Q&A: John Walter, web pioneer
An agricultural journalist for more than 35 years, John Walter led Successful Farming magazine to launch the first agricultural media website in May 1995. This year marks the 25th anniversary of the site's launch. Here are some of his thoughts looking back.
SF: How did you get picked to be on the team to launch Agriculture.com?
JW: I basically just stepped forward, jumped in. I was part of a small group at the company that was already working on developing new communications media for farmers. Remember the Apple Newton? It was a personal digital assistant with handwriting recognition (that didn’t work all that well). We worked with several agribusinesses in developing a way to use the device for collecting data in the field and downloading it to a computer. With leadership from Meredith’s technology group, including Dave Kurns, who’s now SF’s editorial content director, we got wired into what was happening with the early stages of the internet and the World Wide Web.
SF: What is the backstory on why Successful Farming started the site?
JW: There were several forces at work. One was we had gotten immersed in some pioneering digital technology for farmers. We also knew that farmers were using computers more than most people. For example, surveys in the early 1990s showed that more Successful Farming readers owned computers than did readers of the Wall Street Journal. We had started a magazine, Farm Computer News. So we felt our magazine should get out on the vanguard of whatever it was the internet was going to become. We also challenged ourselves to put together a business plan — we wanted to be on the cutting edge of the new technology, but also knew we had to make it pay. There was also the fact that we just found the whole idea of adapting our magazine to the web fun and exciting.
SF: How long did it take to build?
Well, in one sense, it’s still being built. A website is always a work in progress, it seems. As I look back at the early pages of the site, I see that some of our ideas were maybe ahead of their time, and others went by the wayside for one reason or another. I do remember there were months when many people worked intensively to get the lights turned on.
SF: How did you get the URL?
JW: Well, there weren’t many others in line to request ag-related URLs, so we pretty much had our pick. We wanted something that expanded our mission from the print magazine, so we chose Agriculture.com, the biggest embrace possible.
SF: What was the mission of the website?
JW: Our mission in part was to experiment, to try to discover where all this new technology was headed. We also wanted to adhere to what our magazine had been doing for a hundred years in print – to be of service to families who make farming and ranching their business. There was a time in 1995 when a couple of us were shown a live transmission from Galileo, the spacecraft orbiting Jupiter. These spectacular images of the planet were streaming via Netscape Navigator, the first commercial web browser, and it made me think then that our mission with the website should be to create something beyond anything we could imagine from the platform of a print magazine.
SF: Did you learn HTML?
JW: No, I never tried to become a programmer. I could “read” it a little and fake a few lines, but I felt my job was more to work on the big picture stuff and do journalism.
SF: Did the company know what it was getting into?
JW: Well, there was a story that became rather well known among company executives. Successful Farming basically didn’t ask permission to start the company’s first website. We just went out and built it and then waited for final approval, which was not quick in coming. We went ahead and published a magazine cover story in May 1995 announcing the launch. So we were committed, despite no official approval. That said, we did create a business plan and submitted it to management. They were highly skeptical at first, but ultimately gave us their blessing. I credit our publisher at the time, Jim Cornick, for standing up and “planting the flag,” as he put it, because he did endure a fair amount of skepticism, if not outright ridicule, for proposing a website as a business.
SF: Could you have envisioned what today’s connected world has become?
JW: Nope. Who could? I think even the people on the leading edge of it all couldn’t see what was ahead. My grandchildren ask me when I got my first smartphone, thinking it must have been when I was a teenager. They can’t imagine the world before the internet, the web, apps, social media, and everything else digital.
SF: What do you use the internet for today?
JW: Well, like for so many people, it’s the hub of my personal communication. After working in the business for so long, it’s kind of a relief not to have to try to stay on the cutting edge of new technology and content development. The pressure to change and innovate is relentless. You have to keep swimming, or you die. I’m on shore now, enjoying life. I will say, though, that I’ve started trying to develop a website featuring my small farm in Nebraska — something I hope will explore the future of agriculture.
SF: Any fun stories about the message boards or the community it spawned?
JW: Well, yes, too many to include here. I could write a book. We developed the first discussion groups for farmers, in fact some of the first ones on the web, I think. Of course, this was all before today’s social media existed — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and so on. Farmers were quickly drawn in and used them for all kinds of interaction. Not long after their launch, I started hearing from folks who told me about selling machinery online, troubleshooting equipment problems, exchanging marketing strategies, and even building close relationships. I know at least one couple who met on our website and got married. That all sounds sort of routine now, but back in the day it was amazing to see.
It wasn’t all success stories. At one point, we changed the format of our discussion groups, and some of our visitors got upset about it. A number of them left the site and started their own forums.
But I’m proud that in the early days we put FFA on the web, hosting the organization’s first internet presence on our server. We built the first website for female agriculturalists, and hosted a national meeting for them. Our worldwide network of farmer correspondents was the first global community of its kind. We created a tool for farmers to build their own home pages before that was easy to do. A little later, we developed a site for young and beginning farmers that drew a large community of people sharing ideas for getting started in ag. Anyway, those are some of the features that made the early days exciting and successful.
SF: The site preceded Amazon, Yahoo, and many others. Do you regret not investing in some of those ventures?
JW: Well, not really. I probably would have invested in the wrong ones. I was always just happy to earn a wage for doing my job at Successful Farming, getting the opportunity to run the company’s first website. It was fun coming to work every day.
SF: Your prediction: What will the internet be like 25 years from now?
JW: Something unimaginable. Just like we couldn’t imagine 25 years ago what the medium would be like today. Whatever it is, your grandkids will wonder how you got along without it.
SF: Since many readers never lived without the internet … what was life like before the web?
Well, that’s hard to summarize in a few words, too. For example, I have recalled to younger colleagues what it used to be like traveling to farms before smartphones. You’d be on the road for maybe a week, using a bunch of paper roadmaps to navigate and pay phones to contact farmers as you traveled the back roads. People were harder to reach then. You’d have to call them at night from your motel room to get directions to the farm. And they might have to be summoned from the barn or the field. It all took a lot more shoe leather.
Another example is how much harder it was to research a story. Think how easy it is to find information now. Just Google it, at least as a starting point. Journalists had to dig a lot harder in the old days — make a lot more phone calls, go to libraries, travel more, attend more meetings, and so on. It was all sort of like plowing with horses, ha, ha.