News4Jax celebrates 25 years serving Jacksonville online

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – It was the early 1990s and journalists at WJXT and elsewhere realized there was a new source for information: the internet. At the time, most content online was posted by government agencies and university researchers. Navigating this world wasn’t for the faint of heart.

People lucky enough to have a computer that long ago had to have an account with AOL, CompuServe, Prodigy or some other service to access any information on the internet. That changed in 1993 when Mozilla launched the first widely available browser on something called the World Wide Web.

With online content more easily available to all, we realized we needed to do more than use the web -- we needed to become a content provider.

After a crash course on HTML coding -- this is before web-building tools were available -- and recruiting the support of a dial-up internet startup in Jacksonville, WJXT.com went online in November 1995.

To put that timing into perspective, it was also the same year CNN.com and NewYorkTimes.com went live. WashingtonPost.com launched the following year. Google launched in 1997. Facebook didn’t exist until 2004.

The early years

Our website was almost an accessory to our broadcasts in its first years. We did post a few news stories twice each day and provided recipes, gardening tips and other “news you can use.” But we didn’t break news online. The site was not updated on weekends. There was no video and no advertising.

Growth was slow but steady until two major news events caused both our audience and our management to realize the power and reach of this new medium.

In November 1998, our community was shaken by the disappearance of 8-year-old Maddie Clifton. After a massive, weeklong search, there was a flurry of activity in her Southside neighborhood early one morning. Sheriff Nat Glover arrived just before 8 a.m., just as most of our viewers had to turn off the television to leave for work or school. Most people would have no access to TV until late afternoon and desperately wanted to know what was going on.

Even back then, many people at work had access to a computer connected to the internet. Thousands of people hungry for updates on the case learned on WJXT.com that the girl’s body was found under her 14-year-old neighbor’s waterbed.

The following September, Category 4 Hurricane Floyd was crawling up Florida’s East Coast. The storm had prompted 2.6 million people along 115 miles of coastline to evacuate -- prompting massive gridlock north to Jacksonville. Knowing that WJXT needed to do whatever we could do to serve our audience even if they weren’t in front of a television or even out of the viewing area, the news director made the brave decision to allow our news operations manager to step away from supporting our continuous, live broadcast coverage in order to keep WJXT.com updated with the latest weather conditions, evacuation orders and traffic conditions.

Evolution of our website, year-by-year

Full Screen
1 / 28

4 On Line launched in November 1995, becoming the first news website in Northeast Florida.

Build it and they will come

Less than a year later, WJXT.com -- with the support of a corporate partnership with a national internet startup -- was transformed into News4Jax.com. With adequate staff for continuous updates and tools that brought video and interactive features, our audience grew exponentially.

We drew 1 million pageviews in September 2000, our first full month on the new platform. By 2015, we were averaging 1 million pageviews each day.

As technology evolves, so does News4Jax. Well more than half our online traffic now comes from smartphones and tablets. We’ve added apps dedicated to news, weather, hurricane tracking and high school football. Our live and on-demand videos are now available on smart TVs and set-top boxes like Roku, Firestick and Apple TV.

Jacksonville residents have not only made News4Jax the area’s most-visited local website, we have also been honored for our efforts by our peers. News4Jax.com was named the best TV station website in Florida more than a dozen times over the last 20 years. In 2014, News4Jax.com received an Edward R. Murrow Award as the best TV station website in America.

Twenty-five years online and we’re still evolving and improving. Within the last year, we made improvements that deliver our pages faster and make the site more responsive. We’ve upgraded our Weather Authority app to provide highly localized forecasts and put control of our live radar in our viewers' hands.

Our new Insider program provides extra content and new ways you can reach us with your comments and questions. You can even sign up to receive a special greeting on your birthday.

We have little idea what our online products will look like in five years, let alone 25 years in the future, but you can be sure that WJXT and News4Jax will be on the leading edge. And wherever you find News4Jax content, the journalists behind our digital content are the same people you’ve known and trusted for decades.

About the Author: