Viral News

Viral News on cell phone

Remember Seeing Viral News Spread Before Social Media?

My dad, Max Nichols, long ago told me about how he grew up “watching radio” in the 1930s and 1940s. He also loved to recount as a kid delivering newspapers during WWII. He knew when he saw big news headlines during the war that he could make a little spending money spreading the news selling news extras and shouting “extra, extra”. Yes, just like in the movies. My dad did that. So, with my dad as a witness, I allege we haven’t invented viral news here in our current, social media age. However, it certainly is arguably more pervasive today. Or, is it?  We would love to hear your stories. What early viral news stories do you recall before social media was even a thing?  Please share your thoughts. Or, maybe you have your own recollections. Please share them with us here: or post them on our Skyline Media Group Facebook page

Newspaper stack

To kick things off, below are a few viral stories we’ve seen that took place before smart phones.

Rodney King

On the Urban Music Site, Okayplayer, Dimas Sanfiorenzo asserted that the now infamous Rodney King handheld video was the “first viral video” in this article. Surely, cable TV played a massive role in sharing the King video. At the time, many of us getting news via cable TV may have wondered how anyone ever learned the news from around the world so quickly without it.  (My apologies to my dad, who grew up to become a long-time newspaper journalist, and any other fans of early radio, etc.)

One story spread, at least in part, by fax. Yes, fax. 1993 news about Lorena Bobbitt.

In case you’ve never heard of Lorena Bobbitt, on January 30, 2019, the New York Times ran an updated story on Bobbitt, written by Amy Chozick. You can see the story here.

If you weren’t born when Bobbitt first became famous 26 years ago, or somehow just managed to miss all the news about her over the years since, we’ll spare you the details and simply encourage you to read this recent update. Chozick does a nice job catching the reader up on Bobbitt and how she came to be famous. Chozick provides a brief update about some of Bobbitt’s perspectives on her fame with 26 years of hindsight to offer as education.

When I saw the recent story by Chozick, several things struck me.

  • The story itself was so wild, that it was only natural for it to become “viral news”.
  • This story took place more than a decade before smart phones.
  • The internet hadn’t quite exploded yet. tracked the growth of Internet users and lists the numbers of users by year going back to December, 1995. Note: They don’t include the year Bobbitt became famous, 1993. The number of Internet users in 1993 was no doubt a very small number compared to today. Here is the link.
  • Some of us recall seeing the story after a friend sent it to us by fax. I know I saw it that way. Yes, viral news by fax. No, I wasn’t alone. A quick check among friends at the time found many were getting this story sent to them by fax. Sure, cable TV existed, but to get the entire story of what happened with several pages of intriguing detail, print journalism was quite helpful. It offered an enhanced description with many nuances and subtleties that twenty second TV stories could never capture. Hence, a fax was the chosen source to spread some big print news stories at the time. I lived in the news media hub of the universe at the time: New York City. A couple faxes to my large office and the next thing you know, there were office copies with the story landing in inboxes all over the building. There you have it. Viral news spread by fax.

Notable Item Frequently Spread by Fax and Later Email – The Darwin Awards.  

 Ever see these? You can still see them here.

The Darwin Awards don’t really qualify as viral “news”, but they are notable because the descriptions of award winners were most certainly shared virally. Many early shares took place even before email took off and long before social media. Oh, and yes, many shares took place by fax. I know. I saw them frequently show up on office fax machines in the mid-‘90s.

As described on the home page here, the awards “commemorate those who improve our gene pool – by removing themselves from it in the most spectacular way possible.” Yes, this content has had its share of controversy as not everyone rejoices in the topic. Our apologies to those who take offense. We are simply noting the fascinating viral aspect of sharing them long before social media.

The archives of Darwin Awards listed on this site go back to 1993. This Wikipedia page states that they started in 1985 in Usenet Groups.

Fax machine

Of course, these stories are but just a tease of the many “viral” items that took place long before we ever had social media. I’m sure you can tell us of many more interesting stories. As noted above, please share them with us here: or post them on our Skyline Media Group Facebook page.