net, as a volunteer venture. I decided, while keeping busy in the PC software business, to moderate a newsgroup just for fun and the dual-edged sword of net.fame. The newsgroup itself has always been free, like most other things on the net.

As I hoped, the group was successful, and by November of 1988 the newsgroup was the 2nd most popular on the net, behind a group for conference announcements. (Which shows a bit of the nets earlier, nerdier history.)

You can also read a more detailed account of the creation of RHF.

In December of 1988 however, the group got banned. Going through that was hell, but after the first round was over, rec.humor.funny had swept up to number one on the charts, where it stayed for quite some time.

All this got me to wonder, however. If a semi-professional, edited publication could be #1 on the net, was there a business to be found? Would people pay for professional information delivered in the new ways of USENET and the blossoming internet? Nobody knew. I had wanted for many years to start a network business. Living in Canada, this was difficult. A few years before I had made plans for a professional network hub, but it would be impossible from Canada.

Dave Barry

To experiment, I thought I would start with comedy. I knew that the writings of Dave Barry were very popular with net folk, so much so that there were pirate mailing lists that send out the weekly columns without permission. I wanted to see if I could mail out the columns legitimately and get people to pay to subscribe.

I went to Tribune Media Services, syndicator of the Dave Barry column and asked if I could publish it in electronic form.

"What? You want to do what?" was all they could say. They weren't ready for the electronic age; few people were.

A full blown newspaper

Spurred on, however, I went out to see what other information might be available for sale, this time with bigger ambitions -- the publication of the first full blown electronic newspaper, covering the whole world, to appear on the net. I made initial arrangements with a company called Comtex, which provided wire feeds for some of the online services, but eventually went directly to United Press International (UPI) to sign up a general wireservice. I supplemented that with Newsbytes, an online computer industry news service. Since my "town" would be cyberspace, we would have no local desk. Computer industry news would be our "local" flavour, along with all the other technology and science news we could get.

Unlike a regular newspaper, we had no space limitations. All we had to do with the news was classify it according to what "section" in belonged in and how important it was. We never had to throw away a story because we didn't have room. We figured for our readers, technology stories would be the right local focus.

The first ever "dot-com"

While I didn't know it, I was creating the world's first "dot-com" company. While a small number of proto-ISP businesses existed at the time (such as UUNet and BBN) which would sell you access to the internet or internet hardware and software, ClariNet was the first business created to provide people with content and services over the internet, using it as a platform.

At the time, the Arpanet (Internet) had an "acceptable use policy" that made most people believe you couldn't start a business on top of the internet. It was meant only for the support of research and education. What they didn't realize that if you sold content to universities and research labs, it was fine to use the internet for it, and so I did.

Dave Barry again

A few other sources were added, including other syndicated columns, and eventually even Dave Barry. A few months later, I had gone back to Tribune Media Services and asked the question again.

"Let me connect you to our director of sales for information services," said the receptionist. Clearly things had changed. In this case, Prodigy had changed them. John Matthews, the above named information services sales director, described how Prodigy had come in to buy features.

"We want Howard Cosell to do a custom column for us," Matthews described the Prodigy executives as saying.

Cosell is a tough cookie, and jokingly, Matthews said, "Howard Cosell won't even light his cigar for you for under $10,000."

"O.K." said the Prodigy folks.

Well, it turns out that this sort of price was ridiculous and later Prodigy realized that when they got past their free spending days, and in some ways they raised unrealistic revenue expectations for content providers, but we can thank them for getting the ball rolling.

Selling the News

Of course, selling the service didn't come easily. But there is no question that the fame on the net that I had derived by providing its most popular group helped get me in the door at many of our earliest subscribers. ClariNet has always primarily sold to sites, rather than individuals. That, after all, is the way both USENET goes into computers and dedicated internet connections are sold.

The site admins knew who I was, and thus who my company was. That led to sales, and eventually making the company name bigger than mine, so it could sell on its own. Of course, many people followed this model after me, starting out by doing something free on the net or the web, and later have it turn into the potential for business success. You probably already know the Cinderella stories of things like Yahoo, Lycos, Mosaic, and even the web itself.

In fact, it's no longer a system of serendipity. Today, doing stuff for free on the net in the hope of a business has become a business model. Now venture capitalists will even invest in it. You can thank Netscape for that. They had the boldness -- and the understanding of the net -- to give their browser away free to gain market share; in this case planning all along to capitalize on their status in the end. And capitalize they did, at a market valuation insane by all the old rules.

Nothing succeeds like success

Of course the bad news was that as ClariNet grew, the demands on my time became too great, and I had to pass on the torch of selecting the jokes for rec.humor.funny. Until I sold it and left in 1998, the company provided the resources to support the group and web site.

It's no Netscape, of course, but as the net's leading electronic newspaper, with over 1.2 million paid subscribers as of January, 1996, clearly some success has grown out of the acord of a moderated comedy newsgroup. And I think it's still not too late for those of you reading this to contemplate what interesting thing you might do on the net for free -- and see where it takes you, with or without the venture capitalists.

- Brad Templeton


Sadly, several years later, the people at Knight-Ridder, which provide Dave Barry to TMS, decided there was too much piracy on the net, some of it by our readers, and they decided they would not syndicate the column to folks like us any more. While it was just a small part of what we publish, I was very sad to see it go, since it was the first item I tried to get.

As you know if you have read about ClariNet, several years later it switched from UPI to AP and Reuters for its main wireservices. It added Sports Ticker, various small wires and PR wires and the AFP. Later it brought UPI back and dropped Reuters. It's a musical chairs.

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