Saturday morning, October 1, 1994: With a cup of coffee in hand I sat down at my computer in the den of our condo in Arlington, Virginia, and logged on to the Internet to check my email.
A message from my Internet Services Provider, Heller Information Services, caught my eye: An offer of 5mb of free space for a web site.
I checked it out. With a few keystrokes, I created a basic, no-frills web page with the URL: www.his.com/~dougthompson and, viola, had a web site. I wrote about 500 words of commentary about the upcoming midterm Congressional elections, called it "Capitol Hill Blue," and sent out emails to some 50 people asking them to take a look.
Thus Capitol Hill Blue was born as a weekly raving from a journalist-turned-political operative in the midst of turning back to journalism. I had, for the past several months, been writing an occasional commentary on Compuserve, one of the original consumer-based on-line services that predated the Internet, but that Saturday morning in my den marked the beginning of this enterprise that has dominated so much of my life for the past 12 years.
In October of 1994, online political news sites didn’t exist. The Raleigh News & Observer had a site called NandoNet but that was pretty much it. The Washington Post was experimenting with a computer-based site that didn’t use the ‘Net. Online services like CompuServe, Prodigy and America On-Line offered wire service stories through their proprietary interfaces.
In 1994, Matt Drudge sold t-shirts in the CBS gift shop. Daily Kos founder Markos Moulitsas Zúniga was a student at Northern Illinois University. The Hotline, a popular daily political tip sheet, was produced on a handful of personal computers in an attic in Falls Church, Virginia, printed at a local copy shop and distributed by messenger.
I didn’t see Blue as any kind of pioneer in web-based journalism. I was just a former reporter trying to find a way back into writing about current events on a regular basis.
Each Saturday morning, I would sit in my den and churn out a new edition of Blue, each larger than the previous week’s output, each containing more features. Within two months, my email list had grown to several hundred names and Blue had outgrown its free web space with my ISP. By that time, I had leased web space for a business enterprise so I made Blue a subdirectory on it. By the end of 1994, Blue was getting 25,000 hits a day. We also had an online forum called ReaderRant, staffed by dedicated volunteers.
We continued to grow in 1995 as some journalist friends offered to contribute stories. Like other volunteers they did so without pay. Our traffic grew and computer publications began to write about the site. PC World called us a "fresh new idea in web-based news." Lycos named us to the web’s "Top 5 percent" listing. On January 1, 1996, Blue went from weekly to daily publication. I would get up at 4 each morning, edit submissions from others, and write summaries of the day’s news. I also began writing a three-times-a-week column called "The Rant."
In 1996, we gained attention for our aggressive coverage of the Presidential and Congressional elections. The Washington Post featured Blue in a story about DC-based web sites and later in a magazine supplement called "Fast Forward" and called us a "must-read" in political circles. CNET featured us on their syndicated TV show. Our web traffic topped 25,000 visitors and 100,000 hits a day. I registered capitolhillblue.com as a domain name in January 1997 and moved the site to its own servers.
Traffic and attention declined a bit in 1997 but took off again in 1998 with the Bill Clinton-Monica Lewinsky scandal. Our tough coverage of the White House brought the wrath of liberals who called Blue a "right-wing scandal sheet," even though we routinely questioned the actions of the Republican-controlled Congress. Felicity Barringer of The New Work Times wrote that Blue has become "an early warning system" that mainstream media sources checked for "developing news stories."
At the height of the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal, Blue logged more than 10 million hits a day from more than 100,000 visitors. We had offers every month from larger outfits that wanted to buy our little web site. I sold it but took the site back after the new owners failed to meet a clause in the contract. I tried walking away from the site several times but always came back.
In 2000, when other actual "right-wing" sites trumpeted the candidacy of George W. Bush, we asked critical questions about his qualifications and his avoidance of service in Vietnam. Conservatives accused of "selling out." That was fine with us. A city editor I once worked for taught me that "if you piss off both sides you’re doing your job."
After Bush’s election, we continued to scrutinize his actions. After 9/11, we questioned his motives and rationale for pointing the finger of blame at Iraq. Others called us "unpatriotic’ for raising the issue. I wish now we had done so even more.
As I look back over the past 12 years and more than 25,000 stories and columns, I can think of many times to be proud, including:
- America’s Criminal Class: The Congress of the United States, our series on questionable conduct by members of Congress;
- Underage and selling their sexuality on the web: Our expose of teen model web sites;
- All the President’s Women: A series detailing former President Bill Clinton’s long history of sexual abuse of women;
- Our ongoing examination of the invasion of Iraq;
- Our constant monitoring of the loss of freedoms at the hands of our government.
We’re outlived many other sites. NandoNet is gone. So is Politics USA, which came along after us, along with a number of other political news sites. Other latecomers to the scene have larger audiences and pander to specific political points of view. Today, Capitol Hill Blue is read by some 600,000 people every month. But we would continue publishing if only 600 dropped by.
The right-wingers don’t trust us because they think Blue sold them out by not embracing Bush and the GOP takeover of Congress. The left-wing remembers our scathing coverage of Clinton and wont’ forgive us for that.
We’ve made some mistakes along the way. We’re human. You can’t write as much as we have and not screw up. When we do we try to acknowledge it and move forward.
With luck and hard work, we learn from those mistakes and the result is a better effort.
Blue is not a business. Never has been, never will be. This web site is, and always will be, a labor of love. Nobody here draws a salary. Like most news web sites, Blue does not make money. I make up the difference out of personal resources.
We do this because we want to and we will continue to do it as long as the passion remains. That passion is what we celebrate on this day – our 12th birthday.