Zine, Not Heard

"If it's more than one screen, I just print it out." This is one of the mantras of our age, when the chances are good that most of us do our work -- and some of us, our play -- within the 17-inch parameters of a computer monitor. Aside from the implications this "print it" impulse has on the paperless office, the cliches about reading from a computer screen continue to vex. If no one reads for pleasure from a computer screen, then why are so many online magazines, newspapers, databases, chat rooms, and store fronts lousy with text? And why are so many web sites still hanging around, in spite of the widely acknowledged fact that making a buck in internet publishing is like trying to get blood from silicon?Last month, several major new-media publishers announced startling cutbacks. Microsoft will prune and discontinue three of their editorial "channels" (Cinemania, Music Central, and OnStage). AOL laid off 155 employees who were busy generating "content," New Century Network sacked the last of their 70-head editorial staff, and Time-Warner's Pathfinder is reportedly about to turn out the lights at the Netly News. It's a sign of the times that Netly editor Noah Robischon was busy packing up his office when he was contacted for this article -- on his way to a new position at Content (the new print magazine published by Court TV's Steve Brill). While Jack Shafer, managing editor of Microsoft's Slate, is "extremely committed" to the future of online publishing, he acknowledges that the business is in a "predicament ... [having been] convinced there were easy riches in the new medium." A decorated veteran of print, Shafer himself was considering a move to *Wired* magazine late last year.What these online publishers seem to be running up against is an accelerated business model, where the marketplace is flooded with equally unprofitable competitors. And despite traditional wisdom from the world of print, which says a publisher should expect to lose money for up to seven years, all bets are off in new media. If Microsoft is an industry bellweather of such harsh trends, they're certainly pulling no punches. When the wizards of Redmond decided to undertake a thorough "restructuring" of their locally based Sidewalk web sites, they confessed that people simply aren't reading what their writers and editors are producing. Instead, visitors seem to be interested only in databased information about clubs, bands, restaurants, and the like.Ultimately, it's simple economics. In a medium where content is ubiquitous and free, there are bound to be lots of losers in the publishing marketplace. While second-tier "content providers" and independent web zines fall off at alarming rates, some of the web's best brands continue to survive and even thrive. Suck.com, Salon, Feed, and Slate all continue to win respect -- if not advertising revenues -- as excellent general interest web sites, while publications like CNet and HardWired have tailored their content to a "medium is the message" kind of trade coverage. According to most observers, the success and survival of these publications is directly related to their ability to create and sustain network relationships. Just as Conde Nast hopes to make the foundering *New Yorker* profitable by pooling the ad-selling resources of all their magazines, networks like Wired Digital and Starwave, which share links and ads between a half-dozen channels, are best positioned to be the first to go profitable. Suck.com (a publication to which this writer contributes) may be poised to become the model of this aggressive, streamlined, and networked profitability; with just two full-time employees and links and ads leveraged liberally throughout the *Wired* juggernaut, editor Joey Anuff expects to announce spectacular returns in the near future.In the end, it's a moot point whether people actually read online or not. From a publisher's point of view, all they have to do is access a page (preferably about a million times a month) and they can sell ads to the tune of $5,000 per 100,000 page views. With overheads under control and an aggressive network behind them, there seems to be cause for some optimism among the web's best-established sites. But what lots of folks are learning the hard way is that attrition is a business plan that transcends medium. A new web magazine will lose money just as fast as one on paper, and with so many independent editorial web sites discovering this at the same time, it may be best to ask not for whom the digital bell tolls.


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