"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 clichés 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 storefronts 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 squeeze blood from silicon?
Last month, several major new-media publishers announced startling cutbacks. Microsoft will prune and discontinue three of its 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; 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 bellwether of such harsh trends, it's 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 C|Net 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 Condé Nast hopes to make the foundering New Yorker profitable by pooling the ad-selling resources of all its 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 impressive returns in the near future.
In the end, it's a moot point whether people actually read online. From a publisher's point of view, all they have to do is access a page (preferably about a million times a month) and the company can sell ads to the tune of $5,000 per 100,000 page-views. With overheads under control and an aggressive network behind them, the Web's best-established sites have cause for some optimism. But what lots of folks are learning the hard way is that attrition is a fact of business that transcends all mediums.