by Joe Shea
American Reporter Editor-in-Chief
April 10, 2015
A LONG TIME COMING
BRADENTON, FLA, April 10, 2015 -- On March 30, 1995, I had a bright idea. As a member of the General Journalism Discussion List of the Society of Professional Journalists, I became acquainted with working journalists all over the world as they posted their thoughts to the list, which circulated them to all the members.
Why not, I thought, publish a daily newspaper using email posts from these same journalists? It could go out by email, be a wire service for newspapers around the world and earn money for the writers whenever their work was picked up from the daily publication and printed in other papers and websites?
Twenty years ago today, on April 10, 1995, my suggestion to the SPJ list became a reality. More than 30 journalists agreed to take part, and we posted our first edition of the world's first exclusively electronic Internet daily newspaper. It was huge hit, and eventually, about 400 writers joined us.
We scared the hell out the Associated Press and print newspapers, which hastily warned the world that everything on the Internet in the way of news could not be trusted. Only a few readers of our content - which was uniformly accurate and excellent - purchased it, and after the first checks went out at the end of April, there was no morerevenue.
One veteran AP writer, Bill Johnson of Oklahoma City, had retired from the AP bureau there about two months before he joined The American Reporter. His first story was about a cattle drive that went through downtown Oklahoma City, and his second about a car that crashed into the gates of the governor's mansion.
But his next story, like dozens to come over the following 10 years, was about the tragic April 19 blast at the Murrah Federal Office Building that killed hundreds of men, women and children.
With the same dogged determination with which he chased the killer of Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., when Bill was the AP bureau chief in Memphis, Tennessee, on the day the great man was murdered, he pursued the story of Timothy McVeigh and his misguided compatriots through the inevitable chaos of a long and complex investigation that ended up in the courts several years later.
Bill Johnson's flawless coverage of the Murrah blast put us on the map. We were as present as the AP, UPI and Reuters at the tragic scene, and Bill scored the very first interview with the heartbroken woman who ran the day care center in the Murrah building, where dozens of children had died on a day when she was late for work.
Our Internet daily newspaper, still the first and only one in the world, was ranked No. 10 in Wired Magazine's list of top news publications on the Internet in 1996. We soon took another step into the black hole of global notoriety when we decided to challenge the government's plan to censor the Net under the "indecency" provisions of the 1996 Telecommunications Deregulation Act.
I knew the law was wrong, and I wrote an editorial in our 49th edition telling readers that if Congress passed and President Clinton signed the law into effect, we would deliberately violate it and then challenge it all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.
In a matter of days, Judge Stephen Russell, the Native American chief justice of the Austin, Texas, municipal courts, offered to help us, and I invited him to write the article that would offend the law. Shortly thereafter, a lawyer named Randall Boe, with the distinguished firm of Arent, Fox in Washington, D.C. - the same firm that defended George Carlin in the "seven dirty words case," offered to take our case to the federal courts on a pro bono basis.
We accepted, and soon became part of history when Mr. Boe's brief won us a temporary injunction against enforcement of the law, and several months later at a trial on the merits persuaded a three-judge panel of the U.S. Courts of Appeal to render a 73-page verdict in our favor. They declared the law unconstitutional, and Mary Jo White, then the U.S. Attorney for the Western District of New York and now the head of the Securities Exchange Commission, appealed it - under the expedited rules written into the law - directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
I saw the verdict reported on a CNN crawl line, and read about it in a long, generous article in the New York Times. Our critics crawled back into their holes, and we charged ahead.
Around that time, we heard from a very brave reporter in Jakarta, Indonesia named Andreas Harsono. He sent us a story, quoting the estimable Admiral Wiranto of the Indonesian Navy, that revealed the plan of the Suharto government to rid themselves of their fiercest critic, Megawati Sukarnoputri, the daughter of the beloved former President Sukarno, by calling a rump convention of the opposition Indonesian Democratic Party (PDI), which she chaired, about 500 miles from the capitol, Jakarta, where she would be ousted by Suharto supporters the government transported to the remote city where it would be held.
It was an unbelievable story, but thankfully - with some grave doubts - I believed it and published it the next day. We soon heard of "rockets," angry messages to their Indonesian bureaus from the New York headquarters of other wire services, demanding to know why their reporters had not gotten this major story. Meanwhile, Andreas had to leave his wife and child at home and live in his car as agents of President Suharto relentlesly pursued him.
I can only imagine how the wire services felt when the rump convention did as foretold just three weeks later. In the raucous and sometimes violent demonstrations that later took place in Jakarta, the Suharto administration began to lose its cruel grip on power.
Andreas interviewed Megawati and an elderly Muslim cleric, Gus Dur, and other powerful dissidents as the regime began to crumble. Both interviewees became Presidents of Indonesia a few years later. Afterwards he would interview Aung San Suu Kyi, the rightfully elected and hopefully the future Prime Minister of Burma, and other Asian luminaries.
It was not surprising that his work for us and for Tempo, an Indonesian daily, won him a Nieman International Fellowship in 1999, one of the most prestigious awards in journalism. It came with a $40,000 stipend and a free year at Harvard University, and we soon went to Disneyland with him, his wife and children.
Writers like Bill and Andreas were our brightest stars, but Stephen O'Reilly, our exclusive Ireland Correspondent, got us our biggest story of all. After years of dogged pursuit, he was offered an exclusive interview by email with the leader of the independent, pro-unification party Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams.
I ruled against it, saying we would settle only for a face-to-face interview. That was declined, but one night Stephen sent us a world-changing story: his exclusive reporting just before Good Friday, 1998, on a forthcoming announcement by the Irish Republican Army that they would cease hostilities against the government of Northern Ireland and Britain the following day.
That announcement meant the end of a 300-year war, and is probably the most important story we ever published. Through our then-partner, Nando.net., we got wide exposure for our global exclusive. Stephen O'Reilly retired from journalism shortly afterwards, and ever after we have felt his loss even as we celebrated his achievement.
Great, important stories are the very lifeblood of journalism, and I believe our work set a historic benchmark for Internet journalism to follow.
No privilege of editorship was greater than hosting journalists, editors and publishers from around the world through the good auspices of the U.S. Dept. of State, the U.S. Information Agency and a local private group, the International Visitors Council of Los Angeles, who combined to ultimately send some 150 top media people from 50 countries to visit with me at my small bungalow in Hollywood.
I would gladly tell them how we got started and about the script an Indian man named Ashish Gulhati was good enough to sit at a desk in my home and write a Perl swcript so that we could publish the paper - or "paperless", as poet Gary Gach called it - from anywhere. One group included the deputry foreign editor f the Chinese official news agency Xinhua, and his timing was pewrfect: we had just gotten in a story from foreign affairs writer Lucy Komisar that said China had reoriented its missiles in the direcdtion of Taiwan. Asked if it was true, the Chinese editor nodded, and another AR exclusive hit the Internet.
We gave a copy of Ashish Gulhati's Perl script to four journalists who arrived from Kosovo, and in a short time they were publishing their own paper in the effort to win freedom fr that war-torn formewr Serbian province. Imagine my surprise when many years later I was talking with a fellow at the AP bureau in London who turned out to be one of those original four!
Regrettably, the Associated Press remained the dominat source of wire service copy, and eventually, we languished as disappointed writers wrote major stories for us that went and no one picked them up - or paid for them, anyway. But one reporter outlasted all the rest.
That gentleman is Randolph Holhut of Vermont, whose commentary and reporting on key issues of the day has graced our pages since 1996. Randy is a graduate of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard with a Master's degree in Public Administration. As an editor at several of Vermont's best-known newspapers, as well as a very distinguished Chief of Correspondents for us, he has been nominated for and won the Best Editorial Writer award from the Vermont Press Association several times. He's told me his motivation for staying with us, and for donating his earnings from our client, the Progressive Populist in Texas, is to honor our achievement in the U.S. Supreme Court, a commendation I was overcome with pride to receive.
Our story is a long one, now 20 years long, in fact. No other publication on the Internet can rival our longevity or our achievements, but we remain largely unknown to the world after our very transient flirtation with fame. That has not mattered so much as we published great story after great story by journalists like Walter Brasch and Clarence Brown, distinguished professors in their own right, and intrepid journalists like Mark Scheinbaum, who has taken us into the heart of Panama and the freezing wilds of a New Mexico winter in pursuit of stories.
I have been privileged to attend several national political conventions and meet most of the leading lights of American politics at one time or another. None have impressed me so much as Secretary of State John F. Kerry, but an interview with a sitting President has eluded me. That would be the highlight of my 45-year career in the wonderful art of journalism, but as founder of The American Reporter, my greatest success has been in winning the loyalty, friendship and support of so many very talented writers.
I think now of Syful Islam, our Algerian correspondent, who one night sent us a story telling of a coming presidential coup there - ten days before it happened.
Then there is Chiranjibi Paudyal of Nepal, who reported for us from there for several years and also accurately forecast the imminent collapse of the monarchy and reported on the murder of most of the royal family.
One of our writers, Shlomo Hirsch of Jerusalem, interviewed the then-Prime Minister of Israel for us, and sent us a bulletin when he was murdered by an Israeli radical a few months later. We sent out a bulletin to AR readers, and one who picked it up was a professor of journalism at the American University in Cairo, who wrote an essay about the bulletin as an Op-Ed for the International Herald-Tribune.
Some of our writers have been extraordinarily prescient, and some, like Lucy Komisar of New York - our theater critic and foreign relations specialist - have had unusually superb investigative and analytical skills. Constance Daley brought us the story of middle class America for a decade, and Elinor Mosier of Paradise, Nova Scotia, reported on wild Canada until her untimely death. Bill Johnson's death was another harsh blow.
Encomiums have been rare over the years, but deeply appreciated. We had hoped the White House might have acknowledged our 20th anniversary, but that was not to be as I went into the hospital on Friday the 13th of March, and spent 24 days there after surgery for bladder, colon and rectal cancer that has left me with a colostomy, a urostomy and a whole lot of stomach wounds. I did lose 30 pounds, however, and kept my sense of humor - I have been telling people I became a walking one-man bathroom who never needs to visit one.
But I was unable to update this paper after March 12 until tonight, and I apologize for our long absence in a time of major news. No one in Washington had a chance to see us in action.
Let me here and forever thank every reader, no matter how occasional or unimpressed, and every writer, no matter how disappointed, who has elevated our pages over the years above the incessant and nasty fray of the Internet. At the end of the day, we alone have survived as the first, only and finest online daily newspaper on earth. Thank you to all of you!
Joe Shea began publishing The American Reporter on April 10, 1995, in Hollywood, California.