StarNet's dial-up service goes down in flames.

Just after midnight on January 10 Cathy Davis, president of Tucson Newspapers Inc., sent a coolly distant e-mail message to her customers announcing that they were fired.

About 9,600 members of the StarNet virtual family were being orphaned, their names and credit card numbers sold off to a national Internet service provider, Earthlink, for two hundred and ten bucks a head.

It might have turned into a public relations nightmare, except for the fact that everyone at the Arizona Daily Star was warned not to comment about the move and, if pressed, to repeat that it was simply a "necessary business decision." Practically speaking, the public never heard about it.

A story did appear in the business section of the Star, but it was essentially just a rewrite of the Davis letter and didn't bother to explain what it was about the business that made the decision necessary. The reporter, Alan Fischer, was probably not given much choice and the result was typical Tucson business reporting: news by press release.

It used to be that a business could slink out of town quietly. Disappointed customers and forsaken employees pretty much had to tough it out alone. StarNet customers were a different case altogether. They were just a mouse click away from one another and it was easy for their individual annoyance and disappointment to reach critical mass.

StarNet itself made that possible.

StarNet was never just an Internet service provider. Its founder and chief visionary, Robert Cauthorn, wrote the Star story about its debut, on May 5, 1995.

"Today's launch of StarNet, the electronic edition of The Arizona Daily Star," he wrote, "marks what we hope is an important evolutionary step, both in the life of this newspaper and the community at large."

Cauthorn believed it would become a wholly different way for newspapers and their readers to interact, and a way for those readers to be brought together in a virtual community for the benefit of the real community.

Stories in the dead-tree version of the Star would have little symbols at the end of their columns (they're called dingbats in the trade) to indicate that there were background stories and sidebars available in the online version. An online Community Editorial Page would allow readers to publish their own editorials, and the Community Front Page would comprise stories selected and commented on by readers.

Some of it worked and some of it didn't, but the StarNet idea attracted passionate supporters who became StarNet's most efficient boosters. By the end of the first year StarNet was in the black and Cauthorn was recognized nationally for his accomplishments. The Star was not the first paper online, but it beat the New York Times by almost a year.

The sale of StarNet was not completely unexpected. Rumors of a possible sale had been running through the StarNet newsgroups for months, starting with the arrival of publisher Jane Amari and the rebirth of the Star as a source of "news you can use." The new StarNet honcho was David Reed, and his arrival led to a series of changes.

Most people liked the new design and graphics. But they did not like the disappearance of features intended strictly for subscribers. The Community Editorial Page was taken down, as was a site that allowed subscribers to read the paper in the 1995 format--uncluttered and almost free of ads.

A feature called the Custom Clipper was redesigned so that it was no longer possible to download all the stories you wanted and then read them offline, a real advantage to modem users with only one phone line. Hey, if you were offline you couldn't click the banner ads at the top of each story and go to the advertisers' Web sites.

The Community Front Page was the final remnant of the old StarNet to be axed. Rancorous, flame-ridden and filled with anarchic attacks on the Star, it was the victim of its own freedom. But, God, it was fun.

And then came "the letter," about as welcome to StarNet partisans as a midnight visit by the secret police.

Most of the posters to the StarNet newsgroups understood that business decisions based on profitability are the order of the day, and that sometimes you simply can't afford local employees and troublesome customers. But they really hated the idea that their names, personal information, and credit card numbers would be sold for $210 to an outfit located in Atlanta, Ga.

Immediately the cry was, "Anywhere but Earthlink."

One of StarNet's most literate posters wrote: "The letter from TNI's boss listed 'reasons' for steering customers to Earthlink. She didn't mention the big bounty for each head delivered. I could be wrong, but I'll bet that was THE reason. For $210, they would have delivered us to a guy with one modem working out of a trailer in Quartzite.

"In the final months of service they dismantled StarNet's best local features, replacing them with cheesy, cluttered, ad-driven dreck."

Some people objected to the fact that StarNet was advertising a special introductory bargain rate of $15.95 per month just a few weeks before the sale. As one said, "That definitely smells. Whether or not most of those at StarNet knew about the upcoming sale, I'm sure a select few did."

It's almost impossible to tell how many of the 9,600 subscribers will decline to go with Earthlink. Local ISPs like The River, Gain Communications and Dakotacom are pretty cagey about it. They say that their sign-ups this month were twice those of last month, or that there were 50 new customers last week and they don't have this week's figures yet.

Nothing you could take to the bank.

Laughter overcame subscriber outrage when The River floated an "azstarnet subscriber alert" ad in the Star that said, "WARNING, WARNING, WARNING ... Your name has been sold and you are about to become a number."

The ad ran two days. Then the VP of advertising at Tucson Newspapers told The River that the ad was banned unless they removed references to azstarnet.

Would TNI care to put their objections in writing? No!

So the same ad ran again with the word "CENSORED" printed across it and the word "azstarnet" crudely scribbled over, proving that some folks south of the top dogs had a sense of humor.

The StarNet pioneers will mourn the passing of the dream and stay with local ISPs. The rest will be moved on to a perfectly adequate out-of-town portal site with ads that flash and jitter. They'll hardly notice the difference ... it'll look just like today's online Star.